A renegade group of Ottawa-based federal public servants are building the world’s first recruitment engine for gig workers who want to work in government. GC Talent Cloud is already attracting international attention for trying to reimagine the way the federal government hires for short-term work. The pilot project is currently housed within the office of the Chief Information Officer, at the Treasury Board Secretariat.

The team of self-described innovation wonks behind Talent Cloud have no human resources experience among them, but they have the ambition to fix one of the most inefficient, costly and intractable management problems in government. According to the Public Accounts, Ottawa spends $12.9 billion a year on outside contracts. A large share is spent on consultants, contractors, term employees and other temporary workers — the so-called shadow public service — simply because it takes too long to fill a job permanently.

The Talent Cloud’s long-term vision is nothing short of a staffing revolution, which has eluded government reformers for decades. If successful, the pilot could set the stage to replace a staffing system that is so slow, bogged down in rules and process, that it takes 197 working days to hire a new employee.

This team’s ambitious goal is to cut that down to 30 days, eliminate the hiring agencies and other middlemen, and give more government gig workers access to benefits and union representation. It will come as no surprise that the project has its share of skeptics inside the bureaucracy.

A team of disrupters

Talent Cloud began with four bureaucrats who worked on various innovation projects at Natural Resources Canada aimed at making public servants more flexible in how and where they work. They began meeting after hours to discuss how to directly recruit and better manage the “come-and-go workers” in government rather than hiring them through staffing agencies.

Over the next three years, they developed a plan but had no home nor money. They knocked on the doors of deputy ministers until they cobbled together a budget for a pilot. Chief Information Officer Alex Benay, himself seen as a disrupter inside government, gave them refuge within his office at Treasury Board.

As a result, Talent Cloud is a ragtag team operating outside the normal bureaucratic hierarchy, and apart from the Public Service Commission and the Treasury Board’s Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer, the bodies typically responsible for making and enforcing staffing policies.

“We put in three quiet and solid years, nudging this along, before we were ready for prime time,” says Lauren Hunter, the project’s architect.

The GC Talent Cloud team in their downtown Ottawa offices. Back, left to right – Gray O’Byrne; Val Thomas; Mustafa Jama. Front, left to right – Lauren Hunter; Rosita Kwok, Meagan Commonda, Aleeya Velji, Shelley Merrifield, Josh Beveridge. Photo by Fred Chartrand.

“We are talking about a paradigm shift, and a well-executed paradigm shift takes sustained commitment. Sometimes government isn’t good at sustained commitments, so you have to rely on rogue teams and outliers to see things that government doesn’t see and build things that government hasn’t imagined.”

How Talent Cloud works

The government currently recruits its workforce in two ways. The permanent workers are largely recruited through the Public Service Commission and its GC Jobs website, where 325,000 Canadians applied for jobs last year. But thousands more — no one knows how many — are hired through staffing agencies under a complex web of procurement vehicles for temporary jobs.

Talent Cloud has now signed up 12 departments that are willing to experiment with recruiting workers using the platform. The pilot began with plans only to recruit technology workers but is now recruiting all job classifications, from scientists to policy analysts.

The website doesn’t look like any other government website. The few jobs posted are written in plain language and provide details typically not found in the stodgy and highly prescriptive job posters on the GC Jobs website. A Talent Cloud job posting will describe the work environment, culture and leadership style, who your manager will be and whether work can be done remotely. It will also tell you how many have applied.

Hunter says Talent Cloud is designed to change the behaviour of both the hiring managers and the applicants to get better matches or “fit to team.”

There are no essential requirements, but the skills and experience sought are categorized as “nice to have” and “need to have.” The idea is for candidates to tell their story and show their ability rather than simply list where they previously worked. Hunter said government misses out on talent because it doesn’t know how to assess what workers are capable of doing and can’t think beyond narrow job classifications. The team refers to “making the invisible visible” by allowing a candidate to showcase his or her knowledge, skills or experience gained in previous jobs or in their lives.

The traditional kinds of credentials, such as university or college degrees, are giving way to the capability people have shown in their work and other parts of their lives. Tech giants like Google, Apple or Shopify don’t require degrees.

“We have to look differently at human beings and see capacity, and look at capacity in different ways,” says Hunter. “Some of the best coders in the world came out of high school and started their own companies. Asking for university degrees, we would screen out all the top talent from the get-go.”

Another long-standing irritant for people applying to the public service is the requirement to present original copies of their diplomas or degrees. These must be provided for every job applied to, and finding them often means rooting through attics or parents’ basements. Talent Cloud is validating all those credentials and references so they won’t have to be processed again every time someone applies for a job. The team will also check the results of tests that government applicants take for certain positions, so they can use them again when applying for another job.

Changes such as these will save considerable time in staffing. The Public Service Commission estimates that about 112 days of the 197 days it takes to staff a job is spent on screening, assessment and evaluation.

Cutting out the middlemen

The project follows all the same rules for hiring, including those for official languages, privacy and accessibility, but recruits directly for departments, bypassing the agencies and redirecting the fees they charge into improving benefits.

Hunter calls departments’ reliance on temporary employment agencies the “dark side” of the gig economy. Agencies charge markups on the salaries paid to workers, which one long-time agency executive told me range from 20 percent to 60 percent, but they can go lower or higher depending on the skill and demand.

“It is dark side because the people who are the most vulnerable end up in those situations,” Hunter says. “We want Canada to demonstrate, as an employer and internationally, what it means to create a gig marketplace that protects workers’ rights. The money the government spends on the overhead costs of talent agencies is money that could be turned directly into benefits for workers and could still save Canadians money.”

Hunter emphasizes that she is “not gunning for temp agencies.” “No one set out to spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on staffing by procurement with massive overhead costs. It is just the end result of using an outdated staffing system that doesn’t work.”

Protecting precarious workers in the public service

Talent Cloud is filling term positions ranging from three months to three years. After working three months, employees are eligible for benefits, and after six months they qualify for pension benefits.

As the country’s largest employer, Hunter argues, the government should be setting the gold standard for all employers who depend on temporary workers. Canadians considered to be in precarious or “gig” work now account for up to 30 percent of the workforce.

“The government of Canada is one of the biggest users of gig employment in the country and many of these workers have no access to rights, benefits or union representation. How we behave in the marketplace will set a national bar for what this come-and-go gig economy will look like in Canada,” says Hunter.

The GC Talent Cloud team at work in their downtown Ottawa offices. Photo by Fred Chartrand.

GC Talent Cloud went live in October. It expects to have 25 positions filled by early March, with dozens more in progress. Within five years, it hopes to have placed 20,000 people, with half of them receiving benefits that they don’t get now as temporary workers.

Enthusiasts and skeptics

The project has caught the attention of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which is tracking it as a case study of a public service hiring model.

Talent Cloud is also working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a blockchain pilot for credential recognition that would give workers tamper-proof academic and workplace records that employers would trust and rely upon when candidates apply for new jobs.

“If someone had the mandate to design a marketplace for the future of the gig economy in government, we wouldn’t be doing this job,” says Hunter. “We are doing it because it is unoccupied territory and critical to Canada’s future.”

In short, Talent Cloud is doing the kind of risk-taking and innovation that government is trying to foster in the public service. But, as with most radical ideas that bubble up inside the bureaucracy, the project has its share of skeptics.

Long-time bureaucrats note the government has gone down this road before with agencies that never worked as hoped. They argue Talent Cloud is a modern twist on Consulting and Audit Canada and its predecessor the Bureau of Management Consulting. The government also created an auxiliary worker pool within the public service in the 1970s, but it was disbanded after several years.

“All they are doing is creating an in-house body shop to replace staffing agencies,” says one senior bureaucrat. And that perception is a problem for public service unions in particular, which want fewer contractors overall working in government.

Unions have protested the use of contractors for years because they do work that could be done by permanent employees. The Talent Cloud team could face an uphill battle getting unions to support their efforts, since now they are also talking about providing contractors with benefits.

Hunter points out that the temporary workers they recruit will be in term positions, which are classified as union jobs. All of the jobs will be open for public competition.

Debi Daviau is president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC), the second-largest federal union, which represents professionals from scientists and auditors to technology workers. She says a big problem with outsourcing is that contractors get the better jobs that public servants want a crack at but are not given the chance and training to obtain.

PIPSC has long argued that contracting practices have hollowed out the skills of information technology workers in government. The government uses contractors for the newest or advanced technology skills, leaving public servants to do the more routine or lower-level tasks, without any regular upskilling.

Says Daviau, “Talent Cloud doesn’t factor in all the talent that is currently in the public service — talent the government isn’t training or getting ready for future work. Maybe that is all we need to get the workforce we need.”

Photo: GC Talent Cloud’s Lauren Hunter. Photo by Fred Chartrand

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