It has long been the practice in many Departments and Agencies to send established Research Group members for collaborations or advanced training to other research facilities in Canada or abroad, similar to the "sabbatical" in an academic context. These have been labelled by our employer as some combination of "transfer of work," "detachment or attachment," "posting," "secondment" or "foreign assignment." In this document, we use the term “assignment” from hereon. As will be discussed in this article, these are currently covered by Article 19.03(b) “Professional development” of our collective agreement, part of Article 19 “Career development.”
In our last bargaining survey, members indicated that such assignments were a priority. We proposed language for the collective agreement that put these assignments on a more routine schedule, akin to a sabbatical, but this was rejected. One counter-argument made is that few requests for such assignments have been denied, and therefore the current language is adequate. We believe the reason so few are approved as well as denied is that members have largely stopped making requests, so wish to provide you information on how to make such a request under the existing terms of our agreement.
The purpose of this article is to remind members that they are entitled to apply for periods of assignment to carry out research elsewhere. Our current collective agreement states “The parties recognize that in order to promote professional expertise, employees, from time to time, need to have an opportunity to attend or participate in career development activities” such as “to conduct research or to perform work related to their normal research programs in institutions or locations other than their normal place of work, including non-public service locations.”
We strongly encourage members to make such a request to their employer. The RE group is recruited from the same pool of researchers as the universities with their “sabbaticals,” and assignments are a necessary part of our jobs as researchers and maintain the high professional standards we need to give the best possible advice to the Government. The rebirth of this culture will be beneficial to our work environments, making them more productive, and capable of attracting or invigorating the brightest candidates and staff. It will also showcase and enhance the international reputation of Canadian government research, which is an important part of how the government purses its diplomatic goals on the international stage.
Numerous requests for assignment may create a competing situation where the employer may, even unwittingly, show some bias. Also, it as we all know it is difficult to apply for something without knowing on what basis a decision will be made. For this reason, the following revised language is included in our new collective agreement, creating an onus on the Employer to create and share clear selection criteria: “The Employer shall establish selection criteria for granting leave under clauses 19.02 and 19.03. A copy of these criteria will be provided to an employee who so requests and to the Institute representative.” We encourage you to ask the employer for their criteria, as most departments and agencies still have not created them despite this revised language. Also, other Institute Groups had a similar revision made, but it only applies to criteria conference attendance due to their shorter Career Development articles, so the employer may tend to focus on only on that aspect. While conference attendance is also an important issue for RE members, we also have other elements in our article for which the employer is now obliged to create criteria (including Education Leave as well).
At the end of this article are the relevant sections of our collective agreement. We highlighted what we feel are the most important points, but feel free to reach out for more information. First, we provide some suggestions, from experiences of members on assignment to other labs.
Context and rationale
Since at least the 1950s, colleagues in the public service have taken advantage of the opportunity to develop new skills, research programs, or collaborations, that were beneficial to our employer. It was not uncommon to do so twice in a longer career, and for periods ranging from three months to one year at a time. The rationale is that if one is the Canadian or regional expert in a field, then working alongside an external colleague may be the only way in which to grow skills or to develop the novel collaborations which are critical to the mission of your work in your region. These periods were not granted as leave but were treated as full-time work, although from a different site.
However, some managers (even senior managers) can regard such a period as an unnecessary "perk," for a number of reasons. Hence, they are unlikely to "go out on a limb" for a member without strong arguments for the specific type of work, its location, and any costs. These include a well developed plan, budget and, usually, a contingency plan for possible problems. Consequently, a request should consider the management need for the activity and how it benefits both the work plan of the scientist and the priorities of the Department. This strategy can take considerable time to elaborate; typically one to two years.
As one example, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada (AAFC) had from 1987 until at least 2012, specific practices and travel cost guidelines; i.e., a subset of the National Joint Council Foreign Service Directive (FSD). These were clarified in writing after discussion and signing by the Institute and Treasury Board in 1995. AAFC also updated a protocol for selection of candidates within the Research Branch in 2009. The concept of a transfer of work/assignment was well-used by many staff in AAFC from the 1950s until about 2005. It was used by fewer staff until at least 2012, but was revived just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of an AAFC request, the researcher was responsible for presenting a budget, which could include air fares for spouse and family, shipment of limited personal goods, and partial coverage of living and other costs. If approved by senior management within a defined cost envelope, the Department then negotiated the budget and project details with the scientist. In general, and owing to travel plans being up to a year in advance, the budget would be only provisional / pending and subject to external funding (e.g., a scholarship application or meeting request to an external agency). If the full amount was not received, the employer was open to reconsidering the request. In recent cases, AAFC managers have required the full cost of supporting the assignment to come from existing funding to the researcher or project, or from outside sources. No extra financial support was received from an upper management budget, as occurred until at least 2012.
In NRCan and AAFC, such a detachment became increasingly difficult after the change of government in 2005, and as a result of changes in travel policies and budget authorities in 2010. In our view, it was not so much that the endorsement of assignments was withdrawn but that managers had difficulty in planning and allocating the travel within the new computer systems introduced at the time.
Secondly, any endorsement by a host agency of a period working in an external laboratory began to required onerous documentation of ethical considerations for receiving external funding and additional approvals. Add in the subsequent and numerous changes in managers, budgets, travel authorities, travel caps and turnover of researchers. Together, these led to a mistaken belief among many researchers and managers that such things can no longer be done. As a result, the frequency of requests for such assignments decreased to almost zero for a few years. It was only recently (2018-19) on the upswing prior to the current pandemic.
Nonetheless, provisions in our collective agreement allow for assignment, and indeed require the employer to accept such requests and develop criteria for approving them. A small number of researchers in a few departments were recently (2019) successful in receiving authorization for assignments in Europe and elsewhere. In a recent example from an NRCan research centre, one researcher was able to go on detachment in Europe twice since 2005, however travel permissions were minimal. It could not be for periods of more than thre months and only the researcher’s airfare was reimbursed, not that of family members. No lodging allocation was provided.
For employees of the Department of National Defence (DND) and Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC), in particular, a range of options for working within and for outside organizations are regularly used, both within the terms of clause 19.03(b) and other clauses. For example, many employees have worked directly for various North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) bodies as employees, while taking one or more forms of leave without pay from the public service – procedures for this exist on the DRDC intranet (Nexus). DRDC also maintains positions in London and Washington, and regularly fills billets within operational task forces under the terms of the FSD, but are not professional developmental opportunities under clause 19.03(b). That said, even the procedures for leave without pay referred to above refer to the existence of 19.03(b), and that it can be used to propose working at another location.
The relatively well-known DRDC opportunities which most closely match the 19.03(b) procedures were often called “exchanges” or “secondments” to defence research organizations in allied countries. The latter have included the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. Strictly speaking, they were not formal, one-for-one, “exchanges” of personnel, but relatively routine arrangements which existed for some time. Conversations of Institute stewards with managers roughly 5 years ago gave the impression that while no “exchange programmes” existed per se, employees were free to develop and propose opportunities, compatible with 19.03(b). Managers are also increasingly improving developmental proposals that meet the description of 19.03(b)(i)(B), where researchers do not work at an outside facility, but are given time to explore research directions outside of their regularly assigned projects.
Now that the collective agreement requires criteria for such opportunities to be developed, the Institute will be advocating that a more standard process be put in place in every Department. However, we will need stewards to engage management on the topic, and members to file requests. It is typical for management to put aside topics in consultation where they do not feel they have received requests or complaints, so it is always useful for individual researchers to also inquire about the status of such application processes.
Improving the success rate of a request
There can be many reasons for a researcher requiring a period of work in another lab. These are often a mix of professional and personal goals; e.g., the latter can be to better one's knowledge of a second official language. Regardless of any underlying or long-term reasons of career growth, the request must appear to fit all of the necessary criteria for the employee’s current or future role, and be couched in such terms.
In some Departments, formal memoranda of understanding exist with one or more external laboratories, or foreign governments such as the European Union, and the request can be linked to such work. Alternatively, members have arranged a formal collaboration, country to country, or lab to lab, and subsequently connected an assignment to such agreements.
Any request has a much higher chance of approval if co-funding is available from outside the Department budget. Examples have included: accommodation provided to visiting researchers at little or no cost in university housing; waiving of "bench fees" at the host institution; or free access to equipment or services normally charged to external users.
In order to apply for external funding, which usually requires endorsement by a manager, it is best if the concept of an assignment has been raised in principle for one or two years beforehand. This is best done during the annual appraisal process where it can be put in writing.
The receipt of an external award or scholarship, such as that provided by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), N, a foreign government such as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) in Germany, or some funding from a United Nations (UN) organisation, etc., is a great help if not actually required. The latter are strong incentives for management to agree to a request as the candidate, or idea, has already been externally approved or endorsed.
It is very useful to thoroughly discuss the possibility of an assignment in-person with candidate hosts, often at a scientific meeting. If applying for a lengthy period, it is best to visit the host site beforehand, and review most of the researchand personal issues. A work visa is typically required, and a written invitation from the host scientist. Where possible, a written endorsement from the highest level of the host institution, or its research head, suggests that problems will be resolved if the host is unavailable in person [Such has happened when a host moved suddenly owing to illness, a transfer, promotion, etc.]. For researchers at DRDC, a technical note is available in the internal publication database documenting the experience of a researcher’s assignment to Australia approximately 15 years ago.
Costs - financial and personal
Any period in another laboratory may result in out-of-pocket costs that cannot be reimbursed. They are usually balanced for the visitor by gains, career-wise and personally, which resonate for a few years or throughout the remainder of a career. The understanding of the employer is that these are employee-requested assignments. Consequently, it is their intention of checking that there is some support to limit the costs, and providing a minimal budget where necessary (the language in our agreement involves reimbursing expenses the employer “deems appropriate”). The Institute (in the example of the 1995 AAFC-Treasury Board agreement) accepted that the employer, or any external funding agency, cannot cover costs completely, but negotiated some support. This case differs from when an employee accepts an employer-requested career posting to a foreign location, a case when the full NJC FSD coverage applies.
As one example, the AAFC-PIPSC-Treasury Board agreement (1995-) provided the following support, each to be negotiated, taken from the guidelines of the FSD. It was still in use to at least 2012. As a minimum: employee transportation and in transit food and lodging costs, employee dependents’ airfare, and bench fees. In addition, negotiated parts (to an agreed dollar limit) of the short-term relocation directive of the FSD such as housing and meal assistance, laundry allowance, incidental relocation expenses, storage and shipment of household effects.
Finally, family considerations and support, or lack of it, are very important factors. There have been numerous examples where the project could not occur as planned, and quite different outcomes were achieved. Considerable personal and family flexibility is required, often without much employer support. As departments and agencies formalize their criteria for these assignments, we suggest that researchers ask their management questions about such matters and carefully document any replies.
COVID and travel directive
While air travel is currently suspended throughout much of government, there is no indication that the travel policy has changed, and indeed the travel directive can only be amended by the joint union-management process of the NJC. Do not accept a “no” from your management as an answer based on “changes to the travel policy.” It will take considerable time to set up any assignment for when normal business travel resumes, perhaps 2022 onwards. Consequently, discussions with your manager should begin when YOU deem it necessary for your long-term career and personal goals.
**Article 19: career development
The parties recognize that in order to promote professional expertise, employees, from time to time, need to have an opportunity to attend or participate in career development activities described in this article.
19.03 Conferences and professional development
The parties to this agreement recognize that attendance at professional or scientific conferences, symposia, workshops and other gatherings of a similar nature constitutes an integral part of an employee’s professional activities and that attendance and participation in such gatherings is recognized as an important element in enhancing creativity in the conduct of scientific research or professional development. In this context, the parties also recognize the importance of research networking with national and international peers and active participation in the business and organization of relevant scientific and professional societies.
b. Professional development
- The parties recognize the desirability of improving professional standards by giving employees the opportunity:
- to conduct research or to perform work related to their normal research programs in institutions or locations other than their normal place of work, including non-public service locations, or
- to carry out research in the employee’s field of specialization not specifically related to the employee’s assigned work projects when in the opinion of the Employer such research is needed to enable the employee to perform the employee’s assigned role more adequately.
- An employee, in consultation with the Employer, may apply at any time for professional development under this clause, and the Employer shall make a reasonable effort to grant such professional assignments subject to operational requirements.
- An employee may be selected by the Employer for such development under this clause, in which case the Employer will consult with the employee before determining the location and duration of the program of work or studies to be undertaken.
- An employee selected for professional development under this clause will continue to receive the employee’s normal compensation including any increase or improvement for which the employee may become eligible.
v. An employee on professional development under this clause may be reimbursed for reasonable travel expenses and such other additional expenses as the Employer deems appropriate. Where the professional development occurs outside of Canada, the provisions of the Foreign Service Directives may apply as specified in FSD 3: Application.
19.04 Selection criteria
- The Employer shall establish selection criteria for granting leave under clauses 19.02 and 19.03. A copy of these criteria will be provided to an employee who so requests and to the Institute representative on the Departmental Career Development Consultation Committee. The Employer, on request, will consult with the Institute representative on the Committee with regard to the selection criteria.
All applications for leave under clauses 19.02 and 19.03 will be reviewed by the Employer. A list of the names of the applicants to whom the Employer grants leave under clauses 19.02 and 19.03 will be provided to the Institute representative on the Departmental Career Development Consultation Committee.