I was in need of rescuing at the end of the previous post…after 18 months of pushing string, and feeling like I not only had nothing to show for it but that the time had been a complete waste, I was spent. Literally. Figuratively. Mentally. Even physically. I had nothing left to give them. And to be honest, any self-confidence that I had previously was completely gone.
u. Manager, Performance Measurement, ESDC — I started working in the Skills and Employment Branch in May, and it was almost instantly a refreshing change. I wasn’t pushing string with abstract policy theory to combine social capital or human development, I was looking at concrete things like the Program Activity Architecture, performance metrics, indicators and logic models.
Things that were relatively straight-forward to me, particularly in comparison with the big ugly Integrated Policy Framework.
In addition, a lot of the work with the Branch was already done. They had consulted widely, a working group had given lots of info, and it was all in pretty good shape. Except for one thing. I didn’t think it was very strategic.
This was home to me, after having done the Sustainable Development Strategy + Gs&Cs + the Millennium Development Goals at CIDA, along with the traditional RPP, DPR and PAA stuff. Standard Government of Canada performance measurement. It was all very familiar.
So while I was new to the branch, and to labour market programming in detail, I wasn’t new to telling an integrated performance story at a high strategic level, and we didn’t seem to be there. There were the standard three levels, and in my view, the top level should have had 3 or 4 key indicators. Not unlike what is asked for now. The branch working group? They had come up with 15. The next level down was another 25 or so and the bottom level added another 40-45. There were almost 75 indicators across the branch.
Now, sure, I got that there were 18 or so programs, and they were big and important. But how would you craft a story with 15 indicators just at the top? I was determined to get it down.
But remember how I was missing my confidence? I wasn’t confident I was right. I thought I was, but I really didn’t know. I was second-guessing just about everything. I did market-testing with some other colleagues around the department, and they agreed. The consultant agreed. My staff agreed. I still wasn’t sure. I tried my boss, and he agreed. Okay, I was confident that I at least wasn’t an idiot, I was on the right track.
My boss was taking the summer off, and I would be acting for at least half of it. Which meant I needed to be sure before he left. We did some more work, we tested it with some of the branch, and he left for holidays. Just me and the DG left. I knew her, she trusted me, we were ready. Time to present to our branch management team.
But the week before I was to present, I got some info about my old job. My replacement had gone into a meeting with the ADM and after presenting on something else, they had said, “Oh and by the way, we’ll be giving you a new way forward on the IPF.” He was confused, he didn’t know what they meant. After all, they had submitted it to him a month or so before, and he had approved it and sent it upstairs, didn’t he? And they all realized something.
The ADM didn’t know the difference in products between the Medium-Term Planning Team’s “Integrated Diagnostique” and the Integrated Policy Framework.
Which was not his fault, it was the Directorate’s fault. I had said, before I left, REPEATEDLY, that I didn’t think he knew the difference. That a lot of what he was asking for to be included in the MTP document was pushing it very close to a barebones IPF, and I wasn’t sure he knew the difference because the names were similar. I was basically pooh-poohed on my input, of course he knew. These were two of his big deliverables, of course he knew. But I wasn’t convinced. I went with their verdict, but I wasn’t really sure. It sure looked to me like they were confused in his mind. Nope, I was told, I was flat out wrong.
Except I hadn’t been. We had so badly managed the files in briefing him that we had confused him on two of his four deliverables, and spent a quarter of a million dollars on a product he didn’t even know existed (my version of the IPF). He never saw any alternative presented, he just assumed it was all the same thing. I was initially embarrassed for the whole group, including me, when I realized something. I didn’t work there anymore. And the people whose judgment I had relied on in stripping away all of my confidence, whose negative view of my work had left me convinced that I didn’t know what I was doing, had just completely messed up the most basic of communications with their boss. And, on top of it, I hadn’t been wrong about it. My judgment of his approach and feedback had been dead on.
The person who told me the story did so a bit reluctantly, and when he was done, I started to laugh. Hard. And he said, “You know, I thought about many possible reactions from you, but laughter was not one of them.” I couldn’t NOT laugh — I had relied on people’s judgment of me and my ability, and while I may not have given them what they wanted, my strategic management judgment had been correct.
I’m not sure I like being that shallow, but knowing I wasn’t wrong about judging the ADM gave me back all my confidence. Which I absolutely needed the next week.
For context, the meeting to finalize the logic model and indicators was with two ADMs and 10 DGs. Plus me, as acting director for planning. The new guy. I hadn’t even met the lead ADM before. But I was sitting right across from her. And we went ten rounds on the logic model to fight to a tie. She wanted the 15 indicators, maybe even 18, and I explained no, she could have 5. She looked at me like I had two heads. Except I was serious. And we went round and round, slowly grinding her down and getting her to focus on what she really wanted to say with the storyline at that level. The other ADM was there, but he deferred to her. None of the other DGs said a word. I think they were watching the train wreck that was me.
Because NOBODY, and I mean NOBODY, ever would take on that ADM like I did. Except nobody had told me that. So we just went head to head. For forty-five minutes. It was all about the document, the story, none of it was personal. She had a signature move — she would cock her head a little bit to the side like she wasn’t really hearing you. And the stupider she thought you were being, the more the head cocked. I ignored all of it and we plowed through. At the end of forty-five minutes, we had five or six indicators. And we were exhausted.
There were two more levels to go, but my DG stepped in and called the bout by suggesting that we could take that feedback and cascade down through the rest of the document. Huh? Umm, okay. I had just been warming up, but okay, they needed to move on to other files.
After the meeting, I met with the DG and she was like, “Oh. My. God. You are absolutely fearless! I can’t believe you took the ADM on like that! NOBODY ever does that.” Because the ADM was tough. The previous week, I probably would have folded like a house of cards. That week? I knew my advice wasn’t wrong. My approach would make for a better storyline. But she was an ADM so my role was to let her dictate the final approach, and what she wanted, and mostly just challenge her traditional approaches to get down to the base level.
But I heard rumours for weeks. “Did you hear about that new guy in Planning? He’s CRAZY! He fought with the ADM at SMT! He’s NUTS!”. Umm, okay. Except when the revised version went up, everybody agreed and we had a brand new storyline. One that wasn’t down in the weeds.
I’d been in the branch for less than 3 months and I had a concrete deliverable. No more pushing string, I had actually ACCOMPLISHED something.
Although when I started I had been looking for rescuing, I did manage to negotiate one thing in my agreement to work in the Branch. For the Director, it wasn’t a hard sell — I asked to do Strategic Review when it happened. We knew it was coming, not sure exactly when, but when it did, I wanted to lead the Branch approach.
In most branches, this would be like asking someone to work for you and them negotiating to work for free or do overtime too. It wasn’t a “perk” he was giving me, it was a problem that he would have to deal with, and here I was openly requesting that I take a problem off his hands too. Sold.
For me, I thought it was an incredible opportunity. They were going to review all 18 programs in our branch, as well as the other 50 or so in the Department, and it was a full review top to bottom. A giant process. Separate from the fact that I thought I would be good at it, I thought the learning potential was enormous. Plus it doesn’t hurt to have those types of exercises to talk about when you’re doing EX competitions. “Tell us of a time when you lead a branch-wide exercise…” for example. High level engagement, lots of writing, use of performance information, and the equivalent of 18 hybrid MCs/TB Subs all at once. For me, that’s fun.
And I got to do it. It was everything I hoped for, and more. I learned SO much about the operations and the way political decisions are made on stuff like that. Honestly, a once in a lifetime opportunity. And I got to do it simply because I asked for it. Plus, in doing it, I worked closely with EVERYONE in the branch. All the DGs, and the ADMs too. It was awesome.
What wasn’t awesome was the ethical challenges. Most people think of ethics in government as something as simple as not taking concert tickets from a contractor, for example. But those are the exceptional situations, and they’re relatively simple to know what is right and wrong. Yet the real ethical challenges come when two principles of behaviour come into direct conflict, and both are positive so you can’t prioritize them easily.
I believe strongly in the principles of transparency. One of my biggest strengths in managing staff is providing vision and direction, they are never in doubt as to where we are trying to go. From my five year plan for global domination to just basic year-long workplans, the overall direction is clear. And often that is a direct result of sharing info as it becomes available. In fact, most of my staff would say I over-share and over-explain. Yet on Strategic Review, all the deliberations were private and confidential. We’re talking proposals to cut entire programs, subject to Ministerial choice, not ours. Over the course of four months, probably half of our programs were on the potential chopping block at one time or another, until the end when there was really just two chosen. And for the people on those programs, those cuts were traumatic. Their jobs were gone, they had to find new ones. The programs they had built were gone. Which would be challenging enough on the HR side, knowing that this AWESOME project was going to be devastating for some employees, but added to that was my ethical challenge. I knew some of these people. I was friends with them. And in one case, it was a couple who worked on two different programs and at one point, both of those programs were up for elimination. While the guy was telling me about how he was going to buy a new house, maybe have another kid. And I was sitting there thinking, “What the hell do I do?”. I couldn’t tell him, the info was all protected. Yet I couldn’t leave him to twist in the wind either.
In the end, like most real ethical challenges, you find a compromise somewhere in the middle. In my case, I talked to him about risk, the uncertainty of Strategic Review, and asked him if now was really the best time to be taking big decisions with huge financial implications. While most of the people would find other jobs, there was a real risk of full termination. I warned him without violating any privilege, but it sure sucked to be in the situation of having to choose.
The project also cemented something in my reputation that you often see in branches. Regardless of actual file responsibilities, there are often people in branches that regularly get assigned “special project” files by the DG or ADM. Corporate files usually, but not always. Just something a wee bit different that requires a separate approach, not just routine management. And once you do one, you get pegged for another. Often to the detriment of others who would like the opportunity to do them, but never get asked. The projects are often great for career management too. You get the reputation as someone who can “get it done” or who can be “trusted with an important file”. Note too though that these are not usually hot policy files, there are lots of people who get assigned those, but usually within their area of responsibility. No, these are special files not unlike the business case example way back in my CIDA days — it was clear to three levels of management that this was a corporate planning file, yet when it got to my DG, she diverted it to me as she needed it done right the first time, and quickly, without much hand-holding.
When Strategic Review was over, at least the review portion, I handed off all the results and responsibility over to our Branch Management Services group. We were moving into implementation phase for the cuts and they would lead. We also started into this new thing called the “Deficit Reduction Action Plan” aka DRAP, and there would be a lot more cuts coming. Across the board.
About five months after I transferred everything over, I got a call from the head of the other unit. DG-level. He wanted to know if I could come brief him on Strategic Review. Which was odd. I had briefed him five months before. And he had been implementing everything for the last five months. What could I brief him on? What had I missed?
Whatever, I went to meet. And tried to find out what he was asking. What did he need more info on? But he just asked for a general briefing. I figured there was something specific he wanted to know but he wasn’t allowed to tell me what it was, so I gave him a full briefing top to bottom. He thanked me, I left, and all I could think was, “WTF?”.
So I went back to my Directorate and spoke to my DG. Told him I was puzzled, explained why. The DG said that the guy probably just wanted the official numbers. But that didn’t make any sense to me … the other DG had been implementing Strat Review for over five months, he was managing the branch budget, there were multiple scenarios being calculated, the ADMs had been going to meetings, and of course, presumably, the DG was briefing them on the current status, numbers and scenarios.
Except he wasn’t. Nobody was briefing anyone. There were no scenario documents. Nobody had a table with the info. Nobody even had a table of our starting point. The ADMs were flying blind in the meetings.
Now, I had been in the branch for a year doing general performance measurement and then another year pouring my lifeblood into Strategic Review. So I had just over two full years in the Branch. We were big. We were important. We were significant for any budget discussion. And the ADMs were going to meetings completely unsupported.
I couldn’t wrap my head around that concept. I really couldn’t. How? HOW? HOOOOOOWWWW???
If this was an EX interview, I’d describe it as initiative. I stepped up. I said I would do a simple table to get them started. My DG was thrilled, sure, I could give it a go. I figured I’d do the first version, hand it off, all good. Except I forgot my reputation was now someone who could do corporate projects. I did the first table, and it was relatively simple. Well, simple for me.
It had the branch total, followed by disaggregated data for salary and non-salary for each Directorate. I was working closely with the Financial Management Advisor for the Branch, and we were ripping apart proposal after proposal to figure out what it meant for us. We applied the Strat Review cuts, some other sunsetting elements, etc.
The ADMs were impressed. So it was now my file. I couldn’t hand it off, there was no one to give it to, it was mine. Umm, but I wasn’t a finance person! Didn’t matter. It was mine. Mr Special Project Manager.
They decided to consolidate from ten Directorates to seven. We reduced a whole bunch of admin expenses in different areas, we applied multiple scenario options. We split the effects over three years so it would show the cascade in each year. I ended up with a table that was about 75 columns wide and 150 rows tall. We were the only branch that had it. Other branches were looking over at our ADMs at the meetings and asking if they could have copies of the templates for their branches.
And while I might describe it as initiative for a competition, it wasn’t initiative. It was horror. How could my two ADMs be looking at a huge set of possible scenarios with no idea of what it actually meant to our budget? And nobody else said that it wasn’t okay? It wasn’t the first time I had that reaction. There had been a standing practice that notes for Executive Committee meetings would routinely move around, mostly by availability or the topics for the meeting. And sometimes we would do no notes at all — so the ADMs would go to ExComm meetings and discuss things related to our files, with no input to draw upon. It was ludicrous to me. So I insisted I take the file over and there would be a note every meeting, no matter what. Yes, I gave myself work. Because the alternative wasn’t acceptable to me.
Over the course of four months, I learned all the ins and outs of the branch budget. It was mind-blowing. Almost as much learning for me as Strategic Review had been. A project that no one in their right mind would have taken on, and I was loving it.
Well, almost loving it. I remember taking holidays at Xmas, and they needed an up-to-date chart before I left. Friday afternoon, December 23rd, 4:00 p.m., I was at my desk. I was done, but the dang spreadsheet wouldn’t balance. I could NOT figure out why. I was only $122K out on an $80M budget, but that’s not the point. It WOULD NOT balance. I threw in the towel. I sent a message to the DG and the FMA to say I couldn’t find the error, but it was close as I could get it. Then, just before I shut down, I added in this other piece of info, and I noticed something odd. There was an extra $10K or so in this one field that shouldn’t have been there. It should have just been a formula, which was there, but there was also an “added” $10K for no clear reason. It wasn’t in my notes. But it was my spreadsheet, I had to have put it there.
Then I noticed something else. The field beside it had it too. And another one. I had manually adjusted an overall total in one place, and then had copied the formulas to ten other directorates. With the stupid extra change in there too. I deleted the extra, the totals balanced, and I almost felt like crying. I was so deeply embedded in the document, the project, I needed it to be RIGHT.
When I came back after Xmas, I got a huge shock. The DRAP scenarios were complex and detailed, and I had been telling the ADMs that whenever we got to the point where some of the scenarios “disappeared”, then I could delete them and we would see the final real totals. Basically I was telling them we should prioritize to the cuts we were doing so we could see what it really looked like.
Except they were no longer scenarios. We were doing ALL of the changes. With Strategic Review implementation involved, plus a large transfer of personnel to another branch, and a large number of actual cuts in positions, our Branch was going to reduce by 30% of its staff.
Holy. Something or other.
I was the first to see the numbers. First to see the totals. First to see the reality of the devastation that was to come. How? How could we possibly do 30%? Not just the impact on individuals, that was unreal, but even the best business advice was that you could turn a ship by 10% maybe at a time, not 30% in three years. It was unheard of, and the numbers were horrifying.
I knew the size of the cuts, I knew where the cuts would be, I didn’t know how they would be rolled out. There was another “corporate project person”, someone who would eventually become my boss, who would handle the HR side of the implementation. That would take place in May. We were still in February.
I met with the associate ADM. We ran the numbers. Some directorates needed massive adjustments to their base budgets just to keep the lights on as the cuts would be disproportionate in their raw form. We figured out an option, and he seemed okay with it. A tweak here, a tweak there, okay.
I thought I hadn’t been clear. I went over the totals again, and he said, “Yep, I see that, okay we’ll do this, we’ll do that, it’ll be a start.” All very reasonable.
I looked at the FMA. Was I being too vague? Was I hiding the stark reality? Was I hiding how bad it was? I was a bit more blunt, and the ADM said, “Oh, I see what you’re saying. You’re not sure I understand. No, I understand. We’re totally f***ed.” Yep, he understood perfectly.
Once the rejigging of the Directorate budgets were done, my “project” was basically over. Over to the other person to handle all the HR fall-out. I don’t know if I could have done that job. I was stressed just knowing what was to come, and of course, I couldn’t talk about it with anyone. Beyond uber secret.
Everybody in the branch was affected, and I don’t mean in the technical term that the DRAP process used. I mean literally affected — emotionally, sometimes physically, intellectually. It was a LOUSY place to work. As it turned out, even though I didn’t know in advance, I wasn’t personally at risk of lay off, nor any of my team, as we made some cuts through attrition in advance. There had to be some perk to knowing what was coming, and our Directorate implemented some of our cuts ahead of time. My wife had to go through the “Selection for Retention or Lay Off” (SERLO) process — a mouthful to say she had to compete to keep her job.
And yet, when it was all over, virtually no one left government unless they wanted to i.e. they volunteered and took a package. Anybody who wanted to stay found another position. It was brutal, it was heart-wrenching, it was devastating. And regrettably, probably needs to be done in government every so often. Everybody grows, nobody reduces. It is very hard to right-size a group after it has been running for awhile. But lord, there has to be better ways to do it.
I continued in my job. I was now almost four years into the job, and while my staff had changed, the main files were still performance measurement. There were lots of things to do — update the logic model for the branch, revise the PAA, create new performance reports, adjust our Dashboard process for monitoring implementation. But I kept getting new little projects. It kept life interesting.
As my last topic for this job, I had an unusual experience. Back when Strategic Review finished, the Department’s recommendations had been accepted, but with one small caveat — the Department would do some sort of benchmarking study to create comparators for some of our large statutory programs.
I’m exaggering for comic effect, I confess, but it went kind of like this…At the end of the first year, TBS asked us about our Benchmarking work, and the Department said, “Oh yeah, that thing. We’ll do that.” At the end of the second year, TBS asked us again, and the Department said, “Oh, you meant for us to actually DO it. Okay”. At the end of the third year, they asked again, and the response was, “Oh, you meant for us to do it NOW.” And TBS said, “Yes, and if you don’t do it, we’re freezing your budget.” Suddenly we had a new priority.
Most of the work would be done by the finance branch. But it would be led by the service delivery branches who represented the bulk of the operating expenses. From the policy side, each policy branch would need to be involved in the work, and since our branch had one of the statutory programs of interest, we would have a strong reason to participate.
No problem, I would support whoever participated. I had done Strategic Review and the DRAP scenarios, I understood our cost structure, sure, I was an obvious choice. They set up an ADM committee to run the work. Except mainly we were involved as an accountability function, not because we had huge cost implications. It would be the service delivery arm that would be the most relevant. So my ADM delegated down to the DG. Who delegated to my new Director (the woman who was also a “special project specialist”). Who delegated to me.
Which meant that for most of an eight-month-long project, I was the sole branch rep. To an ADM committee. It did NOT go unnoticed. The fact that I knew what I was talking about, and could contribute to the discussion, did not go unnoticed either. So I was allowed to stay.
I can honestly say that I learned a lot, but I don’t really like negotiating approaches at a table with 8 or 9 other ADMs and me.
After it was over, and the study was done, I started to get an itch. I had now been in the same box as manager of performance measurement for almost six years. I wanted something more. I needed a change.
My director was open to a new idea, the other managers agreed, and suddenly my job changed. I didn’t need to leave, I had a new job anyway.