PolyWogg’s (Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial) Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
Chapter 1 — Is Government Right for Me?
1.1 Why do you want to work for government?
Most people reading this book have already decided that they want to work for government for various reasons. But before we get into the mechanics of figuring out how to “get in”, you really should spend a little bit of time focusing on a more important question.
Maybe you think people in government don’t do anything, so you think it’s easy money. Or maybe you simply “want a job”.
If those are your reasons, you can probably stop reading right now. Because once you get a job in government, you’re going to be miserable. The first isn’t true and the second is a poor reason to take any job for any length of time.
One of the buzz phrases in government hiring is “best fit”, which I’ll explain later in a different context (in the process, it is after the interviews are all over). Essentially, it means “of all the candidates that we have found qualified, who is the best fit for our team?”.
But best fit is not only a managerial decision – you too have to decide if government is the best fit for you. Or a specific job. What does a given organization offer you, what aspect of the job resonates with you?
Some obvious things for people are the size of their paycheque, level of benefits, the work environment, opportunities for growth and personal development on the job, and, most importantly, the job itself. The first three (pay / benefits / work environment) are relatively similar across government; growth and development vary considerably. But the job itself is likely to be the deciding factor of whether you enjoy working for government or not.
The most basic question is if government is even the right SECTOR for you. Would you prefer the private-sector? Semi-public or not-for-profits sector? There are lots of other ways to work on public issues without being a government employee – working for consulting firms or NGOs, for example.
Personally, I’d go crazy working in the private-sector for a commercial company making or selling widgets to the public, or even helping those who DO make widgets TALK to those who do the selling. The entire activity holds almost no interest for me. If you feel the same way about government, that’s a strong reason to avoid it like the plague. Entrepreneurs, strong outcome-oriented people who like to see the direct results of their personal work and initiative tend to be the unhappiest ones in government.
I firmly believe that life is too short to waste it doing something other than what you want to be doing…so, what do you want to do?
From another perspective, if you have never thought of yourself working for government, you probably shouldn’t. You may be wanting to change jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should head for government unless the issues, programs or services that government deals with are ones that interest you. I’m definitely a “lifer” with government; I might be able to work for a public sector NGO or a public sector organization like a hospital, but probably not a commercial, private-sector organization. It just isn’t me.
So, make sure you know why you want to work for government, because it is not only going to help you avoid taking a job that isn’t right for you, it is also going to help you answer where in the government you might want to work, if at all.
And the federal government is huge, so let’s break that down a little bit more.
1.2 Where Can I Work in the Federal Government?
The federal government is HUGE, so you need to narrow your scope to increase the effectiveness of your job search.
First, and foremost, not all government departments are created equal. Generally speaking, there are two types of departments – those that are “core public administration” and those that are not. The term “core public administration (CPA)” is a bureaucratic one that refers to those main departments which are subject to a set of standard legislative conditions on policies, budgets, operations, compensation, and HR processes. They usually have clues to their status – they are often either called Ministry or Department such as “Ministry of National Revenue” or “Department of Human Resources and Skills Development”. These are formal departments. (insert chart tbc that lists core public admin)
Non-core organizations in the government usually have terms like “Agency” or “Centre” in their name – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) or the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTrac) . So, what difference does it make?
While compensation is relatively similar between “core” and “non-core” institutions, job security and mobility are not.
Those employees within “core” organizations generally all have the same job categories, pay levels, and HR rules, and therefore can move from department to department relatively easily (it’s called a deployment, which I’ll come to later, but basically legislation allows easy movement amongst CPA organizations) as an employee of the Government of Canada.
However, if you are with a non-core organization, your compensation is set separately, as are your job categories and HR processes. And, most importantly, you can be “laid off” a lot easier – you aren’t part of the full public service, and even some people who work in those organizations are surprised to find themselves cut adrift despite thinking they were permanent. Equally important, you can’t simply deploy to another department either. You are an employee mainly of that agency, and that agency only.
Think of it like working in the “automotive industry” – you may have a very similar job at GM to someone at Ford, but you work for GM. There’s no “super auto industry” employer that would allow you to transfer from GM to Ford, unless you quit and get a job at the other. However, if you were in the “core public administration”, you could perhaps move from “trucks at GM” to “cars at GM” relatively easily.
As such, you should definitely pay attention to which types of organizations within the federal government that you might want to work for, and narrow your choices accordingly.
A second issue is more substantive – what issues interest you?
Not surprisingly, different departments deal with different types of issues. Some deal with the most vulnerable groups; others deal with businesses. Some are at arms-length from Canadians; others are direct service providers. But the issues are what drive people to want to work in these organizations, and frequently determine if they like their job at all.
Combining both factors together will help you narrow your search effort to focus on only those organizations that actually interest you.
Here is a partial list of some major departments by type of files or operations, with my own quirky description as to their roles, and I confess in advance that I am over-simplifying considerably — if you want to know what a given organization does, check out their website.
- Machinery of Government: There are five main organizations that deal with “machinery of government”, the bureaucratic phrase meaning how government works:
- Elections Canada defines the rules for elections and the structures used to figure out who’s in charge (i.e. the politicians);
- These elected politicians become the Prime Minister, Cabinet, and Parliament and tell the Privy Council Office (who are civil servants) what the priorities are and they in turn tell the rest of the government;
- The Canada Revenue Agency collects money from Canadians and gives it to Finance to manage;
- Finance figures out how much each of the priorities will cost (in general terms) and manages the fiscal environment; and,
- the Treasury Board Secretariat sets the rules and regulations on how and when a department or agency can spend taxpayer money, and verifies that the rules are being met.
- Government Infrastructure: There are five organizationsthatprovide common services to the rest of government.
- While there are six different organizations that have some impact on human resources administration in the federal government, the two biggest are the Public Service Commission (setting and enforcing rules for hiring, etc.) and the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS which provides training and certifications);
- Public Works and Government Services Canada manages or facilitates the purchase of buildings, vehicles, offices, desks, electricity, telephones, computers, etc. in all government offices (think of it as your building superintendent in an all-inclusive furnished apartment), handles most of the procurement process when the government purchases anything bigger than a stapler, and now has a separate Agency called Shared Services Canada that handles IT infrastructure for the Government;
- The Office of the Auditor General is often considered by many to be part of the “machinery of government” section, but I’ve put it here because it provides audit services to the rest of government in addition to its general oversight function of all government operations; and,
- I’m also including Statistics Canada here because they provide an under-rated service to most of government as well as Canadians. They track everything from the number of cars stolen in Canada last year (I kid a friend who works there that they probably count the number of tires stolen and divide by 4!) to the number of employed and unemployed electricians in B.C. (they do detailed surveys, in addition to the annual census) to the trend in income growth following labour mobility (which is government speak for “how much more money did people make on average by moving to areas that actually had jobs?”).
- Economic Development: Okay, those last two groupings might have put you to sleep. I’m not surprised – they put most people to sleep, even me, and I love public administration. So let’s get that economy going. There are very passionate people around the government and the country who tell you they are responsible for economic development, and most of them are deluded (see Finance, above). The real people who deal with the economy don’t work for the government. Most of them are in the private sector. Yep, I’m a bureaucrat, and I’ll admit it. The engine of growth is not government. But we do have some people who speak “private sector”. This includes Industry Canada (if there is an industry in Canada, they probably have a division that deals with it! And if you find a new one, tell them – they’ll create a program so you can get a loan to start a business in that area, so long as you put a Canadian flag on whatever you export!). Then there are three related organizations that have traditionally dealt specifically with regional economic development – Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Foundation for Regional Development (Quebec), and Western Economic Diversification. Basically, a group for everywhere except Ontario because the federal government figured Toronto could pave the rest of the province itself (note that there are now Ontario economic development entities too, one of them based in Kitchener!). Most of these organizations have regional offices too. If you live in those areas, you’ll already have heard of them – the federal government likes to brag about their successes and various regional supports, particularly at election time, and the provincial government likes to complain about federal intrusion into the provinces’ business.
- International: I worked on international files for the federal government for 14 years, and I am amazed how many people think the only international group in the government is Foreign Affairs. They are, of course, the largest and most well-known. But there are seven main places that you can do international work in the federal government:
- Foreign Affairs and International Trade is the obvious one, and their focus is on three main areas – political relations with other countries (including both political analysis and diplomacy); economic relations with the world (economic analysis); and international trade (helping Canadian companies do business internationally, sometimes through analysis of business environments or negotiating trade agreements to remove barriers to trade). Lots of people have started working at DFAIT thinking it was all about going to international meetings and attending cocktail parties, and left after they realized they were going to spend a lot of time at a desk in Ottawa reading reports or at a desk overseas writing the reports;
- Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA, now merged with Foreign Affairs) is the development arm of the federal government, but that does not mean they “DO” development projects – it is still a government department. Which means it FUNDS development projects, it doesn’t implement them directly (i.e. when it gives money to an organization to distribute bednets, it doesn’t distribute the bednets directly – CIDA mainly administers the financial aspects of funding other organizations who do the projects). There are lots of people who have started working at CIDA thinking they were joining the largest development NGO in Canada – but it is a government department, and it operates like one;
- International Development Research Centre (IDRC) does both direct research as well as helps to build the research capacity of developing countries;
- Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) looks at ways to attract newcomers to Canada that are reuniting with relatives already here, coming as refugees, or are mobile labour that want to come to Canada to work;
- Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) does analysis of global security threats to Canada plus processes security clearances for most of the rest of government…shhhh, everything they do is secret, except of course for the stuff they put on their own website;
- Export Development Corporation (EDC) is very closely linked to both Industry Canada and International Trade, and their goal is to encourage exports abroad, often through catalytic financing; and,
- Every other government department! Almost every department has an international relations division in it, so if you like the idea of international work, but don’t want to work for one of the above six organizations, you can find other opportunities outside of the main six…however, just like at the main six, the competition to work there is extremely strong.