When knowing a little about a lot goes wrong

Hill Times November 30, 2020

There was a day and age when the federal government hired public health policy experts for the Public Health Agency of Canada, adult educators for the Canada School of Public Service, financial experts for Finance Canada, and well-being and benefits experts for Veterans Affairs Canada.

Then something happened about three decades ago in the business sector. Human resources business theorists raved about the “generalist manager,” who adds value in a generic way doing generic tasks and managing generically. It was called the Russian doll model of management: a manager’s job from lower to higher levels is really the same role, just with a wider scope at higher levels.

Much study and theory on the benefits of the generalist manager was internal to an organization or sector, focused on the vertical climb of this manager in say, finance. Few of the studies were horizontal across sectors, such as, can a generalist manager in accounting move into, say, oil tanker management? Some have hypothesized that the Exxon Valdez disaster was complicated by the generalist manager model, along with other issues, like a glaring lack of ethics.

The business sector, for the most part, dropped this model in the 1990s as too simplistic and potentially leading to corporate governance failures. This was just about the time that the federal government picked it up and went completely overboard with the Universal Classification Standard (since abandoned in 2003).

Given the wide variety of work done in the federal government, it’s not clear how this generalist model could have ever worked out well. Nuclear safety, to climate change tracking, to park tourist management, to mental health policy, the federal government is really a small city with a jaw-dropping breadth of work. Government is not really a sector by itself, it is a conglomerate of a number of sector-specific organizations, albeit with a similar logo.

There are so many risks in the generalist model. It boils policy down to a simplistic cost-versus-outcome model, or, even worse, a political model of quick announceables coupled with an aversion to risk. It is unable to appreciate the history of the department and policy development and has no idea of its unique strengths and risks in the policy area. The time it takes to build a manager’s background in the new policy sector slows down the work of the team and often the department.

It doesn’t seem controversial to expect that the people who make sure nuclear power plants are safe be led by experts in nuclear power safety. Or that the adult educator experts in the Canada School be led by an experienced adult educator. Or that reconciliation and culturally competent experts in partnership at Indigenous Services Canada be led by experts in building relationships. Full disclosure: at one time, I worked at PHAC and at Indigenous Services Canada.

However, it seems this is just not the case. Recently, a CBC story was written about a certain regional executive in Indigenous Services Canada who was accused of not having the basic commitment to reconciliation to do the job well. Five years into reconciliation, and the government hasn’t added reconciliation nor personal learning for cultural competence as basic knowledge requirements in job descriptions nor performance reviews.

In another urgent story, the Public Health Agency of Canada is accused of not hiring public health experts in leadership roles. Obviously, we need the PHAC to be managed and led by public health experts. It’s only the lives of Canadians at stake.

Departments which succeed or fail on sector-specific knowledge need to get back to hiring sector-specific expertise in leadership. Build leaders from within, with those who have deep knowledge of the sector, and value their unique experience and expertise. Cheaper in the long run, much more organizational effectiveness, stronger teams, what’s not to like?