Public service hiring up, but report finds manager, employee concerns around feds’ new staffing process

As I am in the process of analyzing the impact on visible minority appointments of the 2016 New Appointment Policy (providing more flexibility for non-advertised staffing processes), found this coverage of the PSC annual report of interest:

Although a recent government report shows fairly substantial growth in the federal public service, as well as an increase in the promotion rate within the service for the sixth year in a row, there are concerns among both managers and employees around a new staffing policy—as well as perceptions of fairness around hiring.

The Public Service Commission tabled its 2018-19 annual report on Feb. 6, which found that hiring was up 4.6 per cent across the public service with close to 60,000 hires in the fiscal year. Slightly more than 8,000 of those hires were from the federal student work experience program, with slightly less than 5,400 from the post-secondary co-op/internship program.

But the report also found that according to a “staffing and non-partisanship” survey (SNPS), 87.9 per cent of managers find a new staffing policy framework “burdensome,” that only 53.8 per cent of employees say people hired in their unit can do their job, and only 46.4 per cent of employees viewed staffing as fair.

“We weren’t surprised that the results were a little bit lower than we would want them to be, said Patrick Borbey, president of the Public Service Commission in an interview with The Hill Times.“There was a lot of change in the system and there was still a fair amount of confusion or adjusting to the new reality, both on the part of employees, as well as on the part of managers.”

The New Direction in Staffing (NDS) was introduced in 2016, which the government called“the most significant change to the staffing system we have seen in over 10 years.”

Designed to promote more variety in the hiring processes, “agile approaches” to staffing and policies, allow for more room for managers to apply their own judgment when staffing, as well as “increase focus on outcomes, including the quality of the person hired, and less on process,” the report highlights how the NDS reduces times to staff, makes it easier for candidates to find public service jobs, as well as modernizing recruitment tools like GC Jobs.

“As you can see in the results, managers continue to think that the staffing system is too complicated, too lengthy,” said Mr. Borbey. “However, when it comes to merit, managers had a very different perspective on the issue than employees, because they felt that by and large, the people that they were hiring did meet the requirements of the position.”

“So it’s a bit in the eye of the beholder,” said Mr. Borbey. “Obviously, if you’re an employee who was hoping for a promotion and didn’t get it, then you might question as to whether the process was fair, transparent and led to merit.”

“But one of the things that we’ve we did a little bit more digging on is to make a link between employees’ perception and managers being comfortable in terms of applying the flexibilities of the new regime and communicating both their intentions as well as the results to employees,” said Mr. Borbey. “And we did see a certain correlation—those departments where managers seem to be more comfortable with the change, and perhaps could speak more completely about their intentions and the justifications behind their results, their departments had higher levels of satisfaction on the part of employees.”

Mr. Borbey said he thinks it’s a question of a transition within the system, as well as providing the right tools to mangers to be able to properly plan and communicate their intentions and decisions around staffing.

“The other thing that we wanted to check, is whether there was, in fact, a change in terms of merit being applied in staffing processes,” said Mr. Borbey, which prompted a system-wide compliance audit following the survey.

“The results that we got were extremely high,” said Mr. Borbey. “[There] was a 95 plus per cent compliance rate, and in those cases where there was not compliance with merit, at the end of the day, we’re down to errors of interpretation on the part of managers, particularly when it came to applying preference for Canadian citizens or for veterans.

“And so we felt that that was a pretty good result that indicated that, notwithstanding the perceptions, merit is being preserved across the system.”

Mr. Borbey said the government will be conducting their next round of surveys in the spring, and said they’ve taken steps to modify the survey to better capture more information that will be valuable for future planning.

Stan Lee, vice-president of oversight and investigations with the public service commission, said one of the things they observed in the previous survey, was that there was an association between organizations that had hiring managers who understood NDS and the perception of fairness.”

“So an organization that has hiring managers that understand the new direction in staffing really well generally have employees who have a higher perception of merit in the staffing system,” said Mr. Lee. “We were interested by this, so we added an additional question to employees, as well as to hiring managers, and one of the questions we want to ask hiring managers, is whether they feel comfortable explaining their staffing decisions to their employees.”

“The reason why we’re adding this, is because hiring managers who have a poor understanding of NDS may have difficulties explaining their staffing decision to employees, and employees walk away unsatisfied or dissatisfied with the answers that they’ve been provided,” said Mr. Lee. “We’re going to be asking employees as well whether or not they believe that job opportunities are well communicated in their organization, and whether they feel they are being kept well-informed by their hiring managers regarding staffing decisions.”

Mr. Borbey also noted that the government uses investigations as a way to provide the commission with a sense of how satisfied or unsatisfied people are with the staffing system.

“Notwithstanding the important changes we made to the system a couple of years ago, we haven’t seen a big bump in terms of the number of cases that are referred to us with allegations that either managers or individuals committed fraud or mistakes or other issues related to the staffing system,” said Mr. Borbey. “We’re monitoring those results as well to make sure that again, we make whatever changes we can if we’re seeing any trends from an investigations perspective.”

Perception of staffing fairness highest in Northern regions

According to the SNPS, managers who indicated that the administrative process to staff positions in their organizations is burdensome was highest in both Quebec (excluding the National Capital Region) and in British Columbia, at 92 per cent each.

However, 62 per cent of managers in the National Capital Region (NCR) and in Quebec (excluding the NCR) indicated that the NDS has improved staffing in their organization, with managers in British Columbia coming in at the low end at 43 per cent.

In terms of fairness, employees in Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, 58 per cent of employees surveyed indicated that staffing activities are conducted fairly in their work unit, compared to 37 per cent in Ontario (excluding the NCR)—and 46 per cent public service-wide.

According to the commission’s report, as of March 31, 2019, hiring in all regions outside of the National Capital Region combined increased by 6.2 per cent, and the total population (indeterminate, term, casual and student) was up across all regions except Nunavut.

Despite this growth according to the report, the regional population as a percentage of the workforce has been in decline, from 56 per cent five years ago to 53 per cent in 2018-19.

In 2018–19, 69.1 per cent of all external indeterminate and term hires from advertised processes were of applicants from outside the National Capital Region. This share has been steadily decreasing since 2013–14, when it was 79 per cent.

Source: Public service hiring up, but report finds manager, employee concerns around feds’ new staffing process

Non-advertised appointments on the rise in the public service, PSC data show

I have been hearing about the impact of this policy change for some time and PSC was kind enough to send me an incredibly rich and detailed dataset that I will be analyzing the change by occupational group and department over the next few months, along with the impact on the representation of employment equity groups.

One striking initial finding, not covered in this article, is the relatively high number of “unknowns” in the data, compared to advertised and non-advertised positions, about 30 percent compared to 23 percent previously, raising questions regarding the quality and consistency of data entry:

An increased proportion of federal public servants is being appointed directly to positions that have never been advertised as vacant.

Since the launch of a new policy framework for public service staffing in 2016, the use of non-advertised processes for internal appointments has increased, new data show, raising concerns about fairness and transparency.

According to data released by the Public Service Commission, the federal bureaucracy’s staffing watchdog, 34 per cent of internal appointments — promotions and acting appointments longer than four months — were non-advertised in 2015-16. Two years later, in 2017-18, that figure had increased to 47 per cent.

At the executive level, the increase is even steeper. Between 2015-16 and 2017-18, non-advertised processes jumped from being used in 28 per cent of internal appointments, to 55 per cent.

Statistics were not provided on the use — or not — of advertisements for external hiring.

The Public Service Commission readily admits that the uptick in non-advertised appointments can be linked to its New Direction In Staffing, explaining in an emailed statement that it “has noted an increase” since the policy framework’s implementation in April 2016.

Before that time, “a preference for advertised processes was established,” said the PSC, though both were and continue to be allowed under the Public Service Employment Act.

Now, “the PSC no longer sets a preference and leaves deputy heads with the discretion to determine the appropriate balance between advertised and non-advertised processes.”

Billed as “the most significant change to the staffing system in 10 years,” according to the PSC’s 2016-17 annual report, the New Direction in Staffing sought to streamline and simplify staffing policies and offer federal departments and agencies more room to customize staffing approaches to meet their varying needs.

“At its core, the New Direction in Staffing represents a shift away from a focus on rules to a system that encourages managers to exercise their discretion when making staffing decisions, while meeting the simplified policy requirements in ways adapted to their organizations.”

For example, reporting requirements were reduced under the new framework. Departments were to conduct their own ongoing monitoring of staffing, rather than having it prescribed by the PSC. And hiring managers were allowed more room to apply their own judgment.

But public service employee representatives are raising red flags. They expressed concerns last week that the New Direction’s provision for flexibility is leading to opaque and inequitable hiring and promotion practices. And it’s demoralizing for many public servants, they say.

“What I’m hearing from my members and my representatives is the deputy head basically has a free and clear right to make a choice on the process, advertised versus non-advertised, and they don’t have to consider anything other than their convenience and ease of process and getting what they want,” said Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, one of the largest public service unions.

“The result is that you may not actually be getting the best candidate in those positions. You’re just getting the person that that person (directing hiring) likes the best.”

Michel Vermette, chief executive of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada, said he’s hearing frustration from executives he represents that they’re being sidelined from opportunities for promotion without even being given the chance to throw their hats into the ring.

“I can promote you through a non-advertised process, and not to have to tell anybody that I’ve considered you, or that there was an opportunity here.”

“That’s what’s happening more and more. Those processes are simply publications of appointments,” Vermette said.

“Our community is saying, ‘I never had an opportunity to apply for that.’”

Asked about these concerns, the PSC pointed out that it completed a system-wide staffing audit in 2016, after the New Direction framework came into effect. “Both advertised and non-advertised processes were merit-based and compliant with staffing legislation and policy in the vast majority of cases,” the PSC said.

The Public Service Employment Act requires that all appointments be based on merit. That means the person being appointed must at least meet the essential qualifications of the work they’re to perform, plus any “asset qualifications, operational requirements and/or organizational needs,” when applicable, the audit report explains.

“The PSC recognizes that organizations are adjusting to the new policy framework and we continue to encourage managers to consider their staffing choices and communicate their decisions,” the PSC said, in an emailed statement. “Additionally, we are continuing to monitor the staffing system — both in terms of compliance and perceptions — and are working with organizations to improve both.”

Vermette points to the Staffing and Non-Partisanship Survey, commissioned by the PSC for the first time in 2018, to illustrate his belief that concerns about merit, fairness and transparency in public service staffing have become widespread, and are potentially linked to the increased use of non-advertised staffing processes. More than 100,000 employees completed the survey, an overall response rate of almost 48 per cent, and the PSC said results can be generalized to the federal public service population across the vast majority of departments and agencies.

More than half of employee respondents indicated that, in their work units, appointments depend on whom you know. A similar proportion — 54 per cent — said that people hired in their work units are capable of doing the job they were hired to.

Less than half said that in their work units, staffing activities are conducted fairly and carried out in a transparent way.

Meanwhile, more than 90 per cent of managers believed that appointees meet the performance expectations of the positions for which they were hired, and that appointees are a good fit within the team.

Asked about these survey results, the PSC said an analysis was conducted to look specifically at the connection between employee perceptions of merit, fairness and transparency and the use of non-advertised appointments in departments and agencies, and found they weren’t linked.

Rather, there appeared to be an association between organizations that had more hiring managers with a good understanding of the New Direction in Staffing, and employees with a higher perception of merit in staffing, “irrespective of percentage of non-advertised appointments,” PSC said.

The analysis pondered whether better understanding of the staffing framework allowed managers to better explain their choice of appointment process and appointment decisions to employees — who would then, presumably, have more faith in the process.

“The PSC will be conducting further research to better understand what is contributing to these perceptions. We will also continue to work with departments to support them in improving their staffing systems,” the watchdog promised.

For his part, Vermette thinks concerns about merit and fairness in staffing go deeper than public servants failing to comprehend hiring policies. He called the PSC’s conclusion, “a bit dismissive.”

“If half the employees who took the time to answer say they’re worried about merit in a professional public service, is there fire under that smoke?”

Daviau, the PIPSC president, also referenced statistics she thinks reflect issues with the new approach to staffing since 2016.

In its 2017-18 annual report, the Federal Public Sector Labour Relations and Employment Board noted that the past two years had seen “a significant increase” in the number of complaints about non-advertised staffing processes. Of all staffing complaints received in 2015-16, complaints about non-advertised processes accounted for 24 per cent. That figure rose to 47 per cent the following year, and remained similar at 44 per cent in 2017-18.

“It has been surmised that this surge can be linked to the Public Service Commission’s new appointment policy, introduced in 2016, to modernize, simplify, and streamline the public service staffing process,” the report concludes.

The PSC pointed out that in addition to complaints to the labour relations board, employees who take issue with internal appointment processes can also request a departmental investigation. The PSC said it has the authority to investigate external appointments “when there is alleged errors or improper conduct.”

Staffing is not a new area of focus for the Government of Canada. Last fall, two days of testimony at the House of Commons Standing Committee on Government Operations and Estimates were devoted to looking at the public service hiring process.

PSC president Patrick Borbey pointed out that it takes, on average, 197 days to hire a new employee using an external advertised competitive process and that as a result good candidates are often lost along the way.

“The cumbersome staffing culture that has developed over time will not change overnight, and it is something we are committed to improve in every way,” he said, after referencing the 2016 New Direction in Staffing.

“I’m convinced … that we can modernize and speed up the hiring process while maintaining and, in fact, strengthening merit, transparency, fairness, diversity and regional representation.”

Doing so will also support “efforts to improve diversity and inclusion within the public service,” Borbey said.

Daviau, meanwhile, believes non-advertised appointments, while reasonable in some circumstances — positions that require highly-specialized skills for example — typically run counter to all of these public service values.

“The Government of Canada ought to be a leading employer when it comes to things like employment equity, and individual managers can’t possibly have the right perspective to know what the Government of Canada as a whole needs,” she said.

“They’re sort of seeing the world through a very tiny lens, and they know what they need to get Project A done, but that starts to undermine an entire system that’s designed to be fair and transparent and merit-based and with proper oversight.”

Further, Daviau added, “People hire people like themselves. We know this.

“The government needs to be a leader in breaking down those barriers.”

Source: Non-advertised appointments on the rise in the public service, PSC data show