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Attracting and recruiting top talent, with a little help from our friends

We get by with a little help from our friends is a blog series profiling the amazing public servants who enable us and our partners to design and deliver better services.

Passionate, skilled people are the foundation of the Canadian Digital Service (CDS). It’s a not-so-secret sauce of diverse top external and internal talent, working together in small, multidisciplinary teams.

One key ingredient is people who might not normally have considered working for government. We were confident there were developers, designers, researchers, and product managers who would sign up for a “tour of service” to help people at the scale of country. But to attract and recruit them, we would have to do things differently.

And, there was a catch: we had to do it within the existing rule system. We have no special staffing authorities.

So we have relied on the cooperation, ingenuity, and resourcefulness of our colleagues in human resources. Doreen Gagnon and Caroline Thouin have consistently set the tone with their leadership. They focus on what we need to do and help us problem-solve. And we have benefited from the tremendous support of Émilie Payant, Mounir El-Alami, David Cairns, Émilie Fortin, Julienne Hajdu, Karine Allard, Émilie Morin, and Amanda Marcellus on a range of recruitments and talent initiatives. Day in, day out, they help us get the job done. They tackle problems creatively, they are very responsive when we need to move quickly, and they give us great advice.

With their help, we’ve been able to grow our multidisciplinary team from 15 to 60 in 18 months. Here are a few examples of how we’ve done that.

  • We pushed the limits on hiring speed. In our early days, we often used casual appointments to “bridge” to terms, allowing new CDSers to start considerably sooner. (We phased this practice out, once we honed our direct-to-term process.)
  • We hired in new or emerging (to government) disciplines like design and product management, using existing job categories. We are now working with our HR colleagues and the Office of the Chief Human Resource Officer (OCHRO) on job descriptions and classification alignment for the longer term (more on that soon!).
  • We recruited a CEO through a process that was agnostic on staffing mechanism (e.g. appointment or Interchange), had a job poster written in language that would resonate with potential candidates (e.g. “obsessed with users”), included an Ask Me Anything-style session for shortlisted candidates, and used a rolling rather than fixed-date application and evaluation process. Read more about it in former Senior Advisor Lena Trudeau’s reflections on recruiting our CEO.
  • We brought in the first-ever federal Code for Canada team. Our colleagues helped us figure out the Interchange for this new fellowship program. OCHRO later made it possible for any federal department to hire a group of fellows. If you want to learn more, policy manager John Millons has the details.
  • We’ve hired from abroad with the support of the Global Skills Strategy run out of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada. Our former Manager of Operations, Meera Makim-Cunningham, wrote about how we did that. Our HR colleagues have helped us explore and master every nook and cranny of the relocation provisions (both the overall National Joint Council directive and the Interchange-specific provisions).

Almost every hire we make is different and covers new staffing terrain in one way or another. We’ve used nearly every conceivable staffing instrument at our disposal. And here’s the thing: every time we bring a new case or question, or seek to push the envelope in a new way, the reaction from our HR colleagues is constructive. Whatever we throw their way, the response is always “Okay, let’s figure this out,” not “You can’t do that.” They give us options and help us weigh them. We often have a good laugh about it: “here we go again”.

Today, our relationship is closer than ever. Émilie Payant co-locates with our team two days a week, and we have a shared Slack channel for (unclassified!) status checks and questions.

The Human Resources Directorate here at TBS has helped us assemble the kind of team we were mandated to build.

To Émilie, Caroline, and the whole team — thank you for meeting the needs of your users so well. Talent is the engine that drives CDS, and we couldn’t do it without you.