Future of Work

First challenge for new public sector gig hiring platform: Help government compete for tech talent

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Startups are not the only organizations facing tough competition for top tech talent. The Canadian federal government, which already employs tens of thousands of IT staff, is looking for digitally-skilled workers to rebuild information systems and offer more services online. But it risks losing out on talent because of the drawn-out public-sector hiring process and, for some, the undesirable long tenures associated with civil-service careers.

A small team within government has launched a pilot for a platform to help the public sector bring in skilled workers for key projects, make the hiring process easier and faster and set new standards for short-term work.

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Talking Point

Government’s complicated hiring process is hurting its ability to attract top talent. A small team within government thinks it has a way to make staffing cheaper and faster. The new system, called GC Talent Cloud, is being billed as the “world’s first public-sector gig marketplace,” and it allows government departments to bring in skilled workers on key projects for short stints. If it works, it will provide a radical new model for civil service recruitment.

It’s the “world’s first public-sector gig marketplace,” said Lauren Hunter, director of the GC Talent Cloud, as the platform is known. 

The early positions listed on the GC Talent Cloud are for coders, user-experience designers and data analysts. Of course, there’s no shortage of jobs for tech workers in Canada today.

The GC Talent Cloud focuses on filling roles lasting between six months and three years on specific projects within government departments. Those short stints may appeal to civic-minded experts who want to make contributions to the public sector, but who don’t want to be in the public service long-term. Hunter said the GC TalentCloud’s short-stint model is based on research showing that people “above a certain pay grade will take shorter gigs [and] pay cuts in some instances, to come in and do work that they’re very passionate about.”

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Tech talent in particular has been encouraged to undertake “tours of duty” in government in recent years; earlier this month, at a White House meeting, the Trump administration called on executives from Microsoft, Google, IBM and others to enable their employees to take such gigs.

There is “a huge benefit to that kind of cross-sector pollination,” said Nisa Malli, a senior policy analyst at Ryerson University’s Brookfield Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship who also spent five years in two federal departments after graduate school.

Malli pointed to what she called the high calibre of applicants to the Code for Canada program—a 10-month fellowship program that puts teams of developers and designers into government—as evidence of enthusiasm among skilled tech workers for such work. However, Interchange, another program that brings people into the government from industry or re-assigns workers within the public service for short stints, saw only 328 new assignments in 2017; most involved secondments between federal agencies.

For skilled workers, the lengthy public sector hiring process can deter them from government jobs. It takes 197 days on average for a position to be filled after it is posted externally, Patrick Borbey, president of the Public Service Commission (PSC), the bureaucratic staffing watchdog, told the House of Commons Government Operations Committee last month.  According to Malli, a candidate who is “in high enough demand [to] have other opportunities” is likely to look less favourably on a six- or eight-month hiring process.

The PSC is leading its own project to overhaul GC Jobs, the existing hiring portal, including technology to screen candidates and more regular updates for applicants.

The GC Talent Cloud team aims to reduce the hiring period to 30 days when the platform is at full scale. It will help managers sort through candidates faster, including by retaining records for government hiring exams and other credentials to avoid re-testing. Many other planned changes involve taking processes that typically occur one after another or late in the application process—like security checks and language tests—and doing them earlier, or simultaneously.

Postings on the GC Talent Cloud include far more information about the position, manager and team than is typical for government jobs, which stops candidates from wasting time applying to positions they won’t ultimately take, and cuts down on the number of applications managers have to vet.

GC Talent Cloud jobs are full time and come with traditional public service extended health and dental benefits and pension pay-ins after three and six months respectively, as well as union representation. The team is also encouraging managers to offer remote work and schedule flexibility. The platform is an opportunity for the government to “set that standard for gig work” by offering flexible, short-term jobs that still have good labour conditions and supports,” Malli said.

The federal government has regularly brought staff in as “casual” appointments for jobs shorter than 90 days. Such workers are not entitled to benefits.

In other cases, the government’s procurement function is used to source contractors from agencies—adding additional costs. In a 2015 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, almost half of the union’s members who responded said they knew of such workers on their teams, while a 2011 study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated personnel outsourcing costs had risen 79 per cent in the preceding five years. “It’s costing us more taxpayer dollars to do it that way, and managers have less control over the talent they actually get,” Hunter said.

It’s also to the detriment of the workers, who can face challenges being credited for their experiences and achievements within government. So the GC Talent Cloud will have its own credential recognition system, which allows people to be “badged” for skills they acquire or improve during their stints in a department or agency.

It’s still early days for the GC Talent Cloud—the version that has been live for two weeks is a beta, and the tools to help managers screen candidates faster have yet to be rolled out. Administration professionals are among the next set of jobs set to be added to the platform.

Hunter said 20 jobs are likely to be posted between now and December, with an additional 50 to 100 from January to March, depending on the availability of addition resources. It will take until “the later part of 2019 to see this starting to scale across lots of different departments,” she said.