In today’s world, Canada’s federal public service is asked to solve increasingly complex and rapidly evolving challenges. To respond effectively, Canadians need an agile and flexible workforce. However, our public service continues to rely heavily on a workforce model built for a different era. With an emphasis on a largely permanent workforce, the public service often addresses change by creating new departments and agencies. Moreover, these actions tend to be reactive, creating new, permanent structures that are modelled off the hierarchical structure of their predecessors.

This model has provided stability and consistency to deliver long-term programs. But it can lead to difficulties achieving the agility and flexibility needed to solve contemporary problems. How might we achieve the right balance between long-term stability and short-term flexibility?

The public service has recently been experimenting with a new workforce model that may provide an answer. In 2016, at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), we launched a small pilot called Canada’s Free Agents. This new workforce model, which emphasizes worker mobility and autonomy, was inspired by a 2012 report by Deloitte called GovCloud: The Future of Government Work. In this model, a segment of the workforce exists in a “cloud” and, as with cloud computing, it can be drawn upon as needed and returned to the cloud once work is completed.

Canada’s Free Agents recruits public servants based on a set of 14 attributes that are internationally recognized as useful for public sector problem solving, such as empathy, action orientation, team orientation, resiliency and outcomes focus. Free Agents are offered lateral deployments to new positions across a group of “home” departments. From these positions, they have complete autonomy to find and select project-based work that matches their skills and interests. While Free Agents are on assignment, we recover their salary plus an additional administration fee. Free Agents can remain in the program as long as they wish and they complete assignments until they decide to leave for a permanent job. If there is downtime between projects, they are assigned work by their “home” department until they are able to find their next project. After two and a half years running this program, we have had less than 2 percent downtime – a clear demonstration of the demand.

Since 2016, we have hired 60 Free Agents who have worked on over 125 projects across more than 35 departments and agencies. They are a diverse group: they work across many domains, such as policy, communications, information technology, program management, and scientific research; they span a broad range of experience from early- to late-stage career; they live and work mainly in the National Capital Region, but also across Canada from Comox, BC to Charlottetown, PEI; and, they reflect the rich diversity of the public service, including broad representation from official Employment Equity groups and beyond.

Exploring three broad questions

As an experimental model, Canada’s Free Agents was established to gather insights about how the public service could modify its approach to workforce mobility. The objective has been to explore three broad questions:

  1. What human resources benefits might this model provide for the public service?
  2. How might employees benefit from a model that emphasizes workers’ autonomy and mobility and provides dedicated talent-management support?
  3. How might this model support innovation and problem-solving in the public service?

On the question of the model’s benefits, early results have been very positive. We can deploy Free Agents to work on projects in a matter of days, and we have created a mechanism that makes it simple for managers to access the talent they need. We take care of the human resources processes so that managers and Free Agents can focus on the work. More than 90 percent of managers report being satisfied with their experience hiring a Free Agent and 84 percent indicate they would hire a Free Agent again. The vast majority identify speed and ease of hiring as being the main benefits. Hiring permanent employees can be time consuming and high risk for what are often temporary needs. Hiring consultants can be much more expensive, and their expertise is often lost when a project ends. For short-term project needs, Free Agents provide a rapid, lower-risk option for managers and the public service is able to retain the knowledge that they bring.

A group of free agents from the federal public service meet at Natural Resources Canada in Ottawa. Photo courtesy of Abe Greenspoon.

Free Agents also see significant benefits in a model where they are free to choose work and move quickly across the public service. We regularly survey them and often 100 percent indicate that they enjoy the autonomy and mobility the program provides.

We are in the early days of designing a new talent management model where each employee will have access to a dedicated Talent Manager who provides administrative support, career advice, tailored learning opportunities such as mentoring and coaching, and performance feedback. In addition to their overall satisfaction, Free Agents have reported experiencing greater support for innovation, initiative and new ideas than in the rest of the public service.

Once we have established a foundation that allows us to answer the first two questions outlined above, we plan to explore the third question more deeply. We want to understand the potential for this model to contribute to innovation and problem-solving methods and practices. As mentioned, Free Agents are hired for a set of attributes that have been shown to drive creative ideas, interesting pilots and experiments that can be translated into actions that create value for the public. These attributes have the potential to increase the likelihood of successful problem-solving activities and improve innovation capacity. We are tracking the frequency with which Free Agents display these attributes and the value they provide to the teams they work with.

Beyond a program

On top of exploring these three broad objectives, we are also interested in creating and testing separate systems within the program that might influence the broader public service culture. Studies have shown that psychological safety is one of the most important factors for high-performing teams, so we are creating internal systems that promote psychological safety, such as informal conflict resolution and manager commitments. We also know from internal surveys that employees feel they don’t get enough support for career advancement, so we are creating structures for talent management. Finally, literature on workplace productivity has often demonstrated that greater autonomy leads to greater happiness, which leads to greater productivity. So, we are prioritizing autonomy of work to allow people to find jobs that are aligned with their passions and where they can deliver better results for citizens.

Imagining, designing and building a new system from within an existing system is an incredibly challenging task. I don’t want to give the impression that everything is going smoothly. Most Canadians regard the public service as a single entity. The truth, however, is that there is a surprising amount of variability across departments and agencies in terms of the management of corporate services. This creates a number of headaches for workers who change departments frequently. The system wasn’t designed for this volume and frequency of movement. If we can continue to demonstrate the value of the Free Agent model, our next challenge will be to find space within the existing system or to design a future system that allows for this degree of mobility.

No matter what the future holds, we are learning an incredible amount about our workforce needs. In our formative period, hearing from our primary stakeholders has added to our understanding of their challenges and interests. As new evidence arises, we are making changes to better meet their needs. The design of the program is constantly evolving, but our central goal is to influence how the public service supports autonomy and mobility to meet current and future workforce challenges.

As Deloitte wrote in its GovCloud paper: “The world is full of experts who attempt to predict the future – and fail. Instead of endeavoring to predict the future, governments can choose to create a flexible workforce that can quickly adapt to future work requirements.” If nothing else, Canada’s Free Agents is demonstrating one model that could help achieve this goal.

Photo: Shutterstock/By Peshkova

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Abe Greenspoon
Abe Greenspoon is a talent manager for Canada’s Free Agents. Abe joined the federal public service in 2009. His mission is to help transform the public service to make it more human-centred.

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