Select IT staff exempt from Canadian government return-to-office mandate; US revitalises agency internship programmes: workforce & management news in brief

By on 26/01/2023 | Updated on 26/01/2023

Global Government Forum’s weekly digest of the news you need to know but might have missed.

Canadian federal government exempts some IT workers from return-to-office rules

The Canadian federal government has decided to exempt certain employees from its return-to-office mandate, which requires most public servants to work in the office at least two days a week.

According to a memo from Canada’s chief information officer, Catherine Luelo, “high-priority IT” staff comprising around 20% of federal government IT workers will not be expected to work from the office. These include non-managerial roles in IT software solutions, IT security and IT cloud solutions.

Luelo said such exemptions “make sense for recruitment and retention”, which is proving a challenge – particularly in the digital and tech space – for both the private and public sector in Canada and beyond.

“Those employees who are eligible for these exceptions will still be expected to attend in-person activities when directed by their manager,” the memo said. “Exceptions will be applied consistently and any adjustment from these areas would require review.”

Luelo’s memo added that the exemption would be subject to review every six months “to ensure we remain on a good path – as the path is largely uncharted today”.

“This is an opportunity to embrace working differently now and into the future, as we strive to solve our digital talent challenge, reflect those we serve, and enable the best possible services to Canada and Canadians,” it said.

The return-to-office mandate came into effect on 16 January and is expected to increase in-person work to between 40% to 60% of officials’ regular schedules. The new rules are being introduced in phases, and are expected to be fully implemented by 31 March.

Read more: Canadian public servants could face discipline for shirking return-to-office rules

US agencies set out plan for ‘exceptional’ internship programme

The US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) have issued guidance to federal agencies on internship programme best practice, focusing on attracting young talent into the federal workforce.

Participation in internship programmes at US federal agencies has steadily decreased in recent years. The Biden administration has sought to revive them as a key tool for getting young talent into the federal workforce. Last year, it was announced that all White House internships would be paid, and in 2021, the OPM took steps to ease the process of hiring college students and recent graduates into government roles.

Expanding paid internships for students and graduates feeds into the administration’s goal of improving diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) within government. In 2021, president Biden signed an executive order to remove workplace barriers faced by US federal employees from disadvantaged communities. The order called on federal departments and agencies ­to put in place new initiatives around DEIA, and to report on their progress annually.

The latest guidance states: “For many, an internship that does not offer any form of compensation (e.g. housing stipends, recruitment incentives or financial arrangements with third-party organisations) is the illusion of opportunity, further complicated by the practical needs of having a paying job while not enrolled in traditional coursework.”

Read more: US agencies tasked with annual diversity reporting in new Biden order

US State Department embroiled in debate over font change

A move to change the US State Department’s signature font from Times New Roman to Calibri has sparked debate among staff.

The font change is expected to apply to all high-level internal documents from 6 February. Spearheaded by the department’s first chief diversity officer, Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, the switch aims to make documents easier to read for people with low vision.

According to a report by the New York Times, Abercrombie-Winstanley said serif fonts “have an extra flourish that makes it look pretty for many people” but that these tended to clutter the page. She added that words written in these fonts were “harder to distinguish for people with visual disabilities than just having a very clean font with no extra bits and pieces around it”.

Complaints from federal staff understood to have been present during a discussion about the move were reported by The Washington Post. One source told the paper that during internal talks lasting “half the day” officials raised objections to Calibri’s lack of visual appeal. One unnamed employee was quoted as having called the change “sacrilege”.

The State Department ceased using Courier New 12 – a font resembling that of a traditional typewriter – in 2004. Times New Roman was chosen to replace it based on what the department considered its “crisper, cleaner, more modern look” at the time.

Read more: US Senate passes bill to abolish ‘government speak’ in documents

Former government department chiefs blast ‘homogeneity of thought’ in UK civil service

Two former UK government department bosses have called for civil service reform but say its failures are systemically rooted and unlikely to change under the current educational, cultural and corporate structure of Whitehall.

At an event hosted by the think tank Reform on 19 January, Philip Rycroft, ex-permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union, and Jonathan Slater, former perm sec of the Department for Education (DfE), spoke of their experiences in Whitehall and their perception of dysfunction within it.

“The majority of people at the top of the civil service haven’t the faintest idea just how poor it is. Why would they? They’ve never done anything else,” Slater said.

He added: “It’s tremendously impressive the calibre of people in the civil service, and it’s equally extraordinary how we waste them. We turn really good people into people who are frustrated.”

Slater and Rycroft agreed that the civil service tended to define intelligence by a narrow set of academic interests, and Rycroft said he “would not promote anybody into the senior civil service who has not done at least three years in local government, the health service, industry [or] devolved government somewhere outside of Whitehall”.

The pair also criticised the way in which civil servants typically advise ministers behind closed doors, rather than in an open forum. “I think that a system where civil servants are held publicly to account for the quality of the advice that they give would be a dramatic, transformational change,” Rycroft said.

Read more: Former department bosses blast ‘homogeneity’ in UK civil service

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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