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Advice from A Retired Public Servant

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The public service is good at many things and yet faces challenges in many others. One area of great personal interest is the demographic shift as aging baby boomers retire from the public service. One important element of this retirement is the loss of institutional and corporate knowledge that has the potential to be lost if we do not act.

The public sector will be experiencing many retirements as the aging baby boomers ride off into the golden years. As they retire, they will be taking with them years of experience, a lifetime of knowledge and an understanding of the way the public service works that can only come from years of working. Here in lies the problem. The public service has no formal mechanism for the transfer of knowledge from retirees to the workplace. While many informal processes can occur (i.e. mentoring, GCPedia, standard operating procedures) the public service is not actively “promoting” nor “enabling” the transfer of knowledge from the retirees or soon to be retired to the organization itself.

Why is GCPedia (the Government of Canada internal wiki) not an option? After all, it is a wiki and the knowledge of the retirees could be captured there for all to share. While one could argue that GCPedia is a formal knowledge sharing mechanism, it remains a tool that does not fully fulfill the requirements of a proper knowledge transfer tool. GCPedia is a wiki intended to share knowledge on programs, services, working groups and general topics of interest. So increased use of GCPedia would go a long way to capturing much of the knowledge of retiring public servants and is definitely being under-utilized in that respect. The major gap with GCPedia is the capture of the soft skills that are more difficult to capture in a wiki. Retiring public servants are fountains of knowledge, people able to provide the advice, the guidance and the core techniques to survive a public service career. For example, a retiring baby boomer could tell me the best wording to get a contract approved in the fastest time or how to win at negotiations with stakeholders. These are skills that simply cannot be transferred through GCPedia.

Mentoring is another option often suggested for knowledge transfer. There are no formal programs for mentoring in the Canadian federal public service. Mentoring is offered by the Federal Youth Network, an internal network of young professionals (find them on GCPedia). While mentoring relationships are invaluable for those involved, it is a program that does not have the reach necessary to cover the knowledge and experience held by the sheer number of public servants getting ready to retire. Also mentoring is largely 1 on 1 interaction which is not shared or distributed more broadly to a wider audience.

With the huge knowledge transfer gap in mind, I asked my mentor Mr. John Harrison, to share some thoughts and advice to young public servants and young public servants at heart. By posting his advice on a public blog, I’m hoping to reach many people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to benefit from his advice and play my small role in the fundamental knowledge transfer that must happen to ensure we are not re-inventing the wheel in the future to solve the same problems of the past. As the great, Sir Winston Churchill once said:

Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.

Scott McNaughton, thenewbureaucracy.ca

John Harrison, Retired Director of Natural Health Products Directorate

I was trained in environmental toxicology, did lab work, then evaluation and after a while ran a section then a Bureau. Graduated from the Health Canada (HC) Management Development Program in 1999, worked in different Branches and helped manage the Natural Health Products Directorate in 1999. Left Health Canada in 2001 to start a consulting firm with many different clients (www.JRHToxicology.ca ). Enjoyed the opportunities in HC to better my education and get to know many excellent people.

Treat people the way you would want to be treated—with respect. Realize that there are many situations that come up in which it will be difficult to see rationality or reason and that it is best to think first before reacting verbally or otherwise. After a while some of the reasons for the work or way people are responding become clear. The amount of information about the inner workings of the department become clearer as you go up the ranks because you become an integral part of the processes and not just a new observer. Your gathered experience also makes the situation clearer.

Health Canada for one gives many opportunities for further training and education—-focus on a specialty and get extra training so you become well know as a person who is a “go to” specialist. The amount of ambition you have has to be tempered with the fact that there are many others as equally well educated and ambitious as you so it can be difficult to wait for opportunities. Apply for competitions to first get to know the process. Even if you were a genius in your work you would not be automatically promoted. You have to apply for the individual competitions. I could rephrase this a hundred different ways but the message is the same—apply. Don’t be shy!

Be innovative, check to see what a Division or Bureau has done in the past on the topic you are working. Often reports are written and forgotten even by the Directors. Sift through existing information. Nowadays communication is probably the key to success. Communicate regularly with your supervisor (and check to see that they want this input) , communicate with colleagues, build networks, speak to people in other departments, seek a mentor in your immediate environment and also elsewhere in your department/agency. Enjoy your work, be patient, avoid negative people and participate in work social activities by volunteering. Always be respectful of people !

The federal public service will always be changing so you have to be aware of the new directions it is taking. There will be bad times when governments cut staff and good times when certain specialists are needed. These can be predicted by the state of the national deficit and the political cycles. Ride them out by doing excellent work and innovate all the time. Look for better ways of doing things and keep an open mind to the ideas of others. Public service culture will change over time and you have to be aware and adapt. In the early 80’s the public service culture was to keep information to yourself, but by the advent of computers (late 80’s) the newer culture was to share information. Nowadays we are seeing open government in which most government documentation is to be open to the public as in the U.S. So what we have seen over 30 years is sharing with no one to sharing with everyone. You have to be aware of these trends and use them to your advantage and the advantage of your work.

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Great post – I love hearing from retired public servants.

I’d love your thoughts on mentoring. We are in middle of finalizing phase 2 of our GovLoop spring mentors program where we match 100 mentors and 100 mentees across government (U.S., Canada, state/local)

What kind of mentoring have you seen work? What would be your ideal?

Scott McNaughton


In my experience, the best kind of mentoring is reverse mentoring where I teach as much to my mentor as they teach to me.

It is also very important to make sure mentors are compatible and have similar interests. The act of finding the right fit for a mentor cannot be accomplished during one event. My mentor, whose thoughts I posted on this blog, was not a “formal” match-up but happened rather informally as we shared common interests.

While I do love the formal events to pair mentors and mentees, I think you can’t force it on your participants as they may feel obligated to pair up if you’ve gone to the trouble of creating a full scale initiative and meet-up.

A better approach in my opinion, would be to develop a database of mentors and mentees and allow each group to find a match on their own. Treat it like a dating system, where members can express interests, what they want to get out of mentoring and what their availability is like. Act as the gateway towards a great mentoring relationship but not as the gatekeeper.

Andrew Krzmarzick

P.S. Just reading your comment below….ours is a database / system where we are collecting both mentors and mentees. The mentees request the match and the mentors approve. We help to provide resources and troubleshoot, fostering robust interaction. We’re keeping it short and focused, too – just 4 months, 2 meetings per month. Mentoring can be scary and it’s important to have a structure / format / tools that help people along the path.

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hi Scott – I’d like to invite you to sign up and participate in GovLoop’s Mentors Program to learn how it works…we could expand to Canada! https://www.govloop.com/page/govloop-mentors-program

Also, I’ve found that there’s (for whatever reason) a high barrier to entry for wikis. I’m not sure why, but in general, they seem to have tough update…and probably more so among digital immigrants.

Scott McNaughton

Hi Andrew,

Thank you so very much for linking me to the Govloop Mentoring Program. I’ll have to dig deeper in to see the community and how it operates.

I’m disappointed at the lack of formal mentoring programs in the Canadian Public Service especially considering the retirement brain drain we are facing. If it takes public servants doing work outside of office hours to make the knowledge transfer and mentoring take off then so be it.

I know from my experience wikis intimidate public servants because they see it as “technical” and something where you need to know how to code to do it properly. I think part of the problem is the user interface of most wikis which is somewhat intimidating for a new user and especially one who isn’t tech savvy. Many of my colleagues mention those reasons when I try to do a pep rally for our GCPedia wiki pages.

Additionally, they feel an obligation to keep it up to date. As a result, they wonder “what’s in it for me” re: keeping the wiki page up to date when I’ve got 500 fires right in front of me. Wikis tend to drop down on the priority list when you have a Minister asking a question of your program. So the culture of the public service itself needs to change in order to support the full adoption of social tools like wikis.