The influence of hockey on Canadian society can’t be overstated. Kids playing the sport feature on the five-dollar bill. Buses light up with scores on game night. And the national pastime has even changed government’s hiring practices.
“Every off-season in hockey, some players become free agents and change teams,” said Taran Wasson, talent manager for Canada’s Free Agents at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat.
Canada’s Free Agents program recreates this approach in the public service, allowing a select group of innovative public servants to move from department to department, choosing projects that match their skills and interests. It gives talented government employees mobility and freedom of choice, and hiring managers access to a pool of pre-vetted, highly skilled civil servants.
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‘We’re innovating HR’
Canada’s government recognised that it had to provide employees with more choice if it wanted to attract and retain the best people.
“We’re innovating HR. We give employees what they really want, which is mobility and autonomy: the freedom to make decisions about what work they want to do,” said Wasson.
“This isn’t just a model that other countries should replicate, but that any employer should replicate,” he added.
Free Agents started in 2016 at Natural Resources Canada, and has since expanded to Transport Canada and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat. It’s been hailed by organisations ranging from Canada’s Privy Council to the OECD.
But the program still faces challenges.
“We’re changing the system a bit, and there are pressures. Some parts of the government of Canada haven’t fully liked us,” said Wasson. “We’re doing [talent recruitment] differently, and some people are uncomfortable with that change.”
The secret to making the program work is selective hiring — it’s not easy to become a Free Agent. “It’s a lot different than traditional government application processes,” said Wasson. “This isn’t for everyone.”
The Free Agents screen for 14 different attributes, most of which are not traditionally assessed for by government. They want recruits who are innovative, creative, good problem-solvers and humble, among other qualities. Traditionally, public sector hiring is more focused on competencies.
“We want Free Agents to be a way for public servants to advance in their careers”
Perhaps most importantly, Free Agents must thrive on change. “They may work for six months in one department, a year in another agency, then back to the first department. Someone who isn’t comfortable with that wouldn’t be good at this,” said Wasson.
Once accepted, Free Agents have their pick of departments and projects to work on. One Agent did communications work on carbon pricing initiatives; another helped bring policy experimentation principles into practice across the federal public service; another has worked in project management in healthcare.
Because they drop into a variety of departments and projects, hiring managers may worry that Free Agents don’t have the institutional knowledge to fully understand the fields they’re working in.
But as Wasson points out, while these people may not have in-depth knowledge in every area, they are experts in the tool or approach they specialise in — be it behavioural economics, big data analytics or design thinking. “Free Agents provide hiring managers and their organisations with top-end talent who are innovators and problem-solvers,” he said.
After every assignment, the Free Agent is surveyed on the experience and supervisors fill out performance reviews. In a pilot, 90% of managers were satisfied, and 84% would hire a Free Agent again.
To encourage professional development, every Free Agent is assigned a talent manager like Wasson. The talent manager is there to help them advance in their careers, which can mean helping them to become a better manager, find more challenging work or even improve their French.
Of course, the talent manager position is also inspired by Canada’s national sport. “It’s a player and agent-slash-coach-relationship: the talent manager protects his or her interests, and guides the player to becoming a better professional,” said Wasson. “Ultimately, we want Free Agents to be a way for public servants to advance in their careers.” — Jennifer Guay
(Picture credit: Unsplash)