Change in hiring policy draws mixed reaction

A revolutionary—and quiet—change by the B.C. government to open up all jobs in the provincial public service to the general public has attracted both praise and criticism.

Shyla Dutt, founder of the Vancouver-based Pacific Foundation for Diversity, which works on behalf of those from different linguistic, racial, and cultural backgrounds, says the new policy is welcome.

“That is very good news,” Dutt told the Georgia Straight.

According to a brief note dated October 16 on the Public Service Agency’s Web site: “All B.C. public service opportunities are now open to both external applicants and current employees.” Until then, more than nine out of 10 public service vacancies were listed as “in service”, meaning that only those who already had regular jobs in the public service could apply. Less than one-tenth of positions were described as “out of service”, meaning that nongovernment employees could apply.

With few exceptions, the out-of-service jobs were only temporary.

Dutt said that the B.C. Liberal government stopped documenting the diversity of the public service, so there is no way of judging whether or not it is representative of the general population. “[But] it would be safe to say that management was not representative,” she said. “That follows the pattern of other organizations.”

Dutt added that one of the fastest-growing segments of the population is Native, and the new policy may make it easier for them to join the public service. “It absolutely makes sense to open it up,” she said.

According to Section 8.3 of the Public Service Act, the rules governing recruitment and promotion must facilitate “opportunities for external recruitment and internal advancement to develop a public service that is representative of the diversity of the people of British Columbia”.

Mary Rowles, the director of research and communications for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said the union would welcome more equity hirings.

“There’s every evidence that hirings from every disability group have kind of plummeted [under the present government,]” Rowles told the Straight. “If they’d actually come out and said, ”˜We really need to have more equity hirings,’ people would understand that a bit more,” she said.

Rowles said that BCGEU president George Heyman has written to Jessica McDonald, deputy minister to Premier Gordon Campbell, about the change. She added that although the government is entitled to make the change unilaterally, the BCGEU would have liked to have been consulted.

“One of the concerns we raised was: Why don’t you talk to us about this stuff?” Rowles said. “Employees working there, they’d be forgiven for thinking that this was really an exhibition by the government of having more confidence in somebody from away with a briefcase than people who’ve worked in the service under difficult conditions [and] stayed through wages that were below market for a number of the categories,” she said. “It beggars belief that if you’re posting for a senior correctional officer that you can’t find the talent within.”

Rowles also said that a looming shortage of public servants is ironic in light of the government’s elimination of about 9,000 jobs in its first few years in office. However, she said, many of those laid off were later rehired as contractors at much higher rates of pay.

The policy shift may not boost the public service’s morale, Rowles said: “One thing that motivates people to stay is that you can actually have a career path.”

She said that she assumes the new policy came about as a result of a directive from Campbell. “He’s always been enthusiastic about mucking about in the public service,” she said.

According to the Public Service Agency’s Web site, in just nine years 45 percent of all the present managers in the public service, along with 35 percent of all unionized public servants, will have retired. The government is already having trouble finding experts in finance, policy, alternative service delivery, and project management, the site notes.

Also according to the site, the government plans to cut the current 90-day average period it takes to hire someone—which is up to twice as long as the private sector takes.

Evert Lindquist, the director of the University of Victoria’s school of public administration, told the Straight that the change marks a milestone in the public service. “It’s clearly meant to send a strong signal to the public service as a whole that renewal’s important and that new blood has to be brought in,” Lindquist said.

However, he noted that hiring outsiders means more work for ?managers.

“Having external competition requires more steps, and probably longer lead times,” he said. “There is a bit of a contradiction in the sense that everyone wants renewal, but”¦this creates more of an administrative challenge.”

Lindquist added that all levels of government are worried about the “demographic challenge”, and the government’s policy change reflects the province’s concerns: “It really does show that the leadership of the public service sees this as a top priority.”