IT Project for a Pay Transparency Initiative in Canada

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Guest blog written by Judith Buchanan

My Implementing Public Policy (IPP) journey began with enthusiasm (and was mostly sustained throughout). Having previously attended a Harvard Kennedy School Executive Education course – Strategic Management of Regulatory and Enforcement Agencies – I was keen to attend the course. I knew that, not only would the course be enriching, the learning from other participants would be a big part of the experience and I was so right! IPP also appealed to me due to the extended virtual learning and the opportunity to apply the material to a work-related initiative. What I didn’t know when I applied is that my job would soon change and that as the course began I also started a parallel learning journey in a new role with new problems to address.

I chose to advance the IT project for a legislative pay transparency initiative and to get the building of the new capabilities started (Building on an existing system.) Of course, there were numerous governance protocols to address and in September we were delayed from getting our Gate 3 approval by two weeks. Luckily there was confidence in the work my team had done that we were able to get unofficial approval to advance. At the time, this was especially concerning given our planned implementation timelines (mid-2020) and knowing that we would likely face project difficulties along the way. Now as we await decisions on timing due to having a new Minister (see below), we continue to advance the development work as far as we can with the resources on hand. Were there to be a later implementation date, adjustments would be needed and we have made contingencies that allow for this. (Hoping it is enough but not too worried. Once we will be in our later stages there will be good momentum to obtain authority to complete the work.)

At the same time, over the journey we advanced on regulatory work and received input from stakeholders after the public comment period on draft regulations. Some stakeholders are of the view that the changes are premature and that a broader examination of the legislative framework is required. The enabling legislation, The Employment Equity Act, is 30 years old and could use a bit of “sprucing up” through a Parliamentary review. Were this to occur, my team would support the policy review and any subsequent legislative initiative. In the meantime, the team has been working on analyzing the stakeholder feedback to assess whether adjustments to the regulations are needed.

In Canada, the election for the federal government was held in October and a new Cabinet announced in late November. As of this date, we have yet to fully brief the new Minister on the pay transparency initiative and expect to do this shortly. Key decisions on timing are needed and this will set the path forward for the completion of the regulations and development of various program elements (guidance and tools for users). If and when we get to a legislative review, I certainly intend to construct my problem and create a fishbone (probably be a whalebone or a school of fish) to map all the elements at play.

While I have always known that policy development and program implementation is not an individual sport, I have given a lot of thought to the Everest example used in the course and how I might create an environment where my team feel safe enough to turn back if there were danger. Of course, in our context the danger is missed deadlines or failed systems which can significant impacts. Nevertheless, I am interested in the notion that team members should have the confidence to speak up when difficulties are encountered and know that we will work through them together. And yes this is a real concern. To build rapport and create connections in my broader team (approximately 80), I have been having informal meetings (fika – Swedish for coffee break aka friendly informal conversations about anything, including the Kardashians – the last bit to drive the point that it is meant to be casual) and even then some team members arrive at the sessions with trepidation. My sense is that the culture of hierarchy and the history of my predesssors (and possibly even my contemporaries) behaviour with the team have not created an environment of trust. Or perhaps this is larger than me and systemic within the broader public service…

In thinking about this and other problems I encounter, I constantly return to the notion of the three As and have since ranked them – acceptance, ability and authority. Of course there is overlap and sometimes two of the elements work in tandem, yet they mostly cycle in this order. As an example, when discussing the need for legislative review, mentioned earlier, I know that there is a certain level of acceptance of the need for a review. I also know that the ability to undertake a review is limited and have asked for an outline as to what would be required so that we can start growing our ability and be ready (as I suspect we may need it). Lastly, should there be an interest in seeking authority (likely from the Prime Minister) we would be ready with options or a strategy to take this on.

While the focus of my problem was to advance an IT solution tied to the implementation of regulations for pay transparency. There are other elements that need to be addressed, including packaging the regulatory and technological elements into a program approach with information that employers will be able to use to address the wage gap. I have to admit that this is my favorite part of the process, taking the policy from the back to the front of the house (a hotel metaphor) and expose it to the public. Here again we have the opportunity to learn how we have done with our program work and then continually adjust and/or expand to reach the objective/continually improve.

As to motivation, I keep focusing on progress and finding ways to advance. Knowing that I will discover a new path or solution keeps me interested. As a trail walker, I know that sometimes conditions require you to walk around obstacles, or even detour to find an alternate route to your destination. And so, I use this as a construct for work and finding ways to advance and enlarge my understanding of the environment. It helps that I like to spend time in my environment getting to know the various paths, while exploring new ones, and I take care to bring the right equipment for the conditions (even in winter).

As I write this, I am stuck that the various IPP tools are new equipment that I can use to help me successfully navigate new terrain on my journey whatever that might be….

I find myself looking for opportunities to create space to iterate on the various work elements. Interestingly it is not only authorizers that I need to engage and educate. Team members have also been conditioned and are accustomed to using a project management tools and a waterfall approach to manage their work. When given the opportunity to iterate and explore options, they do not seem to know what to do with the space. It is actually a good problem to have and I have spent time discussing the “design space” and exploring how we might use our varied knowledge and experience to look for insights as to how to tackle the various elements we are working on. (We are also fortunate to have analyst on an interchange from the UK who worked on their pay transparency initiative.)

I would encourage colleagues to hang in there even when forced to take on traditional work and management methods. Try to find or create space to iterate even on smaller elements – this helps build and demonstrate abilities and gain authorization. And also helps you practice and gain confidence for larger pieces of work. In my case, having recently established a tactical consultation plan to engage stakeholders on technical elements for salary calculations – this was considered to be proactive (yeah!). It just took a bit of time to work out logistics and create tailored questionnaires for stakeholders to work from. We are now getting ready to meet with stakeholders in January, where we will use the questionnaires to further advance on outstanding technical questions. This will set the stage to complete the IT project and develop guidance material. And hopefully, by the summer the final pay transparency regulations will be published and a date fixed for the coming into force of pay transparency in Canada. Oh, and did I mention, not only will we be showing the wage gap between men and women, the data will show wage gaps for persons with disabilities, Indigenous people and members of visible minorities.

Note: It is now late April and we are in the midst of the COVID crisis.  Since writing this, my team was able to advance the IT project, even doing user testing during the first weeks working from home.  However, our regulations which were to be finalized in June are held up due to the crisis.  Nevertheless, our work is ready to advance again as soon as can be and we are turning out attention to implementation work.

This is a blog series written by the alumni of the Implementing Public Policy Executive Education Program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Participants successfully completed this 7-month blended learning course in December 2019. These are their learning journey stories.

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