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IPAC Case Study Program

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Using a Senior “SWAT” Management Team to Drive a Mission Critical

Initiative Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

by Alan Morantz


IPAC Case Series

Editor: Andrew Graham – andrew.graham@queensu.ca

This case study has been developed as part of an “organizational learning” case study series through the

IPAC Case Study program. The cases from this series are prepared in conjunction with partners across a

variety of governments, with a strong focus on the many activities of the federal government. We thank

all those departments and ministries that have agreed to share their insights and experiences for the

benefit of others. Each case will consist of the case itself and a short teaching note with ideas for uses

and themes that the case suggests, Within the body of the case will be a series of lessons learned, based

on the observations of those interviewed, written material and the insights of the case author and

editor.

All cases are prepared by a researcher/writer and then edited. The research is based on published

material and interviews with those who had been involved with the case. All interviews are treated as

confidential and all quotations arising from them are not attributed to an identified individual.

Website for all IPAC cases: www.ipac.ca/CaseStudyProgram and www.ipac.ca/knowledge/CaseStudies

Using a Senior “SWAT” Management Team to Drive a Mission Critical Initiative Human Resources and

Skills Development Canada

Author, Alan Morantz, Ottawa, Canada

Financial support from the Canada School of Public Service to conduct this work is gratefully

acknowledged. The views expressed in this report are not necessarily those of the Canada School of

Public Service or of the Government of Canada.

Abstract

This case outlines the creation and performance of a high-­‐level rapid response senior management team

within Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC), to ensure the fast and successful

delivery of a range of assistance programs under the Economic Action Plan. The case focuses on the

issues that arise when convening a forum for Associate/Assistant Deputy Ministers in order to produce

an integrated strategy, and explores challenges and opportunities relating to change management, risk

management, and organizational alignment.

The case can be used in an academic setting for exploring these topics as well as in the organizational

setting to understand the steps taken and the lessons learned. The case is based on interviews with the

individuals involved in the implementation of the initiative and review of supporting documents and

HRSDC-­‐internal assessments. There is a Teaching Note for this case.

Date of Publication: 2011

Cover photo: Bernie Kasper, Madison Indiana Photography -­‐ http://sindianavisions.wordpress.com/

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Using a Senior “SWAT” Management Team to Drive a Mission Critical Initiative

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada

Prepared by Alan Morantz

Origins and Goals

The Economic Action Plan (EAP), announced in January 2009, was the federal government’s response to

the deepest global recession since the 1930s. In the EAP’s first year of implementation, close to

$32 billion in support was provided to individuals and businesses most affected by the economic

downturn. An additional $28 billion was delivered in the second year.

HRSDC delivers a range of programs and services near and dear to Canadians. They include Old Age

Security, the Canada Pension Plan, Employment Insurance, Canada Student Loans and Grants, the

National Child Benefit, and the Universal Child Care Benefit. The department is organized around three

business lines: programs that support human resources and skills development; the Labour program;

and Service Canada.

HRSDC was one of the key federal departments responsible for executing the EAP’s commitments. The

EAP-­‐related measures represented a temporary increase to HRSDC program funding of approximately

$6.3 billion. For example, there were new measures to help workers receive training, and better

protection for wages and severances in the event of their employers’ bankruptcy.

Given its extensive portfolio, HRSDC has significant interaction with Canadians from all walks of life,

including youth, working adults, workers who lost their jobs, seniors, Aboriginal people, veterans,

Canadians with disabilities, and newcomers to Canada. As examples, HRSDC’s Service Canada, the

federal government’s integrated service organization, has more than 600 points of service across the

country as well as a national telephone information service (1 800 O-­‐Canada), a network of specialized

call centres, and a well-­‐used website. In a typical year, approximately 10 million Canadians visit a Service

Canada location, 52 million people contact call centres, and 33 million access the Service Canada

website. The close to $100 billion business of HRSDC is supported by a massive IT infrastructure.

The EAP presented HRSDC with a tall task. In all, HRSDC was responsible for 14 EAP-­‐related

commitments. To add to the challenge, these commitments had to be operationalized within four

months of the Budget announcement to respond to the urgency of the economic crisis. In an interview

with the Ottawa Citizen, Mostafa Zommo, Associate Chief Information Officer for HRSDC’s Information

Technology Branch, outlined both the stakes and the challenge:

“Implementing these EI programs was a way to help Canadians withstand the hardship

that came with the downturn in the economy. Our department was integral to the

response the government put together . . . We all understood that an urgent response was

needed. Unemployment was rising quickly, which motivated all of us to deliver.”

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Meeting these goals within such a compressed time frame would be a challenge at the best of times.

These were not. The rising employment insurance claims were already placing significant pressures on

HRSDC’s service delivery infrastructure. The concern was that delivering on the EAP commitments would

put a heavy load on the existing technology infrastructure and stretch the department’s capacity to

fulfill all of its obligations. The risk of systems failure was just one element of the uncertainties that arise

in such situations. The larger risk was that the Department would fail to respond quickly enough to the

government’s direction.

To address the challenge, the department’s senior leaders opted to create a new forum, known as the

“SWAT team.” This group comprised high-­‐level managers from all the key branches of the department,

including both the portfolio and corporate functions. The SWAT team represented the primary

accountability, control, and reporting framework; it would oversee the development and

implementation of HRSDC’s plans to meet its EAP commitments, decide on resources, and assess and

develop a plan to manage strategic risks.

This case study examines why a new rapid-­‐response management team was created instead of using the

existing governance mechanisms and committees, how the SWAT team members approached their

work, how they followed a risk management approach, the challenges they faced, and lessons learned

along the way. It discusses some of the unintended consequences, largely positive, that resulted from

the SWAT team approach and speculates on possible impacts on how the department will approach

decision-­‐making in the future.

SWAT Team Design and Performance

In January 2009, as soon as the EAP was announced, HRSDC leadership considered the department’s

options on how to fulfill its commitments. What had to be done?

• The broad policy announcements of the Budget had to be made into reality with legislative

changes, new policies, and modification of existing programs,

• All the policy pieces had to move forward for funding approval from Treasury Board,

• Virtually all of the existing programming had to be changed in one way or another,

• Employees had to be brought on board with training and shifts in responsibilities,

• IT had to prepare the technology backbone, making the adjustments quickly and with minimum

error.

It was clear, given the tight and politically sensitive timeframe, that there had to be a forum in which the

department’s senior management could drive an integrated process in a focused way. It was also clear

that the existing mechanisms would not suffice, even though they might work well in normal

circumstances. This was a new normal.

In terms of its existing governance model, HRSDC has two corporate committees that bring together

senior management: the Portfolio Senior Management Board (PSMB) and the Corporate Services

Committee (CSC).

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The PSMB is the main decision-­‐making body of the department. It determines strategic directions and

priorities, approves portfolio-­‐wide plans and strategies, and makes decisions on strategic issues that

affect the portfolio as a whole.

The CMC oversees the management agenda that supports the objectives set out in the Integrated

Business Plan and the Management Accountability Framework. It has oversight of corporate

management strategies, processes, and operations in areas such as Human Resources,

Finance/Corporate Overhead, Information Technology/Information Management, Planning, and Risk

Management.

For the extraordinary job at hand, it was clear that both the PSMB and CMC were ill-­‐suited to lead the

EAP process. Their mandates were too broad and neither committee could apply a singular strategic and

tactical focus on carrying out the department’s EAP obligations. Given the urgency and the work that

had to be completed, building a “SWAT” team of senior managers was considered the best way to

marshal and align resources and to maintain the focus. This would reinforce the urgency, focus senior

resources and ensure that the best use was made of the short timeframe.

In February 2009, just one month after the Budget was delivered, the SWAT team was created. The

team was chaired by the Senior Associate Deputy Minister and Chief Operating Officer for Service

Canada and included as members the Assistant or Associate Deputy Ministers from the business lines

and corporate support branches. The composition of the SWAT Team can be seen in Figure One.

Composition of the HRSDC “SWAT” team

Chairperson

Associate Deputy Minister of HRSDC

Members

Senior Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Management

Assistant Deputy Minister, Service Canada Operations

Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic Policy and Research

Assistant Deputy Minister, Program Operations

Assistant Deputy Minister, Public Affairs and Stakeholder Relations

Chief Financial Officer

Chief Audit Executive

Assistant Deputy Minister, Citizen Services

Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Skills and Employment

Assistant Deputy Minister, Innovation, Information and Technology

The SWAT team was not just a rubber-­‐stamping body created to offer the illusion of co-­‐operation. Team

members were expected to work through the strategic and tactical considerations for all of the HRSDC’s

EAP programs – together and in support of each other. While members were not relieved of their

considerable ongoing duties, they were expected to work on this major project as “all hands on deck”

contributors. Underscoring the seriousness of the endeavour, the team met weekly and attendance of

all Assistant/Associate Deputy Ministers was mandatory. Substitutes were not permitted, although this

requirement was loosened once the EAP initiatives entered their implementation stage. This was an

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important requirement for the team to come together around the project and not simply act as an

assembly of separate interests.

In April, a Project Management Office (PMO – not to be confused with the Prime Minister’s Office,

which had a lively interest in the outcomes of this coordinated effort) was created to support the SWAT

team, led by an experienced Director General from HRSDC. The PMO was staffed with one analyst and

one support person (two additional analysts were retained during a particularly busy two months) and

was supported by a virtual network of HRSDC Director Generals representing Strategic Policy, the Chief

Financial Officer Branch, Program Branches, Operations Branches, Service Management, Legal Services,

Communications, Human Resources, Systems, and other groups where appropriate.

The PMO’s mandate was to provide the control and oversight function, mobilizing timely action and

course correction when issues arose, and updating central agencies and the Minister’s office. The PMO

maintained an extensive tracking document, keeping tabs on each of the EAP programs affected, and

providing a rolling snapshot on each initiative every week. Significantly, the head of the PMO reported

directly to the Chair, and therefore had the clout to negotiate timelines and ensure commitments were

honoured.

The first six-­‐month period was a steep learning curve for the SWAT team, and adjustments were made

as the practical realities of implementing such an ambitious policy shift became clearer. One area that

needed improvement, for example, was in communications to the rest of the department. In an effort to

address this perceived shortcoming, a committee of Directors General was created in May 2009, to

share information with staff responsible for carrying out the department’s EAP commitments. The

committee met every six weeks. Approximately four months into the SWAT process, Directors General

were occasionally invited to SWAT meetings to present on agenda items, particularly relating to risk

assessment. Setting up a form of double-­‐loop information sharing also served to clarify the meaning and

intent of both the program and internal perceptions of what was happening.

The SWAT team approach allowed members to learn from one another in a collaborative atmosphere.

The collegial environment was established, in words and deeds, by the Chairperson, to whom the

reporting lines all led. As well, the nature and urgency of the challenge discouraged any posturing or

confrontation.

“It meant that the silos were broken down,” says one person involved in the process. “If things weren’t

moving forward, you’d know all about it the next week. There was no hiding if things weren’t

happening.”

As a result, there was real-­‐time alignment along with sufficient frequency of interaction to enable quick

corrective actions and responses. The SWAT team members had to review all elements of the EAP

programs at the same time, so there was the opportunity around the table to not only develop policy,

but to think through and agree on how to operationalize and deliver on the policy. Risks arising from

policy design, implementation and the globally-­‐based economic factors in play could be assessed readily

and mitigation strategies quickly put in place. Red flags would go up early. Team members were not only

the experts in their areas but they also had the authority, by virtue of their ADM-­‐level positions, to

marshal resources and carry through on commitments. The SWAT process bred a culture of shared

accountability. “The attitude was ‘That’s not just your problem, that’s our problem,’” recalls one person

who was part of the SWAT process.

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