• Opinion
  • February 4, 2019
  • 8 minutes
  • 6

Canada is helping public servants to find their purpose

Opinion: The Canada's Free Agents program points to the need for a new HR paradigm

Canada's Free Agents

This piece was written by Abe Greenspoon, Program Lead, Canada’s Free Agents. He can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn and Medium. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


In February 2019, I mark my 10 year anniversary working in the Canadian federal public service. Over these 10 years, I’ve been really lucky to work on some great projects with some great people. But along the way I’ve met many people who haven’t been so lucky; who seemed to be stuck in the wrong job, struggling to find their purpose.

I’ve come to realise that our system is full of people who feel stuck, who have lost control of their professional lives, and who are weighing the pros and cons of leaving. These unmotivated employees pose a huge risk for the public service, which is already struggling to attract talent. If we want to do better, we need people whose purpose inspires them so they will contribute to making life better for our citizens.

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So, for the past few years, we’ve been trying to create the conditions that will help more people find their purpose. In 2016, with the Innovation Hub in Canada’s Department of Natural Resources, I was given the opportunity to lead the pilot of an experimental workforce model that may provide a solution. We call it Canada’s Free Agents.

The Canada’s Free Agents program recruits existing public servants who demonstrate attributes that are internationally recognised as useful for experimenting and problem-solving, such as empathy, action-orientation, team-orientation, creativity and outcomes-focus.

Unmotivated employees pose a huge risk for the public service

Our hiring process has been purposefully designed to be faster and more effective than traditional public service competitions. We use team-based role-playing scenarios where candidates work together to demonstrate the attributes we’re seeking.

Successful candidates are moved into positions at three separate “home” ministries. From there, the employees are given full autonomy to find and complete projects anywhere in the federal public service that match their interests — hence “Free Agents”.

Each home ministry has up to 30 Free Agents and one talent manager. Talent managers provide career advice, tailored learning such as mentoring and coaching, and performance feedback. As Free Agents complete their projects, the home ministries recover program costs, including Free Agent and talent manager salaries. Free Agents move from project to project as long as they are in the program and can exit into a permanent position elsewhere at any time.

With Canada’s Free Agents, we are also interested in moving away from location-based work by leveraging existing technologies. Geographically, Canada is a very large country, and we have talented people working in all corners. We have recruited people from coast to coast, and we are encouraging managers to support virtual and telework arrangements. Talent is not determined by geography, and we need to be able to find the right person for the job, no matter where they are located.

Free Agents are also well connected to each other both virtually and in person. As a network, our program is a reservoir of unique, collective intelligence and experience, which individuals leverage to optimise their work.

Free Agents move from project to project as long as they are in the program

We created Canada’s Free Agents to gather insights about the potential benefits of employee autonomy and mobility and use these insights to influence human resources (HR) policy.

The early results have been very positive and point to the need for a new paradigm. Our model, based on a foundation of autonomy, seems to provide significant tangible benefits for public servants — both Free Agents and hiring managers.

Within Canada’s Free Agents, we are seeing improved retention, better matching of people to work and more meaningful conversations with managers about how they can best support their employees. The results from our frequent surveys of Free Agents highlight the benefits they enjoy from their autonomy and mobility, such as greater influence over their work environments, greater support for innovation and greater job satisfaction than the public service average.

Canada’s Free Agents also provides some significant HR system benefits. Hiring new employees can be time consuming and high risk for what are often temporary needs. Hiring consultants can be much more expensive, and their expertise is often lost when a project ends.

We’re focused on helping public servants find their purpose so they can better serve our country

With our unique model, we can deploy Free Agents to work on projects in a matter of days. We take care of the HR processes so that managers and Free Agents can focus on delivering results. For short-term project needs, Free Agents provide a rapid, lower-risk option for managers, and the public service retains their knowledge.

As you can see, with Canada’s Free Agents we’re focused on helping public servants find their purpose so they can better serve our country. We envision optimised HR processes, free-flow of talent across siloed organisations and people matched with their passions. These are the conditions under which public servants can best deliver the services our citizens expect.

If you’re interested in our vision, please connect with us. You can follow our Twitter account or send us an email. We need your help to make this vision a reality. — Abe Greenspoon

(Picture credit: Canada’s Free Agents)

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