Free Agents and GC Talent Cloud

Call for Innovations Call for Innovations
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.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

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.

Innovation Description

Innovation Development

Innovation Reflections

  1. The problem statement as presented above, as I understand it, is that it takes too long to hire a person and, a second problem exists whereby the person’s skills does not match the skills required for the job. The first problem is a process efficiency issue which adding another layer, a “new” workforce model will not help but exacerbate because you are not dealing with the origin of the problem. The second issue, the skills mismatch, has many facets amongst them managers are unable to identify the skills required to do the job and public service is less than effective at assessing candidates.
    On another note, where else can the employee choose the assignment they will work on? Should the requirements not be organizationally driven?
    Also, note that the free agents are indeterminate public servants. If you truly want to test this concept build a true “on demand” workforce. I believe they are called contractors, consultants, terms, etc.
    Public service is very good at coming up with solutions, but not very good at defining the problem and all its relevant facets.
    From a public servant trying their best to serve the public.

    • @PublicServant First of all, thanks for taking the time to comment. I appreciate your interest. My name is Abe Greenspoon, I was one of the people involved in the design and implementation of Canada’s Free Agents and am still involved today. I’m not involved with Talent Cloud, so I won’t speak for that project.

      I’m not sure it’s accurate to characterize our project as “another layer”. Our goal isn’t to add additional processes, rules, or systems. In fact, our project works within the system’s existing rules and processes but attempts to optimize them for speed, simplicity, and matching talent to needs. The problems of slowness and skills mismatch are definitely part of the picture of what we’re exploring with Free Agents. Additionally, we are exploring the problem of limited purposeful mobility and a lack of good talent management. We’re trying to address these problems by designing new tools that, when combined with autonomy and mobility, give public servants a greater ability to develop themselves and achieve greater performance.

      I disagree that we should be focusing on building a temporary “on demand” workforce. There are many problems with that approach that I won’t go into here. Sufficed to say, in Canada we have a very large indeterminate workforce and the problems facing it won’t go away by hiring more temporary employees.

      Lastly, our work has evolved quite a bit since this case study. Searching for “Canada’s Free Agents” on Google, you should be able to find articles on sites like Apolitical, Policy Options, and my blogs on Medium that will bring you up to speed on our work if you’re interested. You can also find me on Twitter ( or LinkedIn ( if you want to reach out. I’d welcome further dialogue and am easy to find.


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Year: 2016
Level of government: National/Federal government


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