This is an archived copy of an earlier prose version of my HR guide. It is not being maintained/updated in this form. Please go to the main page for the latest version.

General table of contents:

  • Introduction
  • Understanding yourself
  • Understanding different types of jobs in government
  • Understanding the HR process in government
  • Understanding how to succeed in competions: Overview
  • Finding jobs
  • Interviews

Chapter 01: Introduction

There are lots of books on the market about “how to get a job”. Some emphasize resume formats; others tell you the best answers to the latest questions; others tell you which search engines or job services to use. Most assume that all employers are the same, all of them are in the private sector, and all techniques are transferable. However, almost none are suitable for preparing for a Canadian government “selection process”.

This book is designed to help you improve your chances of successfully applying for and getting a job in the Canadian federal government.

But before we begin, we have to dispel some myths.

Myth #1: You Have To Know Someone To Get In

One of the biggest myths about government that drives me bonkers is when someone says, “Oh, I can’t get a job in the public service, you have to know someone.”

Sure, there are examples out there where someone hired their nephew, brother-in-law, or third cousin twice-removed, particularly in politician’s offices where the rules are more lax. Nepotism can and does exist, just the same as it exists in the private-sector. Yet most permanent HR hiring by the public service is subject to rules and processes that make such an outcome doubtful.

However, there is one aspect of that statement which is absolutely true. Information about how to prepare for a competition, or an interview, is rarely written down. So, sometimes you do need to know someone who knows the information, and who is willing to share it with you. So, with that in mind:

Hi, my name is PolyWogg. Nice to meet you.

There. Now you know someone who’ll tell you what you need to know.

And I’ll do it right here, right now. Although there are some unique tips and tricks, it is not rocket science. No need to pay HR experts to “coach” you or take courses on how to write a resume. If this book can help you in the same way that the information and approaches have helped me and others, then my work here is done.

Myth #2: PolyWogg Is An Expert In Human Resources

I am NOT an expert in human resources. I don’t even WORK in human resources. Instead, I am basically you. I joined the public service and wanted to be better prepared for competitions so I could advance – so I had to learn what to do and what not to do, what to read, what to say, how to prepare for an interview. Just as you need to do. In fact, the only difference between you and me is that I’ve already climbed the information mountain, and I’m willing to throw you a rope to make your climb a bit easier.

I confess that I accidentally stumbled upon this niche area of helping people prepare, and it is an area that has few natural competitors – providing mentoring or coaching on how to prepare for Canadian government competitions is a pretty narrow field! I do have a Master’s in Public Administration, have worked for municipal, provincial and federal governments, and have over twenty years of experience in the federal government including both competing for and running competitions myself. Plus I’ve been informally coaching people on HR processes on an active basis for the last thirteen years, with my “students” experiencing success of their own in applying my approaches and techniques.

But I didn’t start out looking to develop an expertise in this area. It just happened – because I needed to know the answers for my benefit. And the approach I outline in the following chapters is based on five principles that have worked well for me.

My Five Principles

I first became interested in formal competitions back in 1990 when I wrote the LSAT and GMAT exams for law school and graduate programs in public administration. I didn’t know anyone who had passed the tests or even who had written them (and the internet hadn’t been invented yet!), so I went out and bought some books and practice exams, and by doing repeated trials before the real test, I raised my score from 80th to 99th percentile for both exams. This confirmed my first principle:

P1. Solid preparation and repeated practice for standardized tests improves your performance.

I know, you’re thinking, “Well, that’s not exactly news.” True, it’s not news. But stay tuned for a second.

Subsequently as a graduate co-op student, I did a lot of government interviews in a short period of time, and I noticed that the interviewers asked me very similar questions over and over, even when the words were slightly different. So, with each interview, I slowly improved my answers. For example, I developed little “speech modules” I could use – strengths, weaknesses, policy development, legal principles, whatever they threw at me. There were always one or two questions that were unique, but after the first ten interviews, the majority of the questions were repeats. These conversations led me to my second principle:

P2. Interview questions for government interviews tend to be standardized.

That WAS news to me…I had originally expected every interview to be as unique as the department that was running it. After all, the written exams and interview questions that government managers use don’t really look like “standardized tests”, but they are. Trust me, you’ll see this in later chapters when you start preparing.

While doing a co-op at Foreign Affairs, I applied for the Foreign Service. At the time, you had to write three tests – the “Entry-Level Officer Selection Test (ELOST)”, the Written Communications Test, and the Foreign Service Knowledge Test. Out of 7000 applicants, only about 100 would be hired. I talked to other officers, and learned things that were good to say and not. I also found out that there was a former Foreign Service officer who offered preparation courses for the exams, similar to those offered for LSATs and GMATs. I signed up and learned a lot of neat little tricks on how to improve my score. I didn’t have time to re-invent the tips by myself, and they weren’t written down anywhere else, so his course helped me shorten the learning curve. I made it all the way to the interview stage on the first try, but didn’t rank high enough to be accepted. Since lots of people who work for DFAIT don’t make it that far on their first attempt, my experience led me to my third principle:

P3. Others have tips on how to improve and you can learn from them.

For me, this was really the beginning of my approach – standardized tests, solid preparation, and talking to others about what they had learned from previous competitions.

The following year, I applied for work at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Just before the interview, I met up with a friend who had been hired the year before, and she told me the types of questions she had been asked. I was still somewhat nervous, but the interviews were just like the other ones I had done – fairly standardized questions. I aced the interview, with only one question that I wasn’t expecting, but I was able to create a solid answer for it too. And, with that process completed, I became an indeterminate employee of the federal government. I also gained my fourth principle:

P4. Even if it takes multiple attempts, it can and will come together for you.

It may not be the first interview, it may not be the second, but you can improve if you’re willing to take the time to learn. Like I said above, it’s not rocket science, but up until now, I have talked mainly about “getting in”. However, one of the most surprising things for me is that some people who are already in government don’t know how to prepare for competitions either. Lots of outside people think that once they are “in”, the curtains will part and the mysteries of managing your career or passing competitions will suddenly be revealed. But the curtains do not part so easily.

Human resources (HR) continues to be dark and mysterious for some, and not a lot of the information that you need to properly prepare for promotion boards is formally documented. Even people participating in formal career development programs often complain that it is “too loose” and “unstructured”, not enough guidance to tell them what they should or should not do. If you look for rules, you’ll find them – but almost all of them are about what you CAN’T do; there are very few guides for employees on what they SHOULD do to prepare for formal competitions. And formal competitions are the main way to enter or advance within the government once you are “in”.

I felt a bit lost when I started at CIDA. Even though I was in a career development program, it was relatively new. Information wasn’t documented, there weren’t even templates for how to write an appraisal properly to get your next promotion. But I managed to struggle through. I moved from an IS-03 (term information officer) at Foreign Affairs to an indeterminate PM-01 (project management) position at CIDA, and then passed paper-based promotions to subsequent levels PM-02 and -03. Then came time for my first internal competition – an ES-04 (policy analyst) position.

So, based on my first four principles, I talked to people, asked what kinds of questions had been asked for similar positions, talked to HR people to get advice, etc. And suddenly, for the first time, I found out there is a two-part HR code that the people working in HR assume everyone knows.

The first part of the code is obvious – the jobs are described in a formal poster that tells you the experience, knowledge, abilities and personal suitability elements you need for the job.

The second part of the code, though, is more subtle – not only does the competition HAVE to test you on those elements, but it also ONLY tests those elements.

No surprise questions, no off-the-wall, out-of-the-blue, navel-gazing questions. No asking you, “If you were an animal, what kind of animal would you be?”, because the poster doesn’t say “Ability to analyse personality traits as if you were an animal”. Instead, it will say something like “ability to write briefing notes”. Guess what? That means they’ll test your ability to write a briefing note.

Put differently, government hiring processes are governed by legislation and the legislation requires transparent processes that can be appealed and adjudicated. So, most managers follow linear processes to avoid being over-turned by others. Which leads to the most important principle of all…drum roll, please:

P5. Government competitions are predictable.

So, for example, ask yourself, “The poster includes initiative, how will a manager test initiative?”. Answer: “They might ask the candidate to tell them of a time when they have demonstrated initiative.” Or “They might give the candidate a scenario and ask them what initiative they would show in the situation.”

And since it is predictable, you can prepare your answers in advance. Not necessarily word-for-word, but you can prepare some pretty good outlines / speech modules in advance.

Successful Application Of The Five Principles

Using these five principles, I ranked first in my ES-04 policy analyst competition. And then an ES-05. And then an ES-06. I had already figured out how to write proper cover letters to get myself screened in – from 1993 to 2013, I was never screened out at the application stage of any competition, and I participated in a lot. I’ve even been screened in for Director-level positions while still being three levels below and had consultants flag my resume as a “model application” for managers to help them explain to others how to write their application.

As I’ve gotten more senior, I’ve also worked the other side of the table and conducted interviews for ES, PM, AS, co-op and FSWEP positions (all these acronyms will become clear later). I’ve also attended conferences to get the latest in HR trends and issues. But, most of all, I have never stopped asking other people the golden question. “So, what types of questions did they ask you in your last competition?” Because it is STILL not written down, and if you don’t ask, you don’t find out.

Ultimately, that’s why I’m writing this manual. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if people are struggling to prepare for a competition – it isn’t rocket science, it’s knowable, it’s predictable, and you shouldn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you go to prepare for a competition. Someone else has already done the basic research – in this case, me! And it’s equally a waste of time to lose out on a good candidate who could do the job but who didn’t pass the exam because they suck at “surprise” tests.

There are little things you can do to better prepare for an exam or interview, and you can learn them. You still have to do the work, you still have to answer the questions, and there are no guarantees of success. But if you can give yourself even the smallest of edges, you raise your chances of success.

So, let me tell you what you need to know…the rest of this guide is geared around the things you need to understand:

  1. Introduction
  2. Understanding yourself;
  3. Understanding different types of jobs in government;
  4. Understanding the HR process in government;
  5. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: Overview;
  6. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: Finding jobs;
  7. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: Applications;
  8. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: Written Exams;
  9. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: Interviews;
  10. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: References
  11. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: Language tests
  12. Understanding how to succeed in competitions: Special tests;
  13. Understanding appeals, pools, and best fit;
  14. Understanding how to manage your career once you’re hired.

Chapter 2 — Understanding yourself

Most people reading this book have already decided that they want to work for government for various reasons. Maybe they know some people who work there, maybe they were looking for work in a specific area. But before we get to figuring “where and how”, let’s ask a more fundamental question.


I don’t mean “Why work for government?” so much as “Why do YOU want to work for government?”.

Maybe you think people in government don’t do anything, so you think it’s easy money. Or maybe you simply “want a job”. If those are your reasons, you can probably stop reading right now. Because once you get a job in government, you’re going to be miserable. The first isn’t true and the second is a poor reason to take any job for any length of time.

People in government like to use the phrase “best fit” to describe which candidate is the best fit for the team. However, you too have to decide if government writ large or a specific job within government is also the best fit for you. Or a specific job. What does a given organization offer you, what aspect of the job resonates with you?

There are two main paradigms for answering this — the Substantive Content paradigm, and the Personal Value paradigm.

Substantive Content Paradigm

Some obvious things for people are the size of their paycheque, level of benefits, the work environment, opportunities for growth and personal development on the job, and, most importantly, the job itself and what your coworkers are like. The first three (pay / benefits / work environment) are relatively similar across the federal government; growth and development vary considerably; and the job itself along with the type of coworkers are likely to be the deciding factors whether you enjoy working for government. But that’s the second paradigm.

For this first paradigm, you can do full tests online, personality profiles, entire courses on figuring out what you want to do with your life, but I just want to ask some basic questions to see if government is right for you, and if so, why, how and where you might fit.

First and foremost, have you ever / always thought of working for government?

If the answer to that question is no, you probably shouldn’t. You may be wanting to change jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should head for government. I’m definitely a “lifer” with government, it was something I’ve always wanted to do. If you haven’t, perhaps that’s telling you something about where your interests lie (or don’t lie, as the case may be). Personally, I’d go crazy working in the private-sector for a commercial company making or selling widgets to the public (external), or even helping those who make the widgets talk to those who sell the widgets (internal). The entire activity holds almost no interest for me, because I don’t care about widgets or the steps in producing or selling widgets. If you feel the same way about government, that’s a strong reason to avoid it like the plague. Entrepreneurs, strong outcome-oriented people who like to see the direct visible results of their personal work and initiative tend to be the unhappiest ones in government.

Second, do the issues / programs / services interest you?

Unless the issues, programs or services that the federal government deals with are ones that interest you, government is definitely not going to be right for you. The literature calls it “interest/function alignment” but basically means, “do you care about your work”. If you don’t, because the issues don’t excite you, work becomes nothing more than a series of very long days until you retire or die. Not surprisingly, different departments deal with different types of issues. Some deal with the most vulnerable groups; others deal with businesses. Some are at arms-length from Canadians; others are direct service providers. But the issues are what drive people to want to work in these organizations, and frequently determine if they like their job at all.

Heavily related to this is the type of impact the organization has and thus the scope of work of the organization. Some people are all about individuals and want to deal with micro issues. Others are more about mid-level issues, and generally are focused on infrastructure. Still others want to see the big-picture, macro-level issues and thus focus on how systems work and inter-relate. Often, but not exclusively, the more you want to work on the “higher-level, less direct impacts”, the more likely it is to be a job that government handles.

Third, is government the right sector for you?

Even if certain issues / areas excite you, government may not be the right SECTOR for you, and some people care heavily about the sector, not just an issue area.

For instance, some are only interested in the private sector. If so, they generally get to pick between an established company, a start-up, a consulting company, a temp agency, or act as an entrepreneur. If these are attractive to you, the likelihood of you liking a government job is relatively low.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are government jobs. However, note that government jobs tend to be separated by order of government – federal, provincial or territorial, regional, municipal or even internationally through United Nations or regional development financial institutions.

In the middle are other types of organizations, often dealing with similar issues to government, particularly on the social front but operating somewhat more like a private business. This includes associations, educational organizations, health care providers, NGOs in general, and Crown Corporations (business arms of the government).

Would you prefer the private-sector? Semi-public or not-for-profits sector? There are lots of other ways to work on public issues without being a government employee.

Combining these questions together may help you narrow your search effort to focus on only those organizations that actually interest you, and I firmly believe that life is too short to waste it doing something other than what you want to be doing. So, again, “why do you want to work for government?”.

Personal Value Paradigm

I confess that part of the above resonates with me. As I said, I’m a lifer with government, it’s the right sector, right issues, right level for me. Which means choosing to work for government is a no-brainer for me, but where I work in government is a far different question. For this, there’s a different set of issues at play.

For some people, they are all about the type of work on a more micro basis. For example, they may work for government, but what they are really passionate about is policy analysis, program development, service delivery or enabling services (such as HR, finance, evaluation, research, communications, or legal services). Some of them may even move, as people have done at CIDA, between private companies or NGOs delivering programs to CIDA to do program development and then on to a think tank or university to do longer-term policy analysis. They like the issue (international development), but they don’t care which sector, they just float in between. Others are more interested in the scope of their file – are they focusing on design, implementation, evaluation/review or change/transformation? Finally, others are more compelled by their own personal value-added. Are they great at a task? Are they good at freeing others to do other things? Is it compelling that they are part of something important even if their own role isn’t?

The HR literature in this area has identified four key factors that tend to determine if you’re going to be happy with a job or not, separate from above.

First and foremost are the job and the organization themselves. Obviously, the simplest form of this question is whether you like what the company or you are doing? Does the mandate of the organization align well with your own personal interests, principles and skills? Alternatively, some people are all about the impact – are you making a difference (personally or as part of a good organization)? This is a bit different than the way the question was framed above, and no longer about the large impacts of an organization but rather more about your specific role and contribution.

Secondly, people often enjoy even seemingly less-than-ideal jobs if they know that the job is helping them grow and development. This can be in form of skills development that serves as a stepping stone to future work, or it might be simply opportunities for learning i.e. professional development, travel, language training. Others are looking for challenges that will help them grow personally, while others want to flex their personal creativity muscles and are looking for autonomy, flexibility, and an increased variety of tasks. In short, what are you getting out of the job and is it clear? Again, this is more about YOU than about clients.

Third, the work environment is critical to enjoyment. Do you have clear direction from above i.e. leadership? Does the culture encourage pride of ownership and a healthy day-to-day atmosphere? Or are people demoralized in soul-sucking pain? Obviously much of this depends on the community you work with inside the organization – not only your supervisor(s), but also your peers, subordinates, and work partners. Are employees engaged in the work, including two-way communications? Or are they automatons being told what to do? Of course, the literature frequently reduces job satisfaction into a general “work-life balance” equation, which is important, but for others, it might simply be determined by the stability of hours of work or the physical location of the office.

Finally, there’s your direct and indirect compensation. This includes a long list of related items — the direct compensation i.e. the size of your pay cheque which is set by legislation and regulation, and negotiated in bulk; job and income security i.e. government jobs used to be considered relatively secure and permanent; leave i.e. time off for sick leave and vacation, which is also negotiated for all workers by the unions and is an important portion of compensation (often tweaked in lieu of larger pay raises); and benefits (such as top-ups for maternity leave, sick benefits, health coverage, etc.).

Combining these as a separate paradigm, or with the previous paradigm, can either help you determine where in government you want to work, or if there is no place that meets your needs, whether you want to work in government at all. But even if you decide “Government is for me”, it doesn’t really narrow it down much further than that…because you don’t really know what the options are within government. You may now understand yourself better, but you still need to understand different types of jobs in 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.

Functional classification

Generally speaking, there are five types of jobs in the federal government:

  • Management;
  • 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.

Departmental Roles

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.

  1. Machinery of Government: There are five main organizations that deal with “machinery of government”, the bureaucratic phrase that means “how government works”:
    1. Elections Canada defines the rules for elections and the structures used to figure out who’s in charge (i.e. the politicians);
    2. 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;
    3. The Canada Revenue Agency collects money from Canadians and gives it to Finance to manage;
    4. Finance figures out how much each of the priorities will cost (in general terms) and manages the fiscal environment; and,
    5. 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.
  2. Government Infrastructure: There are five organizations that provide common services to the rest of government.
    1. 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);
    2. 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;
    3. 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,
    4. 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?”).
  3. 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.
  4. 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:
    1. 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;
    2. 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;
    3. International Development Research Centre (IDRC) does both direct research as well as helps to build the research capacity of developing countries;
    4. 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;
    5. 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;
    6. 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,
    7. 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.
  5. Human Development:
    1. 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;
    2. 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;
    3. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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:
    1. Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency;
    2. Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and Parks Canada;
    3. Fisheries Canada;
    4. Heritage Canada (including both citizenship / civic duties as well as running Museaums); and,
    5. 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.

HR Guide – 04 – Understanding the HR process in the Canadian Federal Government rev 0.6

Before you start reading about how to prepare for individual parts of a competition, it is good to understand the whole process. I know what you’re thinking – what’s to understand? Somebody has a job, I need a job, let’s go! Not so fast…

The process has a lot of steps, some of which involve you and most of which don’t. Plus, it is very different from the private-sector advice you will find on most websites. Need a quick example? How about cover letters – lots of websites will tell you to keep them to a single page, which if you do for a government job, you’ll pretty much ensure that you get screened OUT (you’ll see why later).

So, the better you understand the whole process from beginning to end, the better chance you will have of succeeding. Don’t worry, this is just an introduction, most of the applied learning comes later, stage by stage.

Government competitions are governed by legislation

The biggest difference between the private-sector and the public sector is that most government competitions at any level are governed by legislation. This is true for the Canadian federal government, and the legislation is broad enough to encompass a whole host of human resources issues in the huge entity known as the Government of Canada. It also goes into detailed guidance on process, well beyond what a private-sector company has to do to comply with labour law legislation.

While many HR people can debate eloquently about the subtle differences between government staffing and private-sector staffing, there is one singular difference that changes the nature of the process from beginning to end:

While both the private-sector and the public sector argue that hiring is always based on merit, the Canadian government has legislation that defines precisely what merit means for all competitions. Which means a manager must be able to document and substantiate HOW that person demonstrates merit and WHY they are the right person.

Put differently, it is not enough to find the right someone to do the job (fact), but to be able to document the assessment criteria beforehand and to prove the person meets it (fact + perception). After all, that person is going to be paid by the taxpayer. And Parliamentarians, on behalf of taxpayers, want to know that merit is being demonstrated for all hiring.

Considering what merit means in layman’s terms

Before going further, stop and think about the merit requirement from a personal perspective. Suppose you went to university or college. You probably thought hard about which one to apply to, which area to study. How would you demonstrate to someone that you picked the “best” or “right” program for you? Or suppose you bought a house. Lots of variables, lots of options to consider. How would you demonstrate to someone that it was the “one right house”?

The short answer is that in both circumstances you probably can’t. Not definitively, at least.

Instead, you could demonstrate that you:

  1. considered a broad range of options;
  2. identified a few factors that were important to you; and,
  3. impartially ranked a few universities or colleges or houses based on those factors.

But, in the end, you are not really demonstrating the “one right choice” so much as that you had a reasonable, logical approach to your decision. Instead of showing the right decision, you show that your “process” was sound and thus led to a “right” decision. This is basically how government processes prove merit too.

Merit prior to 2003

Up until 2003, the “proof” process was one of the biggest problems with government hiring. When the manager reached the end of a competition, there were numerous appeals where they had to demonstrate the “right” decision, or in some cases the “perfect” decision, and they couldn’t have anyone start the work until all the appeals were cleared. Managers felt constrained, employees felt it was too bureaucratic, and overall everything took forever. Let’s walk through a general example of how this worked prior to 2003, and then a specific example to make it more concrete (don’t fuss too much about the terminology at this point, I’ll come back to it later).

Managers ran competitions for positions. They set up a list of criteria, they tested everyone on those criteria, and when it was done, the scores were totaled up and a global score was assigned to each candidate. Then, each candidate was placed on an eligibility list in order of their global score (called a reverse order of merit, but that’s not usually important anymore). A cut-off score, established earlier, was used to determine who made the list and who didn’t – if you were above the cutoff score, you made it; if you were below the cutoff, you didn’t. Sometimes there were five people on a list, or a hundred, and other times, just one. This was called a “competition” or a “competitive process” to create an eligibility list. Once the list was established, and all appeals had been heard / addressed, a manager could hire off the list. But s/he had to do it in order – the person who ranked first got the first offer, the second person got the second offer, etc.

That’s a pretty straightforward process, and is familiar to most people as it looks a lot like academic testing. If you get the most right answers, you get the highest mark. And get the job. A typical process of testing “merit”.

Now suppose you are a manager needing to hire a computer support person and you test just three things – software knowledge, hardware knowledge and interpersonal skills:

  • Person A gets 10/10 on software and 8/10 on hardware, but their interpersonal skills are terrible, and they only get a 5/10 on the last one. Overall score is 23/30.
  • Meanwhile, Person B isn’t as strong on software (2/10), but aces hardware (10/10), and interpersonal (10/10). End result is 22/30.

So Person A beats Person B by one mark, and gets the job. Except the manager is worried – customer service is a key part of the job, as is hardware. So Person B who is great with people, and even better at hardware, might be a better fit for the team than someone whose strength is mainly software. Under the old system, the manager had no choice – whoever came first on the scoring was the one who got the offer.

Even if you ignore the above example, we all know people who are great at certain skills or areas but lousy at taking tests. Equally, we all know people who are great at taking tests, but you wouldn’t want to work with them on a daily basis. Having global scores doesn’t ensure that the person who gets the best score on a series of tests is necessarily the best person for doing the work or for fitting into an existing team.

As a result, under the old system, many managers were frustrated – they would have someone who would rank first on a competition, but be a potentially disastrous fit. Meanwhile, sitting at number 2 on the list was a stellar candidate who missed by one or two marks. In the above example, it was one or two marks out of 30, but a competition might have tested multiple areas with larger scores. For example, on one competition under this system, I was tested on 10 or 12 areas, and beat the second-place candidate by two marks out of five hundred. I got the job. Was there really any difference between her and I on the results, if I beat her by two marks out of five hundred? She could have easily done the job too, but the manager didn’t get to choose which of us was the “better fit”, because I had a higher score. The second-place candidate was offered a different job, so she still received an offer, but she would rather have had a chance at my position (she did regularly remind me that I got the better job because I beat her by only TWO MARKS…I guess she forgave me, she did one of the readings at my wedding).

Yet, as with the above example, a manager had no flexibility once the scores were tallied. Ideally, if the manager was planning properly, they would have weighted factors differently. So, in the computer support person example above, they would have assigned 50 marks to interpersonal skills, 30 marks to hardware knowledge, and only 10 marks for the software side. Which, for the above scores would have given person A 25+10+24 = 59/90 and Person B 50+30+2=82/90.

But often, during appeals, those differential weightings were hard to justify – why is the interpersonal “5x” the software weight? Why not only “2x”? Or equal? Equal weightings are always easy to justify, and many managers defaulted to it. In fact, many HR people advised them to do so because it was easy to manage and easy to defend.

There are numerous academic articles about how bad HR processes were in the government at that time, as well as a couple of official government reports. All of them came to the same conclusion – too bureaucratic, too slow, too inflexible, too “score-driven”.

Merit after 2003

The Canadian government listened to the complaints and passed new legislation to govern human resources management. Called the Public Service Modernization Act (PSMA), it was passed in 2003 and came into effect throughout 2003, 2004 and 2005. Under the PSMA, there are four new or amended acts that encompass the web of rules pertaining to human resources:

  • The Public Service Employment Act (PSEA), which covers employment, staffing, and political activities;
  • The Financial Administration Act (FAA), which covers accountability;
  • The Canada School of Public Service Act (CSPSA), which covers development and learning; and,
  • The Public Service Labour Relations Act, which covers collective bargaining, disputes and labour relations.

The first two are the main ones because they affect how competitions are created and who can compete in them. They also changed the way merit would be assessed. According to the PSEA, an appointment is deemed to be based on merit when:

  1. The Public Service Commission (PSC) is satisfied the appointee meets all essential qualifications including language proficiency; and,
  2. The Manager also takes into account, potentially, any extra qualifications that might be helpful (but not essential) or operational requirements or organizational needs.

In other words, if the resulting appointee meets all the qualifications, they can be appointed WITHOUT having to rank first in all the essential elements, and the manager may consider some additional skills, needs, requirements that a candidate might meet (like other related experiences, educational training, etc.).

As a result of this change in definition of merit, under the new system (i.e. after 2003), “competitions” have been replaced by “selection processes” and “eligibility lists” have been replaced by “pools”. The difference is twofold:

  1. Each of the elements being tested must be passed individually. If you are strong in one area, but weak in another, you can’t compensate through a global score – each element is marked separately and a cutoff score assigned for each. Using the computer support person example from above, a manager might set the cutoff for “interpersonal skills” as a minimum of “6/10”, in which case Person A wouldn’t have have been eligible even though their global score was the highest. Fail one element, and you are “out” – because you failed to demonstrate you are qualified for all of the elements. Oddly enough, this process actually means all elements are ranked equally (since you have to pass every element), but managers don’t have to choose whoever ranks “first” in raw score at the end.
  2. When the process is over, instead of a ranked list of successful candidates, you have a “group” of people who are all considered “equally qualified”. In other words, they all have demonstrated that they meet the essential elements of each of the criteria being tested. Or, in even shorter words, they can do the job. They have the skills. But since they are all “qualified”, a manager can now choose whichever one of them is the “best fit” for the existing team. Suppose, for example, that you were the computer support manager mentioned above and you had four people already on your team with one vacancy. Perhaps, too, the four people are all really strong with software, but not as experienced in hardware trouble-shooting. After the pool is done, a manager can now look at the “pool” of candidates and may want to choose one that is strong in hardware to complement his existing team.

As a result, you now have “selection processes” to determine the qualified person(s), and “best fit” to choose which of the qualified people will meet your current needs the best. The goals of this change in legislation were increased flexibility for the manager, a more streamlined process for appeals (due to some other changes discussed later), and a shorter overall timeframe for the processes. While there is some evidence of the first two, timeframes have not shrunk significantly since before 2003. An average process still lasts approximately six months from job posting to the person starting the job, and there is wide variation in the range (from three months to two years).

** Note that while the formal HR system now refers to “selection processes”, the layman term of “competition” is still used by most employees. As such, I will still use the term competition throughout the book for simplicity’s sake. However, for all current processes, it is technically a “selection process”.

The four legislative acts come into play more when we get to specific areas of the HR process, and I’ll address them where they are relevant in future chapters rather than going into any additional depth here.

Understanding The Selection Process / Competition

In a full selection process, there are eight phases and the candidate will likely only participate in two of them. While many of them are “short”, and some of them may even be inapplicable in a situation, a variation on them happens in most competitions. Here is the full list:

  1. Managers identify a “need”
  2. Managers formally advertise their needs
  3. Applicants apply and are screened in / out
  4. Candidates are tested for essential (and potentially asset) qualifications
  5. Managers select best fit candidate
  6. Managers formally state intention to hire specific applicant(s)
  7. Managers address appeals
  8. Managers hire the successful candidate

Let’s look at those steps in a bit more detail and see why you might care about all eight phases, even though it looks like you only participate in two of them.

Phase 1: Managers identify a “need”

Often, the need has been identified because someone has left the division and they want to replace them; other times, the unit’s workload has been growing and they need another body; and still other times, they have a growing or new need for a specialized skill that they don’t already have on the team. But managers have choices in how they meet their needs:

  • WORKLOAD: They could eliminate less “pressing” files;
  • PRIORITIES: They could postpone this work until someone else can do it;
  • TEMPORARY HELP: They can use temporary help to cover off on a short-term basis;
  • CONTRACTS: They can engage professional contractors on a short- to medium-term basis to provide specific deliverables; or,
  • COMPETITION: They can hire someone on an assignment (borrowing someone), determinate (specified period) or indeterminate (permanent) basis.

If it is a new position, and they are filling it through competition, the manager has to do a full job description and a list of duties to get a position “classified”. The classification process establishes two things – first, the stream of work (i.e. a Project Management Officer or an Information Officer or a Policy Analyst) and the level of work (01, 02, 03, etc.). The stream generally matches what type of work you will be doing and affects which union you will join, while the level determines the size of your paycheque.

Classification is relatively easy if the manager is just replacing someone who left, as the position and its classification already exist; if not, and it is a “new position”, classification can take anywhere from 3 to 24 months. (Note: That is not a joke – classification has to be done by the HR branch, as it must be consistently applied across government to ensure pay equity. Unfortunately, there is a significant government-wide shortage of classification experts. As such, some departments are faced with really long waits.) Given that possible delay, many managers will instead try to find existing positions that are sitting empty, and “re-purpose” them for a competition (i.e. borrow a Project Manager or Analyst position from another work unit that is sitting empty). Alternatively, some may use positions that exist but with the wrong classification (i.e. some managers, preferring expediency over form, have hired people into PM boxes knowing that they were going to move towards more EC work over time – and reclassified them afterwards). This is not a recommended practice for managers, and can be painful for the candidates too (by having them apply for positions that do not match their career goals, for example).

One “trick” that has sped up classification has been the development of “generic” job descriptions. For example, at ESDC, there are generic job descriptions for what a Policy Analyst, Level 3 (EC-03) generally does. On the positive side, a manager can create a new position, use the EC-03 generic job description, and classification is near-instantaneous. On the negative side, the job description is generic and may give little to no information to candidates about what they would actually be doing in that position once hired (Social policy? Labour market policy? Learning policy?).

There will also usually be some form of internal approval process whereby a manager will talk to their boss, and get approval (APPROVAL #1) to go ahead with staffing a position. This may be part of an overall HR planning process, or it could be a one-off approval. Either way, the manager will frequently draft a general list of duties that the new position would handle as part of explaining to the boss why the staff is required.

Why do you care about this “needs” phase if you are an applicant?

  • If the manager is replacing someone who left, they may be looking for someone very similar to the person who left (i.e. a narrow-minded approach to staffing); however, if the manager is looking to cover new or expanding work, the manager may be more flexible on the profile of the successful candidate (i.e. open-minded). Knowing which is the case could tell you how much flexibility you have in how you tailor your application, resume and interview approach.
  • Knowing that there are other options for hiring besides a competition opens up other ways to work for government. Some people have very enjoyable careers doing “government work” without ever actually being a government employee i.e. being contractors/consultants/temps.
  • Candidates can and do ask for a copy of the “job description” that the manager had to develop during this stage of the process, but don’t be too surprised if it doesn’t completely specify exactly what the job looks like on a day-to-day basis (it’s extra information though, something most won’t ask about). The SMART candidate will also ask if there is a list of duties available too – HR and/or the manager may not share it, but sometimes they will. And you can then tailor your answers better in the interview towards the REAL job, not the generic job description! The closer you come to showing you can do the actual duties, the better off you are as a candidate
  • Classifications tend to reflect the type of work you do and it is not always easy to move between classifications, particularly outside of the National Capital Region. Let’s suppose, for example, you want to be a policy analyst. While lots of private sector people will tell you to take any job to “get your foot in the door”, difficulty switching between job classifications means you may be better off sometimes waiting to get into the stream you want rather than risk getting stuck in another stream altogether.

Phase 2: Managers formally advertise their needs

The Manager starts by writing up a Statement of Merit Criteria (SOMC). This is what most people think of as the “job description”, as it is what is posted online to advertise the job. However, the SoMC (which most HR people will pronounce as SAHM-SEE) is not the job description but rather the list of skills / competencies on which the manager will test you.

Once the SOMC is written, Manager submits it to HR to get approval (APPROVAL #2) to post the advertisement. Managers are not HR experts, nor am I. The true experts are the HR people who will review the SOMC and job description to ensure that everything is clear, and, to put it bluntly, to make sure the manager has valid, testable criteria that make sense for the job. No sense in posting analyst criteria for a project manager position. They also serve as gatekeepers to the Public Service Commission website for posting jobs.

Once HR approves, they’ll send the SoMC to the PSC for posting. Most departments don’t do the processing of applications themselves. Nor do they handle “advertising” it (except for large scale recruitments like post-secondary recruitments, for example). Instead, they use the Public Service Commission to administer the advertising process and receipt of advertisements.

When the PSC gets the SoMC, they look at the classification and level, and look in their internal database to identify “priority candidates”. In general terms, these are people who were laid off earlier by the government, or who relocated because their spouse moved, etc. The unions have negotiated with the federal government to give these former employees priority when positions become available at a similar group and level. So, if you post a PM-03 (project manager, level 03) job, the PSC will check to see if there are any PM-03s in your geographical area who are on a priority list for future PM-03 jobs. The list is a little more dynamic than that, but you get the general approach. The PSC can give managers a list of priorities at two different periods of time – now, when the manager is first asking to post, or later, when the competition is done and the manager is looking to staff someone. Managers have to assess the priority candidates to see if a competition has to be run at all.

There is one last step to all of this, and some HR professionals will quibble if it is a step at all. The PSC will post the notice. HR wants to quibble, as each department has access to the PSC websites and can “post” the notices themselves. However, before the notices go “live”, PSC personnel do review the post and approve it going on their site. As such, it is easier to think of it as the PSC posting the notice.

Why do you care about this “advertising” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because knowing this is the list of testable items makes you focus on what is important and avoid wasting time on things that won’t be tested.
  • Because it is one of the first big “checks and balances” to ensure that the manager is going to run a fair and transparent process that makes sense.
  • Because this helps you immensely in knowing where to look for jobs! Rather than having to look at every department separately to see if they have jobs available, you can (generally) do one-stop shopping at PSC websites (one for internal competitions, one for external competitions). It also adds a high degree of consistency across application processes and streamlines the application process. It also presents some challenges, but those will be discussed later. In addition, the notice gives you two contact information points per competition (a general enquiries person and an HR contact). This can be enormously helpful when following up on an element in a poster, or even just tracking the progress of the process. NOTE: These are NOT people you want to annoy with a multitude of questions, nor call them every day. They are there to help when you have a real problem, not hold your hand…that’s what this guide is for!
  • Because managers have to “assess” priority candidates against the SoMC to see if they have the requisite experience. If the candidates do, the selection process may stop here – the manager will offer them the job, and if they accept, you may never even see the notice. However, the lists are pretty broad and often the priority candidates aren’t an exact match to what the manager was looking for; in these cases, the manager may be open-minded and look to hire one of them anyway, or proceed with the original notice. This is not a simple “checkbox” to be ticked – the manager MUST assess each interested referral. Only when the manager has demonstrated they have assessed the priority candidates will the PSC give a clearance number to proceed with posting the notice.

Phase 3: Applicants apply and are screened in / out

Finally, the masses of interested people send in their cover letters and resumes!

Then the PSC and/or HR screens applicants for eligibility. The PSC will do a quick computer-based check of your information that you enter to make sure you’re eligible (some positions are restricted to internal candidates, or by geography, or to a single department, etc.) and HR often does an additional check on certain elements.

Once the HR gurus have done the basic tests, the manager (or a consultant) will screen applications for experience and education. This is the first big hurdle for you as an applicant. The relevant legislation that controls the process for all competitions / selection processes requires that YOU prove you meet the requirements. Administratively, this means you will show in your cover letter, with the resume as backup evidence, how you meet each of the experience and education requirements. It is NOT sufficient for you just to say you meet that element, you have to show how.

If a manager has 100 applicants for a position, it may be that they screen out a large number of them depending on how restrictive or open they are with the criteria. For those applicants who are screened out, they have the “right” to ask for an informal discussion. While I will discuss this in more detail later under “rights of appeal”, technically this isn’t an appeal. It’s a chance for a manager and an applicant to correct an administrative error. Suppose, for example, that the manager reads your cover letter, determines you didn’t explain how you met criteria 2, and screens you out. However, you request an informal and it is discovered that for some reason there was a second page to your cover letter that was missing from the printout. The manager can say, “oops”, reconsider your application and perhaps screen you in. This is NOT a way for you to say, “here’s more info I didn’t give you previously” – you can’t add anything to your cover letter or resume that wasn’t in your application. However, other times, it may be that the manager misunderstood part of your cover letter for differences in terminology and therefore screened you out. This is rare, as is missed information, but it does occasionally happen. To avoid the candidate appealing the competition later, this is a chance to quickly fix a possible simple error, and proceed with the rest of the competition.

Why do you care about this “application and screening” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because this is where you get to DO something – you know, apply!
  • Because if you screw up your application and put in the wrong information, the HR people will screen you out, and the hiring manager will never even see your resume. Or, if you’re not eligible, don’t try to “fake” your way past it – all this info is verified, and once your application is found to be invalid, you’re out. All you’ll do is waste your time and theirs.
  • Because if you are screened out, an informal can be a great way to get feedback on why! If you had limited budget experience, for example, and that was one of the requirements for a position, but you applied anyway (I’ll explain later why you might do that), then you know why you were screened out. However, if you did financial forecasting for a year, financial administration for 3 years, etc., and you were still screened out, it’s worth it to ask what they were looking for from candidates. Perhaps they’ll tell you the minimum was five years; or they may tell you that it was too “administrative” processing work and they were looking for more “strategic management” budgeting. Either way, you know either how to word it next time OR what experience you need to try and get in order to be screened in for these types of jobs in the future.

Phase 4: Candidates are tested for essential (and potentially asset) qualifications

Now that the real process is underway for you as an applicant, managers will now assess the candidates knowledge, abilities, and personal suitabilities. This is the phase where you will be tested on every element in the SOMC. If it said you had to have knowledge of the current trends and issues in reproductive health, they will ask you about the current trends and issues in reproductive health. The manager will use a variety of tools (discussed later) to assess knowledge, abilities and personal suitabilities. And if you fail an element, you’re screened out (and usually don’t proceed any further in the process). At that point, the manager will offer informal consultations to screened out candidates to explain where they went wrong. It is POSSIBLE (but not probable) that the scoring was done wrong, and you did pass an element. So, like with the application, an informal could correct an administrative error and allow you to reinsert yourself in the process. Officially, that is why the “informals” exist at these stages, but generally they are used for providing feedback (this will also be discussed in more detail in “rights of appeal”).

In addition to the knowledge / ability / personal suitability tests done by the manager, there will also be assessments by HR or the PSC of any special eligibility requirements like language proficiency. For most departments, the PSC is the organization responsible for assessing your ability in your second language. Each position will have a language profile requirement attached to it (specified in the original poster). Near the end of the process, you will be given an opportunity to be tested at the PSC to see if you meet the required levels (your results are good for five years, so if you already have a profile that meets the requirements on file, you won’t be retested; if you have no profile, or if your current profile is less than the requirements, you will be tested).

Why do you care about this “testing” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because if it is in the SoMC, they WILL ask you or your references about it. Somewhere, sometime, somehow. Guaranteed. And here’s the fun part – if it’s NOT in the SoMC, they won’t test you on it. They can’t – they have to test what is in the SoMC and ONLY what is in the SoMC. And, if you screw up somewhere, the informal is a great way to find out what you did wrong (spoke too fast, not enough content, drooled on the carpet, missed a question, too much content / not enough synthesis of your content, etc.).
  • Because you can’t fake your way past any element. If you have no chance of making it i.e. you have little to no french but the requirement is full fluency (CCC), you’re going to go through a lot of work likely for nothing, only to be excluded at the end. There are some SMALL exceptions to this situation, and it will be discussed later, but caveat candidatus – let the candidate beware!

Phase 5: Managers select best fit candidate

Once all the testing is done, the manager selects the “best fit” candidate. This doesn’t mean that the candidate with the best smile or the best scores is the one chosen. Once all the “successful” candidates (i.e. all those who pass every element) are considered together, the manager will decide which one is the best fit for the job, work unit, team dynamics, etc. After all, you’re all deemed “qualified” at this point and thus “merit” is proven.

After choosing one, the manager will then get approval from their boss (Approval #3) to select the candidate. Once the manager has chosen someone, they will likely show your resume to their boss to say “this is the person I intend to hire.” They’ll explain how you did in the process, etc, but often they’ll circulate the resume as an intro to their boss. Some managers won’t bother with this step if it is a relatively junior position, but if you are applying for more senior positions that will regularly deal with senior people, the managers will generally show their boss something before formally selecting you. This is also an opportunity for the manager to confirm with the boss that the management situation is still the same as when they started, and to avoid suddenly being caught by surprise if the boss says, “Oops, our budget was reduced and we no longer have the money to hire someone.”

The manager also has to get approval (again) from the PSC to select the candidate (including assessing priority referrals, if necessary; Approval #4). Way back when the posting notice first went to the PSC, managers had to “clear priorities” (if any) before proceeding. Now that the manager is at the end of the process, they may have to clear priorities (again, or for the first time). Generally these are “new” candidates who were added to the priority list after the initial request, but not always.

Why do you care about this “best fit” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Because it means that you can come first on just about every element, and not “win” the job. Why? The manager may be looking for someone who is a strong extrovert to balance out an introverted team, plus a strong oral communicator to give presentations, and someone with superior language skills. Maybe he was also looking for judgement, interpersonal skills, written communication, initiative, etc., where you excelled, but another candidate has a strong background in making presentations in French as part of outreach programs and is an strong extrovert (as reflected in their communication ability and interpersonal skills). As such, the manager may select the one that “best fits” the job and team. It may be you, it may not be. But you need to know this before you start – it means you are NOT trying to convince the manager that you are the best candidate, but rather the best candidate for a specific job. The more you can find out about the team and the job, the better placed you are to show how you would fit in.
  • Because while your first intro to the hiring manager was your cover letter – it’s what they used to screen you in or out – the first intro to their boss is likely to be your resume. Both have to be ready for primetime – no skimping on one or the other in your application process.
  • Because if someone is appointed as a priority candidate, you have almost no right of appeal. They are not considered “part” of the process, and departments may “cancel” the competition and appoint the person from the priority list. It’s as if the competition never happened, because the priority candidates are “outside” the process. Put another way, the course of true love never runs smooth, and neither does HR. Things change, and it may suck to be “leading the pack” only to have a priority candidate seem to jump the queue. Foreign Affairs staff have a saying – “Don’t assume you have the job until you have been doing it for a week, and maybe not even then!”. Good advice to remember – it’s not over until you’re appointed, no matter how well things seem to be going.

Phase 6: Managers formally state intention to hire specific applicant(s)

Okay, the manager has selected someone. And they post a “notice of consideration” that says, “This is the person we intend to hire.” Once a week has passed (usually the duration is a week), a “notice of appointment” is posted this is the formal notice that not only was the person “considered”, they are now being appointed to the position.

If you were the person, the hiring department will issue you a “letter of offer” that you and your manager’s boss have to sign, and you’re generally “good to go”. However, note that the appeals process mentioned earlier is not instantaneous. While the department will move ahead, appoint you and have you start, it is theoretically possible that an appeal could be launched, and if successful, your appointment revoked. This rarely happens, and usually would mean that the hiring manager really screwed something up in the process.

Why do you care about this “notice” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Two reasons – if you aren’t the one chosen, this may be the first time you find out the process has ended and you aren’t the “winning” candidate. You should get a notice from HR earlier to say you were found qualified, but at that point, communication from the department may stop, leaving you scratching your head and wondering, “Now what?”. This tells you that for you, the answer is potentially “nothing.”
  • Because these notices formalize the appeal process, if you are considering appealing. Alternatively, it is also the mechanism for formally announcing that you are the winning candidate if you are the one being selected
  • The most important part for you as the winning candidate is not the appeals process, but the letter of offer. While this includes a whole host of language about values and ethics, etc., it also includes more immediate information for you – your title in the new position, which division you are assigned to (if it wasn’t clear previously, this could be exciting to learn), what your classification will be (this shouldn’t be a surprise, since you applied for a specific job), and what your level will be (which also equates to a specific pay scale!).

Phase 7: Managers address appeals

Most appeals don’t proceed very far in the formal appeal process for one of two reasons. First, if the appellant’s reasons are sound, and it appears the hiring manager was in error, the department will likely correct the problem themselves long before it gets to a tribunal stage. This may involve screening the appellant into the competition and assessing them from the stage where they were screened out, or giving them an opportunity to try a test that they missed for valid enough reasons to grant an extension.

Second, if the appellant is completely out to lunch, the union will advise them that they have no valid grounds to pursue, and possibly withdraw legal support. The person may complain, but they’ll likely let the matter drop once they get into a formal situation of filing briefs for a tribunal, responding to filings by the Department, etc. Some people view appeals as a waste of time – like buses, there will be another competition coming along any minute – and suggest that you just move on. However, sometimes there are grey areas where the appellant and the department do not agree on what was the right approach to take in a given situation (such as a person being tested for language early on in the process, rather than at the end, and getting screened out). In these rare cases, the appeal may go all the way to a tribunal who will decide first if the scope of the complaint is a valid grounds for complaining, and second if the appellant’s complaints prove the grounds of the complaint.

Why do you care about this “appeal” phase if you are an applicant?

  • A whole separate volume could address why candidates should care about tribunal decisions, but at this point, note that tribunal decisions help constrain what is appropriate in future competitions and what is not. Knowing what to expect, and what is “out of bounds”, will help you focus on what really matters.
  • It is also the way of protecting your rights. Managers are not free to do whatever they want, there are rules in place that have to be followed. So an appeal may overturn a bad process. However, note that a tribunal does not have the power to say “Jane was right, John shouldn’t have gotten the job, the process was flawed, give it to Jane”. Their only power is to revoke John’s appointment. So even if you win, you may not get anything out of it beyond the satisfaction that the process gets tossed.

Phase 8: Managers hire the successful candidate

This may seem like an almost anti-climactic step as you already received your letter of offer at this point. But going back to the beginning, this chapter isn’t about understanding the competition part, it is about understanding the entire HR process from beginning to end. Which includes you actually starting the job, being assigned a set of duties, developing a performance agreement, planning some training, meeting your coworkers, etc.

Why do you care about this “appeal” phase if you are an applicant?

  • Remember those two chapters about knowing yourself and knowing government? This is the stage that will tell you if you actually will enjoy the new job.

Now, having read all the above, you know the eight main phases of a competition for a manager. Let’s drill down on the parts that you do as a candidate.

HR Guide – 05 – Understanding how to succeed in competitions – Overview rev 0.6

It is now time to get to the real meat of this book, and where we start to get into the nitty-gritty of how to succeed in federal competitions. The next seven chapters (6-12) break the part that you as a candidate experience into smaller and smaller chunks. This is a very high-level overview, just to tell you what’s coming. Often when I’m doing presentations, this is where I start, but invariably I end up having to digress to go back and fill in some of the examples and lessons from the previous chapters as context to understand some sub-element. Since I had the luxury of space and time here in this guide, I wrote whole chapters that I can just refer back to as needed rather than pulling away from the main process here. Over the next seven chapters, here is what you will learn:

  • Chapter 6: Finding out about jobs
    • This chapter will mainly talk about the formal websites and systems in place to alert you when jobs are posted and available. However, this is not the only mechanism, so a few other tips and tricks are included.
  • Chapter 7: Applications
    • It still baffles me that people sending in applications can do them so badly. An application includes two things — a cover letter and a resume. And people mess them up. Sometimes it is because they read a private-sector-oriented website about jobs and cover letters and try to keep it to a page — this is NOT how government applications work, so many people get screened out because they listened to the wrong advice. This chapter will tell you exactly what to do, some minor variations if you want to be creative, and some very clear things NOT to do.
  • Chapter 8: Written exams
    • Written exams are not usually that difficult to prepare for, partly as they are almost always about testing your knowledge. And the knowledge can’t be esoteric stuff that nobody would know, it has to be readily available and knowable, and often a bit generic, so that people can be tested on their general knowledge, and leave the really heavy stuff until you start and can learn on the job (to some extent). There are some key resources everyone should know and use, plus some specific stuff for specific types of jobs.
  • Chapter 9: Interviews
    • For me, this is the area that is the most fun, the most dynamic, and generally, the one that stresses people out the most. There’s a joke that some comedians have used that public speaking and job interviews are often greater fears for people than death, so if you were to kill someone on the way to an interview where they would have to do some public speaking, they would thank you for saving them from what to them is literally a fate worse than death. Interviews in the government are knowable, predictable, and generally structured all in the same way. Not only are there tips to survive them, there are tips to ace them too.
  • Chapter 10: References
    • Once the process part is almost over, they’ll ask you for 2-6 references. Usually it is three, and they’ll contact two of them. Sometimes it is specified who they are, such as your last two direct supervisors. Regardless, not only are there tips on choosing your references if there is flexibility, but also how to prepare your references to be able to better respond to questions about your performance during the reference check.
  • Chapter 11: Language tests
    • Just before a process ends, usually as close to the end as possible (I’ll explain why later), you will have to undergo a language test to ensure you meet the requirements of the position. Note that you are NOT being tested on your mother tongue, so it really is a “second language test”, but often they don’t mention the “second” part. Tips on how to pass the language test are way beyond the scope of this guide, but you should know what to expect.
  • Chapter 12: Special tests
    • There are also some special tests, usually administered by the Public Service Commission, that are frequently used by various departments. Some of them test writing, general intelligence or analytical abilities, or even suitability for the foreign service. I won’t cover them all, but I’ll talk a little about each and how you might prepare for them.

That’s it, that’s all. Seven chapters to get you from finding a job notice to the language test at the end of the process, with a bunch of stops along the way.

HR Guide – 6 – Finding govt jobs rev 0.6

Finding out about available jobs in the Federal Government

There used to be two separate sites for finding out about available jobs in the government — an external site for people who didn’t already work for the government and were looking to get in, and an internal site for those who already worked for government and who were looking for a change or promotion.

In 2015, the government merged the sites into one — Jobs.GC.CA. The “jobs” part is obvious, GC is short for “Government of Canada” and “CA” is the country code designation for Canada. While each of those may seem obvious, they are not obvious to everyone — this site is for jobs with the Canadian Federal GOVERNMENT, not any of the provinces. And it should not be confused with Job Bank, an online inventory of external jobs in the private and public sector that the Government runs to help businesses and potential employees connect (

When you go to, here is what you usually see:

(insert image 1 — copyright approval pending)

The site is run by the Public Service Commission of Canada which regulates and aids in HR staffing across the government. The site has:

  • info on the process, which is in slightly different form than what I wrote in the previous chapter, plus lots of details about applying online, accommodations if you have a disability, language requirements, different types of tests, etc.;
  • special sections for Veterans and Canadian Armed Forces members, students, and recent graduates;
  • some info for organizations or colleges and universities looking to partner with the government on recruitment issues; and,
  • a nice big section called “inside government”.

All of this is what departments call “public facing” information. Useful as background, but none of it is what you are really looking for — the actual jobs that are available. To get to those, you have two options:

  1. Click the big button that says “Get Started” with your job search, and this will list all the jobs available currently, with the search results shown in tabs:
    1. internal jobs i.e. those only open to those already in the public service;
    2. jobs open to the public;
    3. notices of consideration (kind of like a formal transparent pre-announcement of who they INTEND to appoint from an already-run competition in order to inform anyone who might have grounds for appeal);
    4. notices of appointment or proposal of appointment (the notice where they ACTUALLY say “okay, we’re appointing this person, let us know if anyone is appealing”); and,
    5. notices of acting appointments (people who are filling in temporarily for someone else at a higher level, i.e. a temporary promotion).
  2. Click on any of the large program buttons in the sidebar on the left, the links to specific jobs in the recent tweet section in the sidebar on the right, or the currently highlighted programs in the middle.

Feel free to go to the site and browse around. I’ll wait.

Next step

Okay, you’re back? Good. Hopefully you found some jobs that might interest you. If you didn’t, that should tell you something (kind of like in earlier chapters, maybe government isn’t the right fit for you). However, before I move on, I do want to flag something that may not be obvious. These are not actually ALL the jobs available.

As I explained before, there are two types of government departments — one group that is called “core public administration” and one group that is considered separate from the core. The first group, core, publishes ALL their notices on this site. It’s required. For the second group, it’s a bit hit and miss. Some post there too as they know that it is a huge advantage to have all government jobs posted on one site. However, some post ONLY on their individual agency website because they want to control branding, look and feel, etc. It’s a smaller and smaller percentage each year of agencies that only post on their own site, but if you know of an agency or department that really interests you and you don’t see any jobs posted with them, check out their own agency website directly. Chances are you will find links to job notices or recruitment information.

Now, for the main JOBS.GC.CA site, if you actually want to apply for any of the jobs that come up in the job search window, you need to create an account. That is done easily via that helpful little link over to the right, up at the the top, that says “Create an account”. This isn’t going to be rocket science…they’re going to ask you basic questions like your name, email address, etc. You do NOT want to be creative here with your name like you might on Facebook or a news commenting site — this is a professional site where you apply for jobs. Putting in your name as Johnny Appleseed might be cute, but it is a quick way to look like an idiot when you apply for a job. And the security on these sites is way beyond what you see on someone’s blog, so your info is relatively safe. In this case, you WANT them to know who you are, and they have jobs you want, so you want to fill out any box that applies to you.

I’ll even go one step further — for your email address, make it look professional. If you have had the same one since you were 14 when you thought “fluffy_bunny92” was cute, or “big_stud104” was catchy, get a new one. I confess that I use my in lots of situations that I probably shouldn’t, as it isn’t as professional as I would normally recommend, but it also isn’t completely egregious. If in any doubt, I use a separate one that has standard as the format, and I just auto-forward that email to my G-mail account so I don’t have to check it separately.

You don’t have to do this next part yet, but once you are up and running, you can configure your logged-in profile in a bunch of different ways:

  1. Save generic searches so you can run them again quickly at any point (such as all jobs in Newfoundland, or all clerical positions in the National Capital Region or all PM-05 jobs within your own department);
  2. Set up email alerts to tell you when jobs that match your criteria are posted; and,
  3. Eventually, upload your resume and biographical information that will allow you to apply for jobs faster each time.

** One significant change for internal applicants is that the online system for internal jobs used to only be accessible from work computers. With the merger of the two sites, and the addition of logins and passwords, you can now login and check stuff from home, and even receive your job alerts at a non-work email address, but you have to set up your account first from work.

Once you create your account, and log in, you get a whole new set of menus:

  • Job applications (in progress or previously submitted);
  • Status of job applications (status of those you submitted to previously);
  • View your saved searches (covered below);
  • Edit email alerts (covered below);
  • Personal information — name and identification, address, contact information, education, languages, and your resume;
  • Account information (email, password, hint question and answer); and,
  • System notifications.

They are also located under MY ACCOUNT across the top as well.

Why are these boxes important?

I know you might think, “Oh those are just a bunch of profile things, I don’t need to fill those out.” Yes, you do. Because a lot of the information they do when screening is based on those boxes. If the job is limited to those living in Montreal, you need that box filled out to say you live in Montreal. If you have to be internal only, you want your PRI number listed in the identification so they can verify that you are currently working for government. If you have to have a university degree, you want that info listed in the education section. These are all quick ways for the system to triage you when you’re applying, and if the info isn’t there, the SYSTEM CANNOT SCREEN YOU IN. That’s right, the computer will spit you out of a competition because you didn’t give it the right information. That’s your responsibility (I’ll cover that later), no one is going to chase after you to make sure you did it right.

SPECIAL TIP:Your resume can be added to a text box so that you can just “attach” it to your applications easily. This is a plain text box, no room for fancy formats, etc. If you are using Microsoft Word (or whatever word processing software you did your resume in), chances are good that there are little tiny hidden codes in your text that you can’t see. If you copy and paste directly from a program like Word, those codes will be embedded with your text. 90% of them will do nothing. Maybe even 98% of them are likely to be ignored by the system. But those other 2%? They do weird things like tell printers to do extra hard returns, or overwrite the previous line or go up three lines, etc. And suddenly your carefully written resume comes out looking like:

[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;John Doe

[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;[&–;255 Park Street

In other words, it looks like bad formatting, and more importantly, unprofessional. You can’t see the codes, you can’t tell they’re there, but when the computer spits out your resume for the hiring manager, it will look like gobbledy-gook. How do you get around this?

Copy it from your wordprocessing program and paste it into something like NOTEPAD (in Windows) or a simple Text Editor. Some people have really basic email software and sometime paste it there first instead. You can use any software that has minimal (preferably no) formatting. Then copy and paste from the non-formatted area into the website. Saving it as text in Word is not the same, it doesn’t actually strip everything. Use NOTEPAD or the equivalent.

The system does it’s best to strip out that stuff, but it may not get everything, so just play it safe — paste simple unformatted text. This goes for cover letters too.

Job Search Options

As noted earlier, the real power for this tool is of course to search for jobs that you might be interested in applying for and hopefully getting. The job search screen looks like this:

(insert image 2 — copyright permission pending)

You’ll notice five tabs across the top that I mentioned earlier and the two most important are:

  • Internal jobs (open only to those already working in government); and,
  • Jobs open to the public.

Some people from outside government or even internally immediately object to the separation, but there are two reasons for it. Let me digress for a minute, and explain some of the differences between those two types of jobs. If you want to just get to the search function, feel free to skip ahead to “narrowing your search”.

First, there are union issues. Almost all government employees are in one of several unions that cover the public service, and part of almost every union agreement in any sector is that their members will be considered first for promotions, etc. before you hire from outside. Pretty standard stuff for staffing in an organized labour environment, and whether or not you agree with the need or role for unions, it’s well-established labour law that they are legal to exist and that employees have to be members. So, management has to consider them first for lots of jobs.

Second, it’s also more efficient in some ways. Bear with me, I’m not blowing smoke at you on this one. The goal of any hiring manager in any sector is to hire someone who can do the job. They don’t often care who it is, they just want someone who can start immediately and who can do the job immediately with minimal new training, hopefully. They also don’t want to interview 500 people in a long laborious process — they just want to interview enough people to give them some selection, i.e. some choice, and take the one who is the best fit for the job.

So suppose the manager is in retail, and wants to hire a senior customer service manager. Who are they likely to find who is the most qualified — someone who already works in the retail environment doing customer service, maybe even a junior manager? Or would it be a senior customer service manager from a completely different environment like government? Would you think, “Hey, that person who has been managing EI benefits delivery would be great at selling yoga pants”? Or would you think, if you’re being generous, “Sure, they have some transferable skills, interesting work experience, professional outlook, but I really wanted someone with experience in retail customer service”? Chances are you want the latter.

Hiring managers in government are no different. They might be hiring a senior policy analyst and the most likely pool of candidates who are going to have the exact skills and experience they are looking for is going to be the junior policy analysts already working in government. “Promoting from within” is a potential strength (and I’ll deal with the weakness side in a moment), and it is highly efficient. As such, the positions that are listed under “internal jobs” tend to be more senior positions. Not all, but many. By contrast, the jobs open to the public are usually one of four types:

  1. Entry level positions, a way to get “into” government, your foot in the door;
  2. Highly-specialized positions that the government can’t fill internally, such as specialized medical positions (doctors, veterinarians, etc.) or highly competitive fields that the government has trouble attracting (like computer specialists);
  3. Special recruitment programs designed to boost integration of specific groups like new graduates, veterans, students, newcomers, etc.; and,
  4. Specific targeted jobs to promote renewal.

This last one is where I said above that the government needs to address that “promote from within” weakness. Obviously, if an organization only promotes from within, there’s a danger of becoming like the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation — Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated. And in the end, you can get mindless drones. That’s the theory at least. In reality, you don’t have mindless drones running around, but you do run the risk of narrowing your list of options over time.

There’s a classic example of “group think” in a sociology experiment that was conducted with monkeys. The experiment was that they put five monkeys in an enclosure and electrified the bars, floor and climbing structures. Along with other food options, the scientists also hung some bananas. If the monkeys ate the other food, nothing happened; if any monkey touched the bananas, they would all get a shock. The five monkeys learned pretty fast, “no bananas”. The scientists then replaced one monkey, and of course the new monkey went for the bananas. However, the other monkeys knew they would get zapped so they stopped the new monkey from getting to the bananas. Eventually, the new monkey learned not to touch them either. So the scientists replaced the other four one at a time. Eventually, they all learned the banana lesson well enough to stop any other monkey from doing it until all five monkeys in the cage knew not to touch the bananas — but none of the monkeys in the cage had ever actually experienced the shock. The shocks only went to the first five, and THOSE monkeys set up a culture of  “don’t touch the bananas” that carried on after the original five were gone. “Why don’t they eat the bananas? Because nobody eats the bananas, it’s always been like that.” The new monkeys didn’t know why, they just knew they weren’t supposed to do it.

Now lots of people might say, “That’s bureaucracy for you”, but it’s not about bureaucracy. Group think exists in every sector that’s been in existence longer than about five years. In retail, somebody might suggest a new type of promotion or marketing, and someone will say, “nah, we tried that once, didn’t work.” It exists as a direct result of best practices and training on ways that work, as people start eliminating ways that either they don’t think will work or which are not open to them. And, yes, it can happen in government too.

Take for example a problem with educational attainment and options on how to address it. There are a number of constraints on what the Federal government can do about it. It can’t, for example, decide that elementary education is not going well and thus open a bunch of new elementary schools to combat the problem — education is within provincial control and the feds are barred from doing it by that pesky little thing called the Constitution. Over time, some departments and their analysts may view that area not only out of bounds legally, but also out of bounds for even analysis. Yet what if one of the provinces might be open to some sort of joint project, or discussions of the issues at least, that would help inform their approach? Analysts in the federal system may have started to think that “all of it is off the table”, since it was never on the table in the first place. Then along came someone at some point who said, “Hmm, we can’t do anything as the federal government, but what if we offered the provinces money to do more in that area?”. A disruption in approach called “federal spending power”. Spending doesn’t violate the Constitution, so lots of things came back on the table in some departments.

Alternatively, you could have people at senior levels who don’t have a very good grasp of digital technology, or social media, and if you were in the area of international affairs, most of them might not have had a really good grasp of options around what is now called “digital diplomacy”. Then some people came along who said, “what if?” and suddenly international affairs officers and Ambassadors started using Twitter as a policy tool.

In both cases, external recruitment can be a good way to get fresh insights or fresh ways of looking at things, partly to make sure you’re considering all the possible solutions and not just the ones that have been working recently. A way of bringing in people with fresh approaches to help disrupt the status quo.

In government, that sometimes happens at very senior levels with a particular government appointing a deputy minister from the private sector, for example. Those tend to be very unique posts though, not something that would show up on a website advertised to the public. At the regular employee level, there are some recruitment programs that have the same goal — the “Recruitment of Policy Leaders” program, for example.

The RPL program is aimed at students and young policy thinkers who have shown some success in various disciplines through winning large scholarships or awards, working in interesting fields on large projects, etc. and generally having advanced degrees — Masters or a Ph.D. Instead of hiring them at the bottom of the policy analyst ladder (EC-02), and risking their entrepreneurial / innovation spark being driven out by Group Think while they work their way up the ladder, these high-fliers are hired at the mid- to senior-policy levels (EC-05 and -06). Deputy Ministers are heavily engaged in the hiring, and often serve as mentors. Fresh blood, fresh ideas, high-level access to ensure both potential innovation and that we consider all the policy options, not just the ones we already have under consideration. Many of these programs come with bumps and bruises in implementation, after all, they are basically forces of disruption, but they can achieve some forms of renewal and are actively managed.

So, as I said, there are jobs open to the public and jobs open to government employees, with the majority of senior positions available internally and most entry-level or short-term positions available externally. Simple, right?

Narrowing the search

The left-hand sidebar, entitled Refine Search, has a whole list of options to help you narrow down the list. For example, on the day I pulled the image above, there were 250 internal jobs and 400 external jobs available — across the entire Government. Some people think that is amazing, others wonder why so low. Either way, most of the jobs don’t apply to you. There are multiple different categories, locations, etc. So narrowing it down to the jobs that apply only to you is a challenge. You want the list to be manageable, but you also don’t want to miss out on some potential jobs because you accidentally narrowed the search too fine. Let’s walk through some of the ways you can refine your search, and in particular, what I consider the four biggest criteria:

Job titleIf you are looking for a policy analyst position, or veterinarian, you could type in policy analyst or veterinarian and see all the positions. Relatively straightforward.If you search for senior policy analyst, but the hiring manager called it policy coordinator, it won’t show up. Just as search for veterinarian won’t pull up veterinary specialist.
Work locationEnter your city or province, narrow the search to jobs near you. This is the first of the big criterion — why look for jobs in Newfoundland if you don’t want to leave B.C.? You can also exclude international positions such as Global Affairs or multilateral or the old CIDA (under Global Affairs now) i.e. just see jobs in Canada. 
If you type in Edmonton, you won’t see jobs you might like in Calgary. Or Ottawa might not pick up Gatineau across the river.
Job typesThis is the second big criterion — know what you are looking for and are open to accepting/pursing. It isn’t the classification (clerical, management, etc.), this is whether the job is indeterminate (i.e. permanent), term (i.e. a specified period of six months, or a year perhaps), a deployment (moving you permanently from your current spot in government to another at the same level), assignment or secondment (temporarily loaning you from one spot to another), or acting (temporary promotion). For external jobs, you can limit to graduate programs or student programs or just regular job postings (everyone). Some people only look at indeterminate positions i.e. permanent and miss out on temporary positions that might lead to something permanent. Or they search for assignments or secondments, without first knowing whether or not their current boss would agree to loan them somewhere else (your boss has to agree to secondments or assignments).
Date postedObviousThis is more looking for historical posts than anything, not much risk.
GC organizationsThis is the third big criterion — which departments or agencies are you willing to consider? Or are you willing to work for any department? You can narrow it down to just the ones you are interested in.As I explained in the earlier chapters, you’re likely to be happier in a job if the substantive area is one that interests you, even if you’re doing finance or administrative work that is more generic.
ClassificationsThis is the last of the four big criterion — as explained above, you may only be interested in EC or AS or PM positions, and if so, there is no reason to look at veterinarian positions or park rangers. After you choose the classification, you can also choose levels.Some people limit themselves only to the classification they are already in, or the one they want to be in, which negates the fact that some AS or PM jobs might be quite similar, and even some IS and EC jobs could have common elements. In most classifications, there are sister / cousin classifications that are worth seeing too.
Language requiredPretty straight-forward, English / French / Bilingual. Many people consider this a big criterion, and for individuals it may be. But it’s more like a “fact”, than a search technique. If you’re unilingual, there’s no point in looking at the bilingual positions or the ones that require the official language you don’t have. It’s a very important element, but it is more like a screening criteria than a search technique — you either qualify or you don’t.If you search for bilingual only, it might exclude some unilingual positions that might interest you.
Minimum salarySome people use this rather than the classification one because it can help keep the search parameters open. For example, if you are interested in an EC-04 or higher job, but would consider AS-05, PM-05, IS-04, or higher, then you would have to enter EC, AS, PM, IS, etc. in your search plus the appropriate levels. Or you could say “anything higher than $70K”, and you’ll get all of those.You’ll also get some other ones you likely don’t want, including technical specialists or lawyer positions that you don’t qualify for, but it is an alternate way to search for specific levels of jobs. You just have to wade through a lot of jobs that might not interest you.
Process numberThis one is deceptively simple. Some people think, “Well, why would I search for that?”. Because that’s how you’re going to find out the status, look back at a description, etc. — it lets you find old ones.If you saw a job a month ago, and wanted to go back to look at it again for reference, it can be hard to find it again if you don’t know the number.

That’s the basics of the Job Site. Time to look at the actual application process once you find a job you want.

Informational Interviews

For those who have read my blog, even my HR entries, you’ll notice that I rarely share links to articles out there about how candidates should do things in interviews. Not necessarily because I think that other people don’t know what they’re talking about, but usually I don’t share for one of two reasons…either it is completely inapplicable for the public sector / government type interviews and selection processes that I care about or it is generally okay but not overly useful to the candidate. Almost like it is either too pointedly private sector or too vague motherhood and apple pie statements. Colour me intrigued and wary then when an article popped up from the Harvard Business Review blog sites that started with the following questions:

When you’re looking for a job or exploring a new career path, it’s smart to go out on informational interviews. But what should you say when you’re actually in one? Which questions will help you gain the most information? Are there any topics you should avoid? And how should you ask for more help if you need it?

Source: How to Get the Most Out of an Informational Interview

For those not recognizing the term, an informational interview is where you basically want to talk to someone about their area of work to find out if there are jobs available, openings coming up, what life is like working in that area, etc. Now, let`s be frank. Most people asking for informational interviews are really saying, “Hey, wanna hire me?”. But they have learned, or been advised by people like me, that if you ask to meet with someone to talk about openings in their area, the person will usually decline to meet with you. If they had an opening, they would advertise it; if they don’t, you’re wasting their time and yours. So it’s easy for them to say no.

By contrast, if you contact them and ask for a chance to meet with them for an informational interview, find out about the type of work they do, and get some advice from them, the person might find it hard to say no. Partly cuz it’s kind of rude, partly because they remember when they were in the same boat and someone gave them info they didn’t already have or met with them to give them some insights, and partly because people like talking about themselves and you’ve already flattered them by suggesting they are worthy of meeting with to pick their giant, knowledgeable brains! Plus, if you are in government, there is a component of your job that is supposed to be about building the public service so there’s almost a values-and-ethics component that encourages you as a manager to say yes to these types of requests. No, that doesn’t mean the Deputy Minister or CEO of a crown corporation will meet with anyone who asks, i.e. they’ll almost always delegate if you waste your time even asking, but managers and middle managers often (almost to the level of “usually”, but not quite) will say yes to an info interview.

So while I am often reluctant to share the private-sector approach, the article by Rebecca Knight is first-rate. It talks about:

  • the benefits of primary research as well as gaining exposure;
  • the importance of preparing and keeping your personal intro spiel about yourself short (you’re there to listen, not just talk about you, even if you really are trying to fake your way into a job interview);
  • managing the duration / respecting their time;
  • figuring out your areas of questioning before hand (more so than the list of 500 Qs you want to ask to show off);
  • asking for advice on what other skills you might need to get into the industry (assuming you have any of them to begin with); and,
  • following up with gratitude (not requests).

The only part I disagree with is the suggestion at the end that the “real purpose” of info interviews is to build relationships and develop a network. I think the real purpose is exactly what it is called — an interview to gather information. Not every person you meet will create a “relationship” or a lasting network contact, and it does read a bit like “ways to force a relationship”. You’ll know (or should know) if the person is open to further contact or not, or if you felt a connection or not. Sometimes you’re going to meet with someone where there’s no connection, no chemistry, and it’s just not a good fit. Maybe they’re busy, maybe they’re not very friendly, maybe they’re just plain jerks. Maybe they just don’t like you. However, if you follow most of the above bullets, you stand a much better chance of it coming out well, or more pointedly, not missing a possible good connection because you didn’t do your part well.

The secondary purposes of the interviews — gain exposure, build a contact network, or even leverage it towards a job — are all there, but I think expectations need to be managed. After all, you started the conversation by asking for information. Sometimes, that’s all it will turn out to be, and that’s not only okay, that’s sometimes downright perfect.