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Wednesday, 27 May 2015

From #PhDToGov: Chance A. Minnett Watchel's Story

Chance A. Minnett Watchel. Research Analyst, Alberta Justice and Solicitor General

Brief Bio

I am originally from Southport, Queensland, Australia, but grew up in Dawson Creek, BC. I completed two undergraduate degrees at the University of Calgary in English and political science, respectively, then went on to earn an MA in Canadian politics at Brock University before returning to Calgary to pursue a PhD in political science. I am currently in the fourth year of a PhD at the University of Calgary and am also a research analyst with Alberta Justice & Solicitor General (JSG).

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I was dead-set on an academic career all throughout my MA and into the first half of my PhD, right up until I started preparing for my comprehensive exams. It’s easily one of the most stressful periods a graduate student can go through and it seemed to amplify all the fears and worries I’d tried to push aside about a future career in academia, job prospects, external funding competitions, etc. I’d heard former professors and PhD candidates who’d graduated years before me tell me things were rough when they first headed onto the job market, but it’d be better when I finally got there. It doesn’t actually seem to have gotten any better, however, and that really worried me. Sitting down with my dissertation supervisor for a good discussion on the subject, I decided I needed to not simply have a ‘Plan B’, but I needed to adequately prepare for both career paths equally.

What was your first post-PhD job?

I haven’t gotten one of those yet as I’m still completing my PhD! I have, however, worked as a research analyst for Alberta JSG since June 2014. I wouldn’t say it’s an unorthodox route, working outside the university while completing a graduate degree, but it’s certainly not one that’s encouraged as there’s the potential to get distracted from your dissertation. Doing both at the same time definitely demands effective time management and personal planning.

Why did you choose an alternative-academic career path?

I started my current position knowing that, whichever route I end up ultimately taking upon completion of my PhD, both my experiences in school and in the public sector will help me in the future. The critical thinking, research, and writing skills you learn during your education are invaluable, but they don’t always translate well outside an academic setting. Working in government is definitely related to my education, but it’s not the specific intent of it. Most often, the question you’re asked when someone finds out you’re in a PhD program is, “Oh, are you going to teach and research when you’re done?” That’s a fairly reasonable expectation of someone with a social sciences graduate degree. Completing a PhD is akin to completing an apprenticeship; it’s meant to set you up for a specific career path. A tenure-track position is not an easy one to get, though, and I didn’t want to get to the end of my PhD only to realize it wasn’t the correct path for me. I wanted options, and I wanted my experiences to reinforce each other and set me apart, regardless of whatever I end up choosing in the future.

What do you do now?

Besides the typical long evenings pouring over journals and books for my dissertation research, I’m a research analyst for Alberta JSG on a very specific project. I’m working on Alberta’s Reforming Family Justice System (RFJS) Initiative, the goal of which is to make Alberta’s family justice system open, responsive and cost-effective, and put the needs of children and families first while assisting families with the early and final resolution of disputes. The project doesn’t simply aim for small technical changes to policy and processes, but also looks at making changes to how we, as people, recognize and deal with certain kinds of problems. It’s multi-sector and multi-level change that is happening around the world.

Prior to this job, reform was simply the subject of study in my readings and my work. Now, I’m an active participant in the process. I get to look at what’s been done in other jurisdictions, how those changes have worked, what Alberta has done/is currently doing, and how we might integrate good practices in other jurisdictions into our own in the most appropriate way. Having this job has really helped clarify much of what I’ve been studying over the past decade. I’m a policy person, first and foremost, so I have a solid understanding of theories of the policy process. Working in this environment, though, I can see how much more complex the process actually gets. It’s definitely given me new ideas for my dissertation research.

What’s the most challenging part about a pracademic career?

I haven’t personally encountered too many issues, but because I split my time between graduate school and work almost evenly I find that I miss out on a lot of things in both areas. I’m never intentionally left out of anything, but if there are impromptu meetings and important decisions made, I often find out after the fact. That’s just the way my schedule works. Shifting between the two workspaces on a near-daily basis, I always feel like I need to catch up.

What most surprises you about your job?

I was surprised at how easily the skills I learned in graduate school transferred over. My job is primarily research, writing, and relaying information to others in various formats – that’s essentially grad school in a nutshell. What’s not always so simple is understanding how to sell those skills to an employer. We can talk at length about our research and the methodological approaches we use, but if you can’t make that relevant to what you’re going to do for an employer, they’re never going to give you the opportunity to work for them.

What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students and post-doc students in transition now?

There are two things I’d suggest to graduate students and post-docs looking into transitioning between academia and public service. First, have at least an introductory understanding of a broad range of methodologies. You don’t have to master them all but versatility, a willingness to take on different kinds of projects, and to learn new ways of doing things makes you an attractive candidate. If you’ve got a good foundation, you can learn on the job. Second, use your research skills to get a leg up on your competition. I was only tangentially familiar with the project when I applied for my position, but some background research on the project, similar projects in other provinces, and the Government of Alberta’s HR website allowed me to do two things which I think got me the job: speak competently about the subject matter and relate to the interviewers in their own language.

Applying for positions with governments is actually easier than you’d expect because of the public nature of it all; all the human resources information is publicly available. The Alberta Public Service Competency Models – the specific characteristics government employers are looking for in exceptional employees – are right at applicants’ fingers. You can literally use them as a guide to sell yourself and your skills to future employers. Having those competencies available really allows you to make good resumes and cover letters better. Instead of simply talking about how much you know about policy change, for example, you can talk about the broader system impact changing a certain policy might have, how you might actually go about making change, how it can benefit other departments or how you might collaborate with them, and how you can minimize or anticipate negative, unforeseen consequences resulting from any changes you might make. When you know what your employer is looking for, it’s much less like you’re trying to venture off into the unknown. Instead, you know exactly where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, and you can explain why you belong there.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Political Attitudes of Young Canadians

By David McGrane

Attribution: “McGill student vote mob 2011” by Adam Scotti / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I recently published a report with the Broadbent Institute comparing the political attitudes of Canadians under the age of 35 with the political attitudes of Canadians over the age of 35.

Three things to know about the political attitudes of young Canadians:

1. Compared to older Canadians, younger Canadians are much less likely to prioritize economic growth over environmental protection and to want increased government spending on the environment.

2. More than older Canadians, younger Canadians want an activist government that creates jobs and ensures a decent standard of living. Further, more younger Canadians are socially progressive than older Canadians and want a government that adapts its moral views to changes within society.

3. While a strong majority of Canadians want either higher or stable spending on social programs, more young Canadians are keen to see higher spending on health and education than older Canadians.

Three myths about the political attitudes of young Canadians:

Myth #1: It would be incorrect to say that young Canadians are always to the left of older Canadians on every issue. Solid majorities of young and older Canadians both want to see higher corporate taxes and do not want governments to increase their spending on either crime and justice or social assistance.

Myth #2: While there appears to be little appetite among Canadians for increases to personal income taxes, only a minority of Canadians has bought into the tax cutting agenda. Indeed, 62% of Canadians want personal income taxes to be kept the same or increased. Young Canadians also appear more willing to forego tax cuts than their older counterparts.

Myth #3: Interestingly, young Canadians are slightly less likely to recognize the existence of systematic discrimination of racial minorities and patriarchy (i.e. a male dominated society) compared to older Canadian.

Dr. David McGrane was born and raised in Moose Jaw and did his undergraduate degree in Political Science at the University of Regina and his Masters’ degree in Political Science at York University in Toronto. He completed his Ph.D. in political science at Carleton University in Ottawa and is now an Associate Professor of Political Studies at St. Thomas More College and the University of Saskatchewan.  He has published in several academic journals and his most recent research is a book entitled “Remaining Loyal: Social Democracy in Quebec and Saskatchewan” published by McGill-Queen's University Press.

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

From #PhDToGov: Iain Grant's Story

Iain Grant, Director, International Energy Policy Branch, Alberta Energy

Brief Bio

Originally from Guelph ON, I did an IR BA at Waterloo, MA in International Development at Guelph, Master of Marine Management at Dalhousie, and a PhD in the IR of Natural Gas between Russia and the EU at Dal. After an 8 year stint as Manager of Special Projects at Athabasca University, I joined Alberta Energy in February 2013. I work as a Director in the International Energy Policy Branch, the unit set up in 2012 to establish and consolidate energy relationships for Alberta outside the longstanding one with the United States. Our work now focuses on Europe and Asia, comprising advocacy work, negotiation of memoranda, mission planning, policy and market analysis, and generally developing strategy for the province for the day when pipeline access to tidewater is achieved. I am married with a wonderful four-child, two-pet circus.   

What did you hope for in terms of employment as you completed your PhD?

I deliberately chose my PhD topic to create flexibility, i.e., providing potential footholds in academia, government and industry. My path is unusual – or maybe not – in that I was working full-time for the latter 4 years of my doctoral work, so the question of employment upon completion was already addressed. The larger question was, and remains, where I could take it? This is a question we should never stop asking. That’s the beauty of a PhD – it infuses that potential for creativity into our career paths, creates options, and gives us a leg up (even in work cultures where academic credentials are viewed with skepticism). I draw on my PhD experience every single day.

What was your first post-PhD job?

Manager, Special Projects in the Office of the VP Academic, Athabasca University. Essentially Manager of International Relations.

Why did you choose an alternative-academic (alt-ac) career path?

It was an ideal melding of my academic and professional aspirations – I needed (and still do!) the international dimension, mainly because it’s been a life-long fascination; it was a cutting-edge opportunity; and it tied directly to my academic work, which allows me to come to the table with insights I’d not otherwise have had. I also needed the element of creativity which, ironically, I feel I very much have here.

What do you do now?

I lead a small team in our Branch that combines market intelligence, policy analysis and recommendation, strategy development and international liaison work. It’s a pretty regular thing to be planning a mission to China or Europe or India for the Premier, our Minister or Deputy Minister. It’s also pretty standard stuff to brief visiting ministers or ambassadors. A lot of it is the regular machinery of government – briefing notes, meetings, reports – but the content is still exciting and generally there is a lot of room for creativity and for advancing your ideas up the chain.

What’s the most challenging part about a pracademic career?

People almost assume that PhD’s will be (a) hopelessly theoretical or (b) putting on airs. You can’t do either, certainly not at Energy, which is a no-nonsense environment. If someone requests info, they need it pointed, accurate and usually SOON. So while you should always draw on the skills you acquired as a doctoral student – and you did acquire them – it’s important not to inflate the importance of your credential. If you can balance your knowledge and skills with the need to be part of a team, you’ll be fine. The respect for your credential will follow. But it might not necessarily be there at the start! Few will understand what you went through to get the PhD – it’s like being a parent or surviving an air disaster: you have to live it to understand it.  

What most surprises you about your job?

Two things. First, I’ve been surprised by the extent to which I am able to put a personal stamp on things. It’s funny when you express an idea in a briefing note and then a few days later hear it coming out of a Minister’s mouth during a speech or a press conference. If your ideas are good and the culture is conducive, you can have an impact in government, even a small one. Second, the culture is very advanced. That was a surprise. We can infer a lot about working in the Energy sector, even on the government side. Most notably, it’s a no-nonsense business that’s built on getting things done no matter how demanding the conditions. There’s some of that here, but what surprised me was how highly developed – dare I say enlightened – the professional culture is at Alberta Energy. The emphasis on work-life balance, on respect in the workplace, on teamwork, on taking a sincere interest in the development of staff and in their personal well-being is very strong. It is an exceptional place to work.

What advice or thoughts do you have for graduate students and post-doc students in transition now?

Consider government. It’s a great option. It will give you suites of skills that you can apply in any number of environments beyond those skills you’ve acquired in your doctoral work. Doing a senior academic degree is a massive achievement but it’s not the be-all end-all – it’s one dimension of knowledge, one dimension of yourself, but there are others. It can’t help but make you a more complete professional package.  

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Lean Management in the Public Service

By Joanne Zuk

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This blog post is based on the paper Perfect Pair or Better as Just Friends: Is the Public Service Ready for Lean Leadership by Joanne Zuk, which was awarded the grand prize int he IPAC 2015 Blueprint 2020 National Paper Competition.

Three things to know about government and Lean management:

1. Lean management is difficult to adopt in government. Lean process improvement focuses on what the customer wants, but governments have many customers – citizens, legislators, interest groups, consumers, – all with different wants.  

2. Implementing Lean process improvement means engaging front line staff in new ways, asking them to experiment to deliver better value to the customer. Many staff have never experienced this type of engagement, and may be resistant to a new level of responsibility. Building a psychologically safe environment becomes very important.

3. Leadership plays the most important role. Ministerial responsibility imposes a limit on the amount of change that can happen without political approval, but that doesn’t mean improvement cannot happen. Senior leaders need to establish expectations of coaching so that the plan-do-study-act cycle becomes part of daily routine.

Three myths about government and Lean management:

Myth #1: Lean is about public service downsizing.  

The Reality: Not usually – it’s about reducing the overburden on employees so they can focus on tasks that are valuable.

Myth #2: Applying Lean approaches will result in cost-savings for government.

The Reality: Sometimes – but it can also improve response times and improve perceptions of public service. 

Myth #3: Lean can be applied to small projects.

The Reality: Without a concerted effort to change culture, the effect of process improvement will be isolated, and a decade from now, governments will be challenged to improve processes that were improved during the current cycle.

Joanne Zuk is a graduate student in the Joint Masters of Public Administration program at the University of Manitoba and The University of Winnipeg. She is also the Manager of Policy and Planning at Manitoba Student Aid, for the Government of Manitoba.