Ottawa is finally getting something right, according to one of its fiercest critics of late, federal auditor general Sheila Fraser.
In the past few years, Fraser has taken the federal government to task most notably for its sponsorship scandal. But when it comes to making improvements to human resources management, the government is getting it right, said Fraser in her annual report released last month.
“The government is making satisfactory progress in laying the groundwork for some far-reaching changes in the way it manages human resources,” she said.
Downsizing and restructuring of the ’90s brought widespread concerns about how employees were affected and how human resources were being managed. In 2001, then auditor general Denis Desautels identified several troubling human resources management flaws that, if left unchecked, would lead to serious staffing and performance problems.
Two years later the federal government responded with the Public Service Modernization Act, a sweeping legislation to overhaul HR management practices.
•increased flexibility in staffing and managing people;
•more constructive, co-operative labour-management relations;
•more coherent training and learning; and
•clarified roles and strengthened accountability for those responsible for managing the public service.
Though the legislation is still being rolled out, and the two most significant elements will only come into effect later this year, Fraser said, “the government has laid a solid foundation for modernizing its management of human resources.”
It was nice to get the positive review, said Monique Boudrias, executive vice-president of the Public Service Human Resources Management Agency of Canada, created as part of the new legislation. “Coming from the auditor general, a positive report is always welcome,” she said.
Meanwhile, in Victoria, a similar story is being told though on a four-year delay. Shortly before the federal report card was issued, the British Columbia government had its knuckles rapped for the way it has been managing its human resources — much as Ottawa was rebuked in 2001.
Based on a 2003 survey of B.C. public-sector workers, provincial auditor general Wayne Strelioff said downsizing and restructuring has badly eroded employees’ trust and confidence in their leaders. Just 28 per cent of respondents said they believe executives are aware of, or care about, the concerns of employees.
“To hold the government accountable, legislators and the public need to know whether or not the work environment provides the support employees need to deliver these services successfully,” said Strelioff.
He called on the government to continue with plans to implement new succession planning, leadership development, employee recognition and performance appraisals programs.
“We are accepting all of his recommendation and we will continue to be working with some of the initiatives we have already undertaken,” Joyce Murray, Minister for the Public Service Agency, told Canadian HR Reporter. She cited a $14-million, seven-year commitment to new leadership training initiatives and a succession planning program to identify future leaders and put them through stretch assignments and mentoring.
The survey was done two years ago when restructuring and downsizing was in full swing. But even then, the survey numbers had improved in 40 of 48 categories, she said.
“I am not going to suggest that there isn’t more to do. Clearly we want to be a workplace of choice and we really want bright and capable people to choose the public service.” She added that the survey shows progress is being made and the next survey will confirm things are continuing to get better.
Progress in Ottawa is being made largely due to the considerable collaboration between all levels and areas of the public service, said Boudrias. Deputy ministers, central agencies and even unions have been contributing to make this a success, she added.
Fraser did sound a few notes of caution however. She recommended further clarification of the role of the Public Service Human Resources Agency and better reporting to Parliament on implementation of the legislation.
She also pointed out that it is vital to maintain momentum to ensure modernization remains a priority for years to come, and expressed concerns about a shortage of HR expertise and skills within the government to fully effect the change envisioned.
The culture change will be done over a much longer period of time, said Boudrias. But the learning and development strategies and other changes set out by the legislation will help ensure the commitment is long-lasting. As for the right HR skills sets, Boudrias said they have already taken steps to address the problem.
“We are looking into training and building those skills, and moving them from being transactional to a more strategic advisor,” she said.
Marcia Clement of the Association of Professional Executives of the Public Service of Canada said the association agrees with Fraser that good progress is being made.
The new legislation should change the culture of HR management to “one that is more based on principles and fairness and transparency, rather than one that is based on procedures and processes,” she said. For example, one objective is to delegate authority and decision-making to the lowest reasonable level. That hasn’t happened yet but the groundwork is being done, she said.
“Our only concern at this point is that we feel the level of knowledge and engagement of line managers and executives is not there yet.”
In a meeting with senior executives last fall, the group was asked if they had, as asked, discussed draft policies within their department to generate feedback. “We asked for a show of hands of people who had been consulting (with their department) and they were few and far between,” she said.
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