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4 Things Public Service Reform Should Keep In Mind

02/19/2016 04:02 EST | Updated 02/19/2017 05:12 EST
Danielle Donders via Getty Images

The Canadian government has kick started a process that seems to require perennial kick starting: reforming the public service in order to make it attractive to young job seekers. As a student of public administration and card-carrying member of the millennial clan, I have -- as befits my clan -- constructed an online list of things the latest batch of reforming should keep in mind:

1. The Public Sector Transcends Government

One American area from which Canada can learn is the flow of human resources through its public sector. I don't know mean the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, but the relatively easy movement of expertise from think tanks to non-profits to government agencies to academic departments.

In Canada we tend to think in institutionalized streams defined by a government, academic, private or non-profit organization career track. Experts should be able to follow a path of least resistance to where their expertise holds highest demand. Government should not see a trade off between employee retention and making it easy for expertise to enter or leave. Millennials will be more comfortable joining -- and staying at -- an organization that they know won't hold them back.

2. Millennials Themselves Need To Step Up

Much of the discussion on public service reform focuses on what government needs to do, but millennials have roles to play as well. Most importantly, we need to distinguish political crusades from doing the people's work. The former is pursuing our own ideological vision of a better world, while the latter is sifting through a variety of visions to come up with a solution that is satisfactory to the people elected to represent the public. The former is easy and gratifying; the latter can be difficult and frustrating. It's no surprise that while the public service struggles to attract young people, politicians' offices are full of them.

Being a public servant is similar to other professions like law or medicine in that it requires building a diagnostic skill set that is constantly refined as problems and their solutions evolve. Millennials' ever-hopeful mantra -- Changing The World For The Better -- does not carry clout with advocacy alone.

And what makes public servants unique -- now as ever -- is that they are the primary implementers of public policy.

3. The Public Service Is Not Google

Through much of the 20th century bureaucrats proudly sported well-worn grey suits in contrast to the crisp attire of the business community. Ottawa and provincial capitals held its own unique prestige that rivaled and at times trumped Bay Street. This sense of identity wasn't sparked by mirroring the private sector, but was born from what distinguished the public sector: responsibility for where the country was heading and proximity to political power.

Similarly, the 21st century public service won't find its esprit de corps through mimicking sweater-wearing, table-tennis-playing tech geniuses in Silicon Valley. Identity emerges through capitalizing on distinction. And what makes public servants unique -- now as ever -- is that they are the primary implementers of public policy. They are the living, breathing Canadian state, and should act like it.

4. En Français?

The federal government has a unique challenge in that so many of its positions require capability in both French and English in order to apply. With the Canadian bilingualism rate at just under 20 per cent of the population, that excludes a massive chunk of the talent pool. This hinders the hunt for millennials before it has even begun. Yet Canadian legislation and symbolic norms (at least East of Winnipeg) require bilingualism at the federal level.

One way out of this conundrum is for the public service is to follow the advice offered by Professor Linda Duxbury -- from Carleton University's Sprott School of Business -- on CBC's The Current (February 2016): mandate French for relevant positions yes, but don't make it mandatory for the application process. Those who apply for positions with a French requirement will have to go through government-provided training once they obtain the position. Broadening the talent pool (while increasing the bilingual population) will offset the extra costs of such training.

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