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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Blizzard on Skills, Training and Contract Negotiation

I find this kind of thing fascinating. 
In ranting a bit about eHealth and publicly paid PhDs, Christina Blizzard scratches the surface of some more complex and highly relevant questions:
What do we want in Public Employees?
Does Blizzard have a point when she says the public shouldn't be paying for the education of a public servant?  It's a more complex question than it appears on the surface.
Chief Operating Officer is a significant position; traditional wisdom suggests that the person who holds that office has to be organized, focused and a little bit aggressive to get the job done.  The sort of people who fit this profile are competitive, self-motivated, driven; the theory is that if they're hungry for their own power/title/wealth, they'll work extra hard on behalf of their company to achieve it.  You determine this kind of profile in the interview/contract negotiation process by how confident they come across and how effective they are in forcing you to give them what they want
In the Private Sector, additional education is frequently included in contract negotiations; to ask for it is an indication of a desire to keep going, not settle, which suggests the right stuff for an employee.  And were this a discussion about Private Sector employment, it wouldn't even be a story.
But this is the Ontario Public Service.  More to the point, it's eHealth, which has a demonstrably troubled history.  People on the political right constantly refer to eHealth as an indication of why you have to run government like a business to get the efficiencies and end product that public sector/union safety cushions theoretically provide.  Government needs to function like a business to be competitive and attract the right talent that would otherwise go to the Private Sector.  Right?
But if you want to compete with the Private Sector and in practice, senior Private Sector positions go to the aggressive folk who want lots of money, expect personal value-add (including education) to be part of their contract and want control over their work, then doesn't the Public Sector have to compete with the same carrots to attract that talent?
Of course, you can easily argue this is further evidence that the Public Sector has no business offering services to the Public, that Private is entirely the way to go.  Do your homework, then ask yourself - would you really want MGM Resorts International running Ontario's hospitals or online health services?  I would imagine not.  Yet gaming is a high-profit industry that attracts those confident, aggressive, take-no-prisoner types who we apparently want to woo to senior Public Sector positions.  So is Goldman Sachs.  So was Lehman Brothers.  When you dig around, there are actually a lot of Chris Mazza types in the Private Sector, too.
This before even touching the mandate differences between traditional Private Sector vs Public Sector operations - ie, narrow scope of service targeting specific markets vs creating an equitable playing field for everyone.  It's a church/state division, though we tend not to look at it that way.
There's fair bit of cognitive dissonance here, but that's for another post.
Is training something you do and move on from?
With this column, Blizzard implies that staff should come fully-formed, fully-trained and ready to do a job in perpetuity.  Or rather, the job at the time; I read into this the implication that if a given employee isn't independently able to measure up to changes in a position, we should cut them loose and replace them. 
Yet the cost of retraining and the institutional stress that comes with shifting senior people is proven to reduce efficacy over the duration of the shift.  If you look at the Public Service, again, I'm sure Blizzard would agree that in times of political uncertainty, there's a real hesitancy on the part of bureaucrats to enact anything, knowing they might have to undo their work and head in a completely new direction as soon as the next election roles around. 
I don't know a thing about Alice Keung, but from Blizzard's article alone, it's clear she's been with eHealth for some time; that means she knows the corporate culture, system and team, meaning she'd have an easier time facilitating a transition than would an outside player brought in.  It's fair to argue eHealth could use a culture change, but at the same time, I don't think it's fair to criticize an organization for trying to retain talent and using education to help accommodate promoted employees to maximize their potential in new roles.  It's more efficient to promote inhouse than to bring in outsiders; if efficiency is your sole goal, then training existing talent has to be part of your mandate. 
Training shouldn't be a four letter word in any sector.
This ties in to the broader economic transformation going on - whereas my parents both had the same jobs for their whole lives, the majority of us will be cycling through careers our entire working lives, with retirement increasingly a frill rather than an expectation. 
Scratch that - we might not even be looking at traditional careers anymore, but working on a project-by-project basis.  This means that training will be an ongoing requirement for a growing segment of the population - a costly one, too, if everyone has to go back to college or university to succeed.  Second Careers is a great program, but it's not designed for that kind of volume.  There's a change happening in education with, much like healthcare, an emphasis on using the Internet to offer more options to a broader audience.

This ties in to the ongoing debate around whether "extra" curriculars are truly extra, but we don't want to connect too many dots all at once, do we?
Christina Blizzard is a traditionalist and she writes to the Sun Chain's audience, so you can't blame her for being consistent.  By focusing on disgust at surface problems, though, she's ignoring the structural challenges facing our economic, education and public service systems (which, worth noting, eHealth is meant to help address).  She's missing the opportunities, too.
The opportunity here is to have a broader debate about what training means, who and how should it be paid for and how the Public Service can recruit the best Private Sector talent without using public dollars to deliver the same kinds of perks Private Sector entities don't mind paying to get the most assertive talent.  It's going to be tricky and it will never happen if the various Parties at the table are focused on aggressively pursuing their own interests at the expense of everyone else.
As Premier Kathleen Wynne might say, this is a conversation worth having.

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