At the end of my previous post, I had wrapped up all my contracts with DFAIT. And I was wondering what to do with my life. It was April, and I took a trip to the Bahamas. Enjoyed myself, but there was a small nagging worry. What was I going to do for work when I got back?
The answer turned out to be almost nothing. I couldn’t work at DFAIT, and I didn’t have many contacts that were hiring at other departments the way DFAIT did. I wasn’t one of the high-priced contractors that people hired at $500-$1000 a day but only 10-20 days at a time. I was basically an employee who couldn’t be hired as an employee given the freeze, and I didn’t have any contracts.
The obvious answer would have been, at least to some people, to return to school. I could have shown up in May, done a semester, and continued on with my schooling. Every four months since I started at DFAIT, I had sent an update to the school saying “Okay, stopping out another four months”. All I had to do was go back, and I could resume.
Except for one thing. I didn’t want to. I liked working. I liked the work, the people, etc. And I had NO desire to finish law school. Plus I really liked being in Ottawa — close enough to Peterborough to visit family, not close enough that I was caught in the drama.
The smart play would have been to quit law school, return to the MPA program, finish my public admin degree, and then apply for jobs in government. But it never even really occurred to me. I knew I didn’t want to go back, because I really didn’t want to do law school, and for me, it was hard to mentally separate the two.
I was off work for three months, and if you know the life of a contractor from that time period, there were no options to be a self-employed person paying into EI. No job, no EI, no income. I slowly watched my savings disappear, and some money that I owed to the government for GST payments too. No worry, I would just replace it when I started work again. In three months, I dug a small hole.
I finally caved and started registering with temp companies, since I was good with logistics. Not much demand for anyone who wasn’t a bilingual female admin looking to do secretarial work, but I got something at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. And I wrote a letter to the school saying I wasn’t coming back. One of the people said, “Yeah, we already closed your file a year ago, we’ve seen this before.”
l. Temp, CIC — While I don’t want to overstate my role in any fashion, I was the lowest of the low on the totem pole metaphor, I actually quite liked the work. I was working in the IT branch, and they had a lot of projects going on all over the country. The IT group would hire consultants and contractors, as well as purchase a lot of computers for desktops and servers, and they all had to go through an internal procurement group in the branch (basically a finance function) to make sure they were following the rules before the requests were sent to the Material Management group that would actually do the procurement.
I was hired as the assistant to the Chief of Procurement to the branch and I was really his only staff. Over the course of a few weeks, we started setting up little procedure manuals to help each of the admins in the various divisions with their procurement tasks, approvals, etc. I actually quite liked it. Good group, at least in the IT world. Dealing with the procurement people in the other branch was not so fun. They were the gate keepers to procurement. Be nice to them and your procurement went through quick; be rude, things slowed down.
I didn’t have a clue how to sweet talk them, or schmooze with them, other than sharing info, updates, tracking info. What I didn’t realize though was that my tracking info was making them look bad. I kept finding copies of procurement orders that had been sent in, had been approved by my boss, had gone to the real procurement people, and before the order was completed, changes were made. Without going back through the approval chain. These weren’t egregious things, just simple changes…like we had ordered a PC with 1GB of RAM off the standing order, but they were back-ordered, so the company offered the 512KB model for a lower price. The change was okay, no big deal, all done. Except, as I said, that wasn’t what had been approved.
The official process would have been for that to come back through the system, reapproved, and sent. It was administrative, and not substantive, so we i.e. my boss had decided we weren’t going to interrupt the work, but we did need copies of the final approval forms so that we could check everything when the actual invoices arrived. Nothing messes up finance of purchases more than when what is ordered is not what is delivered. So we needed the right paperwork. My tracking system that I developed with the help of the admins was designed to flag changes from the original totals so that we could get copies of the new forms for the finance file. Easy peesy lemon squeezy.
Except my tracking system was noting that there was IMPROPER PROCUREMENT going on, and it was all with one person. She hated it. My boss didn’t know, I didn’t know, but she was fuming. Because I kept asking for copies of the missing orders. She thought I was trying to get in her trouble, because I kept copying her boss on the reports. Of course I copied her boss, she was my boss’ counterpart. I was clueless about that kind of politics.
The DG of the unit liked me, the admins liked me, my boss thought I was a huge asset to the group. The DG’s admin had found out that I had a public admin undergrad degree, the same degree basically that the DG himself had, and she was up for maternity leave so he interviewed me. It was quickly evident though that a lot of her job was HR-related, and I didn’t have that expertise in the department. I could do it, but not with the speed he was going to need. My first official advice as his potential assistant was to recommend he get someone with more HR experience. I think I shocked him that I not only saw what he needed but would recommend someone else. I would have loved the job, but I wasn’t ready for it.
I did get to act for my boss, a major no-no for a temp. Since our approvals were somewhat outside of the chain of authority, I was verifying the rules had been followed not actually “approving” it per se, so they decided I could act while he was on holidays. Normal procurement going through was under $25K, Sometimes $75K with competitive bidding. The very first thing that came across my desk while acting? Phase 1 of a large project — the phase was $10K, but the project was $10 million. Something my boss had forgotten to mention was coming. I talked to him at his cottage and he said, “Oh, that showed up? Go ahead, it’s good to go.” I closed my eyes, swallowed, and signed. Did my signature matter? Of course not, it was saying it could go to the real procurement people to evaluate and vet, but still, kind of disquieting. On the other hand, it was the first attempt at frequent business passes for immigration between US and Canada, so there’s that.
So my team loved me. The other team thought I was the worst thing since stinky cheese. And guess who had to approve any extension to my contract as a temp?
Yep, that group. So they stuck to the letter of the rules for this one, combined with some other politics going on that made me look bad. My temp agency offered to get involved, my boss wanted to push back, but they were within the letter in my view, and it meant I had to leave (again) for a set amount of time. But that was okay with me as I was about to quit anyway. I liked the work, and I learned a lot about finance and procurement, as well as processes and procedures of administration, but while I was there, my “12 week break” from DFAIT was more than up.
The big bosses at my old division had moved on, but the admin people and some of the policy staff were singing my praises. They had used a co-op student for the summer for the logistics work, and it hadn’t been at my level of contribution. They did have the WG files covered by a senior foreign service officer but not logistics, and they offered me another contract. Twenty weeks, good rate of pay. To my mind at the time, it would / could / should be awesome.
Life wasn’t quite back on track yet, the temp job had barely paid the bills and the hole I had created earlier had soft sides apparently, but I was seeing a way forward at least. I went back to DFAIT.