Most people who have read my top ten list so far have probably wondered, “What the ??? Where is the substance?”. Well, that comes now. More by type of substance than individual file area.
As a digression, I am not super worried about the file content — I could work in just about any department, and feel like I was contributing and enjoying my work. There are a couple where I would probably hesitate. Indigenous Affairs is one I would avoid…I honestly don’t think anyone has any clue how to move the files forward, and we pour billions per year into a system that produces almost nothing. Thankfully we have a reconciliation committee to make us feel good about our current partnership, even when that partnership threatens to consign another generation to poverty-stricken, subsistence living. Put more neutrally, working there would be well beyond pushing string.
I have similar views about the Canadian Human Rights Committee that lost its way a long time ago, the Status of Women which needs to be either strengthened and given teeth or abolished, and probably half of the Fisheries Department. Which half I have no idea, but some of it is said to be working by those in the know. Which isn’t to say there aren’t good people working in those departments, or that some of the programs aren’t useful — more that they face large-scale structural issues that I think limit their potential to ever achieve their mandates.
Beyond them, I’d probably work anywhere. I don’t have a big desire to do TBS or PCO — partly by workloads, partly by formality, etc. Which is odd — because if I want to do “special projects”, TBS is definitely the place to do it. Almost half their department is working on new initiatives at any one time, it seems.
As such, I’m pretty open-minded to having a conversation with anyone about any area. Which sounds odd until you read the next part.
Starting at the top of the “policy chain”, there is research. Most research, at least policy research outside of some parts of the Canadian Space Agency, NRCan, Environment Canada or Health Canada / Public Health, is pretty high-level. Trends, issues, statistical models. Most of it not very useful to anyone until someone takes it and finds a way to turn it into policy-relevant language. There was a job recently in the Chief Public Health Officer’s office working on an annual report — which would take some of that general research and give it a good policy spin, which is a great way to use it. But most policy research elsewhere is often done by researchers who have no idea how to write a policy issue or formulate a recommendation. They just do the research and share it. Which doesn’t interest me at all.
Moving a step down the chain, we come to strategic policy. This is the part where policy analysts take a lot of that dry research, marry it to various policy initiatives of the government, and come up with broad diagnostiques, mainly at the macro level, of what is going on in various domains or sectors. I mentioned earlier that I didn’t want to be the sector specialist, and this is the type of area where they tend to hang out. However, within the Strategic Policy area, there are also some other functions. Corporate planning for one, which I would do. But I don’t want to do departmental coordination at a large department like ESDC — we have 25K employees, 50+ programs, etc. Most of what they can do at any one time is coordination of the input — there’s little opportunity to change the direction, to tell a different story than the individual branches want to do, there’s literally no capacity or time to do it. Other areas tend to be policy coordination shops, and again, in huge departments, they are brutal. That’s where I wasted 18 months trying to do an IPF nobody wanted, and I won’t go back there. It is also where there is a LOT of work going on to do spin around mandate trackers, ministerial commitments, etc. Lots of spin, very little time for actual substance. And again, a LOT of coordination. None of it excites me, even though I have someone in my advisory camp who thinks I should do it because a lot of people aren’t good at it, she thinks I am (and she has very high standards), and I can write fast as well.
A small digression about a skill I have, one that freaks out my current team quite often. We do notes for the ADMs attending Executive Committees, and like most departments, the documents frequently arrive the day before, if we’re lucky. Sometimes late the day before. So, from time to time, we have received all the docs at 4:00 and the meeting is the next morning at 9:00. Perhaps 5 or 6 presentations or reports, all for discussion and approval, and we have perhaps an hour to craft a note. For me, that’s no problem. I am a very fast reader, I have a huge spectrum of knowledge on a lot of different areas in the Branch and Department, and I can pull out the important parts from the decks very quickly. So, from time to time, when the docs are late, I pitch in and send the lead officer my notes/summaries of a few key decks. Sometimes I can read and write the input for the note faster than the lead person can format and put them in the final note, so I’m opening, reading, writing and sending, and they’re copying, pasting and formatting…5 decks in 30 minutes, note ready to go.
Back when I was in strategic policy, we often got asked to “pitch in” on Cabinet notes…basically they were Cabinet memos, perhaps 20 or 30 pages, that were going to Cabinet the next day or so, and we had to have a short note to the Minister to say “Here’s what the memo is about, here’s what we care about, etc.” Many of them are not particularly relevant to our department, but the Minister still sits on the committees and needs a summary note. For me, a thick memo probably took me about an hour to have a proper note done. Which I would then send to the Manager in charge, she would review, make no changes, pass to the Director, who would also rarely make changes, and the note would make its way onward to the Minister’s office. No muss, no fuss. Give it to Paul, he’ll give us back something camera-ready or pretty close to it.
It’s a good skill to have, and I can do lots of things like that on the policy side. Quick policy coordination to draft up a reasonable memo, get it ready to go, consult, etc. I write fast, and I have decent content on the first go. Which is why my advisor thinks I should do it, because I’m “really good at it.” There’s only one problem.
I hate it.
Okay, hate is probably a bit strong, but I’m bored doing it. I just don’t enjoy it. And while there is a huge pool of people who WANT to do that type of work, and accepting her argument that there are very few who are actually good at it, there are still people available. On the corporate systems front, the pool willing to do that type of work is pretty small. And ones who are actually really good at it are probably about the same ratio as what she thinks for policy. So, while most don’t think the stakes are as high, I think they’re even higher on the corporate side. Because badly done corporate stuff gets in the way of even the best policy work.
So while I’m really good at the notes, and the policy coordination function, I don’t want it as my day job. I’ll do it as part of my job, but not the whole job. I met with someone last week, great looking job. Three main files, as the Director described it, with one file that had strong links to some work I did at DFAIT and CIDA. Good work, I enjoy it, but often highly responsive and cyclical. The second is an emerging area, could be quite interesting. Yet no meat on the bones yet, and won’t be for another six months at least. Which leaves the third file, which includes notes for the Minister for THREE separate Cabinet committees. I know what that looks like. Combined with mandate trackers, broad-based government Charters, etc.? It’s a nightmare job with almost full-time responsive coordination. I might be wrong, but I’ll ask the Director for clarification if I’m offered the job. There’s an easy out for it though, so I might just gently pass.
Once you move past “strategic policy”, you move into program policy. To me, this is where it gets interesting. At this point, the sectoral specialists are tied much tighter to actual program design and instrument choice. THAT I don’t might digging into more. It’s one of the reasons even on the corporate side that I was willing to do it — I get to see the interplay between policy and programs, the perfect level for me. Within my own branch, there are approximately 19 programs, depending on how you count them. Of the 19, 1 would be interested in 1 out of 3 benefit programs, 0 out of 4 P/T transfers, 1 out of 3 operating programs, and probably only 2 out of 9 G&Cs programs. Call it 4 in total. The 2 Gs&Cs are out because my wife works on one, and the other has too much annual churn. The 1 operating program could be interesting, but if I’m avoiding churn, that is NOT the place to go. At least, not on the policy side. Which leaves 1 benefit program. I had ruled it out for some time, but I’m pursuing some new conversations. Might not lead anywhere, but worth a conversation.
In the rest of the Branch, there are multiple horizontal files. One area, already mentioned, I would have taken in a heartbeat — HR, IT, accommodations…doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But I wanted to try and fully integrate it with the planning and finance function. Now THAT would have been awesome. But it was not to be. Another is the program policy function across the Branch, where my advisor works. And I think I would rather poke my eye out with hot firesticks than do that type of job for any length of time. She finds ways to cram substance into the short periods of time she gets to touch a file, but that’s not me. And a lot of those shops frequently get saddled with the horizontal policy coordination function that I mentioned earlier. Lots of requests, lots of spin, very little time. Very intense, and she loves it. I, however, do not. It’s just not a buzz for me.
Which leaves FPT relations, which in a different world, I would say no to (such as in Strategic Policy). But in a program branch? It has some interesting elements, not unlike the institutional relations work I did at CIDA that I quite enjoyed. Unfortunately, like the departments I don’t like that I listed above, I’m not sure I would be equally interested in all provinces. Some, quite frankly, I would have little interest in. Like my interest at CIDA in specific types of countries, i.e. small island developing states who were vulnerable, I think some provinces can manage their own affairs so the conversation isn’t very productive, vs. a few others who really need help and want to collaborate.
Once you move past program policy, and into service delivery, there are two sub-areas in my view … operations policy and actual service delivery i.e. transactions. I have already said in previous posts that I have virtually NO interest in transactional work. I just don’t. It’s good work, lots of people like it, but I kind of view it like policy — there are people who want to do that who are better than me, but not as many who want to do the type of work I like to do who would be better than me.
Which leaves the operations policy — moving from policy and program design, and instrument choice, into the actual operations work that guides the delivery people. I don’t want to do the actual delivery, but working on training, manuals, etc.? That’s doable. A value-added service. I don’t know if I would want to do it forever, but the right environment could be good. Which I had thought I had found a while ago with someone I work really well with, but the offer proved a lot softer than I was expecting. I actually don’t even know where it stands at this point.
Beyond the delivery arm, there are of course audits and evaluations (the feedback mechanism), but I have little interest in doing those as a non-auditor and non-evaluator. Good work, but it is almost all coordination. All substance is provided by others. Which leaves enabling services.
For HR, there is a fear that familiarity may breed contempt, and doing something that I feel passionately about might just be enough to kill me when I see what they have to settle for in terms of operations. I took a stab at one area, but as I mentioned earlier, they were covered. Another area was offered to me three years ago, but the timing was terrible, and I said no. While I don’t regret the answer, as it was the right one for the time, I regret I don’t have the same offer now.
I reached out to some of my contacts in the Finance Branch, but while I do work with a lot of them on big projects, and we work well together, the sad reality is that most of their really good work is done by FI officers i.e. those with accounting and finance degrees. That’s how they’re staffed. Not unlike HR being staffed with PEs. I tried hitting up their branch services unit, i.e. the people who coordinate them for input into reports and things. Kind of the same job I’m doing now, but didn’t get any take up.
I have a meeting coming up with someone on the IT side. Like HR, I have views, but I might be able to sublimate some of them. There’s one big project in particular that is coming, and I’d love to work on it, but I have no idea yet how it is resourced, if at all. If done right, it could have a huge impact on the department; if done wrong, it could bog us down back to the dark ages. I speak enough tech to work with them, but more importantly, I speak policy, program, delivery, and corporate too. Like the HR one though, I have a feeling they’re already staffed up. But I’ll have the conversation anyway, maybe that or something else will shake loose. I at least know the DG likes me somewhat.
There is another area in the department, and I was a bit excited about the possibility, and I reached out to the person I knew there. No response. She’s hinted at me coming to work there before, but to be honest, she isn’t the only one who has pursued me in the past only to now be playing hard to get or seeming uninterested.
I’m branching out to other Departments, and I’m open to conversations even if they don’t lead to anything. Partly as I’m feeling a bit vulnerable and insecure about my abilities at the moment. I’ll talk more about this in a subsequent post, but there has been little take up on my interest and availability so far.
What does this all mean? It means that I have a hierarchy of types of work that I would do, and I would like to be as progressively higher on that chain as possible.
#02. Progressive alignment — Tier one over tiers two through five, noting that I’m in Tier Three currently (*).
- Branch management (enabling services)
- Program policy (benefits)
- IT policy and projects
- Departmental HR
- Departmental Finance
- Integrity Services (policy)
- Branch management * (corporate planning, finance)
- Program policy (FPT)
- Corporate secretariat
- Strategic policy (corporate planning)
- Program policy (horizonta)
- Strategic policy (sector)
- Service delivery (operations policy)
- Strategic policy (horizontal)
- Audits and evaluation (coordination)
- Strategic policy (FPT)
- Service delivery (transactions)
Is that specific enough? 🙂 It’s also why it is ranked so high. Some of those choices put me high on the other 9 as well. And I almost wanted to rank it first. But there’s still something higher.