Free Agents and GC Talent Cloud
This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)
Challenges facing the public sector are constantly evolving and managers increasingly require rapid access to talent to meet short timelines. Despite this, we still rely heavily on permanent hiring. In this context, we are testing a new workforce model. In this model, public servants are free to choose work that matches their skills and interests and can be rapidly deploy to work on projects.
In the face of increasingly complex and rapidly evolving challenges, the Government of Canada continues to rely on a workforce model built for a different era. This model, centered on indeterminate hiring with a temporary workforce complement, is poorly suited to deliver high quality policy, program, and service results for Canadians now and into the future. Increasingly, managers will require rapid mobilization of diverse skill sets to meet shorter project timelines. To respond effectively and efficiently to the challenges of the 21st century, the Public Service must explore new and more agile models of workforce mobilization. In this context, the Government of Canada set out to test a new form of workforce through its Free Agent Pilot.
The design and implementation of the Free Agent Pilot was based on the Deloitte GovCloud concept, developed in 2012. GovCloud proposed the restructuring of government workforces to meet the changing needs of citizens in complex environments. In May 2016, the Government of Canada began to offer positions to public servants who demonstrated attributes deemed necessary for free agency. The pilot places emphasis on selecting public servants who display attributes seen in successful innovators and problem-solvers and who possess skills that are in demand.
These "Free Agents” are able to choose their work and undertake project-based opportunities across the Public Service. They have the freedom to select work that matches their skills and interests and allows them to make a contribution that they find meaningful.
The Free Agent Pilot provides insights about how the Public Service might modify its approach to workforce mobility. The objectives of the pilot are three-fold:
1) demonstrate the benefits of the cloud-based free agency model for human resources;
2) support, develop, and retain talented public servants; and
3) increase the capacity of the Public Service to innovate and solve problems.
The pilot tracks performance, project outcomes, costs, risks, and benefits in order to make broad, data-driven recommendations about the long-term viability of a Free Agent GovCloud model. The Free Agents have benefited greatly from the program's activities. When candidates enter the program, many of them have frequently acted temporarily in positions above their substantive level for long periods. They are frequently encouraged to be innovative; however, during competitive processes many feel they can’t demonstrate their innovation capacity and believe that doing so actually reduces their chances of career advancement. They frequently commit their personal time and occasionally commit financial resources to help their department meet its innovation capacity needs.
When applying for the program, candidates indicated that they believe the Public Service does a poor job retaining people with innovation skills and capacity and does a poor job of utilizing the core skills of its people. As a result, more than half of them are seriously considering leaving the Public Service and three-quarters of those are actively researching opportunities or applying for jobs in other sectors. They feel that their skills are under-utilized, they are under-promoted, the culture is frustrating, and they are looking for more learning opportunities.
Once in the program, job satisfaction and enjoyment are considerably higher for Free Agents compared to the rest of the Public Service. Similarly, Free Agents feel much more supported to propose new ideas and be innovative in their work. The vast majority of Free Agents report new opportunities to apply existing skills, opportunities to develop new skills, greater access to the Government of Canada innovation community, and higher likelihood of remaining in the Public Service. Professional development for the Free Agents will continue to evolve.
Work is underway to develop a profile of skills and competencies that are useful for public sector innovation. Once developed, this profile will provide the framework for the Free Agents to pursue training and learning opportunities. This profile will draw from existing research undertaken by groups such as the OECD and Nesta, both of whom have teams of international thought leaders on the topic of public sector innovation and problem solving skills. Managers have also benefitted significantly from the model. Based on the results from a survey of hiring managers, the speed and convenience of hiring a Free Agent represent the greatest value provided by the program. Free Agents also generally appear to have a positive impact on their teams’ capacity and work environment. The vast majority of managers are satisfied with the work of the Free Agents and will consider hiring a Free Agent again. Almost all managers believe that the Free Agents work well in teams, learn well, and have good collaboration skills. They believe the Free Agents achieve results and are creative and passionate.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The Free Agent GovCloud model is different than the current workforce model in several ways. First and foremost,
it represents a departure from the permanent hiring model. The Free Agent GovCloud model is meant to provide
talent and skils for project-based work. Second, unlike existing consulting models, the program emphasizes
individual freedom to choose projects. Free Agents are given the freedom to find and select the projects that are of
interest to them and where they think they will be best placed to deliver results. Third, Free Agents are screened
and selected for their attributes and behaviours rather than their core skills. Emphasis is placed on selecting
candidates who display attributes often seen in successful innovators and problem solvers. The pilot is testing
whether these attributes will be valuable for project-based work and whether it will have an impact on problem
solving and innovation in the Public Service. And finally, the speed and convenience of the model provid
What is the current status of your innovation?
In the face of increasingly complex and rapidly evolving challenges, the Federal Public Service continues to rely on
a workforce model built for a different era. This model, centered on indeterminate hiring with a temporary workforce
complement, is poorly suited to deliver high quality policy, program, and service results for Canadians now and into
the future. Increasingly, managers will require rapid mobilization of diverse skill sets to meet shorter project
timelines. To respond effectively and efficiently to the challenges of the 21st century, the Public Service must
explore new and more agile models of workforce mobilization. In this context, Natural Resources Canada set out to
test a new form of workforce through its Free Agent Pilot. The design and implementation of the Free Agent Pilot
was based on the Deloitte GovCloud concept, developed in 2012. GovCloud proposed the restructuring of
government workforces to meet the changing needs of citizens in complex environments.
Collaborations & Partnerships
The program was launched in a single department, Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). With 28 Free Agents,
NRCan has reached the point where it has become difficult to continue growing the program within the department.
Given the responsibilities of the Talent Manager, NRCan determined that a second would be needed for future
cohorts. The program has now identified a partner department to hire the next 30 Free Agents.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
In designing the pilot, we identified and met with stakeholders, clients and collaborators to help inform the design.
We met with the following groups: Innovation Hubs and Labs Network National Managers’ Community Federal
Youth Network Deputy Ministers’ Committee on Policy Innovation (DMCPI) Community Blueprint 2020 Community
Lisa Nelson, Open Opportunities, General Services Administration, US Government Sarah Allen, Innovation
Catalyst, 18F, US Government Michael Lawyer, Office of Personnel Man
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
IMPACT – MANAGERS Results were collected through a survey of managers who hired a Free Agent. Overall
satisfaction with the Free Agent pilot was very high (90%) and the vast majority would hire a Free Agent again
(84%). Managers generally agree that the Free Agent pilot: • is faster than other staffing options, • is more
convenient than other staffing options, • leads to positive change in the team capacity and work environment, and •
helps their team leverage the Public Service innovation network. Managers were also asked to indicate the
frequency with which the Free Agents displayed the attributes for which they were screened during the application
process. The feedback was very positive with the Free Agents displaying all attributes frequently or very frequently
in at least 80% of their projects. Ability to work well in teams, ability to learn, and instinct to collaborate were most
prevalent. Ability to achieve results, creativity, and passion were also prevalent.
Challenges and Failures
Though still higher than the general Public Service, the Free Agents reported relatively lower levels of agreement
with questions of diversity, balancing work and personal life, and mental health. Data from the Monthly Survey and
journals showed that Free Agents felt some pressure to perform at a consistently high level and ensure there is no
downtime between their assignments. In response to these results, NRCan organized two facilitated, half-day
workshops on these topics. The pilot will use the discussions and insights from these workshops to inform the
program’s approach to diversity, inclusion, and workplace wellness and mental health. The pilot will also investigate
how best to address the unique characteristics and stressors of free agency and put in place safeguards to
minimize the potential to overburden the Free Agents.
Conditions for Success
Support from senior management to experiment with this model was essential up front. As the pilot has grown that
has become less important since we have demonstrated significant results. Co-creating with the stakeholders as
we iterate the model has been useful.
This could include replicability of the problem (i.e., widespread public challenges), as well as replicability of the
solution (i.e., the ease at which the solution can be adopted by others)
This solution could likely be easily replicated in other governments. Provincial governments in Canada have
approached us and are considering adopting our model. Other countries such as Australia and New Zealand have
also looked at this model and have worked with us to understand the benefits and challenges.
In the first year of the pilot, the program staffed 42 projects in 20 departments. The projects spanned a broad range
of business lines including policy development, communications, science research, and computer programming.
Projects ranged between 2 to 12 months in length; however, the majority (76%) were between 6 and 12 months. In
their monthly journals and check-ins, the Free Agents indicated on various occasions that they generally preferred
to commit to projects for shorter durations (such as 6 months) and extend as needed rather than commit for longer
durations (such as 12 months) and pursue early termination. One of the goals of the Free Agent Pilot was cost
neutrality for Natural Resources Canada, which hosted all the Free Agents. For the 2016-17 fiscal year, the
program overall costs were around $200,000, which NRCan was able to fully recover through the service fee.