The evolving public sector IT job

Technology in Government hosted a round table discussion at this year’s GTEC to look at how these movements are changing the face of the public sector IT department, the challenges managers face and the skills newcomers will need to succeed. John Rath-Wilson, director general of benefits processing, Service Canada and its former CTO, Stephen Stanley, branch manager, consulting services division, Robert Half Technology in Ottawa, and Frank Mayhood, IT manager, City of Kamloops shared their thoughts. Greg Meckbach, editor of sister publication Communications&Networking, chaired the event.

TIG: Compared to, say, five or 10 years ago, have you found it more difficult to attract quality talent?

Frank Mayhood: I will answer that from two perspectives. One is the City of Kamloops perspective. The city is one of the very few large IT shops in town. Up until now we’ve been able to mostly influence the IT job market. I’ve had only one staff turnover in the last five years. On the other hand, I’m also past-president of the Information Systems Association of British Columbia, and there are places like Whistler and Nanaimo, which are much more expensive to live in. My friend from Whistler was telling me a story last night about trying to get a systems analyst position for Whistler. He said he offered a fellow with six co-op work terms and about three months experience $48,000 per year, and (the applicant) said, ‘thanks but no thanks.” Those things are quite common in municipalities in high-income areas, and those people have a lot of trouble hiring. I, on the other hand, am in one of the cheapest places to live in, and if I offer a decent job with a decent salary, I can keep people.

John Rath-Wilson: From the federal perspective, I’m not sure we have as much trouble recruiting people as we have in dealing with the rules that are put in place to be able to hire people. We’ve been faced with essentially freezing the size of our organization for the last three to four years, and as a result of that, it’s been very difficult to bring people in, although there are people available in the job market. Ottawa has a great job market for some of the same reasons Canada has – the quality of life here. I think the salaries we offer in the federal government are fairly competitive. So it’s not a question of, “Is there a shortage of people?” I don’t believe there is one at the moment, from what we can see, it’s just that we can’t get them through the door.

Stephen Stanley: We’re getting more requests coming through our office than we have people. It’s hard to get people in the door. Good candidates are out there right now, it’s just that they’re finding other jobs.

TIG: A follow up question for John: What sort of rules are you talking about besides job freezes? Are there any other bureaucratic constraints on hiring?

JRW: Part of the problem right now is the commitment of the government to return savings to the centre to pay for health care and the military. Consequently, departments have had their budgets cut significantly.

Apart from that, getting into the public service is not the easiest thing to do. How many people here are from the public service? (Most audience members raised their hands.) Congratulations, you got through the door. The manner in which the Public Service Commission and the law prescribes that we hire people makes it more difficult for us. We can’t just go and find somebody on the street, bring them in and offer them a full-time job. That’s a distinction that sets us apart from the private sector.

FM: My most recent recruiting was for a records staff position, sort of IT but not. The latest problem we had was getting the job description approved, classified and a salary assigned. That process took about eight months. I’m not sure why that happens – maybe it’s longer in the federal government. Maybe that’s quick, but to me it was extremely frustrating. People were expecting that something would come out of that. But to have an eight-month delay while they looked at the requirements and decided how much they were willing to pay somebody to do it? I think we all have those kinds of constraints. Oh, and then it took six months to hire somebody, and then three months, once they accepted the job, to get them.

JRW: I should add that once you move into a management position, you are pretty much required to have proficiency in French, or a second language. It severely limits our ability to bring in new blood – people that have maybe reached the senior management level in the private sector, to bring them into the public sector, because unless you’re very fortunate, you’re not going to find a perfectly bilingual individual that’s there to take on that role. So it limits our ability to utilize the expertise that’s available in the marketplace at the senior management level.

TIG: Does it really make sense to require someone who is bilingual in Toronto, for example, where there are more Cantonese speakers than French speakers?

JRW: Clearly there are some issues around bilingualism and there are plans to review the requirements, but you have to remember that the bilingual requirement of the public service is not a bureaucratic regulation. It’s a political pact that was made in the 1950s by the Prime Minister and the Cabinet and the Government of Canada, and a commitment that was made at the time. We can’t just change those rules without going back to the political issue.

TIG: A follow up for Frank: What do you need to do to make a public sector IT employee’s job more interesting and are there any constraints in the public sector that may make a public sector IT job less interesting than one in the private sector? For example, new innovations which may be more readily adopted on the private sector than in the public sector?

FM: Most people in IT like to play with toys, so if you can give them some hope that they’ll be looking at new and emerging technologies as part of their job, that’s going to be the biggest incentive to keep them around. We try to do that. We try to make sure they have active training for everyone, and I have to fight for that tooth and nail. Training and access to something new on a regular basis are the two things that will keep people most loyal to you, (as does) treating them with respect and giving them the flexibility to influence their own environment. The biggest challenge that we have right now when placing people in government is the Enhanced Reliability (security) check.

TIG: Is that just the waiting time to get the clearance done?

FM: Pretty much.

JRW: People’s view of the public service is one of massive red tape rolling around somewhere in Ottawa, and my experience is nothing could be further from the truth. We’re a fascinating organization that works seven hours a day – er, seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We have mission-critical systems that keep Canada safe, keep Canada in business. The new job that I just got (CPP, OAS and other payments) works out to a corporation of $70 billion a year, and it’s a fascinating environment. The neat thing about the government is you can move around once you’re in the government, and you can take advantage of all the interesting things that are going on. Trying to buck that myth is important and it helps us recruit as well. There are so many fascinating things to do, lots of creative work going on, and we need to find good people to do that.

FM: The thing that fascinates me in my job is the variety. The municipal government runs everything from the pools, to cleaning the screens at the water treatment plant.

Some of those service are so critical that if you don’t do them, even for a day or two, you have to evacuate the community.

TIG: It’s my perception, covering networking and telecom, that there’s a blurring of the boundaries between those two areas, whereas in the past you’d have one department for networking and one for telecom. Do you find in the public sector those departments are coming together? Do you have issues of, say, IT folks need to get a better understanding of telecom, or the telecom folks need to get a better understanding of data networking? Has this affected your departments at all?

JRW: In Service Canada, we’ve initiated a fairly large project. We call it information communication technology renewal, and it’s the development of a tender to bring in the next generation network for these departments, with 26,000 employees across the country. Today, we get network services through Telus, in a managed networking environment, and we have various contracts with telecos but predominantly with Bell and with Telus for voice. We also host a set of interactive voice response call centres.

We have 16 across the country and we handle 55 million phone calls a year, so when we talk about integrating data and voice in our department, it’s a pretty big job.

The purpose of this contract that we’re setting up (and it will probably be coming up within the next six months), is to obtain those services from a single provider. We’ve had to bring our data groups and our voice groups together. There have certainly been issues as we bring people with different backgrounds and skill sets together. There’s a lot of learning that has to go on on both sides, and I think we’re well along the path there. But definitely the way to begin this integration process is to bring your telecom and your data communications together, and I think our business case shows there’s significant savings once we’ve integrated the two, particularly the telephones and the desk sets people use in their office.

When we start looking at the call centres, the IVR component, the use of voice over IP technology there expands the functionality of those groups enormously. Now you can have call centre agents that are sitting in their homes, or sitting in their offices, in different parts of the country, and they can all be part of that – a virtual call centre. There are great advantages to it, and I think it’s a necessary step.

FM: We went live with voice over IP in October 2004. The first thing that happened was the Telus guy walked into my office and said, “Your telephone switch is unsupportable by October, and you’re going to have to spend $80,000 on upgrading.”

That was past my budget submission time, so I didn’t have any way of getting that money. We now have 41 km of fibre that connect all of our sites. We’re there, it works. It (IP) is a big load on your support people.

JRW: There’s more knowledge of how the jobs are changing in the audience than at this table, but I can tell you from a hiring and a management perspective, we’re looking at the need for … people with multiple skills sets who have the ability to develop along the management track as well as along the technical track. I think in the past, jobs were largely technical in the public service. There’s a much larger spectrum of activity now in what we’re doing. Because of how systems develop, you need people with management skills that can build an organization.

Technical skills change so rapidly in the marketplace, you need to make sure that you’re well positioned, so people in the management cadre are still there to be able to carry on.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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