My new job as an “economist/social scientist” analyst i.e. an ES was as great as I expected it to be. I liked the looks of the files, I knew some of the people, I was excited.
q. Analyst, Policy Branch, CIDA — The division had four main files, and I got to play on each of them over the years. I started in February 2002, and stayed until December 2004. Almost three complete years, but the ride was incredible.
Early on, I was assigned the OECD files, and we were gearing up to do the OECD Peer Review of Canada’s Aid Program. I was excited, it looked good, and more importantly, we had to write a huge memo covering the whole aid program. Horizontal work across the department, interdepartmental work, consultations, we were going big on this one. We recommended, and our recommendation was accepted, that the Minister be involved and attend the OECD management meeting in October. Most of a full year, flat out. The Director had hired a former VP to lead the project work, and informally as the OECD lead, I would lead him. Yeah right.
It was very clear at the start that he was a strong personality, and there were some people who had known him well who basically said, “Him? Good luck!”. I had dealt with difficult people before, that wasn’t the issue. The real issue was that he had a lot of experience with bilateral programming, but really didn’t understand much about policy coherence or collaboration across departments. He also wasn’t completely up to date on certain developments in government that I felt we needed to cover.
We started doing interviews around town, and most of them were straight-forward. He would talk to other VPs, executive to executive, we would get good info, we would add to the report. Until we started into a few key interviews where I pushed harder than he was comfortable with, at least at first. He didn’t know what I was going for, and I didn’t want to telegraph too clearly the intent of my questions. I didn’t want to put words in their mouth, but I needed them to talk about recent developments. Partnership Branch and their move towards different relations with NGOs. More pointed, more policy-focused, less entitlement-driven.
With the Office of the Auditor General, I pushed the hardest, and the VP tried to shut me down, he had no idea what I was doing. Finally the ADM opened up about attribution and we had one of our best conversations about the new aid effectiveness agenda that was developing, the Millennium Development Goals, a whole host of measurement things that nobody else was talking about. The VP started to see what I had to offer.
With a senior person at PCO, one I had worked with previously, I was more candid, and again, we got some really good info. Info he probably wouldn’t have shared with just the VP. When we went to write the “report” from our side, i.e. our input to the OECD, I wrote a couple of the sections on Multilateral, changes in the history and approaches, current priorities, etc. It was my day job, so easy to write. Our relationship had started to change with the interviews, he now saw me as someone with something to contribute, so it was going well.
But after he read my annex on Policy Coherence, a tight 10 pages on what other departments were doing with aid money, he came to see me. He was impressed. He even admitted that he felt like he learned a lot just reading it, and saw now why I had pushed for certain things in the various interviews. We were able to collaborate much better after that.
But support around the Department was piecemeal. Some people just didn’t get it. Sure, some of them got it and just didn’t care, others didn’t get it and didn’t want to either. But our Communications people were the worst. This was a Ministerial priority. She was giving interviews talking about it. She flew all the way to Paris to be at the meetings, the first time a Canadian Minister had done so. It was big.
In December, we hosted the launch of the final report. We had the head of the OECD Development Assistance Committee come to Ottawa, and we co-hosted the launch at the National Press Club. Comms had handled a lot of the details, we were just getting bodies there. The day of the event, I show up, and my Director informs me that for some reason, there appear to be no copies of the report or the press releases. Nothing. Nada. No docs. The Minister’s office wants them, the Director wants the, the few press that are there want them. But Comms had no docs. I tracked down the Comms person, told her they were missing, they were needed, and she said she would look after getting them there for the end of the meeting. Okay, done.
At the end of the meeting, almost time for everyone to leave, and the Minister’s Office person notes there are still no docs. I’m confused, Comms was on it. Maybe they’re somewhere else. I track down the Comms person again. No, they’re not somewhere else. She called back to the office, spoke to the senior Comms person, who phoned the OECD in Paris, and together they all decided that there was no real need to hand out the official press releases or or documents. So they hadn’t done it.
I was looking at her like she’s got two heads…”You phoned…Paris? You decided the Minister didn’t need what her staff asked for? What the policy people told you was needed? You phoned Paris to see if they wanted to do something?”. I literally could not comprehend this decision.
Now, for context, you have to know that I had been involved with Comms before. One of my duties was reviewing draft speeches. And many of them were atrocious. They were basically just a bunch of talking points that were thrown together, often with no common theme or underlying message. On a couple of key ones, I restructured them and other people around the Department cheered me on, noting that the “complete rewrite” had been warranted. I hadn’t rewritten them, I just did basic reorganizing so there was an actual theme and message. I wasn’t a speech writer, although I had written drafts before. But I at least knew how to structure them better.
All the way through the project’s process, Comms had done almost nothing. We met with them early, they were unprepared. They would get back to us, they never did. We me with them in the middle, worst interview of the entire process. Completely unprepared, no idea how to answer even the most basic questions about public relations, comms, surveys, nothing. We had met with them before the report was finalized, no real comms strategy available. They’d develop one, nothing.
My boss came running up as I was talking to the woman, as I was still trying to understand what she was saying. He was freaking out, the Minister was done, the Press were looking for their documents, nothing was there. What was going on?
I turned to my boss, and said, “Hi boss. Do you know X? She works in Comms. She was the one looking after getting the documents here. Apparently, they decided you and the Minister were wrong, the documents really weren’t needed, and they even took time to consult with the OECD in Paris that it wasn’t necessary. I’m going to let you talk to her to figure this out, as honestly, you don’t pay me anywhere near enough money to deal with this level of incompetence.”
Yes, I said that in front of her. Yes, it went back to her bosses. They wanted to meet with my boss and I, smooth everything over, maybe there had been some communications (hah!) issues. No, I said. There wasn’t any problem with communications, other than the fact they didn’t do their jobs. They had consistently not engaged from beginning to end, and I was done. I told my boss if he wanted to meet with them, that was his call, but I gave him a full list of every meeting we had had with them since the beginning, including meeting minutes where it said they were going to do stuff that they hadn’t actually done afterwards.
I declared war on Comms. Up until that time, they loved dealing with me. If they brought me a draft speech at the 11th hour, I would drop everything else and review it. I even did it a few times while they sat and watched me read. I was helpful, I was courteous, I was collaborative. From that point on, that spirit ended. I stopped reviewing their speeches, made them give everything to the Director (who was frequently busy and wouldn’t get to it for another day or so). Proposals sent for corporate review through our shop came to me, and I ripped them to shreds. Every file they dropped, I made sure everyone knew they blew it. Every resource request got the utmost scrutiny. When they had views on other people’s files, I shut them out. Word spread. Paul hated Comms. With a passion. And it became more apparent…it was a deserved hatred. Other branches started to follow my lead, and began to push back. Bad speeches weren’t approved. They were sent back for revision. Multiple times until they had some coherence to them. I felt bad at times, as some of these people had been part of my network previously, and they individually weren’t “bad”. I liked a few of them. But collectively their Branch was not working.
Was I being unprofessional? I’m not entirely sure. As several people more senior than I said, “Paul’s not wrong in his assessment, they suck.” But I had no way to fix it, I could only find ways to mitigate their impact. I was using my “powers” for evil, perhaps, rather than as a force for good. I know I created havoc in their branch, and they had to implement some new, improved procedures to compensate. What had been adequate before became known to be painfully inadequate as time went on. Even some ADMs got involved. Did I do that? Not really. But I wasn’t shielding them from it either. If I couldn’t be part of the solution, at least I wasn’t going to be enabling the problem.
Fast-forward into my second year, and we were heavy into G8 processes. The G8 was NOT my file. I was the OECD guy. We had two other people doing G8. One was leaving, the other was at the same level as me, and wanted to only do policy. She didn’t want to handle the logistics for a proposed G8 meeting of Development Ministers. She finally quit, or in true government parlance, accepted another job elsewhere. She mainly left to avoid the logistics as she thought it was beneath her. She was a policy person.
The week after she left, I was getting involved, and my boss dragged me to a meeting with him and the Minister’s office staff. In the meeting, he announced that he was going on vacation, the other senior policy person would be there on policy issues, but I would be handling all the logistics for the meeting. Umm, boss? Did you forget to tell me I had a new file?
The meeting would be in seven weeks. We didn’t have a confirmed venue, but it was likely to be Windsor. I had never been to Windsor. I had potentially 8 Ministers plus some senior officials arriving in Canada in six weeks and I had no infrastructure in place to do this. I called an old colleague who did all the G8 Summits in Canada from the beginning of time. Not really, but he had been doing conferences for 25+ years, and had stories out the wazoo. A simple meeting in Windsor wouldn’t phase him. We flew down, checked some venues, chose a hotel, picked the setup, planned a delegation office, booked the rooms, everything. Two days on-site, good to go, the invites went out with six weeks notice of the meeting.
It mostly went swimmingly, although we had a bit of an issue with too complicated ground transport (more vans than we needed), but it went off great for the Minister. I still remember at the last minute asking if they wanted to “emerge” from the room to go to the Podium, a little cheesy but better theatre, and in order to do so, we had to walk through the kitchen of the hotel and enter the room from the back service area. As I walked the Minister through the zone, she commented it was just like when she used to work at the summer camps when she was a teenager. Her staff noted their surprise that I had said it would take about 90 seconds to walk the distance, and it was almost like I’d done it before. She looked at her staff in surprise, and said, “Of course, he did. That’s obvious.” I had, indeed. I wasn’t going to walk a Minister through a kitchen and a hallway if I didn’t know how long it would take or if the doors on each end would be open! But I was shocked how she noticed. She didn’t have a great rep with the rest of the Department, they thought she was far too aggressive, too micro-oriented, but honestly, I loved her. She was like a Minister, Deputy Minister, and PM-05 all rolled into one.
And everyone was looking at me after the Ministerial like, “How did you do a Ministerial in SIX WEEKS?” Hello, I did logistics at DFAIT for four years and we hired the best guy in the business for support. Easiest meeting I had ever done.
The next part of the story is a bit harder to talk about. I was starting to experience something different at work. Despite the fact that I was the same level as two other people in the division, I was starting to take on more and more management functions, kind of like an informal deputy director. Mostly because I had done OECD, and now someone else was; I had done G8 and now someone else was; I had done donor relations, and now someone else was. I had been around awhile so there was a natural mentoring role. Which segued into some informal management stuff, combined with the fact that I liked doing things like making workplans for the team, talking to my boss about management stuff, HR planning, budgets even. Stuff most people didn’t like. All the corporate stuff. Which gave me some exposure to supervision and even acting assignments. Me, the ES-04, occasionally acting as Director, EX-01. Wow. This included sometimes supervising a junior development officer. Just like I used to be when I started.
It was decided that the Minister wanted another Ministerial meeting. This time with more Ministers, we sold her on less formal, and the decision was to have it in New Brunswick. We hired the conference guy again, and four of us headed off to NB for an advance trip. Beautiful hotel in St. Andrew’s. We walked the grounds, checked out all the rooms, nothing was jiving. We just didn’t have the right room. Until we saw their tea room. Obviously, this would be open during the summer, and so we couldn’t use it, but it was THE RIGHT ROOM. I looked at the conference guy, he looked at me, and we nodded. We knew what room we wanted, but it was going to be the Hotel Manager who would approve that, not the facilities guy. We got the room, and we returned to Ottawa.
This is the difficult part. I spoke to my new boss, a woman I had worked with before, and I noted that I could do all the logistics with my eyes shut. Nothing would challenge me, it would go fine. But Michelle, the new development officer, was capable, and I proposed that she manage the project, I would supervise and help out as we went, if needed, and she would liaise directly with the conference people. She agreed, it all went well. It was to be informal, no minutes, no press, no statement, just talking. We encouraged informal business attire, which meant a couple left the vest and tie off, and it happened in NB in the summer. My boss went, the policy people went, I stayed behind, and Michelle went down to manage the logistics on the ground.
The day after a lobster bake on the beach, Michelle wasn’t feeling too well. My boss was there, they had her just stay in bed, and they finished the day without her. A bunch of them flew back that night. The next day, Michelle still wasn’t feeling well, and so they called a doctor. Blah blah blah, she ended up in the hospital. Apparently she had a medical condition that could be aggravated by seafood, which she knew, but she’d never had had a problem with lobster before, so she ate it. It caused a flare up. My boss felt terrible, leaving her down there even though another staffer was there still, and so she was helping arrange for the girl’s mother to fly down to NB to be with her.
I admired the hell out of my boss. Every instinct I had said she was doing way above and beyond the call of duty to help out…sure, we had a duty, but wasn’t this getting into the nitty gritty of her personal life? It seemed too intrusive to me, but certainly very helpful. I was in my office when I heard her call the mother to tell her what they had worked out on flights, only to hear her suddenly saying, “oh no, I’m so sorry,” over and over. Michelle had taken another turn, and she had died in the hospital.
The young vibrant officer in our team was gone. A project I proposed her for. I don’t even think I was really a very good mentor for her, we didn’t click very well. But she was gone. I had never lost someone in my team before. Honestly, I had never lost someone at the same age as me, not really. People I knew at a distant, sure, but not people I worked with daily. My boss handled everything. She helped with the flights, she met with the girl’s boyfriend. We organized a memorial service near the building later, down by the river where she used to go for lunch with her friends, and they all organized the details so they had something to “do” to honour her. And my boss and I? We went for lunch beforehand with her boyfriend and her parents. I cannot think of anything I wanted to do less than go for lunch with them. But I couldn’t let my boss go alone, that wouldn’t have been fair either. I don’t remember the lunch very well. No conversation items, no stories, it was just flat. I suspect they didn’t want to be there either, even though it was “for them”. I think they would have rather just had a card and kept their grief private. Instead they had a role to play with her friends, to let themselves be comforted as the friends tried to comfort themselves.
Yet, put aside the grief. Put aside any feelings of guilt. Put aside the fact that it is just a bad scene from beginning to end. I had to ask myself, “If I was my boss, would I have done any of this?”. And I don’t know that I would have. Certainly not at the time, I would have found it too intrusive, as I said. I felt there was a line between work and personal life, and I didn’t know if one should cross it so easily, even with the best of intentions. Now, years later, I feel it is likely contextual. Would you do all that for an older worker with wife / husband and family? Or only for a young employee and their parents? I don’t know. I just don’t know.
These questions were increasingly on my mind. I had this management function I was doing, and people were starting to ask me about moving up. Was I applying for competitions? Did I think I would want to be EX some day? My boss had gone on leave for 7 weeks, and while she was gone, I had had the chance to act. She told me to treat it like I was really doing the job, don’t wait on things for her to come back, make the hard decisions and run with it. So I did. And I LOVED it. It was a real challenge. On issues and files that I had experience in, often that nobody else around me did.
I wrote a competition for an EX-01. There was no chance of getting it, I was three levels below. But I hoped to learn from the experience. I was told I wouldn’t get screened it, but I knew I would be — I knew how to write cover letters. Sure enough, I got screened in, and the consultant even noted that “all applications should be done like he does his” in case others wanted to teach people how to do it. I wrote the test, set up for three streams — conflict, human rights and gender equality. I aced the exam, and a whole bunch of people who were acting in those positions didn’t even pass. I went on to the interview, and it was a waste of time. I hoped the DG would give me feedback on how to improve later, but apparently he was ticked I was “wasting his time”. He took less than half a page of notes, and some questions, not even a single mark. He had no intention of considering me, but at least I got to see the structure.
Fast forward most of a year, and my boss was going on maternity leave. While she was gone, she suggested to her boss that I could act for her while she was gone. It was discussed, particularly as I had done well in the competition, but the ADM said clearly no. I didn’t disagree, until they ran the competition and I saw the actual criteria. I met all of them. I applied, I got screened in, no problem. There were just three of us, and honestly it was a sham competition. The DG running it had tried to just appoint this woman that she had brought over from TBS, but she was told she had to do a competition, even for the acting. She did, but it was obvious what the result would be. I got interviewed, and when she gave me feedback, the feedback had NOTHING to do with the interview. It was valid, but it was about my level and my normal interactions with her, not how I had done in my interview. Whatever, I was too junior, I got the message.
And while I was already thinking about moving on, when I saw who would be heading the team, I *ran* the other way. Honestly, she was a disaster, and she was known to be a disaster. They asked me to come back after six months, and I said no — they knew she would be a disaster, they put her there anyway which was a bad fit, and they gave her NO support during the time to compensate.
But I did get two other big things out of my time in the division, beyond exposure to management.
First and foremost, at least from a work perspective, I had been introduced to “corporate / business planning”. I don’t just mean RPPs and DPRs, I mean the whole broad heading of corporate planning. It was our sister division, and so lots of our files would intersect. But it was quite ironic to see some files come bouncing down from on high…it would leave the Deputy Minister’s office, with someone saying “Give it to corporate planning”. It would get to the ADM’s office, and they would say “Give it to corporate planning”. It would go to the DG who would say “That’s corporate planning…I’m going to give it to….Paul.” But I wasn’t IN corporate planning. But anything that didn’t look like the normal corporate planning would frequently bounce to me as I was an all-around good file guy.
Take for instance a business case that had been written by the IT, finance and HR people. It was asking for more resources for the department on the admin side. It went to the DM and VPs, and they didn’t like the draft. It got kicked to the ADM, to the DG, and to … me. Me, the policy coordination guy. I wasn’t even acting then. I was just the ES-04 policy wonk. I said, “Umm, okay, I’ll look at it.” And I was amazed at just how, well, bad it was. It basically said CIDA had really expensive computers and a lot of people and TBS should give us more money. It had almost nothing anywhere in it about the business of the department. You know, development. No wonder nobody liked it.
It came to me as a hot file, i.e. “fix it fast”, so I set up a meeting with the DG in charge and went to see her. I didn’t know anyone in their branch, not really. Remember, I wasn’t actually the corporate guy, I just sat near them apparently. Anyway, we have a meeting, she brings in these four people, doesn’t introduce any of them, and it’s go time. I think they’re all analysts, like me, not sure their role exactly, but whatever, I went through their business case. I gave them my analysis, and while I wasn’t vicious, I wasn’t particularly going for style points either. I had got ideas how to fix it, and would send them some potential text to consider, but it really needed a policy lens added. At the end of my ripping it apart, nicely but bluntly, she then explained she’s going on holidays and the other four people would be the ones I deal with for the rewrite. All four of them were her directors and one of them would be acting DG.
Me, the ES-04 just told four directors they hadn’t done their job and I was going to fix it for them. The meeting ended, and I was coming back to my office, and I realized something. Sure, I could have presented a little more softly, but I hadn’t been rude, and more importantly? I knew I wasn’t wrong. I had just met with four much more experienced and senior people, and I had better knowledge and strategic judgement than all of them combined, at least when it came to how to tell THIS story. They were good at their jobs, the data and information was solid, but this was MY world. I went back to my office, rewrote the business case, sent it back to everyone, it went up through the ADMs and DMs, and everyone loved it. Three days and it went to TBS, relatively unchanged from my rewrite. An area that I had known little about prior to four days before, and yet I adapted to it, situated it in a way the DMs and ADMs wanted, and TBS accepted. An interesting experience.
An outcome that didn’t surprise my DG. Despite the fact she wasn’t considering me for the acting Director position, she kept trying to push me to the corporate planning side. One time, she even presented this org chart to the directorate that she had done on the fly — and I was listed in the other team! That wasn’t a strategic move, she just forgot I didn’t work there, because I was her “special corporate projects” person.
What else did I get out of working there?
Just my current life.
I figured out who I was there. More importantly, I met my wife there. Or had her introduced to me at lunch, although I had already met her anyway. We started dating after about three months. We were still dating when I got my next gig. And we’ve been together ever since.
My wife, my family, my life.
It started to all come together while I was there.
I’m glad my mother got to see it, although yes, I wish my father could have seen it too. But that’s where it started.