As everyone has seen over the last 2.5 years, every business entity has had to deal with the labour organization aspects of the pandemic. Separate from all the labour and health and safety issues, or supply-chain issues, one of the most pervasive questions has simply been one of location. Could employees work from home or did they need to return to work at a specified location? In the private-sector goods and services world, many of those business decisions were obvious. For example, fast-food restaurants in set locations needed employees to be on-site to work. It’s hard to flip a burger in your kitchen and upload it to the drive-through window.
But many knowledge-economy jobs are digitally-enabled. People could and did pivot to work from home when the pandemic hit. Banks. Gig economy workers. IT. Insurance. And, yes, government.
For the Canadian government, that was about 360,000 employees suddenly working from home. I’ll go into more details in future posts, but let’s say generally that the response was positive from most employees (> 80%, with > 95% in some cases). Fast-forward 2.5y, and they are still mostly working from home. Departments have experimented with different pilot options, while some went back earlier to hybrid configs (some days in the office, some days at home) and others doing specific jobs were in-office immediately. It is, after all, a bit hard to sort the office mail while sitting in a home office. Service desks to the public re-opened and employees had to be there to provide service. Same as for the private-sector.
In that time going back to March 2020, a lot has happened in the public service. And since I regularly blog about issues in the PS, a lot of people have messaged me and said, “Hey, is everything okay? I haven’t seen you write about vaccine mandates. Or RTW. Or Subway. How come you’re not writing? Isn’t this a huge opportunity?”.
But I have been relatively silent for three reasons.
My Duty of Loyalty still applies
Remember back when you started working for the government? You had to take an oath (as others still do now). Like a watered-down version of what you see on TV when an elected (usually US) official takes office and swears to uphold the constitution and defend the country against enemies foreign and domestic.
The GoC oath is not so grandiose, it’s a simple oath or affirmation that the person will “faithfully and honestly fulfil the duties that devolve on (them) by reason of (their) employment in the public service of Canada and that (they) will not, without due authority, disclose or make known any matter that comes to (their) knowledge by reason of such employment.” You might be forgiven if you’ve taken that oath and interpreted it simply as saying “I’ll do my job and I won’t blab secrets”, like saying yes to your Citizenship status when you filled out your employment forms. No big deal, nothing to see here.
Except it is a big deal. You don’t swear an oath or affirm your commitment elsewhere. Google might want you to “not be evil”, but they don’t make you swear to it. You click a dozen privacy and software license agreements a month without reading them, but you don’t “swear” to the contents. This is something different. It signifies, with great solemnity, that you are about to “make a living off the people’s taxes” (to quote the Steve Miller Band). It means something more than that you’ll work and they’ll pay you.
When I took my oath back in the day (January 1993 for those keeping score), I did so at Foreign Affairs with about 20 other new staffers. As with now, we were given a choice between a simple affirmation (19 people chose this) or a formal oath (hand wave, yep I chose this one). I swore with God as my witness to do my job and to support not only the Government of Canada in my duties, but also the Queen as head of state. My oath to Queen and country. King and Country, I suppose now.
I know that seems archaic to some. A throwback to old HR. But is also a fundamental principle of government, a reminder that this is not Subway. We are asked to take an oath because it actually means something. It means we are swearing to do our duty to support the government of the day to do what it has decided to do, or to get our ass out of Dodge and do something else. Oaths are not something you decide “Well, I didn’t really mean it” or “I don’t feel like upholding that oath today”. It’s why you have to swear or affirm it. So that you realize that it means something, just like “swearing in” to testify in a courtroom or swearing vows when you get married.
For civil servants, it doesn’t mean you’ll agree with everything the government says. It doesn’t mean that you’ll actively run around saying the government is right all the time and push the government’s agenda. It basically says if you work for the government, you won’t try to actively work against its operations either in terms of actual duties or in slamming them publicly. The rationale is simple. Nobody wants to see the file clerk saying, “Well the PM says to do x, but I don’t think we should, so I’m not”. Nobody elected the file clerk. One of the perks so to speak of being elected is that you get to make the decisions.
So what does the DoL actually look like in practice? Not that hard to uphold. If you’re professional in your relationship with your employer, not ranting about its products or services, you’re likely okay. If you work for Molson, you don’t get to say their beer takes like piss, and if you work for the GoC, you don’t get to say they’re all idiots.
If someone crosses the line publicly, the decision if you broke your oath is frequently a series of questions tied to the situation where, for example, you disagreed with some government policy. .
Are you responsible for the file? If it’s your active file at work, you can’t be giving public interviews saying you oppose it. No employer would allow that, public or otherwise, oath or not.
Are you actively opposing it? If you’re at a party, and someone asks you your view of the new foreign policy on China, and you express a contrarian view, that’s a very different world than if you’re calling the newspaper to promote your opposition.
Are you visible as a public servant? US political ads have a header at the front of them that say, “Hi, I’m Candidate X, and I approve this message”, a very visible demonstration of the person’s role AND view. If a reporter asks you your view as Jane, a “woman on the street”, that’s a very different scenario than if you’re identified as “Dr. Jane, health advisor for Health Canada”.
Other variables include if you’re respectful or derisive, evidence-based or just ranting, whether there’s an impact on operations as a result of your comments, etc. Ultimately, it comes down to whether you are taking a public stand as a public servant opposing a government policy that is in your area of expertise and calling into question your impartiality and professionalism in implementing what has been decided by the political leaders of the government. We might drive the implementation bus, but the democratically-elected political leaders make the policy decisions.
Going back, that’s not a blanket gag order. You still have rights as an employee to express your views. You can even engage in political activities as a public servant. There are just some areas and types of behaviour that are not acceptable as they are incompatible with the oath. There are still exceptions for whistle-blowing or union-organizing.
Would I have been ranting about WFH/RTW anyway? I have strong personal preferences to WFH for life. But I don’t have any desire to do a nutjob rant against whatever policy the government decides. Not how I’m wired. I never feel particularly constrained, i.e., that I’m close to the line for what I blog about. It’s a consideration, sure, but rarely is the deciding factor.
An expanded Duty of Loyalty
Somewhat tied to the general DoL, there’s a question of your level in the hierarchy. Deputy Ministers generally have a higher duty than a file clerk Some would say that’s simply visibility, i.e., people care what the DM thinks of the policies, but there is a simpler element that the DM also has a greater role in implementation design. DMs need to not only be impartial but also perceived to be impartial. The appearance of impropriety or disloyalty is as important as their actual duty, given the greater scrutiny.
Yet that doesn’t stop at DMs. All executives and managers are generally responsible for the management of the organization in which they work. Collective responsibility, if you will. On a humourous side, you can be the biggest rebel on the planet, sticking it to the “man”, but once you cross the management threshold, you ARE the man now. Sometimes that crown is light, sometimes that crown is heavy.
Why is it relevant to me? Because I’m a manager. I have been since 2005. So, even if the general DoL didn’t flag something as problematic to blog about, my expanded role as a manager might. Each time I start a new job, I regularly have a conversation with my bosses about my blog, and my HR guide, and just let them know it’s there. Sometimes they’re like “yeah, whatever, don’t be an idiot”; other times they’ve said, “Hey can you send me the link” and then said about 2d later, “Yeah, no issues”. I understand the concerns and the duty, and know where the lines are, at least as a manager.
However, over the last eight months, I have been an Acting Director (EX-01). While I wasn’t responsible for RTW policies, I have participated in management discussions of some of the implications. Part of that “collective responsibility”. And that changes my role a bit. As a manager, I can be a bit rebellious to push back, to share upward some of my staff’s lived experiences with the policies, maybe even rant a bit internally (not publicly). But at some point, the decision is made, and I’m expected to help implement it.
As a director, that implementation role hits a little harder and a little faster. As it was a new role for me, I even stopped blogging about HR in general. I don’t think I needed to, there’s nothing in my HR guide that’s problematic even if I was an ADM, but again, there is a perception element. As an acting executive, suppose I blogged that “x” was a best practice but our branch wasn’t doing that. That might be viewed as a little edgy, right?
In the end, I just didn’t blog about anything particularly work-related for the last eight months. I confess too that I’ve been dealing with some family health issues, so I didn’t have the bandwidth to really do it anyway. But it was easy just to say “no blogging” while I was acting. Now I’m back to being a regular manager, a role I understand better. If I had become permanent EX-01, I would have worked through some of the issues again to see where I was comfortable blogging, but in the short term, it was easier to ignore it and do nothing.
Blogging in a vacuum
I can wrap myself in a flag, as I have above, and say, “My duty prevented me from commenting”, but that’s a gross overstatement. My duty prevents me in the way or form I might comment, but rarely on commenting at all.
The primary problem? There was nothing to comment on.
While it derives a bit from our duty, the truth is that no public servant should ever be the canary in the coal mine blogging about undecided areas unless that’s their job to get public feedback. Suppose for example the government was trying to decide what to do about Russian ex-pats living in Canada while the war with Ukraine is going on. And suppose that I felt strongly about it and had written a bunch of blogs, stoking the fires, trying to drive a new policy where one didn’t exist currently. The government comes along, wants to act, but some stupid civil servant who isn’t responsible for the files has already filled the space, suggesting the government would/should/could never do “x”. Yet when everything is weighed, maybe “x” was the best option. But they can’t do it because they’ll look like idiots or worse. That would be a fairly big no-no for the civil service…we’re obviously never supposed to constrain options with our personal opinions. And I could see a Minister feeling like a civil servant violated their duty of loyalty in this scenario.
On WFH/RTW, the public space has generally been an official vacuum. The government has NOT occupied it, which itself has been a serious challenge since the beginning. I’ll talk more about this in future posts, but nobody knows what the “right” decision or approach is for dozens of departments and almost 400,000 employees in the government. Everyone knows a “one-size-fits-all” solution doesn’t exist, but nobody knows what variations between departments will do to policy or implementation. Everyone’s worried, the Centre isn’t saying do “THIS”, so there’s nobody official occupying the ground.
Yet it isn’t so much that I’m worried about pre-empting options as I am that I have nothing to comment on. My schtick in writing this blog is almost always explaining opaque or complex systems or processes in a more transparent way — HR, the Phoenix audit, etc. Rarely am I anywhere near driving new areas…I tend to respond, not pre-empt. One exception to that, at least somewhat, was way back when the government decided to merge CIDA with Global Affairs. Nobody knew what the result would be, and in the days following the announcement, since I no longer worked at either department, I blogged about the types of internal conversations that would be going on, the types of variables that everyone would be wrestling with for the short-term. The blogs went modestly viral among the two departments. People even saved the blogs and put copies in briefing books for ADMs to read; my posts were discussed at the Executive Committee of at least one department.
Nowhere in either of the two posts did I criticize the decision, that wasn’t my aim. As part of my work at CIDA, I looked at governance models across 30+ countries and I think there are serious risks with that type of merger, but I didn’t flag any of that. It wasn’t my job to say, “but what about…?”. Yet I do regret those posts for their timing. For CIDA-ites, many of them were REALLY stressed by the announcement. They felt they were being assimilated by the Borg. And they wanted to know what their bosses were doing, talking about, why weren’t they fighting against it, for example. And I blogged about how this type of thing works (departmental mergers, corporate discussions, etc.). An area I knew a fair amount about from my various roles. Yet perhaps I shouldn’t have blogged.
I knew that the various ADMs would NOT have written anything themselves, but I might have pre-empted some conversations they might have had, say an opportunity for a town hall where people could vent and share and bond. Instead, they bonded over the blog post. Sure, it reduced many employees’ stress levels, knowing what to expect, and they felt it helped. And one DG even contacted me years later to get a copy of the second post because I talked about the cultures of the two departments and the differences, and he liked it better than some official reports he’d seen in the interim. But maybe I should have waited for more to develop organically internally before commenting.
Yes at least I had something to react TO, a decision that had been taken.
In the WFH/RTW, there have been five pieces so far.
a. The decision to WFH in March 2020. Everyone got sent home, and over the next 2.5y, we’ve managed. There’s not a lot to say in there that people don’t already know. So why blog about it? It’s important, and academics will study it for years, sure. But I’m not sure what value-added there is in that world. I have a few things to comment upon in subsequent posts, but nothing that warranted regular blogging.
b. Attempts to manage hybrids since 2020. A few issues here and there, nothing particularly “trending”. I have some ideas about duty to accommodate and WFH, but not necessarily enough for a full blog post of substance.
c. The vaccination requirement. That was a relatively black and white issue for management, not much to comment on.
d. Decisions and communications around RTW. Some recent stuff, finally!
e. Actual implementation of RTW now. Again, some meat!
While there is a ton of stuff on Reddit every week, very little of it has been “real”, most of it is ramblings by people who have no information to base their opinions on, they’re just guessing, or rumours they heard third- and fourth-hand. Some of it has been Karen-esque, people who feel self-entitlements being infringed and demanding to speak to someone in charge, immediately!
Yet finally there is something to talk about…in future posts, I’ll talk a bit about how we got here, some of the issues outstanding, some false gremlins that people are throwing up, and some giant monsters hiding in edges of the map.