Report on PS Transitions: Collaborative Solutions for Recruitment & Retention, September 2002


The Public Service Transitions conference held on September 3-5, 2002 was an important occasion for several reasons.

First, it provided an opportunity for dialogue between experienced managers and young people who have recently entered the Public Service and who constitute the group from which future leaders will one day be drawn. The format, as is stated in the Introduction to this Report, “challenged participants to be idealistic and original while practical.”

Human resource management is never simple in any organization, but in the Public Service it is especially complex. The central challenge is, on the one hand, to ensure that there are adequate safeguards to ensure that Canada will continue to be served by a professional, non-partisan Public Service, while on the other hand providing sufficient flexibility to ensure that the needs and aspirations of individuals can be met, and that managers are able to function effectively. The conference provided a forum in which these complex issues could be addressed with a view to meeting the needs of the Public Service in the 21st century.

The second reason why the conference was an important occasion is that it was an initiative of young professionals who had recently joined the Public Service. The decision to hold such a conference represented an impressive self-confidence on their part, and their success in organizing it demonstrated a high degree of competence. Most important of all, the fact that they took this initiative means that they attach real importance to making the Public Service an employer of choice for other young people, and a good place to work for those who join it.

For me personally, it was a pleasure to work with the young professionals who carried out this initiative. Their dedication and abilities are a good augury for the future of the Public Service of Canada.

Arthur Kroeger


On behalf of Transitions Initiative, we would like to thank our sponsors: Industry Canada, the Canadian Centre for Management Development, the Public Service Commission, and the School of Public Policy and Administration. These progressive organizations provided us with the resources necessary to make our ideas materialize.

For the generosity of their time and shared perspectives, we would like to express gratitude to our speakers and panelists: Amelita Armit, Calum Carmichael, Linda Duxbury, Glynnis French, Robert J. Giroux, Matt Jones, Robert Lafleur, Alan Ritchie, and Gisèle Samson-Verreault. Special thanks to the Honourable Mitchell Sharp for his inspiring words.

We would like to extend sincere thanks to our Virtual Advisory Committee for their invaluable support and words of advice, the Honourable Jocelyne Bourgon, Scott Serson, V. Peter Harder, Gene Swimmer, Jean-Guy Fleury, Laura Chapman and Huguette Labelle.

The success of such initiatives often depends a great deal on the help of volunteers who donate their time and energy to ensure that details fall into place. PS Transitions is no exception, and so we thank Bader Saryeddine, Ningzhi Lou, Bing Zhang, Yang Song, Jennie Yendell, Robyn Rivard, Tanya Neima, and Michael Goodyer.

PS Transitions became a reality thanks to the immeasurable contribution of the following individuals: Richard Rochefort, Charanpreet Bhattal, Joanne Erwin, and James Kendrick, of the Canadian Centre for Management Development; Lori Brooks and Kathleen Hickey, from Carleton University; John Banigan, John Mihalus, and Brad Kelly, from Industry Canada; Geoffrey Dean and Johanne Prud’homme, of the Privy Council Office; Zivana Pavic, of the Treasury Board Secretariat; Raymond Crête, Louise Lemay and Simon Cantin, from the Public Service Commission; and Nicole Bazinet and the Government Conference Centre staff as well as Buffet Charbonneau.

We would like to thank the Public Policy Forum, the Policy Research Initiative and Industry Canada for providing Transitions Initiative with meeting space.

Finally, we would like to thank Arthur Kroeger, whose constant support, encouragement and guidance allowed us to believe in our project and make it a reality. He championed our cause as he would have his own, and we are immensely grateful for his unwavering involvement as a champion of PS Transitions.

Thank you,

The Transitions Initiative


Recent studies indicate that within the next 10 to 15 years, many senior federal public service employees will be eligible to retire. In fact, some departments may lose approximately 40 percent of employees due to retirement over the next 10 years. If effective recruitment and retention policies are not developed, the federal public service will face a critical shortage of experienced and qualified personnel. The public service of Canada needs to ensure that it can recruit and retain knowledgeable staff so that the government can maintain the capacity to fulfil its mandate.

Consequently, it is not surprising that these issues have caught the attention of senior public service leaders and that a great deal of work has already gone into studying recruitment and retention.

The Transitions Initiative was undertaken in May 2001 by a group of policy students and new professionals dedicated to fostering discussion on relevant public policy issues without advocating a particular position.

The Transitions Initiative is pleased to present this report on PS Transitions: Collaborative Solutions for Recruitment and Retention. This highly interactive conference took place in early September of 2002 and brought together public servants of all levels with academics and students to address the difficult issues of appropriate and effective human resources planning in the federal public service.

We encouraged the participants of the Conference to draw their own conclusions and work with others to develop related actions, and we invite you to do the same. PS Transitions challenged participants to be idealistic and original while practical. However, the reader of this report will note that not all of the ideas that emerged from the structured brainstorming of the conference are original. In fact, many of the “solutions” might be interpreted by those human resource practitioners in the business of annunciating ideals as far from revolutionary. We feel that re-visiting old ideas is a valuable practice. In particular, when a group of 75 people spontaneously raise an idea, be it a familiar ideal or a previously aborted tangible solution, we see the old idea as valuable because of its recurrence and therefore not to be discarded out of hand. Good solutions, responsible solutions, should come from innovation tempered by the lessons of history.

This being said, we invite the reader to see this report, just as with the Conference itself: an addition to the landscape of ongoing formal and informal efforts to bring about appropriate human resource reform in a public service that will soon be facing a serious people crisis.

Setting the Context

In May 2001, the Transitions Initiative, a group of alumni from Carleton University’s School of Public Policy and Administration, met and discussed the possibility of bringing together stakeholders from across the country to discuss timely public policy issues. For our first initiative, we gathered stakeholders to brainstorm and develop collaborative solutions to some key recruitment and retention challenges faced by the federal government’s policy community.

The Transitions Initiative established a set of key principles that would guide them in the development of the agenda for their first event. These principles laid the foundation for PS Transitions: Collaborative Solutions for Recruitment and Retention.

The Transitions Initiative sought a combination of 100 participants made up of current students, new recruits, middle managers and senior government officials. PS Transitions was designed to foster meaningful discussion between all stakeholders, in order to identify truly collaborative solutions through a participatory process.

In accordance with these broad principles, the primary objectives of PS Transitions were:

  • To propose solutions to problems encountered by public servants in the transition from post-secondary education to employment within the federal public service;
  • To establish dialogue between current students, recent graduates, and public service leaders on issues pertaining to recruitment and retention; and,
  • To discuss lessons learned, next steps and solutions for transforming the federal public service into a true employer of choice, and achieving human resource stability as the working population ages and enters retirement.


To accomplish its objectives, the Transitions Initiative used a variety of approaches. First, it opened the conference with a presentation on job attributes valued by potential government employees. This was followed by a panel discussion on recruitment and retention in the federal government policy community. The panel consisted of academics, senior officials and new professionals. Their respective presentations helped set the context for the remainder of the conference.

Day two focused on solutions to recruitment challenges. Once the group had brainstormed and prioritized the challenges, an interview matrix was used to help participants identify solutions to address the prioritized challenges that:

  • they as individuals could implement;
  • their organizations could develop and implement; and,
  • other organizations and the government as a whole could implement.

Participants were also asked to identify past and current best practices upon which they could build. This process ensured that all participants were both active listeners and contributors.

For retention, organizers chose to develop solutions through a technique known as the open space forum. Once the group had identified 30 obstacles, participants were encouraged to answer the same four questions as they had for recruitment, but for the two retention challenges they deemed most important.

All methods led the participants to prioritize the challenges while remaining focused on the primary goal of developing collaborative solutions.


The Conference opened with a presentation of the findings of a Carleton University School of Public Policy and Administration study on job attributes valued by potential government employees, sponsored by Industry Canada. In this study, Gene Swimmer and Calum Carmichael examined job-related factors that influenced the career decisions of potential federal government employees. The following points highlight some of the policy implications:

  • Satisfying co-op experiences influence future employment-seeking in the same organization.
  • Retention relates more to the quality of employee experience than to compensation.
  • There is a perception that promotions are not awarded on the basis of merit.
  • Demographic differences should be considered when addressing recruitment and retention issues.1

Key messages from the panel reflected that policies developed to address recruitment and retention issues cannot take a cookie-cutter approach if they are to be effective. To retain employees, it is important to understand that employees’ needs will vary depending on their life circumstances and where they are in their careers.

Senior officials on the panel noted that federal government departments are approaching the recruitment and retention challenges on a number of fronts. For example, one department has changed its approach to include campus visits, and has improved its efficiency in making offers to potential employees. Other initiatives build upon existing corporate programs such as the federal bridging mechanism used to hire former co-op students as permanent employees.

What attracts people to work in the public service? Is it the desire to serve, the variety of careers available within the public service, the security, and / or the career development opportunities? Once you know what motivates individuals to become public service employees, you can develop recruitment packages to attract the best and the brightest. Day two of the Conference was devoted to identifying what motivates individuals to start a career in the public service, challenges to effective recruiting of new employees and solutions to these challenges.

Glynnis French, Assistant Secretary, Treasury Board Secretariat, opened the day’s discussions with an outline of some of the challenges faced by the policy community in recruiting new employees. This provided the context to identify solutions to the key challenges confronted by the federal government. As a senior official stated, many of these solutions are not new, but attempts to implement them have not been sustained.

“Change starts with you and me…The public service has tried many times to create government-wide solutions, and they are a panacea. We should focus on our own area of influence — your work environment. That’s where fundamental change starts to happen.”

Persistent pressure and attention must be applied to ensure that measures to improve the recruitment process are implemented on a long-term basis. This requires that managers, senior officials and new recruits work together to simplify the process, train the key players, share within and across departments, and change the culture of recruitment and human resource management in the federal government.

Focus on Practical Solutions

Below are the concrete solutions that stimulated the most discussion during the recruitment portion of the Conference. For a full list of the challenges and solutions discussed at the conference, please see Appendix C entitled Recruitment – Raw Answers. The following are a few of the highlights:

Process Challenges

  • Streamlining recruitment policies and process, and setting decision timelines and a tracking system to mark progress through the screening, testing and assessment phases. A simple and transparent process will make it easier for managers to understand and actively participate in recruitment, and for applicants to track their advancement through the system and receive feedback on their suitability for the job. The technology exists to make this suggestion a reality.

Image Challenges

  • Creating public service ambassadors to make linkages with schools, raise awareness about opportunities in the public service, and function as the human face of the recruitment process at job fairs and events. Applicants need human interaction when making decisions about whether and how to enter into the public service. Technology is efficient, but a human link is required to discuss what it is like to work in the public service, and to determine what job might be the best fit. Informal ambassador programs do exist, so a broader program could easily be implemented, expanded and improved. Well-trained ambassadors would also improve the negative image of the public service. Moreover, programs such as the “Day in the Life” of a public service employee would highlight the diverse, interesting career opportunities available in the federal public service.

Coordination Challenges

  • Shared, interdepartmental recruitment and development programs for applicants in the early and mid-phases of their careers. These types of programs provide the most exciting opportunities to test out various positions in the public service, and develop competencies in different areas irrespective of the stage of career. Secondment andprograms such as the Career Assignment Program, the EX Development Program, and the Management Trainee Program permit new employees to move within and across departments and explore areas of interest. This is key to finding the best fit and attracting recruits who are looking for challenging development opportunities. Excellent models of these programs already exist, and can be replicated across different departments and job categories.

Roll-up of Recruitment Discussions

The following table has a few characteristics of which the reader should remain conscious while reviewing:

  • “Practical” solutions suggest a plausible course of action or government / departmental HR policy. Sometimes, however, it may be an improvement a given individual might make to his or her own job situation resulting in better morale.
  • “Attitudinal” solutions suggest ideal, commonly held values, or that an organizational culture shift is required.

Many of the challenges, and hence many of the solutions, seem to be targeted to the youth cohort of the public service of Canada. This was surprising given that PS Transitions brought together a wide variety of age groups and backgrounds. Perhaps this reflects the younger cohorts’ concern that current recruitment and retention mechanisms are outdated, and that the public service will be under increasing pressure to change its culture and practices as new generations replace retiring baby-boomers.

Recruitment ChallengesAttitudinal SolutionsPractical / Concrete Solutions
Complicated, slow and inefficient hiring process
  • Commitment to streamlining the guiding policies / process and setting decision timelines for screening, testing and assessment phases
  • Devolving decision power and information to hiring manager
  • Give managers time, training, resources and due recognition for their recruitment efforts
  • Use term and casual employees sparingly – concentrate on streamlining the indeterminate hiring process
  • Commitment to feedback information to applicants concerning their performance in job applications and recruitment programs
  • Re-examination of merit-based hiring process and definition
  • Establish pre-qualified pools and competency inventories against profiles
  • Training managers to do recruitment, and giving them required HR management information and tools such as simple “how to” guides
  • Create mechanisms like bridging to bring in new recruits, and secondments / transfers in order to recruit within the public service
  • Put managers and qualified individuals in the same room (e.g., job fair) in order to create opportunities for the hiring process to begin
  • Create application management systems, where recruits can track the progress and route of their application
Negative image of the public service
  • Decide that the public service needs to invest in attracting skilled employees into the public service
  • Targeted and sustained marketing
  • Partnerships with schools, which would include education on public service opportunities
  • Campaigning in high schools and post-secondary institutions, focusing on the positive aspects of a public service career
  • Creating ongoing, full-time public service ambassador positions
  • Follow-through and delivery on commitments
  • Publish and distribute a regular magazine for students on a “day in the life of a public servant”
  • Hold job fairs so potential recruits can put a face on the public service and meet potential employers
  • Capitalise on successful recruitment practices, such as National Defence ad campaigns in movie theatres, or the various recruitment / development programs (AETP, MTP, PRDP, CAP)
Competition for talent
  • Focus upon recruiting and valuing people with necessary managerial / professional skills
  • Acceptance that talent may be raw and may therefore require development
  • Emphasize that recruits are responsible for the trajectory of their own career
  • Recruit people early in their careers, focus post-secondary recruitment process on key competencies
  • Assertive recruitment campaigns for employees at all stages of their career
  • Allow new employees to rotate within and between departments
Lack of standardized & co-ordinated recruitment initiatives
  • Need to cooperate with PSC and among departments seeking to recruit similar types of employees
  • Decision to balance devolved, efficient recruitment systems with coordination across federal government
  • Increased internal co-ordination within departments and across government
  • Shared HR initiatives among departments for similar candidates
  • Better sharing of information and best practices, as recruitment information often does not reach line managers
  • Synchronize HR planning with the organisational or business planning cycles
  • Combine technology with personal contact in order to give a human face to an efficient recruitment process
  • Stop poaching employees from other departments and agencies – the time spent in the transfer and learning phase is a net loss to the federal government
Ensure better match between employee and position
  • Increased variety of assignments and academic backgrounds
  • Ensure interviews are a two-way dialogue to ensure right fit
  • Have individuals develop learning and career plans with their managers
  • Permit individuals movement within the organisation
  • Have job fairs where managers and potential recruits can circulate to find areas of shared interest
  • Create clear and concise job descriptions, and make it clear that applicants may request further details on the job (or speak to someone presently occupying a similar job)
  • Fight urge to oversell entry-level positions – portray work and responsibility level objectively
  • Have links to the department and branch, so applicant can research field of work
  • Make HR and people management skills mandatory for managers
  • Make career and learning plan development mandatory for recruits
  • Involve unions in creating development opportunities and transfer mechanisms to jobs where the fit is right
Insufficient public sector diversity and representation
  • Fundamental commitment that public service must reflect our nation’s linguistic, racial and cultural diversity
  • Decision to foster public service’s ability to serve Canadians by making language training available
  • Focus public service recruitment exam to screen for these qualities
  • Create targeted recruitment programs and opportunities for people who reflect these communities
  • Involve unions in seeking to increase the diversity of their membership and the public service

1Gene Swimmer and Calum Carmichael, “Searching for Satisfaction: Job Attributes Valued by Potential Government Employees”, September 2002.


A participant commented that recruitment and retention are two sides of the same coin – you cannot have one without the other. Why recruit bright new talent without a concrete strategy for retaining it? Day three of the Conference was devoted to identifying some of the key retention challenges the public service faces and, more importantly, to brainstorm on means of addressing these challenges.

“Why have I — and will I — change jobs?Because at certain times I value and need more money and responsibility, and at other points in my life I will value more time. Conditions change. If my current job cannot accommodate the developments in my life, like marriage, home-ownership and children, I naturally will find a job that will.”

It was noted throughout the Conference, both anecdotally and in presentations by Professors Linda Duxbury and Gene Swimmer, that the retention of employees in government organizations is affected by a multitude of intervening variables. These may include the nature of the work itself; organizational culture; opportunities for mobility and development; supervisors’ people management skills; as well as the often conflicting values and preferences associated with the various demographics working in government today. Most of these are reflected or implied as challenges in the table below.

Focus on Practical Solutions

Many challenges and solutions were discussed. This report highlights some that created a buzz in discussions at the Conference. Please see Appendix D for a complete list of retention challenges and corresponding solutions.

Workplace Well-being Challenges

  • Mandatory people management training for managers is an achievable policy suggestion that might easily be implemented at either the governmental or departmental level. Furthermore, such a rule could be enforced through current accountability mechanisms.

Mobility Challenges

  • A program that rotates employees of particular expertise between departments requiring similar competencies or specialties (such as sustainable development, performance measurement). This would be similar to the Management Trainee Program but at the officer level, and could be applied more broadly throughout the public service. It might better ensure employee development and morale, and allow for organizations and individuals to engage in mutual “shopping” for the best long-term fit.

Career Development Challenges

  • Formally linking shares of training budgets to individual employee compensation packages would ensure that continuous learning is considered an important aspect of employment in the public service. This amounts to a commitment to protect investment in the public service’s human resources from future budget cuts – training budgets are often the first to go. It also may mean improvements in employees’ morale, as they are allowed to grow in their careers and gain a sense of increasing worth to their organizations. Furthermore, the entire public service would continuously improve its overall expertise, thus generating a significant return on investment.

Roll-up of Retention Discussions

The summary table below reflects all the solutions that were presented. When reviewing the table, one should be aware that “practical” suggests a plausible course of action or government / departmental HR policy. Sometimes, however, it may be an action an individual might undertake to improve his or her own job situation and therefore morale. “Attitudinal” suggests ideal, commonly held values or that an organizational culture shift is required.

Retention ChallengesAttitudinal SolutionsPractical / Concrete Solutions
People management is not a priority for managers
  • Allow employees to take risks
  • Make “people management” training mandatory for all supervisors, starting as early as possible
  • Managers should work with employees to develop learning and career plans
Unwillingness by managers to deal with problems in a timely manner
  • Individuals should seize opportunities to effect change in their sphere of influence
  • Understand generational differences (different values inherent to different age demographics) when attempting to implement change
  • Be realistic as to what change can be accomplished. Go about change incrementally to be sure that you can deliver on what is promised. This would avoid bad morale after failed “big reforms”.
  • Discontinue reliance on outside consultants. Listen instead to what your own employees are telling you.
  • Make expectations, rights and responsibilities known and enforce these
Perception that youth is synonymous with inability / Lack of responsibility or challenging work for young or new employees
  • Managers need to devote more time to focus on knowing employees and their competencies
  • Individuals can show leadership by getting involved in organizational activities (e.g., United Way, departmental committees) not directly linked to their work
  • Individuals can join youth networks
Inability to move between departments
  • A culture shift is required to move departments away from proprietary thinking
  • Make greater use of job swapping / job sharing between departments
  • Retain by recruiting individuals into careers as opposed to recruiting into individual departments
  • Develop recruitment programs, similar to existing specialized recruitment programs, around topics that cross departments (e.g., environment, business planning, etc.). Recruits would then spend a fixed amount of time in several departments working on that topic from different perspectives. This may better ensure that the public service retains an employee by discovering the best departmental fit.Additionally, these types of programs could be made available to those already in the public service and used as a retention tool
  • Allow middle managers to rotate more to expose them to the benefits of regular rotations. This could be worked into their performance plan
Inadequate training opportunities
  • Training must be ongoing and timely
  • Give each employee a training allowance as part of their compensation package – this should ensure the money is spent on training and is not sacrificed in times of departmental “reallocations”
  • Develop / improve centralized web site detailing what training opportunities are available
  • Force managers working with employees to develop learning / training plans and actually following through on these
Lack of resources to do job effectively
  • Individuals need to clearly and persistently communicate their resource requirements for projects. Managers need to balance workloads
  • Having “floaters” within the department can help fill temporary gaps and give certain people exposure to many different areas
Excessive use of term employees
  • Term employees should talk to their managers about their aspirations and managers should be realistic and honest in what they promise
  • Implement the recommendation that would reduce from five to two years the amount of time a term can be used without being offered indeterminate status
False promises /overselling during interview or hiring
  • Both the recruiter and the interviewer need to be better informed. In some cases, the onus is on them to do their homework
  • Limit interdepartmental competition
  • Develop a central code of conduct for recruiters / interviewers with penalties for unethical behaviour
Insufficient recognition / rewards
  • Managers need to give feedback to employees more often than during formal evaluations
  • New professionals should be encouraged to nominate each other and good managers for departmental / public service-wide recognition programs
  • Good “people management” accomplishments should be officially recognized in departments
  • Managers should be encouraged and provided resources to treat staff occasionally to special events (e.g., lunches, golf tournaments, etc.)


PS Transitions: Collaborative Solutions for Recruitment and Retentionwas a valuable occasion for a wide variety of stakeholders to openly discuss recruitment and retention issues and work with others to find concrete ways of surmounting these challenges.

The list of practical solutions, the feedback received from participants and the commitments made by central agency representatives all suggest that the Conference attained its objectives of:

  • Proposing solutions to problems encountered in the transition to employment within the federal public service;
  • Establishing dialogue between public servants of all levels and stakeholders from various other sectors on issues pertaining to recruitment and retention; and,
  • Discussing lessons learned, next steps and solutions for transforming the federal public service into a true employer of choice, and achieving human resource stability as the working population ages and enters retirement.

In analysing the discussions that took place over the course of the Conference, one can see five broad themes emerging that are common to both recruitment and retention:

  • Process: Many of the issues raised touched upon the lack of information regarding the recruitment process itself. Participants felt current hiring processes were tedious, inefficient, impersonal and protracted. Many proposed solutions suggested that technology provides opportunities to simultaneously accelerate the process while providing more information, without sacrificing personalized communication.
  • Suitability: Personalized contact between managers and employees (be they current or potential) may be the best way of ensuring that people occupy positions for which they are best suited. There is a need for ongoing clear, realistic and honest discussion of the employer’s requirements, the nature of the work, and the employees’ expectations. These should be revisited regularly to ensure that the best match between employee and position is maintained.
  • Image: Participants identified the necessity to develop targeted and sustained marketing tools branding the public service as a challenging, fulfilling, and diverse workplace offering life-long learning opportunities. Such campaigns should be developed for a variety of levels and fields. Individuals can play an important role by being ambassadors and dispelling myths about the public service.
  • Quality of Life at Work: Some of the public service’s image challenges result from real problems in terms of quality of life at work. This includes concerns such as work-life balance, inadequate resources, and insufficient emphasis on training, learning, and career development within the public service. Participants stressed the importance of implementing training programs for managers to acquire people-management skills. Furthermore, many identified the lack of opportunities for mobility, both at the managerial and the operational level, as a symptom of the public service’s lack of flexibility.
  • Co-ordination: Increased mobility within the public service is not possible without improved co-ordination within and between departments. A number of other challenges could also be addressed through a harmonization of standards, practices and processes, but information-sharing and communication are crucial if this is to be successful. Central agencies can play a key role in bringing about this enhanced co-ordination.

The challenges identified in this report can be addressed by a wide scope of practical solutions. Solving some of these challenges will require fundamental change at the highest level, while others can be implemented within a department or branch. A number of positive outcomes can even be affected by individual actions within one’s immediate environment.

Members of the Transitions Initiative encourage those facing recruitment and retention challenges to take an active role in further developing and implementing these and other solutions through discussions with colleagues and supervisors, by raising them in other fora and by taking personal steps to turn these ideas into reality.

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