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
  • Finding jobs
  • Applications
  • Annex: Profile – HRSDC

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 services to use. Most assume that all employers are the same in the private sector, and all techniques are transferable. 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 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 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.

I confess that I stumbled upon this niche area of helping people, 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 twelve 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 own 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 also ONLY 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…

Chapter 1 — Is Government Right for Me?

1.1 Why do you want to work for government?

Most people reading this book have already decided that they want to work for government for various reasons. But before we get into the mechanics of figuring out how to “get in”, you really should spend a little bit of time focusing on a more important question.


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.

One of the buzz phrases in government hiring is “best fit”, which I’ll explain later in a different context (in the process, it is after the interviews are all over). Essentially, it means “of all the candidates that we have found qualified, who is the best fit for our team?”.

But best fit is not only a managerial decision – you too have to decide if government is the best fit for you. Or a specific job. What does a given organization offer you, what aspect of the job resonates with you?

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. The first three (pay / benefits / work environment) are relatively similar across government; growth and development vary considerably. But the job itself is likely to be the deciding factor of whether you enjoy working for government or not.

The most basic question is if government is even the right SECTOR for you. 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 – working for consulting firms or NGOs, for example.

Personally, I’d go crazy working in the private-sector for a commercial company making or selling widgets to the public, or even helping those who DO make widgets TALK to those who do the selling. The entire activity holds almost no interest for me. 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 results of their personal work and initiative tend to be the unhappiest ones in government.

I firmly believe that life is too short to waste it doing something other than what you want to be doing…so, what do you want to do?

From another perspective, if you have never thought of yourself working for government, you probably shouldn’t. You may be wanting to change jobs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you should head for government unless the issues, programs or services that government deals with are ones that interest you. I’m definitely a “lifer” with government; I might be able to work for a public sector NGO or a public sector organization like a hospital, but probably not a commercial, private-sector organization. It just isn’t me.

So, make sure you know why you want to work for government, because it is not only going to help you avoid taking a job that isn’t right for you, it is also going to help you answer where in the government you might want to work, if at all.

And the federal government is huge, so let’s break that down a little bit more.

1.2 Where Can I Work in the Federal Government?

The federal government is HUGE, so you need to narrow your scope to increase the effectiveness of your job search.

First, and foremost, not all government departments are created equal. Generally speaking, there are two types of departments – those that are “core public administration” and those that are not. The term “core public administration (CPA)” is a bureaucratic one that refers to those main departments which are subject to a set of standard legislative conditions on policies, budgets, operations, compensation, and HR processes. They usually have clues to their status – they are often either called Ministry or Department such as “Ministry of National Revenue” or “Department of Human Resources and Skills Development”. These are formal departments. (insert chart tbc that lists core public admin)

Non-core organizations in the government usually have terms like “Agency” or “Centre” in their name – the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) or the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTrac) . So, what difference does it make?

While compensation is relatively similar between “core” and “non-core” institutions, job security and mobility are not.

Those employees within “core” organizations generally all have the same job categories, pay levels, and HR rules, and therefore can move from department to department relatively easily (it’s called a deployment, which I’ll come to later, but basically legislation allows easy movement amongst CPA organizations) as an employee of the Government of Canada.

However, if you are with a non-core organization, your compensation is set separately, as are your job categories and HR processes. And, most importantly, you can be “laid off” a lot easier – you aren’t part of the full public service, and even some people who work in those organizations are surprised to find themselves cut adrift despite thinking they were permanent. Equally important, you can’t simply deploy to another department either. You are an employee mainly of that agency, and that agency only.

Think of it like working in the “automotive industry” – you may have a very similar job at GM to someone at Ford, but you work for GM. There’s no “super auto industry” employer that would allow you to transfer from GM to Ford, unless you quit and get a job at the other. However, if you were in the “core public administration”, you could perhaps move from “trucks at GM” to “cars at GM” relatively easily.

As such, you should definitely pay attention to which types of organizations within the federal government that you might want to work for, and narrow your choices accordingly.

A second issue is more substantive – what issues interest you?

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.

Combining both factors together will help you narrow your search effort to focus on only those organizations that actually interest you.

Here is a partial list 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 meaning 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 organizationsthatprovide common services to the rest of government.
    1. While there are six different 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 three related organizations that have traditionally dealt specifically with regional economic development – Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Foundation for Regional Development (Quebec), and Western Economic Diversification. Basically, a group for everywhere except Ontario because the federal government figured Toronto could pave the rest of the province itself (note that there are now Ontario economic development entities too, one of them based in Kitchener!). 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, 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) 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.

Chapter 2 — Understanding the HR process in the Canadian Federal Government

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 relevant details come 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 far-ranging and broad 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 “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 you thought were appropriate; and,
  3. 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. Whoever gets the most answers right gets the highest mark. And gets 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.

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, they would have assigned 50 marks to interpersonal skills, 30 marks to hardware knowledge, and only 10 marks for the software side. But often, during appeals, those 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.

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. Taking 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 made it 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 the elements.
  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 terms, 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.

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 seven phases and the candidate may 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 (with others) address appeals

Let’s look at those steps in a bit more detail and see why you might care about all seven 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 a determinate (specified period) or indeterminate (permanent) basis.

Assuming that we are talking about the last one, 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 position from another work unit that it 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 be doing Analyst work – 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 HRSDC, 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.
  • Candidates can and do ask for a copy of the “job description” during the process, but they are often surprised when it doesn’t really specify exactly what they’ll be doing. 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 a 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 the list of areas 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 functions for what looks like 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 of “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. Usually it is at the later stage unless there are a large number of candidates to begin with, rendering fairly remote the need to run a competition at all.

There is one last step to all of this, some HR professionals will quibble that 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 the 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. However, the notice doesn’t have “click here for questions” links – instead, it 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, or call them every day. They are there to help when you have a real problem, not hold your hand.
  • 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 generic 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 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 the majority of them. For those 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 simple error, if there was one, 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.

In addition to the knowledge / ability / personal suitability tests done by the manager, there will also be assessments of any special eligibility requirements like language proficiency by HR or the PSC. 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 this requirement. 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.

The manager will then get approval from their boss to select 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 more 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 candidate (including assessing priority referrals, if necessary). 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 more likely, for the first time). Generally these are “new” candidates who were added to the priority list after your 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 a week is the duration), 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.” The second reason is that it also is the first time your formal right to appeal kicks in … while there are limited “rights of appeal” (you don’t get to appeal just because you felt you did better), there are formal appeal processes available if you think the hiring manager failed to do things properly.
  • 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 (with others) 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 a test that they missed for what was determined to be sufficient grounds 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. They 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.

To be reworked as Chapter 2b — Understanding classification

What type of job are you looking for?

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 they also often have detailed sub-tests that are also too specialized 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 sets broad policy objectives, but it is the ECs and SIs who figure out how to achieve the 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. Take for example a program at Heritage supporting NGOs. It would be PMs who would work on the call for project proposals, evaluate the proposals, rate them, recommend ones for approval or others for rejection, process the winners, negotiate contracts and deliverables, authorize the issuance of cheques, monitor performance, collect data for reporting to Parliament, complete project close-outs and terminate projects. Note that much of this work looks more like “project administration” than it does “project management” as the private-sector uses the term, but even PMs will frequently 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. That’s because government people are usually not the ones running the programs on the ground. When people complain about “big government” and how inefficient it is, most people have no clue what they’re talking about because the majority of government programs are not delivered by government, they’re delivered through contribution agreements and contracts with the private and not-for-profit sector to provide services on the ground. 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. This often comes as a shock to many people who start working as PMs in the government. They think they will be managing projects, when in fact they manage just 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 they 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 are 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 requests. 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 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 formal recommendation is made, thus ensuring that the final option presented and recommended is one that is palatable to the Minister and political sphere, with “bad” recommendations weeded out much earlier in the process).

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 AS stream.

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 people change jobs, but 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.

I know, you’re 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.

However, you should be aware too that there is a negative 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, given those working levels (i.e. if you get hired as EC-02, you’ll 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 often).

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).

To be reworked with Chapter 1 & 2, added to profiles of other departments

Additions re: Types of Departments

  1. Human Development
  • There are there 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 departments outside of defence, and has three large statutory programs that make up the bulk of its programming – Employment Insurance (EI), Canada Pension Plan (CPP), 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.
  • Indian and Northern Affairs (various names, check latest at time of publication) basically does a lot of what ESDC does, i.e. human and social development, except for Aboriginal communities and the North.
  • Health Canada (and the related Canadian Publich 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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:
    • Agriculture Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency;
    • Environment Canada, Natural Resources Canada, and Parks Canada;
    • Fisheries Canada;
    • Heritage Canada (including both citizenship / civic duties as well as running Museums); and,
    • Transport Canada (dealing with all transportation infrastructure).

To be reworked with Chapter 1 & 2, added to knowing yourself


As mentioned earlier, some people care heavily about the sector. 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 (two different groups), 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).

Some people weight the work by 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 the 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.

For some people, they don’t care about the sector or area of focus, but they do care about the type of work. As such, they frequently are choosing in government between policy analysis, program development, service delivery or enabling services (such as HR, finance, evaluation, research, communications, or legal services).

Others are more interested in the scope of their file – are they focusing on design, implementation, evaluation/review or change/transformation?

Another possibility is to the type of business environment – is it relatively static or is it incredibly dynamic?

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?


Ultimately, there are four factors that tend to determine if you’re going to be happy with a job or not.

First and foremost is the job itself. 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)?

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. 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 variety of tasks. In short, what are you getting out of the job?

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 which hours of work are normal and the physical location of the office.

Finally, there’s your direct compensation. The job itself is important, as is indirect benefits and the work environment, but it’s work – you have to be compensated. A lot of people think initially, or at least superficially, this is just about the size of the pay cheque, but for most people in government, it isn’t. Pay levels are set by legislation and regulation, and negotiated in bulk. Which means the “extra” perks that draw people to government are benefits (top-ups for maternity leave, sick benefits, health coverage, etc.). In the past, government jobs were considered relatively secure and permanent, and for many, income security is a huge aspect of compensation. Leave is also set for all workers, and is an important aspect of compensation (often in lieu of larger pay raises). Finally, though, some people are more about the learning opportunities (mentioned above), the work environment (also mentioned above), or additional perks such as opportunities to travel or language training.

To be reworked with Chapter 1 & 2, added to understanding process

Finding out about jobs in the Federal Government

Two main sites:

    • This is the main site for external applicants. When you go there, you can create an account and/or sign up for job alerts of new jobs, but primarily the first page is a search engine. You enter some key words (what type of work you want to do) and the location, and click search.
    • Alternatively, you can review info grouped around the Federal Student Work Experience Program (FSWEP, which operates like co-op for students who aren’t in co-op), students in general, graduates or even inside government.
    • The site also explains the application process in basic HR-ese which is to say it tells you what to do in general terms, but not how to tweak things, avoid traps, etc.
    • And, if you’re so inclined, it also includes profiles of various public servant jobs and what they do in a normal day.
    • This is the main site for internal applicants. While internal applicants can also apply for external competitions,thevast majority of jobs are open to internal applicants only. As noted above, most jobs look for experience at lower levels of the hierarchy as demonstrating ability to do the higher level jobs. This site is extensive and will let you do three things:
      1. Search for jobs by various criteria including location or category;
      2. Create an account and apply to jobs online;
  • Set up alerts with multiple criteria and receive job alerts in your inbox every day.
  • As this site is restricted to internal applicants, you generally have to access the listings from a computer connected to a government network rather than a personal computer at home.

Other jobs for unique departments and particularly those agencies that are not part of “core public administration” (as outlined above) also frequently post notices directly on their own website rather than the above portals. As such, if there is a specific agency you are interested in, their website will be the best source of info about open positions.

Now for the bad news. Remember that I said above you didn’t need to know anyone? That is true for the most part. However, one area where it isn’t as true as it should be is in the area of deployments at level (i.e. simply moving around) or temporary assignments. These are generally only open to those already in government and are rarely advertised. As such, the only way to find out about them generally is through networking. Don’t worry, that’s not a huge problem as those jobs are nowhere near as numerous as the formal selection processes, and I’ll deal with it at the end, partly because it has very few formal “steps”.

Chapter 3 — Crafting your cover letter

You’ve seen an announcement of a “selection process”. You have the list of qualifications (“merit criteria”), and you’re ready to apply. First step: The Cover Letter.

You’ve heard of cover letters before, you have even probably written some. And you’ve vaguely heard those magical words of wisdom from 20 years ago that is all over the internet — “your cover letter should be no longer than a page”. If you listen to that advice, you will get screened out. You will fail the application process, and you won’t even get to actually show your skills. Why? Because the cover letter is the first step in a very bureaucratized process that is governed by legislation. If your Uncle Harry wants to hire someone to work his ice cream store, he can run a quick interview, ask you some basic questions, and as long as he doesn’t ask any illegal or discriminatory questions, he can basically run whatever type of interview he wants. Heck, he can just put a sign in the window that says “Help Wanted” and whoever shows up first, if he likes them, he can hire them. Not so with the public service.

The legislation says that every applicant must demonstrate their ability to meet the merit criteria for the job. And over the course of the process, you will have to demonstrate six things:

  1. Basic eligibility;
  2. Conditional eligibility;
  3. Experience;
  4. Abilities;
  5. Personal Suitability; and,
  6. Language abilities.

The first three are demonstrated through your cover letter, and as you will see from below, you cannot possibly do it in a single page.


Your cover letter should start off with the basics — the competition number that you are applying for, the title of the position, the classification and level, and if you have one, your Personal Record Identifier (PRI) number (a number issued by the Government if you’ve worked for them as a formal employee — it’s your master ID number for employment with the government). These are basic tracking elements, and it helps the HR person properly file your application, which of course you want to be mistake-free. Here’s the standard format I use:

I am writing to you in order to apply for the (title) (xx-xx level) position in the (section, department) (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.

All of the information you need is on the notice of the competition — it’s all there. You’re just copying it over. Verbatim. No ad lib, no creativity, make it exact. So, what would this look like in practice? A lot like this:

I am writing to you in order to apply for the Sr. Policy Analyst (EC-05) position in the Corporate Planning Division, Policy Branch, Health Canada (competition xxxx-xxx-xx-xx-xxx). I am sending this letter, and the attached detailed resume, in order to demonstrate my eligibility (A) and qualifications (B-Essentials & C-Assets) against the Statement of Merit Criteria. My PRI number is xxx-xxx-xxx.

That’s it, that’s all. Your intro is written, with all the tracking info the HR person needs in order to file anything, and more importantly, if it gets lost somehow or mis-filed, where they should file it when they find it separated from the rest of the files.


For the second paragraph, or even merged with the first, you have to meet a very clear threshold for applying — you have to demonstrate you are within what is known as the “Area of Selection”. Some jobs are open to the public, anyone can apply; most are open only to employees, so you have to state that you are currently an employee and with which department. Yes, they will check. It’s a key role for the HR person, verifying you are eligible to even apply. If you work at Health, and the job is only open to people who work at ESDC, you’ll be screened out. If you have to be indeterminate, and you’re on term, you’re out. If it says you need a Class 2 license to haul freight, and you only have a Class 1 license, you’re out. If it says you have to be a Canadian Citizen (some jobs), and you are only here on a work visa, you’re out. If it is only open to employees working in Vancouver, and you work in the National Capital Region, you’re out. Usually the wording on the poster will say something like:

OPEN TO: Employees in the Department of Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) occupying a position at the EC-07 level or equivalent in the National Capital Region (NCR).

Not surprisingly, if it says that, you have to be:

  1. an employee, not just on contract or casual;
  2. working for ESDC, not Health / Finance / Environment;
  3. an EC-07 or equivalent (this tells you this is a deployment, not a promotion for someone at the EC-06 level to apply); and,
  4. working in Ottawa/Gatineau, not elsewhere in the country — your actual office has to be in the NCR.

All of those four things are in a central database and HR people will check to make sure it matches, using your PRI number to look you up. If any of the bits don’t match, they screen you out and the hiring manager will never see your application. You’re just done. Lots of people try to be creative to fake their way past eligibility, and a few years ago, it was occasionally possible. Except when they got all the way to the appointment phase, someone goes to do the paperwork, and HR would bounce it — kicking the person out of the competition at that point, because they were never eligible in the first place. There is no grey area on these points — in / out, yes / no. If you’re in a strange situation such as being on assignment with ESDC, ask HR if you are eligible or not — the rules will say yes or no, and you can then proceed or not. No sense wasting your time if you are not 100% eligible to even apply.

There are two other areas where it is not quite so black and white. First, under the educational requirements, it frequently asks you for a university degree. For example, it might say for the EC categories:

Graduation with a degree from a recognized university with acceptable specialization in Economics, Sociology or Statistics.

That seems like a simple yes/no, but there are variations on what constitutes “specialization” (often viewed by tribunals as at least 5 courses in undergrad and 3 in a graduate program, but managers can set whatever number they deem appropriate on a competition-by-competition basis). But more importantly, the advertisement will then say things like:

NOTE: Candidates must always have a university degree*. The courses for the specialization do not necessarily have to be part of a degree program in the required specialization. The specialization may also be obtained through an acceptable combination of education, training and/or experience.
* Degrees may include, but may not be limited to Political Science, History, Psychology, Geography, Criminology or other disciplines associated with social science.

Some people find that confusing, and rightfully so. The rest of the eligibility factors have no wiggle room, but this one is more about general skills than certification. So, for example, if you had a degree in Psychology or Criminology, but you could show that the courses were cross-listed with Sociology, the screening manager may decide that is sufficiently close to accept your application. Other times, someone may have done a degree in Urban Planning, but has a “minor” in economics with five courses in the field as “electives”. Or perhaps they did a degree in history, and then after they graduated, did some additional electives in Statistics. They would have a degree + courses outside their degree program that meet the specialization requirement. Others might accept that you’ve been working in a field for quite a while (usually more than four years, the same time to do an undergraduate degree) and if you have been doing a lot of economics or statistics in that time, the hiring manager may decide that is equivalent experience and accept you. However, let me perfectly clear — it is YOUR JOB AS APPLICANT to convince them you have the educational background needed. I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but the burden of proof is on you. If you have a degree in Economics / Sociology / Statistics for this example, your proof is easy. You say “I graduated from University of Manitoba in 1994 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics.” They may later ask you for a copy of your diploma to prove it, but for the cover letter, that is sufficient. However, if you have a different degree and are relying on extra courses that you took to prove the specialization, or relevant work experience, you should list the courses you took or the work you have been doing that is relevant. If you don’t explain, they don’t have to come back and ask for more details — they can just screen you out. Your job to prove — the burden of proof is on you.

The second area is your language profile. It will likely say something like “BBB/BBB” — this means that you have to have intermediate english and french (in brief, X means no ability, A is basic, B is intermediate, C is fluent, E is exempt equivalent to native speaker). As with the first elements, the HR person will go into the PSC database and check your current results (good for 5 years at a time). If you have a current profile that meets or exceeds the level required, they’ll note it. If your profile is out of date OR you have no profile OR even if you have a current profile that is LESS than needed, they’ll note that you do not meet BUT won’t screen you out — they’ll send you for a language test, likely at the end of the process i.e. the last step before they appoint people. Here’s the reason why — the legislation governing competitions says generally that you have to meet all the requirements at the time you apply (so just because you were planning to move to Vancouver, you couldn’t apply if you were still working in NCR). However, there is separate legislation regarding Official Languages and it says you have to meet the language profile of the position at the time of appointment. As a result, all of the other eligibility elements are tested at the beginning of the process, and language is almost always tested at the end so that your results are as close to the time of possible appointment as possible. But it is still a yes/no element later — if you fail, you’re out. (With a minor caveat…a competition will say “various language profiles” which might mean if you get BBB, you’re eligible for a BBB job but not one of the other ones that requires CCC — the equivalent of being “out” for the jobs with higher language requirements and “in” for the jobs with lower language requirements.)

Here’s some sample text that shows how to meet the above requirements (if you’ve given your PRI previously, you don’t need to repeat it).

I am an indeterminate employee of HRSDC working in the National Capital Region as a substantive xx-xx, and my PRI number is xx-xxx-xxx. I have a Bachelor’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from xxxxxxxx (19xx) and a Master’s degree in xxxxxxxxxxxxx from Carleton University (20xx). I meet the official languages proficiency for the position, with a current profile of EBC.

A frequent question from people is what to do if you are taking language classes, know you’re close, want to apply, but don’t have a current profile. That’s simple:

I meet the official language proficiency for the position, but my profile is out of date and I need to be retested.

Let’s be clear though. If you are AAA, and the requirement is CCC, you’re not likely to make that level by the time you are tested in the process. Unless you’re close to the level, and expect that you’ll actually meet it at the time in the process for you to be tested, faking your way through the application is generally a waste of everyone’s time. It’s a yes/no criteria — you meet it or you don’t. Or if you’re hedging your bets on how effective your current progress is going, you will meet it or you won’t. The manager can’t get to the end of the process and say, “Oh, too bad, they’re a great candidate, I’ll drop the language requirement.”


I am slightly mis-using a term here, because it isn’t exactly what the Public Service Commission means when it says “Conditions of Employment”. I call them conditional eligibility because you can meet all the other elements, make the pool, and then when they go to offer you a position, be unable to take it. Let me explain, because it isn’t the same as you being “out”.

First, there is “reliability and security”. It isn’t always clear what this means on a poster, but it is your security clearance. There are proposals to change the way security clearances work, but there is generally “reliability” (looking a lot like a simple background check for criminal records”, “enhanced reliability”, “secret”, and “top secret”. These are all variations on a theme, with top secret asking for the most detail, going into a full background check for someone who is likely to have access to very sensitive high-level materials such as policy proposals, Cabinet decisions, or security issues. If you go through the whole process, make the pool, and they go to appoint you but you fail the Top Secret clearance, it means you don’t get that job, but it doesn’t exactly remove you from the pool. They may have other jobs that require lower clearances that they can appoint you to, although technically it is supposed to negate your candidacy like having too low of a language profile. But it’s handled more as a grey zone, than a black and white decision point. In addition though, you may have to wait for your clearance to come through before you can start. You have to have it to be appointed permanently. Foreign Affairs is well-known for this, with some people waiting up to a year to start their job once their top secret clearance is complete.

Second, there are “other conditions of employment”. Sometimes they are black and white (such as “a valid drivers license”), other times the employee wants to discuss what exactly the term means before accepting the position. For example, a common phrase is “willing and available to work occasional overtime”. Does that mean once a month or three times a week? Does it mean planned overtime or sudden overtime? This could have serious implications for someone who has to arrange childcare. Equally, there is often a requirement for “occasional travel, as needed.” Employees might be willing to travel, but there’s a huge difference between a short business trip to Toronto for 2 days and a 3 week trip to Bangladesh for a series of meetings. However, before the employee is appointed, they have to agree to the conditions and more and more, HR sections are asking for it in the cover letter when they apply or if not there, later when the appointment process comes along. Personally, I put it right up front in the cover letter so there is no doubt of my continued eligibility:

I am willing to work overtime as required, and travel within Canada and internationally as part of my duties. I have a Level II – Secret security clearance which was updated in 20xx.

Note that this last example is NOT required, but I still recommend it in the cover letter. Some HR people will tell you to completely take it out, waste of space, because THEIR department doesn’t work that way. Some departments do, and some HR people move from department to department and don’t always follow the new practices. I have been told too that some departments say not to mention the language part at all because they have to test that anyway; other departments have screened people OUT (even though they’re not supposed to) if it didn’t say it.

Here’s my bottom line — it costs me nothing to include it and if it avoids someone screening me out for no reason, and my having to “fight” to get back in, I’ll put it in my cover letter.


nEligibility (2): Security clearance, organizational needs (EE), operational requirements (relocation/travel/overtime hours), conditions of employment (travel/irregular hours/part-time)

As always, views are always welcome.

Annex 28 – HRSDC Profile



  • Department of Human Resources Development Act, Department of Human Resources and Skills Development Act, Department of Social Development Act, Employment Insurance Act, Canada Employment Insurance Financing Board Act, Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security Act, Canada Disability Savings Regulations, An Act to assist families by supporting their child care choices through direct financial support, Canada Student Financial Assistance Act, Canada Student Loans Act, Canada Education Savings Act, Canada Labour Code, Labour Adjustment Benefits Act, Wage Earner Protection Act


  • “Build a stronger and more competitive Canada, to support Canadians in making choices that help them live productive and rewarding lives, and to improve Canadians’ quality of life.”

Major Programs:

  • Old Age Security, Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, Canada Student Loans and Grants, National Child Benefit, Universal Child Care Benefit


Minister: Diane Finley

Deputy Minister: Ian Shugart

Budget: $105B

Number of FTEs: 22,719

Strategic Outcomes:

  • Skilled, adaptable, and inclusive labour force and an efficient labour market
  • Safe, fair, and productive workplaces and cooperative workplace relations
  • Income security, access to opportunities, and well-being for individuals, families and communities
  • Service excellence for Canadians


  • Service Delivery Business Transformation – One-stop service to citizens, changes to CPP and OAS, online technologies, Gs&Cs, services for other departments
  • Enabling Services Renewal Program – Improved efficiencies for HR, financial management, IT, learning, and security through new planning systems (i.e., PeopleSoft and SAP ) + client-centred Click-Call-Consult model
  • Modernizing and improving our policies and programs – Making EI more responsive and efficient, updating learning and employment-related programs for changing socioeconomic conditions, modernizing labour programs and operations, expanding the Preventive Mediation Program, advancing the social partnerships agenda and continuing policy work on CPP, OAS and CPP Disability
  • Supporting employees, maintaining effective management practices and continuing to support public service renewal – Supporting employees, building competencies, seeking employee input on change initiatives, national learning strategy, Departmental Workforce Management Strategy, and improving info management


  • Transformation Agenda – Significant, large scale change yet resource capacity risk
  • Privacy – Maintain trust yet extensive Privacy regulations and extensive records
  • Information Technology – Maintenance of legacy systems during upgrade process
  • Human Resource Management – Ambitious change agenda and aging workforce

(Full table of contents: PolyWogg’s HR Guide)