Coleen Volk, Government of Canada: Exclusive Interview

By on 16/01/2015 | Updated on 09/03/2016
Coleen Volk, deputy secretary to the cabinet, senior personnel, business transformation and renewal, Privy Council Office, Canada

Coleen Volk is deputy secretary to the cabinet, senior personnel, business transformation and renewal, of the Privy Council Office. She tells Winnie Agbonlahor about her broad portfolio

On March 25, 2013, Coleen Volk picked up the phone and was offered one of the most important, senior and prestigious roles in the Canadian government. She was contacted by Wayne Wouters, the former head of the Canadian civil service – or Clerk of the Privy Council in Canadian government lingo – who told Volk that she had been chosen to be the next deputy secretary to the cabinet for senior personnel, business transformation and renewal, of the Privy Council Office (PCO). Volk, who was working as assistant deputy minister (‘deputy ministers’ are the most senior civil servants of a department in Canada) of the Environmental Stewardship Branch at Environment Canada, said ‘yes’ and assumed her role on April 29, 2013.

Being targeted for top jobs, rather than applying for them, is common practice in the Canadian senior civil service, Volk explains. “We don’t apply,” she says, “we just get told.” This approach, she says, is “good and bad.” Although Volk says that Wouters effectively rang her up to say “congratulations on your new job”, it was not as straightforward as that. First, there is a rigorous process in place across the public service to identify senior leaders with the potential to become deputy ministers. And the then deputy clerk, Janice Charette, covertly tried a few weeks before the Clerk’s call to gauge whether Volk would be interested and determine if she would be the right fit. “Allegedly, the reason we were having a chat was so she could get to know me,” Volk says, adding that she was essentially having a job interview without being aware of it.

Some people, however, Volk says, “don’t even get the job interview. I think I got one because I was coming to PCO and I was going to be working very closely with Janice. Some people just get the call saying ‘congratulations’.”

Selecting Appointments

Today, Volk is working somewhat on the other end of the spectrum. Her responsibility for senior personnel means that she oversees the recommendations on appointments into 2,000 senior government posts, or ‘Governor in Council’ (GIC) appointments. These range from heads of agencies and CEOs of crown corporations to members of quasi-judicial tribunals. In practice, Volk and the selection committees she heads up make recommendations for around 100 major appointments every year.

Sometimes working with private sector head-hunters, a selection committee generally puts forward a shortlist of candidates for a particular role to the relevant minister who makes his/her recommendation to the GIC – effectively the prime minister. However, neither the minister nor the prime minister is bound by any of these recommendations. “The minister may take other factors into consideration besides the specific advice of the selection committee,” Volk says.

Technically, a minister could disregard the selection committee’s recommendations and put forward his/her own candidate – someone Volk and her team may never have heard of. The “ultimate selection [is made] by the prime minister,” Volk says. But, Volk makes clear: such a scenario is “very hypothetical and would not be the common practice.” Just in theory then, I wonder, if it were to happen, what could Volk do if she and her committee did not agree at all with the minister’s recommendation? “We have a direct line of advice to the prime minister as well, so we could always get that advice up to the prime minister saying ‘this is not consistent with our advice’ or ‘we really don’t like that recommendation’.”

Even though it might not be common practice, critics could argue there is scope for these appointments to be politicised. But Volk is confident there is little opportunity for this. Under this government, she says, “there has been a particular commitment to fair, open and transparent processes for these appointments so that it’s not simply a question of appointing a friend or a relative or something like that.” However, she adds that, “these are GIC appointments at the end of the day, […] so I wouldn’t say it’s impossible that some of the appointments would have political shades to them but the processes we run to provide that advice are entirely non-political. I feel it was a commitment of this government to ensure that selection processes were merit-based, that they were open and transparent and I think they’ve lived up to that commitment.”

What The Future Looks Like

The other part of Volk’s role focuses on the government’s own internal transformation and renewal – “a completely different side to my job”, she says. It involves “advice to the clerk on management, operations and service delivery”. But she adds that, with an ever-changing world, the “big challenge of this role is figuring out what the public service of the future is going to look like, what that means for us as an institution [and whether] we have the capacity, the skill sets, the employment model to support that public service of the future; and if not, what we need to do to get them.”

The Canadian government has already taken big steps to reform its public service offer to citizens. It created ‘Service Canada’, which provides Canadian citizens with a single point of access to a wide range of government services and benefits either in person, by phone, by internet, or by email at around 600 outlets across the country. The service, which began operation in September 2005, “has been quite attractive to Canadians” Volk says.

One common challenge faced by any government attempting to integrate its services is to overcome departmental boundaries. To make it work in the case of Service Canada, Volk says, “we needed a lot of collaboration across departments, which have to approach this not as a turf issue, but as a broader issue bigger than them or their department”. And although the initiative seems to have turned out a success, Volk sees room for improvement: “If there were one skill that people could have in government, I think, it would be collaboration,” she says, adding that the government now needs to figure out “what the evolution of that [service] is and what we need to do to really catch up and move that into the service delivery model of the future.”

Blueprint 2020

The first step towards this seems to be in hand at the Government of Canada. Under the leadership of the previous civil service head (or clerk in Canadian terminology) Wayne Wouters, the government created ‘Blueprint 2020’ – a vision of what the Canadian public service should look like by 2020. Based on the input of 100,000 civil servants from across all levels in government, the document sets out five “priority areas for action: innovative practices and networking; processes and empowerment; technology; people management; and fundamentals of public service.” Such a high level of staff engagement, Volk says, “is great, it’s fantastic – it’s something we take a lot of pride in.”

Volk is, however, keen to emphasise: Blueprint 2020 is a vision, rather than a concrete action plan. Achieving all the intended improvements will take “multiple years for sure,” she says. And with a federal election coming up later this year, “it is unlikely that our political masters would choose something as internal as this as a priority.” But she is positive: the conversations happening right now are “serious” ones, and, “anything can happen – it could well be that this is something that we think about after the election,” she says. Looking to the future, Volk adds, she can imagine departmental structures “breaking down entirely” to enable even better collaboration.

Performance Pay

Reforming government services as well as internal structures is a key challenge facing governments around the world. And so is managing the performance of senior officials. Some governments, including that of Singapore, use bonuses as incentives; others, such as the British government, use forced ranking – a performance management system by which managers have to place fixed proportions of their workforce in different ratings every year. The Canadian government has thought of something different to encourage their executives – the Canadian senior civil service – to strive for excellence. Each executive has to earn back a proportion of his/her pay – between 12% and 20% depending on level – every year with the amount depending on their performance.

So who decides how much money an executive’s performance is worth every year? It is unlikely to be one person, Volk says. Every senior official is assessed at the end of the financial year by his/her department’s executive committee against a set of objectives – a “performance agreement” they have jointly signed at the start of the year. “Most people get it,” Volk says, “but there are certain ratings that would mean you’re not eligible for performance pay.” With the financial year ending in March, executives usually find out around June how much of their performance, or ‘at-risk’, pay they will receive. This system, Volk argues, allows little scope for favouritism, for it is “a very rigorous and credible process”.

The same performance management regime – without the at-risk pay – applies to the non-executives – the rest of the Canadian civil service. But it has only been made mandatory for those ranks by the government in 2014. More than 170,000 government employees – the “predominantly unionised workforce” – are now subject to the new ‘Directive on Performance Management’, which came into effect April 1, 2014. Before that date, Volk says, “some managers did and some didn’t” performance-manage their staff. Now, they have no choice. They are obliged to apply numerical ratings to their officials’ performance and give them feedback on it as part of one mid-year and one end-of-year review. The process is “very formal and time-consuming, but worth it”, Volk says.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone has been as positive about this new directive as Volk. She says: “Our unions have reacted negatively to it. I think they are concerned that this is really more targeted at poor performance.” The concerns have been reflected in the media by “some negative rhetoric”, she says, adding: “There have been some accusations that the government is doing this because it’s trying to weed out the non-performers and to be mean to the unionised workforce.”

Volk, however, believes that “an effective performance management regime is part of a high-performing public service, or any company. We think it’s an important part of performance, both in terms of managing excellence and also in terms of managing non-excellence. For those employees that are truly standing out as excellent we should be rewarding them. It should be formal. But also in the unfortunate instance where you have people that aren’t performing up to par, we should have mechanisms in place to make sure that they know that, that they have opportunities to improve but also that there are ways to deal with poor performance if it continues.”

Many governments are known to put their civil servants on such terms and conditions that it becomes virtually impossible to dismiss them. Many private sector managers who have joined the UK government, for example, have criticised the lack of mechanisms in the civil service to fire someone if they show significant failings. In Canada, Volk says, it is possible to dismiss civil servants. But, she adds: “it’s quite a process. You can be terminated for cause but the precedent is that cause is very difficult and time-consuming to demonstrate. But it exists and it can be done – it is already done.” What this system will do, she argues, “is to ensure a higher level of documentation, so that if you find yourself in that situation it has more likely been documented properly.”

Public-Private Balance

One group that may typically struggle more to work effectively, at least temporarily, includes people who have joined government from the outside. As more and more governments seek specialist skills from the private sector, which they cannot grow internally, they often find that outsiders encounter difficulties operating in the highly unfamiliar world of government and sometimes end up leaving again. The Canadian government too brings in people from the outside, but Volk admits: “the transition is tough.”

Volk herself knows how hard it can be getting to grips with government culture, having come in from the outside herself. Although she was already a quasi-public servant working at a federal crown corporation – the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) – she says joining the Department of Finance as assistant deputy minister (ADM) in 2005 was “quite a shock – a much bigger shock than I was expecting.” Before her time at CMHC, Volk worked as senior manager, treasury financing, at Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce for six years. So when she accepted a role at the Department of Finance, she thought her nine-year stint at CMHC had given her some solid experience of how the government works. But, she says that CMHC “was a commercial crown that was not at all like government and I mistakenly thought it would be.”

Some 10 years on, Volk seems to have settled in just fine, but this, she says, did not happen on its own. When she first joined central government, Volk found the help offered by the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) – the main educational institution for the Government of Canada – particularly useful. The school was created in April 2004 with the stated objective of helping to “ensure that public servants have the knowledge, skills and competencies they need to do their jobs effectively”. Volk took part in a CSPS course, which was then called ‘How Ottawa works’, which she describes as “really eye-opening”. She adds that the school also offers orientation courses to people coming into government at any level giving them an overview of “all kinds of things about accountabilities, roles, responsibilities, systems.”

One area, which might not feature concretely in the school, is social media and Twitter especially. Volk tells me “there is no specific policy around employee tweets.” While the official use of social media is addressed in the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s (TBS) Guidelines on Official Use of Social Media and the “personal/professional use” in the TBS Guidelines on Acceptable Network and Device Use, Volk calls for more. “We’ve moved into a world where whenever something happens, everybody around the world 24/7 knows instantly through social media.” The Canadian government’s structure, she says, “has been set up to be in a world that’s not quite so instantaneous,” so the question is: “how do we make the governance regime and the reality of today’s instantaneous world meet?”

Volk is right – the world is changing and social media has become more of a communication tool, a source of news and information, than a just a way to keep in touch with friends. So, establishing policies around it will become inevitable for any government wanting to keep up with today’s society. Volk herself is not on Twitter, but it is unlikely she will be able to resist the trend for much longer. So, who knows, maybe the next time a Canadian civil servant will be offered a job, they will receive a tweet, rather than a phone call saying “congratulations”.

About Winnie Agbonlahor

Winnie is news editor of Global Government Forum. She previously reported for Civil Service World - the trade magazine for senior UK government officials. Originally from Germany, Winnie first came to the UK in 2006 to study a BA in Journalism & Russian at the University of Sheffield. She is bilingual in English and German, and, after spending an academic year abroad in Russia and reporting for the Moscow Times, Winnie also speaks Russian fluently.

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