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CSPS Virtual Café Series: Leadership Reflections, with Jocelyne Bourgon (TRN4-V16)


This event recording features Jocelyne Bourgon, President of Public Governance International and esteemed former Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet, who discusses the importance of talent development and the impact of effective leadership in the context of today's modern public service.

Duration: 00:34:55
Published: January 12, 2024
Type: Video

Event: CSPS Virtual Café Series: Leadership Reflections, with Jocelyne Bourgon

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CSPS Virtual Café Series: Leadership Reflections, with Jocelyne Bourgon

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[00:00:01 The CSPS logo appears onscreen.]

[00:00:05 The screen fades to Nathalie Laviades Jodouin.]

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Hello and welcome to this session of the Virtual Café Series, which offers us the opportunity to hear from distinguished speakers who share with us their thoughts and their views on a range of current topics. My name is Nathalie Laviades Jodouin. I am Vice-President of the Public Sector Operations and Inclusion Branch at the Canada School of Public Service. It's a pleasure to be among you today to lead this discussion. Before I begin, I'd like to acknowledge that I am joining you from Ottawa, on the traditional, unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe people.

While participating in this event, it is important to recognise the different places in which we all work, places in which different traditional Indigenous territories exist. I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on your traditional Indigenous territory wherever you may be located. Thank you.

Now, let's get this session started, and to kick things off, I'm extremely pleased to introduce you to our guest speaker, the Honourable Jocelyne Bourgon.

[00:01:11 Jocelyne Bourgon appears onscreen next to Nathalie Laviades Jodouin.]

The Honourable Jocelyne Bourgon is the Founding President of Public Governance International. She is also the President Emeritus of the Canada School of Public Service and project leader of the New Synthesis Initiative and President of the school when I joined the public service.

Jocelyne Bourgon: Yes.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: So, it's a full circle moment.

Madame Bourgon has led the Public Service of Canada through its most significant reforms. She has had a distinguished career, during which she held high-level positions, including Canadian Ambassador to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet of Canada, and Deputy Minister of a number of departments also, federal departments. Madame Bourgon has extensive international experience, having served as President of the United Nations Committee of Experts on Public Administration and President of the Commonwealth Association for Public Administration.

She is the recipient of six honourary degrees, just six. She's also the member of the King's Privy Council of Canada, a member of the Order of Canada and a Knight of the National Order of Merit of the Republic of France. Not at all intimidated here, it's all good! Madame Bourgon has also published extensively on the topic of Public Administration.

It is really vital to cultivate and strengthen talent and leadership within the public service so that the federal government is in a position to lead and contribute to Canada's prosperity and development.

While the need to develop and to sustain leadership within organisations in order to prosper is a must, it isn't always easy to keep up with the pace and complexity of this change. As a source of extensive expertise and wisdom to turn to for reflection, it seems that no one is better placed than Madame Bourgon, and I hope you are as eager as I am to learn more from her and to her experience. So, without further ado, let's get started. So, If I may, Madame Bourgon, thank you again for being with us today.

Jocelyne Bourgon: My pleasure.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: And if I may, maybe ask you to just set the stage and set the context for us. Like, what's going on in the world, what's going on with technology, what's going on with society? Can you set the stage for us?

Jocelyne Bourgon: A great question! Public institutions, the public service, governance took shape at a certain point. The organizations, institutions like ours in Canada, reflect ideas from the 19th century, and practices, methods, principles and techniques from the 20th century. And people in the public sector are being asked to find solutions to 21st century problems with 19th century ideas and 20th century means. And so, there is immense tension there. We feel it; it's palpable. When we work in public organizations, there is a huge and growing gap between the practical reality and the concepts and principles passed down to us. It remains valid, valuable and important, but we have to reinvent and rethink these principles in modern times and our evolving situation.

We came up with practices for the industrial era but we serve in a time that is characterized by globalization of geopolitical and economic issues, with a hyper-connected society, increasing fragility and citizens' expectations that are radically different and more polarized than before. And in this context, we occasionally say, without thinking too much about it, that we must continue to do more with less or do the same but a little better. But that's not it; we need to reconsider, realign, rearticulate and modernize thinking more than... as much as the practice. We cannot modernize the practice if we do not realign our thinking.

So, in a general context, this means good luck to you, all of you were called upon to serve in the 21st century, you will have a great legacy but you are not going to invent solutions of serving in today's world by simply repeating the success stories of the past. You are… serving is a process of invention and you are called upon to reinvent the way we govern, the way we serve society, what it means to be a public servant. So, in a way, it's a fantastic time to be in government, where the quantum and the importance of reinvention is phenomenal. Does that help you?

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: That helps set the perfect stage. And in fact, so, you've set the stage for today so I might take you back a little bit because you did talk about success and I'd love for you to just take a moment to describe yourself as a leader in that time, as head of the public service in particular, and maybe tell us what were those characteristics that allowed you to succeed in that particular role at that particular time?

Jocelyne Bourgon: So, let me just start with the role. And you're talking about leadership in that role. Luckily, the clerk doesn't get up in the morning thinking, I'm a leader or I am expected to lead today. That would be exhausting. But you get up every morning and say, there is something profoundly unique and irreplaceable about the role of government in society. You get up in the morning knowing that the role and the contribution of the public sector is of a very exceptional nature and irreplaceable, and you have to be up to the challenge of the kind. So, you start by being grounded, and to be grounded, to me means, that we are public servants in every thing we do. Being a public servant is the foundation of it all, right? So, it influences everything you do and every decision you are going to make. Does it contribute to a better future? Does it improve human conditions? Does it build a better country? Are we going to have a comparative advantages that we would not otherwise have if we do this or there?

So, being a public servant is the core, right? And then, you also have other roles and they are all interacting. You are a Public Administrator. Most public servants don't think about that enough, being a Public Administrator is unique. There are, in any country, like, let's take this country, a limited number of people who have the right, they have the right to use the levers of the state to achieve results. They have the access to laws and to enforcement. They have access to tax payers' money, they can spend, they are accountable for their spending, but they have access to levers to achieve results nobody else has the access to. So, either we appreciate these levers and know how to use them well or they won't be used, or they won't be used well. So, to be a Public Administrator, it comes with a unique set of responsibilities. And then, not over, like if it was not challenging enough, people are public sector managers, they have team, they have network, they have program, they have service to deliver and that is an obsession with providing results. Our colleagues in the private sector are not more obsessed than we are about performance and results and productivity and improving and using new technology and moving things forward. We are managers and we manage well.

And finally, at times, but not all the times, we are public sector leaders. That means that we are best positioned to bring about a change and to rally people to our common purpose and to move things forward. And in most cases, our leadership is essential for some aspects, but in many cases, it's equally important if not more important, to create enabling conditions to unleash the leadership capacity of others and of the organisation. Leadership is not an individual activity, it's a collective sport. It's a team sport, right? When it works well, it's a connective result. When it works well, it's because you have innovative and leadership capacity across the organisation at all levels. When it works well, you can propel society forward. There is no limit to how much a team can accomplish when your leadership capacity is vastly distributed, as opposed to this person is going up in the morning feeling the burden of the universe on their shoulders. Actually, you feel quite in good company if you have a concept of distributed leadership as opposed to a person in a job. It's not a job, it's a connective capacity. I think it makes a difference.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: And, in fact, in your career, you have seen a lot of things evolve, a lot of things change. How did you keep up in order to evolve your own leadership in this context? And what were these determining factors for your success and your accomplishment in precisely being able to navigate this wave of change?

Jocelyne Bourgon: Good question! How do we develop our own leadership potential or abilities? Practice, practice, practice. Did I tell you you need to practice? Basically, practice and then contextual diversity. I realized very quickly that it was not up to my team to adapt to my management and leadership style. It was up to me to invent the management and leadership style adapted to this team in a context and under circumstances. And so, adaptability is part of the ability to embrace the great diversity of the organizations we lead. My first team had five people, my second had 250, my third had 5,000, my fourth had 20,000 and, one day, there was the entire public service. And, at each stage, we realize that each mission is different. We don't manage the Department of Justice, the largest law firm in Canada, the way we manage the Department of National Defence. We don't manage the Department of Fisheries the way we manage the Space Agency.

So, in my mind, this notion of a single model is not much of a consideration, does not have a lot of merit. Shared principles, yes; generic management, no. And so, I learned very quickly that it's my responsibility to expand the range of my piano playing. You see, I don't need to play a note: I have to discern the melody that suits an organization, and that—that has always followed me. I would add personal attributes that help someone lead or be a good leader. I think you have to believe in it. We can't manage the public sector if we don't believe in the State's important role in society. If we have a minimalist point of view, the less we do, the better. That if we just left it all to the private sector, everything would be fine. If we have a minimalist point of view, we produce minimalist solutions. You have to have a vision, you have to believe in it and you have to believe in the importance of the levers at our disposal in order to use them wisely and competently.

So, I would put myself in the "I'm a believer" category. But I would also say that I'm an optimist. We have to believe that it is possible to change the future in order to tackle the problems we face. We cannot get up every morning feeling demoralized. You have to say, "But, hey, this is great. This problem hasn't been solved yet, so let's do something about it." So being optimistic helps but, at the same time, you have to be pragmatic. We must not allow the master plan to override the duty to obtain, make progress and achieve results. The technique must not replace the goal. Logistics must not replace the objective. We must be pragmatic, accept progress, and know that it will be outside the realm of perfection but that progress leads to building a foundation from which we can go further. And that's... I'm a pragmatist.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: I am going to pick up on something you said around, and I'll say it in French because that's how you said it: "You have to believe in it."

Jocelyne Bourgon: You have to believe in it.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: And so, this factor of "mindset."

Jocelyne Bourgon: Yes.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: We have skills—we have abilities when it comes to leadership, but there is a mindset.

Jocelyne Bourgon: Yes.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: To what extent do you believe mindset, one's ability to navigate change, is critical to succeed in any leadership role and is it, would you say, even more critical in today's context given the challenges we're facing as a public sector?

Jocelyne Bourgon: Does it matter? Yes. Is it critical? Yes. Is it increasingly important? Yes. Mindset, let me try to zoom to the end of that reasoning and then come back. I would argue that the way you think, you, a person, a public servant in a specific position somewhere, someone I do not know, but you, the way you think has a direct impact in the way you see and frame issues, it will have a direct impact on the solutions that you will find and it will have a direct impact on the results that will be achieved. So, mindset matters. If you think narrow, you will find solutions within that space. If you think on a broader scale, you're increasing the range of options open to you. If you think we must be in control and there's no room for anybody else. The way you think shapes the way you invent solutions, right? So, it is absolutely critical. At the same time, that is related to a view about the role of government in society. So, let me propose one.

The role of a government or governments, the role of public administrations, is to invent solutions to problems that have not been resolved or that would remain unsolvable without using the levers of the State. So, there is a sort of consistency in my definition of the public servant's role, with its four major functions, including the exclusive use of the levers of the State and that function. Think about it: the role is to invent solutions to problems that are unsolvable or that have remained unsolvable, or that have not been resolved and cannot be solved unless we use the levers of the State. The role of public institutions is to achieve results that would not exist without the use of these levers. And so, change management isn't something that is there and everything else is in the maintenance phase. Change management is the core mission of public institutions. So that means the ability to anticipate, the ability to see things coming, the ability to discern what works and what works less well and to say so, the ability to make corrections. The ability... the room [inaudible] leads us to an ability to adapt, the ability to invent solutions and the ability to make progress. So the State's role, central to the government's role and the public servant's role, is the ongoing ability to bring about changes that contribute to a society's adaptation, thereby enabling the society to continue to prosper.

So, back to the point you raised, is it increasingly important? The answer becomes obvious, the answer is yes because you are serving in a time with an accelerating velocity of change, right? Where at the same time the economic, social, environmental, technological and geopolitical dimension of issues are dynamically interrelated and interacting. You are dealing with complex issues. The system that has been designed is really good to make tough decisions. Are we going to invest more in the protection of the north vs reducing child poverty? There's nothing easy about choices, about allocation, priority setting and so on. Tough is tough. It could heart-wrenching, right? The system has been designed to run complicated enterprises. Everything we do is complicated. Many, many pieces must come together so that you achieve the desired outcome. Complex is different. Complex is not complicated, it's not difficult, it's complex. So, you have all of these factors coming together and dynamically interacting in a way that is not entirely predictable, and therefore the capacity to adapt to change, to navigate, to learn at a very fast speed is at a premium. There are countries that will navigate through that period of change successfully. Some will stumble, some will be unable to adapt, and the duty of a public sector leader is to make sure that Canada will be among the countries that will successfully navigate through an accelerating period of change. So, is change core to the mission? Of course, it is. Of course, it is.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: So, I do not know about you, but I'm just overwhelmed and exhausted.

Jocelyne Bourgon: OK.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Already.

Jocelyne Bourgon: Okay, what have I done wrong? Too much, too fast?

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: No, because this is the reality and I think many of us, as we're navigating through this ask ourselves, do I have the tools? Do I have the mindset? Am I ready? Do I believe in it? Can I take this on? And so, if you were to… and I'll ask you to tell me, what advice would you have for me to keep going? To not let this become so daunting that, you know, I revert back to my comfort zone? How, given your experience as a leader, maybe a future leader, any advice on how to keep up with this pace? It's here.

Jocelyne Bourgon: It's a tough question, yes. Okay, so let's make it easy on ourselves. You see, that's what I've done as a clerk. I don't get up every morning saying, oh my God, I have the burden of the world on my shoulders. I get up and say, what we do is important, right? Well, that's interesting and that's even exciting. I don't ask myself do I serve a purpose; I serve a purpose. So, why don't we go back to basics? We're public servants, that should put a smile on your face in the morning. And the next question is I have access to levers nobody else has access to. I see things nobody else can see. I know things nobody else in my whole department because I am here and there is somebody there, nobody there can see what I see. And when I see something that could be better, I take it personally, I can do something about it. And if I'm willing to do something about it, maybe there are few others around who would be prepared to join me. Now, I'm at the beginning of an active leadership, not yet, but remember, leadership is a collective sport. So, until there's an awareness of something that could be better, a change that could be introduced, big or small, it doesn't matter, but it starts here when I am everyday with the resources available to me and nothing else.

It doesn't start with somebody else will take care of this. It doesn't start with oh, if only I had more resources, I could be braver. It doesn't start with second guessing the courage of others; it starts with my own. What with, in my job at this time, at this place with the skills I have, no matter how small they are, with the resources I have and nothing else, what can I do with my uniqueness and my knowledge, know-how and capacity and awareness of what is that is sufficient to compel me to take action. It's the movement from being there to being active there. It's a big shift. So, we can make it easy on ourselves but in so doing, we make it achievable and we make it… what I was calling distributed leadership, it's not the task of someone out there, it's a collective enterprise. That's what makes the difference. But, to be fair, there are skills we need to get and there are abilities that we don't have enough of. But that is always the case, it was the case going back, you know, every generation had to look at in light of the circumstances in which I am, what new abilities do I need? So, I will mention just a few, OK?

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Yes, please.

Jocelyne Bourgon: I think we need to understand the nature of complex issues much, much better than we currently do. You know, I briefly mentioned that our institutions were built to make difficult choices. They were built to manage complicated programs. But they were not necessarily built to deal with complex issues and that is what the public service is facing. Whether it's climate change, reducing poverty, fighting inequality, alleviating child poverty, or Canada's place in the world, you're managing complex issues. And understanding the complexity means understanding it changes how we think, the mindset you were talking about, and we have to provide a way of analyzing problems that is based on understanding systems, understanding dynamic systems, understanding adaptable systems.

System thinking, dynamic thinking, adaptive capacity thinking, collective capacity building, these things are so, so, so crucial to dealing with complex issues. So, there are, like at anytime, new skills that we need to bring into our portfolio and our way of thinking. The other… it's not an ability, it's a culture that we need to nurture. We need to learn much, much, much faster. We do learn, we do something, then we look at the results and then we monitor and then we think about it and we say well, maybe there are some changes. Too slow, too small, not fast enough. So, we need to learn much, much, much faster. And I keep asking myself, where do you start, right? It's easy to say but where do you start? It starts with a willingness to recognise when things don't work so well. And you have to shed the mentality of blame, looking for what went wrong and who's to blame. Because that is the dead end that is stopping the learning and precluding any future learning. I mean, you have a neat culture that nurture, value, I would not go so far as necessarily celebrating because then you scare people, but you need a culture that recognises the importance of the awareness of small signals. You know, the instinct of someone close to the action say it doesn't feel right. I don't think that's going to work so well, I don't think it will take hold in that community. I've seen this before somehow and it doesn't compute, right?

The issue is not to dismiss of all that, it's to bring them in as fast as you can. It's not about fall fast and fall safe, it's three miles after what I'm talking about, which is the early detection, the early signs, the early concerns about those at proximity of an initiative to say, I have an input to bring here that could increase the likelihood of success. That's what we are after, that's what learning fast is, right? So, I don't think we have yet a culture that helps us bring onboard quickly emerging in sites. And, I use emergence in the sense of complexity in a way something emerges, somebody detects. Leadership of proximity is very key. People closest to an issue organically are likely to see things that we need to know at very different levels to improve decisions. And then, as soon as you have the signs, you zoom on it and you course correct very quickly. So, those would be two things I would suggest we pay attention to. First, make it easy to yourself. Public service, public administration, public management being the best at what we do and public sector leadership. Be kind to yourself. And yet, we can learn to do better.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Yes.

Jocelyne Bourgon: Complexity is different, your time is different and fast learning is essential, essential.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: So, I feel better.

Jocelyne Bourgon: OK.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Thank you. So, complexity, systems thinking, learn faster, early detection, I really like that.

Jocelyne Bourgon: Which is part of learning, yeah.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Where do you see the risk in this or our relationship with this concept of risk in this context?

Jocelyne Bourgon: We have a completely twisted, completely twisted concept. We see that there are risks and that there are things that are absolutely not risky, not risky at all. So, if we want to think about risks, we have to redefine our concepts entirely. There is no risk in taking an initiative when the current situation is deteriorating or not working. The risk is maintaining the status quo. There is no risk in thinking differently when the ideas that previously supported us are clearly out of step from reality. There is no risk. As a result of the widespread use of word "risk," we devalue the ongoing management of progress and... So I suggest that we equip ourselves with a lexicon for what is a risk and what is not. And in public policy, often the greatest risks are denying reality, turning a blind eye to emerging weaknesses, failing to actively or proactively take action and not making the necessary corrections when they become clear. Those are the biggest risks.

Listen, we can create a public policy, it can take us five years before we know that it doesn't work and, as soon as we learn that it doesn't really work, well, it's not that complicated. We gather everything we know and then change it. There is no... it's not risk management. It's ongoing management for trying to have policies adapted to circumstances. So, I think we need a lexicon for risk. Is risk different from crisis management, which differs from the management of unlikely events, floods, forest fires and catastrophic events like climate change? So, we have mixed it all into one, with the effect of paralyzing the ability to manage change. So, there is a wide, wide range of activities that relate strictly to managing change. We have not equipped ourselves with a scientific method either for cases involving really significant risks, which is to have a control group and a group of pilot projects so that we can compare the two and then adjust our parameters or our policies. So, there are plenty of things we can do if we agree to demystify public sector management and these inherent risks.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: And if you had to leave us with a final word or thoughts?

Jocelyne Bourgon: Enjoy it. It is such an exciting job, such a unique, unique job. I mean, to change the course of… there's not one program, not one, not one law, not one tax credit, not one government action that is not deliberately intended to change society, change behaviour in the hope that it will be better, not one. Why do we tax? Because we want to reduce a behaviour and improve another. Why do we legislate? We want to reduce risk in society or we want to encourage certain way of doing things. We want to move things forward, right? So, everything we do is about a better future, about improving human conditions. There has to be joy and excitement in all of that. Don't sweat the minutiae, the grind, the controls, the paperwork, keep your eyes on what matter most and that helps you put back in its place the minutiae. It belongs somewhere but it should not have more space than it deserves. It's there to assist. If it doesn't assist, let's think again, you know? Enjoy would be part of my advice, but there's a loaded part of that. Enjoy, but keep in mind that the job is to ensure that Canada and Canadians will be among the country and the people that will successfully navigate through an unprecedented period of change. Some countries will succeed, some will not and the Canadian chapter is not yet written. So, that's the chapter you are writing. You are writing a fantastic chapter but it needs to be up… fit for the time, it needs to be fit for the time.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Amazing, thank you. Thank you very much.

Jocelyne Bourgon: My great pleasure.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: So, on behalf of the School of Public Service, I would like to express to you, Madame Bourgon, my heartfelt thanks for taking this time for enriching, impactful reflections. You have left us with a great, great deal to think about.

And I want to thank, as well, everyone, all the participants who attended today's session. We do hope you have found this to be relevant, rich and valuable; I certainly have. And please take the time to complete the evaluation, let us know what you thought and you will be receiving a questionnaire in the coming days to do so.

There are other worthwhile events—because that's what we love to do—that are on the horizon this fall. So, don't forget to check the learning catalogue for upcoming events and also visit the School's website to find out more. Among other things, I would note that, on November 23 and 24, we will have the Policy Community Conference 2023: Transforming the Policy Landscape – The Rise of Adaptive Policymaking. So, we see a recurring theme here and so it will focus on how to reassess and continually adjust government policies based on new variables in order to improve their design and implementation.

So, thank you again for taking the time to be with us. Thank you, Madame Bourgon and wishing you all a great rest of your day.

Jocelyne Bourgon: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Nathalie Laviades Jodouin: Thank you.

Jocelyne Bourgon: Goodbye.

[00:34:40 The CSPS logo appears onscreen.]

[00:34:46 The Government of Canada logo appears onscreen.]

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