Government employee morale: who’s hot, who’s not

It’s a great time to be a bean-counter with the Yukon government’s Finance Department, but pity the sad souls stuck in Economic…

It’s a great time to be a bean-counter with the Yukon government’s Finance Department, but pity the sad souls stuck in Economic Development or Justice.

These conclusions come from a survey, conducted in May of 2008 by Ipsos-Reid, on employee engagement within the territorial government.

It is the second year such a survey has been held. Its findings are instructive.

At the top of the pile is the Finance Department, which, despite being faced with the colossal embarrassment of having Canada’s auditor general blow the whistle on its investments in asset-backed commercial paper at the time of the survey, experienced a 21 per cent point bounce in the survey’s engagement index, lifting the department from its previous ranking of sixth place to number one.

At the bottom is Economic Development, which continued to rank below all other departments for the second year in a row, with an engagement index of 46 per cent, down six points from 2007.

The Justice Department experienced the biggest plunge. It lost 13 percentage points, dragging it down to 48 per cent — just two points above Economic Development.

Behind the numbers are the men and women who run each department and remain largely out of public sight: the territory’s appointed deputy ministers, who earn salaries that range from $139,000 to $180,400.

A study of these bosses — their backgrounds, personalities and leadership styles — is a study of contrasts.

David Hrycan, deputy minister of Finance, slowly climbed the departmental ladder.

After spending more than a decade as the territory’s accounting director, he moved into the role of assistant deputy minister in 1996. In March of 2007, after standing in as deputy minister on several occasions, he took the top job.

His slow rise “helps immensely” in making decisions today, he said.

He’s performed the jobs of other employees, “so that helps knowing what they’re going through and the challenges they face.”

And he’s been around long enough to develop solid working relationships with other long-term employees.

As a consequence, when Finance staff were asked if they had confidence in senior management, 84 per cent agreed, 16 per cent stayed neutral and, remarkably, none disagreed.

It helps that the duties of Finance’s 60-odd employees are usually clear-cut. They balance the books. That’s a far less ambiguous task than, say, being asked to help grow Yukon’s economy, or administering the justice system.

In contrast to Hrycan stands David Cooley, deputy minister of Justice, who declined to be interviewed for this article.

Senior staff who have left the department in the past year largely blame changes made under Cooley’s leadership for the department’s slumping morale.

He is described as an inflexible egghead. And he appears to lack experience in managing a large department before taking on the job in September of 2004.

Previously he had worked as executive director of the Law Commission of Canada, a federally funded think-tank with a dozen employees that the Conservative government shut down during a wave of funding cuts in 2006.

In contrast, Justice has 240 employees.

Cooley, who has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Manitoba, wrote his doctoral thesis in 1995 on the social control of prisoners.

Any insights gleaned from this research don’t appear to have transferred to the management of his staff.

When Justice employees were asked if they had confidence in senior management, only 23 per cent agreed, 56 per cent disagreed and 18 per cent stayed neutral.

As for the Department of Economic Development, it had no boss at all at the time of the survey. It appears to have been drifting like a boat without a keel since February of 2008, following the resignation of Eugene Lysy. A new deputy minister would not be appointed until five months later, in July.

Even so, its employees gave their absentee boss a markedly better grade than the one Cooley received: 33 per cent agreed, 39 per cent disagreed and 24 per cent stayed neutral.

In July, the department hired Harvey Brooks, who previously served as a deputy minister for several departments of the Saskatchewan government. He has struck a committee to come up with ideas of how to improve his department’s standings.

But the committee may have trouble overcoming one of the biggest problems. These Brooks attributes to the department’s poor standing in questions concerning communication between staff: his 53 employees are fragmented into five separate offices.

Departments under one roof tend to score higher, said Brooks, while fragmented departments have trouble building employee cohesion between offices.

“You don’t have the opportunity to run into that person in the hallway and say, hey, just a quick note on this, we’re doing the following … let’s follow up,” he said.

He’d like to see his department consolidated. Until that happens, they are making do by planning department-wide gatherings.

“We have the occasional Friday coffee where all staff come together,” said Brooks.

Deborah McNevin, director of strategic planning for Justice, said her department is holding off on making changes to improve its survey standings until it has consulted with staff.

A series of “cafe discussions” are to take place in January in which Justice employees will be able to vent their concerns and make recommendations, she said.

But the department currently has no plans to back away from any of the unpopular changes it has introduced in the past two years, such as the move to split the victim services branch in two — a move that resulted in the departure of a dozen employees, including the senior manager.

Victim services has been given more prominent placement inside the department’s hierarchy, said McNevin. Its boss now has a more impressive-sounding title.

This may matter to bureaucrats, but try telling it to victims of crime who must now walk a dark, winding stairway in which there is no security in order to visit the victim services branch.

Meanwhile, nepotism is alive and well in the Yukon government, at least in the minds of many government workers. Employee opinion across government was evenly divided on the question of whether promotions are fair and free of favouritism, with 29 per cent saying yes, an equal number saying no, and 19 per cent remaining neutral.

Finance bucked this trend.

There, 60 per cent of employees agreed promotions are handled fairly, with 24 per cent disagreeing and 20 per cent staying neutral.

In contrast, in Justice only 13 per cent agreed with the statement, 53 per cent disagreed and 17 per cent remained neutral.

Economic Development fared both better and worse than average — more people agreed, and disagreed, with fewer staking out neutral ground: 30 per cent said yes, 36 per cent said no and nine per cent stayed neutral.

Why did Finance fare so well? His department makes a point of putting jobs up for competition, says Hrycan.

A similar policy has recently been introduced in Economic Development, said Brooks.

But Justice has yet to make any such decision.

The department is waiting for new policies to be developed for them by the Public Services Commission, said McNevin.

Contact John Thompson at