Mobility, Career, and the Public Service

When I attended the Orientation to the Public Service last year, the highlight of the whole session for me was the talk and Q&A with a senior manager from the Government. He provided a brief overview of his career, what he thought about the public service, and then took questions. I decided to use this opportunity to seek insight into something that I’ve been thinking about for awhile: What is the best way to go about your career in the PS?

Let me be more specific and provide the backstory: I joined the PS right out of university (10 days after graduating with my undergraduate degree). In my department, which is has a slightly older demographic than the average PS department, this is a bit of a rarity.

To add to this, I look a bit younger than I actually am. After working in the department for a few months, I had the following conversation with a colleague in a different group:

Colleague: So, you going back to school in the fall?
Me: Me? Nah, I graduated in May.
Colleague: Oh, are you going to go to University?
Me: ……

My colleague had thought that I was a high school student.

Being/looking young, a lot of people are willing to give free advice on what you ought and ought not to do during your career. The PS being a gigantic machine is an understatement — there must be thousands of ways to have a successful career, and just as many ways to make sure that you have at terrible one.

With all the advice, two consistent, and contradictory, themes seemed to emerge about how I should spend the first 10 years or so of my career:

Go Everywhere — Learn the concepts

Essentially, the advice was to try to move around, and see what the PS has to offer. Stay in departments for a decent amount of time (1-2 years), but really try to see what there is to offer. The logic being that you get a feel for how the various departments work together, and the difficulties that each department faces. Additionally, it would allow you to see what sort of environment you prefer. Large v Small department, specialized v general, etc.

Stay put — Be an expert

On the opposite end of the spectrum, was the idea that one should stay put and learn to be an expert in an area. Maybe not an entirely niched area, but at least a general area of policy (Transportation, Environment, etc), that way you have specific knowledge and will better be able to contribute to those areas. The logic being that if you move around a lot, you’ll know the concepts, but you won’t actually know any particular facts about the area you’re working in.

So…what do I do?

I posed the above question to the senior manager who was presenting to us, and while novel, I think the advice is particularly useful. My frustration with hearing the above pieces of advice is that they are total opposites, and I tend to believe that there is usually some winning combination that can be created.

He essentially that when you get a job, make sure you know every spect of it. Don’t leave right when the next opportuntity comes up, because you’ll never build any skills up. Don’t stay once you’ve learned everything, because they you can stall yourself. (I’m paraphrasing from memory — if I have misquoted, it is entirely my fault).

What does this mean?

There are a few implications that this idea brings forward. The first is the importance of learning what your job actually is, and the other is identifying your own skills and knowing what you need to learn. Learning plans are a good way to outline this, but writing it down is only step 1 — it requires a strong relationship between managers and their staff in order to make development a reality. A manager needs to know what tasks to give out to their employees, knowing that there is the opportuntity for development. Likewise, staff members need to have the courage to say to their managers that they want to take something else on.

Sometimes I think we get wrapped up in the shiny things — I myself am certainly guilty of this from time to time. We look at new technologies, interesting ways of doing things, etc, but fail to recognize that at the very basic level, all these new ideas are there to enhance our relationships with one another, allowing us to collaborate, share, innovate.

Even then, whenever we think about our careers as public servants, we have to put it all in a broader context. Probably the best way I’ve heard it expressed was by another senior manager:


For me, a career in the public service is mainly about wanting to contribute to a country that has offered me so much. It is not necessarily about specializing or not, but what is it about a job or an organization that makes you passionate. It is about getting up in the morning and going to a place where you can make a difference.


So how do we go about finding our passion(s) in the PS? Have you found yours?


6 thoughts on “Mobility, Career, and the Public Service

  1. Nice post Colin, I’ll write more later.

    I should tell you the story of how I got my position at CSPS. Short version: At the time I was a policy analyst at HRSDC approaching the end of my first year in the public service. After providing my criticisms of the public service to a Sr. Executive at the Canada School and providing my solutions, I was asked to follow-up with my CV.

  2. I’m in the get lots of different experiences camp, at least for your first few years. Then you will have the knowledge and skills required to not only know where your place really is but to actually get there. You can then start specializing and find your niche. In the last 10 years, I’ve worked in 5 depts/agencies and I think that’s a real asset for me as it has given me a real good understanding of how big government is and how it works, sometimes differently depending on the depts. The contacts you make every time you move around are also very valuable and much more diverse than if you stay put your whole career.

    I think it’s also important to vary the nature of the work a bit as well. I’ve had roughly 3 different roles so far in my career. While they have always been in the same general expertise area, each of them has given me a different perspective into the problems and issues, and I think that having this view of the overall process helps me when dealing with the issues.

    Don’t go opportunity hopping too quickly, make sure that you learn what you have to and contribute what you can for every opportunity you accept. Once that is done, start planning your next move. Make sure that you are easily replaceable by having your work well documented, shared with colleagues, etc (you should do this all the time but if you know you’ll be leaving in the next few months, this is even more important). Try to give your management ample warning if possible, be honest about what you need to achieve and most of the time they will a) try to find something for you or b) be understanding when you leave.

    We can discuss my own experience more in details if you want, I thought I’d commit it to writing for everyone to benefit. Usual warnings about this being my personal opinion and experience apply, your mileage may vary, etc 😉

  3. Great post Colin,
    Just a few thoughts from a 10 year public servant. All of the above apply. Don’t stay past learning is a good one – unless of course you have other objectives – staying past learning might be helpful if you have another priority – family, health, 2nd career. The public service allows for career development, upward mobility, sideways opportunities like leaves of absence and opportunties to work in the private sector and come back. Building your career over a lifetime in the Public service is only one option.

    I was the first person hired in 10 years and was the youngest by 15 years in my group when I joing the PS. I was also offered a lot of advice and followed some of it – to my benefit and not to my benefit…. I think my gut served me best 🙂

    It’s hard not to get wrapped up in the shiny things… and opportunity hopping might be how we learn.

    So I have learned to go with my gut. It hasn’t steered me wrong… yet.

  4. Oh.. just one follow-up… my passion is people. I will work on anything for the right people and for leaders who are exemplary.

  5. Hi, Colin

    I also liked your post. And I’d like to speak from another perspective, and see what emerges by way of comment.

    In January 2007, I started an indeterminate position with the federal government in a program area, motivated by the career opportunities and also by the benefits. I came in with a graduate degree, a Canadian professional planning designation, 10 years of policy experience with a provincial government, and most of my doctorate completed.

    Since then my career has stalled. The team I work with is composed of women most of whom have no career aspirations or post-secondary education. My managers tell me my work is excellent. I volunteer for extra work and assignments, and take constructive initiatives to help the team. I’ve succeeded in competition after competition and have become a qualified candidate in various policy pools… Yet despite my outreach to hiring managers and HR officials, the pools expire and I stay where I am. What’s more, there are no training dollars for my team, nor any travel budget!

    At times I think a subtle age bias may be acting on behalf of other candidates in the pools (the stress on public service renewal, etc.). This year I’m 60 and aim to work (like professors do) until I’m 75 or my ambition runs out.

    Does any one have comments or advice for me on how to succeed in obtaining a new position so I can move forward? Would it help me to volunteer with my union?

    Thanks so much!


  6. Hello Mary!

    Interesting post — certainly, it can be frustrating to be caught in the circumstances you seem to be in.

    There may be a few different opportunities for you, especially given your experience and level of education:

    1. Interchange Canada — There may be an opportuntity to take your skills ‘on the road’ through the Interchange Program (, as a way to gain experience and connections.
    2. Assignments — This one is probably the most difficult, but worth it if you can find a director that you like. It would be a matter of essentially calling up places that you want to work, and seeing what sort of opportunities come up. There are a number of good communities in Ottawa to get involved with that can give valuable insight into career development opportunities.
    3. Lecture — There may be opportunities at the CSPS or the local lecture circuit, depending on what your area of study is. Getting your work out there and engaging in discussions is a way to see whose interests link up with yours — all the more important if you’re an expert in a particular field.
    4. Social Media — Start getting involved with conversations on GCpedia or Twitter.

    Sorry I can’t go too much more in depth, but fire an e-mail and I’d be happy to get together at some point!


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