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PolyWogg’s Completely Informal and Totally Unofficial Guide to Competing for Jobs in the Canadian Federal Government
Now that you better understand yourself, you need to understand what types of jobs government does to figure out what type of job you are seeking. As with the previous chapter, there are two large perspectives to think about: functional classifications and departmental roles.
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 Departments that hire specialists also often have detailed sub-tests that are too unique 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 and Ministers set broad policy direction, but it is the ECs and SIs who figure out how to achieve the policy 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. Note that much of this work looks more like “project administration” than what the private-sector calls “project management”, but even PMs in the government will inaccurately 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. 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. If you’re a PM in the public sector, you’ll manage 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 almost all of the work of PMs 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 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 officers. 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 facts and 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 final recommendation is made, thus ensuring that the last option presented and recommended is one that is palatable to the Minister and political sphere, with “unacceptable” or “unpalatable” recommendations weeded out at the draft stage).
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 administrative stream, supplemented by PEs (HR) and FIs (finance).
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 that while people change jobs, 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.
You may be 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.
And from the previous chapter you have a better idea which of those types of jobs appeal to YOU. So choose wisely.
However, you should be aware too that there is a negative and mostly false 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 (i.e. if you get hired as EC-02, you’ll likely 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 quickly).
Life beyond the three big categories
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).
Figuring out which of the three streams interests you most will help you figure out which jobs to target in your search. But you also need to understand which departments are out there.
Here is a partial grouping 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 that means “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 organizations that provide common services to the rest of government.
- While there are multiple 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 various organizations that have traditionally dealt specifically with regional economic development across Canada. 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 (recently renamed Global Affairs Canada), 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, err, Global 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.
- Human Development:
- There are three main department that do programming aimed at human development of Canadians. First and foremost, there is Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC). This is the largest department outside of defence, and has three large statutory programs that make up the bulk of its programming – Employment Insurance (EI), Canada Pension Plan (CPP), and Old Age Security. After that, it has numerous programs ranging from agreements with provinces for labour market program delivery to Canada Student Loans. Overall the Department has $110B in programming and more than 20,000 employees across the country;
- Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada basically does a lot of what ESDC does, i.e. human and social development, except focused on Aboriginal communities and the North;
- Health Canada (and the related Canadian Public Health Agency) are responsible for a variety of health programs across Canada. In addition to managing the social transfers to Provinces and Territories, Health Canada is also responsible for long-term health research, epidemiological concerns, health promotion, and approval of all drugs.
- Security: For those interested in security, there are a wealth of choices. The most obvious of course is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They serve as a national police force, mirroring many functions of the FBI in the United States. However, in truly Canadian fashion, they also accept contracts from individual provinces to serve as the province’s “provincial police force” (i.e. in x, x, and x). As such, they have responsibility for high-level national crimes (terrorism, human trafficking, cyber crime) as well as many more routine provincial responsibilities (domestic calls, traffic enforcement, etc.). Public Safety combines high level readiness for safety with more specific readiness for emergencies such as natural disasters. National Defence operations are relatively straightforward and generally are exactly what you expect soldiers, sailors and pilots to be doing. On occasion, they are also called upon to assist civilians domestically for large-scale emergencies such as floods. Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) takes the lead for securing Canadian’s relatively open borders against illicit traffic of both humans and contraband (at times working with the Passport Office). Justice takes the lead for legislation and legal cases. Correctional Services has a strong role to play in simple containment, but they also do some policy work on rehabilitation.
- Sectoral: Finally, there are a series of “sectoral” ministries / departments that deal with specific sectors of the economy. Each of them does pretty much exactly what you think they would do based on their name:
- Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency;
- Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and Parks Canada;
- Fisheries Canada;
- Heritage Canada (including both citizenship / civic duties as well as running Museaums); and,
- Transport Canada (dealing with all transportation infrastructure).
Whew. That’s a pretty dense list. What does it all mean? It means that having read the previous chapter and this one, you know that you need to:
- Know what types of work you would enjoy (by knowing yourself, previous chapter);
- Decide on the types of jobs you might be interested in (the classifications, i.e. EC, AS, PM, etc.); and,
- Identify which departments interest you.
After that, it’s on to finding out about jobs and applying for them.