PolyWogg’s (Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial) Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
To be reworked as Chapter 2b — Understanding classification
What type of job are you looking for?
Generally speaking, there are five types of jobs in the federal government:
- Policy development and program design;
- Program management;
- Enabling service administration; and,
- Specialist categories.
(replace with simplified table)
Let’s talk a bit about each of those, as it will help you figure out what interests you. We can eliminate two from consideration pretty fast – management and specialists.
For management, the public service is pretty similar to the private sector – people aren’t usually hired in management positions unless they have demonstrated experience in the field or industry. Which means for government, being a unique sector, most departments don’t hire management off the street – they promote former analysts, program managers, administrators who have demonstrated aptitude for policy, programs, or administration, usually at lower levels of the hierarchy. Which leaves the rare individual who can jump in from outside and take over a management position without ever having managed policy development, government programs, or enabling services, all of which have a myriad of rules, procedures, and regulations that don’t exist in the private sector. If that’s your niche, this book is likely too general for your specific needs.
Equally, the needs of specialists are probably also not completely met by this book, as you’ll need to supplement it with additional details about where and when to apply. For example, are you a veterinarian? If so, you probably already know that Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (check names) are likely the only ones to need you. Other specialists like air traffic controllers, correctional services, and police operations support tend to have only one or two possible Departments. The book will help with general approaches, but they also often have detailed sub-tests that are also too specialized for this book to cover.
This leaves three main areas.
First up is policy development and program design. These generally are the policy wonks, most often with a background in economics, sociology or statistics. Officially, they are part of the EC (economics or social science) or SI (statistics) streams, but that is a bit narrow of definition (more below). Their work is often around the “big picture” and figuring out how best for the government to respond to a large problem. Policy research, statistical trend analysis, and identification of key drivers in the economic or social spheres of Canada are the starting point for “policy development”, but quickly leads to consideration of possible instruments that the government has at its disposal to respond – legislation, regulation, direct delivery of a program or service, third-party contracting for service delivery, tax benefits, public awareness, direct benefits to individuals, etc. Parliament sets broad policy objectives, but it is the ECs and SIs who figure out how to achieve the objectives and develop detailed policy options for Cabinet to consider. This category of work has one over-riding element in common – they spend most of their time reading and writing. Sure, they have meetings and consultations, and the SIs also do a lot of number crunching, but what this group produces ultimately is words.
The second category is program management. Primarily this falls to one main job classification – “Program Management” aka PMs. Many people confuse “program management” as the job classification with “project management” as a type of work that the private sector likes to use as interchangeable. However, they are very different. Program managers in the public sector take what has been designed by policy wonks and approved by politicians and translate it into a program helping Canadians. Take for example a program at Heritage supporting NGOs. It would be PMs who would work on the call for project proposals, evaluate the proposals, rate them, recommend ones for approval or others for rejection, process the winners, negotiate contracts and deliverables, authorize the issuance of cheques, monitor performance, collect data for reporting to Parliament, complete project close-outs and terminate projects. Note that much of this work looks more like “project administration” than it does “project management” as the private-sector uses the term, but even PMs will frequently say they have numerous projects that they “manage”. Actually they don’t manage them at all –they manage the funding of the projects, not the actual projects themselves. That’s because government people are usually not the ones running the programs on the ground. When people complain about “big government” and how inefficient it is, most people have no clue what they’re talking about because the majority of government programs are not delivered by government, they’re delivered through contribution agreements and contracts with the private and not-for-profit sector to provide services on the ground. If you’re a PM in the private sector, you’ll have admin people to deal with a lot of the items above, while you focus on actually “managing” the project – keeping sure timelines are met, maintaining GANTT charts and project trackers, addressing resource needs at different times of the project, etc. This often comes as a shock to many people who start working as PMs in the government. They think they will be managing projects, when in fact they manage just the funding of companies and NGOs who will in turn actually manage the projects.
Not all programs however are contracted out. Employment insurance, pensions, passports, etc. are all services directly provided by government. Much of their work mirrors the project management above. For example, they will review your application (i.e. your “proposal”), determine eligibility, approve or reject based on set criteria, manage your file, collect data, etc. The two differences are that it is often to serve an individual rather than a company and they will provide the direct delivery themselves rather than farm it out to a third-party deliverer. But they have one over-arching element in common – they are dealing with external clients…people, companies, NGOs, provinces, municipalities, associations, etc. These are the “front-line” people who deal directly with Canadians.
The third category is a bit of a trick category – it is called “enabling services”. Generally, enabling service people are have a special function they perform internally within government. Human resources is a good example. This group provides administration support to the rest of the government, and generally ONLY deals with government people. They rarely deal with external people, unless they’re managing competitions open to the public. Finance is another enabling service, with lots of people with accounting or auditing designations working on tracking internal finances across huge or tiny departments and reporting on where every single penny goes. Again, they usually don’t deal with the public directly. Now, some of these groups are specialists and have special classification categories like PE (for “Personnel” aka Human Resources) or FI (for “Finance”). However, the vast majority of the enabling service category is made up by a single classification – “AS” aka “Administration”. They range from admin assistants to office managers, correspondence coordinators to ATIP requests. In most cases, they are managing records, supporting employees, tracking finances, or managing infrastructure like buildings / IT, etc. Oddly enough, much of the work can look a lot like the PM category mentioned above. So if they are doing the similar work, have the same skill sets, and sometimes even working on the same files, why are there two classifications? The short answer is that PMs deal with external clients i.e. Canadians (the “front-line” service mentioned above) while ASs deal with internal clients only. It’s an arbitrary distinction and it is expected that through future modernization initiatives, these separate categories will merge. However, at present, they are still separate.
All of this will still seem fairly theoretical, and your eyes may be glazing over. Let’s get to a real example. Suppose the government has decided that there should be a new program by the government to help a struggling widget industry. How will that happen?
First of all, the ECs and SIs will analyse the heck out of the widget industry. They’ll review literature, case studies, talk to industry people, check statistical trends, compare it to other countries, try and figure out exactly what the current situation is. This rarely requires starting from scratch, we’ve probably been monitoring or involved in the widget industry for some time, but we’ll pull all the info together into a “diagnostique” that says “Here’s the current situation”.
Second, the same ECs and SIs will move on to the analysis stage, coming up with risks, mitigation strategies, proposals, considerations of instruments, etc. and all of it leading to a recommendation of a specific type of program to meet the original need. The political sphere will consider, and approve or reject. (As an aside, recommendations are rarely rejected. This is NOT, as some people think, because the civil servants are in control, but rather because there will have been numerous back-and-forth discussions before the formal recommendation is made, thus ensuring that the final option presented and recommended is one that is palatable to the Minister and political sphere, with “bad” recommendations weeded out much earlier in the process).
Third, with approval obtained, the PMs take over. In this instance, assume that the program is a small project program that helps fund market assessments for overseas markets for the widget industry to identify potential sales niches and thus boost revenue. Companies will apply, PMs will assess the applications/proposals, some will get funded, market assessments will be done, reports will be issued, monies will be tracked, and files closed.
However, while the ECs and PMs mentioned above did the major work for the program, they didn’t do it alone. Someone had to hire them. Someone had to order their desks, manage their budgets, provide computers and networks. Someone had to manage the buildings and pay the employees, remit their taxes. And someone has to ensure that everything that is being done is done so according to fairly detailed rules about how public resources can be managed. Parliament and taxpayers want to know that managers can’t just hire someone off the street, such as a friend for instance. (Hence, the need for a rigid, formal system for HR, and hence the need for a book like this to help someone navigate it.) This group is the AS stream.
I see you’re not convinced. You’re thinking, “People have different jobs. I get it. So what?”. The difference, unlike the private sector, is people change jobs, but they rarely change classification. An AS almost never switches into an EC stream. Admin officers don’t do policy analysis for government programs. Equally, ECs almost never become AS. PMs can, and do, switch to both EC and AS (more so AS than EC), but even then it is a relatively low percentage. And it is very hard to simply switch if you start in what you decide later is the wrong category.
I know, you’re thinking that’s just bureaucracy, that’s stupid, etc. I have two responses. First, yep, you’re right, welcome to government. Second, on the other hand, if you were hiring a senior policy analyst, with specific educational needs and background (economics, stats, sociology), specific experiences (say in policy analysis), and specific skills sets (writing, synthesis, analysis, working in multi-disciplinary teams), are you more likely to find that combination in a junior analyst already in the EC category or in an admin officer who has been doing records management for the last five years? Equally, if you are hiring a senior admin person to manage an office of 40 people, are you more likely to find the specific education background (administration, accounting, finance), specific experiences (HR, budgeting, project administration) and specific skills sets (initiative, team player, strong interpersonal skills) in a junior admin officer already in the AS category or in a policy wonk from the EC category who has been studying the widget industry for the last five years? Different work, different skill sets, different category.
However, you should be aware too that there is a negative perception amongst a lot of people who work in government that there is an informal hierarchy of classifications. Namely, that ECs are more senior/important than PMs and PMs are more senior/important than AS. Part of that is born out of a bias around educational requirements. Many AS positions only require high school completion. PM positions frequently require high school plus perhaps some college or other types of training such as accounting. EC positions want a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree and increasingly a Masters degree. Subsequently, people sometimes mistake the need for more education for EC positions to mean they are more senior or more important. That isn’t true, but the informal bias does exist in many organizations. It also doesn’t help that pay often reflects that bias too – the ECs tend to have higher starting salaries, and tend to be at higher levels within the classification (i.e. a working level for EC is somewhere around EC-04 or EC-05 while there are huge numbers of PM and AS positions at the -01 and -02 levels). Promotions also often come faster for EC than PM/AS as well, given those working levels (i.e. if you get hired as EC-02, you’ll jump up to EC-04 or -05 potentially in a couple of years, while if you get hired as AS-01 or -02, there aren’t many opportunities to move up to -04 or -05 levels very often).
EC, PM, and AS positions are pretty easy to map against the three headings I listed at the beginning – EC do policy and program work, PM does program delivery, and AS does enabling service. But there are 60+ classifications in the government, and some of them are pretty similar to the EC/PM/AS jobs in terms of skill sets and work. For example, I mentioned at the start of the section that mapping the EC classification to policy work is an over-simplification. That’s because auditors (AU), commerce officers (CO), communications (IS), lawyers (LA/LP), and foreign service officers (FS) also spend most of their time reading, writing and analyzing policy. It often has a slight twist on the normal policy work (auditors have financial training and/or focus on internal control measures, commerce officers are working on trade and industry issues), but all of them are doing “policy” work by another name. Equally, the PE category is just a specialized AS category. Hence, a modified list below.
(insert full mapping table with overlapping columns, three rows; add three paragraphs about the overlaps and three paras on each row).