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PolyWogg’s Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
Chapter 2 — Understanding yourself
Most people reading this book have already decided that they want to work for government for various reasons. Maybe they know some people who work there, maybe they were looking for work in a specific area. But before we get to figuring “where and how”, let’s ask a more fundamental question.
I don’t mean “Why work for government?” so much as “Why do YOU want to work for government?”.
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.
People in government like to use the phrase “best fit” to describe which candidate is the best fit for the team. However, you too have to decide if government writ large or a specific job within government is also the best fit for you. Or a specific job. What does a given organization offer you, what aspect of the job resonates with you?
There are two main paradigms for answering this — the Substantive Content paradigm, and the Personal Value paradigm.
Substantive Content Paradigm
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 and what your coworkers are like. The first three (pay / benefits / work environment) are relatively similar across the federal government; growth and development vary considerably; and the job itself along with the type of coworkers are likely to be the deciding factors whether you enjoy working for government. But that’s the second paradigm.
For this first paradigm, you can do full tests online, personality profiles, entire courses on figuring out what you want to do with your life, but I just want to ask some basic questions to see if government is right for you, and if so, why, how and where you might fit.
First and foremost, have you ever / always thought of working for government?
If the answer to that question is no, you probably shouldn’t. You may be wanting to change jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should head for government. I’m definitely a “lifer” with government, it was something I’ve always wanted to do. If you haven’t, perhaps that’s telling you something about where your interests lie (or don’t lie, as the case may be). Personally, I’d go crazy working in the private-sector for a commercial company making or selling widgets to the public (external), or even helping those who make the widgets talk to those who sell the widgets (internal). The entire activity holds almost no interest for me, because I don’t care about widgets or the steps in producing or selling widgets. 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 visible results of their personal work and initiative tend to be the unhappiest ones in government.
Second, do the issues / programs / services interest you?
Unless the issues, programs or services that the federal government deals with are ones that interest you, government is definitely not going to be right for you. The literature calls it “interest/function alignment” but basically means, “do you care about your work”. If you don’t, because the issues don’t excite you, work becomes nothing more than a series of very long days until you retire or die. 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.
Heavily related to this is the type of impact the organization has and thus the scope of work of the organization. Some people are all about individuals and want to deal with micro issues. Others are more about mid-level issues, and generally are focused on infrastructure. Still others want to see the big-picture, macro-level issues and thus focus on how systems work and inter-relate. Often, but not exclusively, the more you want to work on the “higher-level, less direct impacts”, the more likely it is to be a job that government handles.
Third, is government the right sector for you?
Even if certain issues / areas excite you, government may not be the right SECTOR for you, and some people care heavily about the sector, not just an issue area.
For instance, some are only interested in the private sector. If so, they generally get to pick between an established company, a start-up, a consulting company, a temp agency, or act as an entrepreneur. If these are attractive to you, the likelihood of you liking a government job is relatively low.
At the other end of the spectrum, there are government jobs. However, note that government jobs tend to be separated by order of government – federal, provincial or territorial, regional, municipal or even internationally through United Nations or regional development financial institutions.
In the middle are other types of organizations, often dealing with similar issues to government, particularly on the social front but operating somewhat more like a private business. This includes associations, educational organizations, health care providers, NGOs in general, and Crown Corporations (business arms of the government).
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.
Combining these questions together may help you narrow your search effort to focus on only those organizations that actually interest you, and I firmly believe that life is too short to waste it doing something other than what you want to be doing. So, again, “why do you want to work for government?”.
Personal Value Paradigm
I confess that part of the above resonates with me. As I said, I’m a lifer with government, it’s the right sector, right issues, right level for me. Which means choosing to work for government is a no-brainer for me, but where I work in government is a far different question. For this, there’s a different set of issues at play.
For some people, they are all about the type of work on a more micro basis. For example, they may work for government, but what they are really passionate about is policy analysis, program development, service delivery or enabling services (such as HR, finance, evaluation, research, communications, or legal services). Some of them may even move, as people have done at CIDA, between private companies or NGOs delivering programs to CIDA to do program development and then on to a think tank or university to do longer-term policy analysis. They like the issue (international development), but they don’t care which sector, they just float in between. Others are more interested in the scope of their file – are they focusing on design, implementation, evaluation/review or change/transformation? Finally, others are more compelled by their own personal value-added. Are they great at a task? Are they good at freeing others to do other things? Is it compelling that they are part of something important even if their own role isn’t?
The HR literature in this area has identified four key factors that tend to determine if you’re going to be happy with a job or not, separate from above.
First and foremost are the job and the organization themselves. Obviously, the simplest form of this question is whether you like what the company or you are doing? Does the mandate of the organization align well with your own personal interests, principles and skills? Alternatively, some people are all about the impact – are you making a difference (personally or as part of a good organization)? This is a bit different than the way the question was framed above, and no longer about the large impacts of an organization but rather more about your specific role and contribution.
Secondly, people often enjoy even seemingly less-than-ideal jobs if they know that the job is helping them grow and development. This can be in form of skills development that serves as a stepping stone to future work, or it might be simply opportunities for learning i.e. professional development, travel, language training. Others are looking for challenges that will help them grow personally, while others want to flex their personal creativity muscles and are looking for autonomy, flexibility, and an increased variety of tasks. In short, what are you getting out of the job and is it clear? Again, this is more about YOU than about clients.
Third, the work environment is critical to enjoyment. Do you have clear direction from above i.e. leadership? Does the culture encourage pride of ownership and a healthy day-to-day atmosphere? Or are people demoralized in soul-sucking pain? Obviously much of this depends on the community you work with inside the organization – not only your supervisor(s), but also your peers, subordinates, and work partners. Are employees engaged in the work, including two-way communications? Or are they automatons being told what to do? Of course, the literature frequently reduces job satisfaction into a general “work-life balance” equation, which is important, but for others, it might simply be determined by the stability of hours of work or the physical location of the office.
Finally, there’s your direct and indirect compensation. This includes a long list of related items — the direct compensation i.e. the size of your pay cheque which is set by legislation and regulation, and negotiated in bulk; job and income security i.e. government jobs used to be considered relatively secure and permanent; leave i.e. time off for sick leave and vacation, which is also negotiated for all workers by the unions and is an important portion of compensation (often tweaked in lieu of larger pay raises); and benefits (such as top-ups for maternity leave, sick benefits, health coverage, etc.).
Combining these as a separate paradigm, or with the previous paradigm, can either help you determine where in government you want to work, or if there is no place that meets your needs, whether you want to work in government at all. But even if you decide “Government is for me”, it doesn’t really narrow it down much further than that…because you don’t really know what the options are within government. You may now understand yourself better, but you still need to understand different types of jobs in government.