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Partnerships For The Future with Pat Boucher

Date Published: November 24, 2020

We’re better together, right? There’s no “I” in team. There are dozens of ways to say it, but no matter which we choose, working together is sometimes easier said than done. In this episode Pat Boucher, the Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer for the Canada Border Services Agency, explores the role of government in society. 

We’re speaking with Pat Boucher, Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer for the Canada Border Services Agency. Pat and I will be chatting about the role of government in society and how inclusive economies require strong public-private partnerships. Pat, it’s great to have you on the program.

It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.

“We’re better together. There’s no I in team.” This is a way that I’ve always thought about how business and government can partner. There are dozens of ways to say it, but no matter which we choose, working together is sometimes easier said than done. We’ll explore the role of government in society and how a collaborative approach between the private and the public sectors can help build cultures, drive innovation and create stronger communities. Pat had a long-standing career in public service and you’ve worked across several federal ministries and departments, including the former Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Justice Canada, and Public Safety Canada. Pat is passionate about innovation and culture and the intersection between the two. He draws on his core principles in his role at Canada Border Services Agency where he is working to transform the agency operations.

Pat is a recipient of the Public Service Award of Excellence, which recognizes excellence in achieving results for Canadians well demonstrating key leadership skills. Pat is also a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal. This award is for Canadians who have made exceptional contributions to their communities and to Canada as a whole. That’s a whole mouthful. I am honoured to have you on the program, Pat. The first time you and I met was at the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference. I was struck by the depth of experience you’ve had over your career. I’m excited to talk about your journey on the program.

What we’re going to get into is this idea of there’s no I in team. There are dozens of ways to say it. No matter what we choose, working together is sometimes easier said than done. Our focus is going to be the role of government in society and how a collaborative approach between the public and private sectors can help build culture, drive innovation, and create stronger communities. Pat, it’s great to have you on the program once again. Pat, you head up transformation at the Canada Border Services Agency. We’re dealing with the pandemic that has the border closed. We’ve got to start with the question around how is COVID changing the way you work?

Thanks for the question, Tim. Let me start by saying thank you for having me. COVID and this global pandemic has been quite a shock, to say the least, across the world. Definitely, Canada has not been immune to it. I think of our fellow Canadians throughout the country who are hurting and struggling as these have been difficult times for many of us. From the Canada Border Services Agency’s perspective, I don’t think it’s been any different. This whole COVID experience has pushed us to adapt. It’s pushed us to innovate and to double down on taking care of each other in order to continue to do the vital and amazing work that our roughly 14,000 employees are doing day in and day out. That work is truly making a difference in the lives of Canadians. It’s continuing to keep patients, medical staff, and all Canadian citizens safe.

It continues to serve fundamental necessities for society to function, like keeping Canadian families fed. While keeping the COVID threat outside of our borders, we’re also maintaining supply chains. Also, keeping supply chains open for businesses like your own and keeping our entire country running throughout these unprecedented times. As VP and CTO for the agency, I like to think that there’s been a lot of opportunities as well throughout the pandemic. I don’t say that to minimize in any way the struggles that many of us have been going through to cope or adapt to the new realities. In some cases, the human loss that this pandemic has brought into our homes. What I mean is that there has been a lot of opportunities for us to modernize how we do things, how we function, how we work with others, and how we work together, and how we modernize how we fulfill our respective mandates.

It’s no different across the board. No matter what sector you’re in, whether you’re in the private sector, the union sector, or any levels of government, we have all been pushed to adapt and pushed to be more agile. For me, our agency was already in the midst of a major transformation, renewing how we do things, how we deliver on our mandate given global trends and growing threats. From my perspective, in terms of what I do day in and day out, advancing our modernization agenda and making sure that we’re focused on the right priorities and driving that renewal forward, COVID has accelerated that in many ways. Whether it’s looking at accelerating our plans to harness touchless technologies or automation, COVID has emphasized the importance and relevance of moving towards those things in an accelerated fashion.

I also want to touch briefly on organizational culture and how the pandemic has impacted that. I know this is something that’s important to you as well, Tim, within your organization. I’m sure that you’ll agree that for any major transformation to take root or to succeed, you have to invest in culture and, in essence, you have to place people at the center of change with proper change management practices. We’re no different at the agency. In pre-COVID, we were already taking that seriously within the context of our broader transformation by implementing a robust multi-year culture strategy to enable the transformation that I talked about to take root. What COVID has given us is the opportunity to double down on that to emphasize that during difficult times, we’re going to treat our employees and ourselves in an appropriate fashion, and that is key.

More than ever, we’re going to be there for them and take care of them and each other. We’ve been able to put a premium on putting people at the center of COVID and everything that we’re going through. This has allowed us to identify employee needs quickly through enhanced and continuous engagement. It’s allowed us to adapt, if need be, based on what we’re hearing and what we’re sensing employee needs are. At the end of the day, we’re able to up our game in terms of supporting employees during these difficult times. Measures have also been centred on supporting frontline and back-office managers directly. Ensuring that as managers, they have the information and the tools that they need to help keep their employees healthy, engaged, and productive. In turn, it supports the agency in continuing to fulfill its mandate and to serve the government and Canadians. COVID has allowed us to accelerate our organizational culture strategy as well as its transformation agenda.

When you and I first met, we were both at the Governor General’s Canadian Leadership Conference. That conference was life-changing for me. I went into it with what I would say is an all too common view held by business leaders that the government gets in the way. The stereotype is there are government folks that are checking boxes and whatnot. The caliber of people that I met at the conference was astounding. I meet all sorts of business leaders. The intellect, the intelligence, the understanding of the issues when you talk to government folks frankly puts many business leaders to shame. When you and I started to chat, I was impressed by the career that you’ve had in public service and a lot of the cool things that you’ve done over your career. Can you share some of your stories and maybe a few highlights of your years of service?

Let me work backward from where I’m at. In my role at the Canada Border Services Agency, I consider myself fortunate to have such a fantastic team of leaders in their respective fields to work with me to provide leadership and direction to the agency related to its transformation and modernization journey. That includes various things, anything from articulating and defining the agency’s transformation, vision, ensuring that the guidance needed to achieve that vision is in place, whether it be articulating strategic direction and priorities by providing culture and change management expertise. We can ensure that we’re putting people at the center of change or by working to identify and implement solutions to various business challenges across the agency.

It’s a very challenging but fulfilling mandate for what I think is an important agency, especially these days as we’re living through these difficult times and as we at the agency do our part to support the government and the country in its response to this pandemic. While at the same time, doing our day job, whether it’s facilitating economic growth through commerce and trade or protecting Canadians from not only health risks but by keeping the bad guys out. Organized crime, they don’t take holidays during global pandemics. I could tell you that. Prior to joining CBSA, I served at Justice Canada from 2017 to 2019, where I led a team that collaborated with colleagues from across government to advance and foster a nation-to-nation relationship between the Crown and Indigenous people. We did that by ensuring that the Crown was fulfilling its constitutional and international human rights obligations.

Within that role, I also actively supported the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada in fulfilling mandate commitments towards advancing reconciliation and achieving that renewed nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous peoples. Before that, from 2009 to 2017, I served in various Director-General positions at Public Safety Canada, as Director-General in the national and cybersecurity branch where I worked with other governments and the private sector to support efforts to maintain and secure critical infrastructure from a national security perspective. Before that, from 2001 to 2009, I worked at the former INAC or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada where I had the opportunity to work with indigenous communities on various issues such as education, economic development, social policy, and programs that worked with indigenous veterans.

It’s gratifying years in terms of making real change in communities across the country and gratifying as an indigenous person myself to be able to contribute to that in a real way. In terms of highlights, there are many things that I’m grateful for, the people that I worked with both on my teams but also colleagues from across the public service and other levels of government and the private sector. The people that we all serve as public servants in support of the government, no matter what colour or strength of government that may be in power. As a public servant, we’re changing lives and supporting communities and working day in and day out for something that’s much bigger and greater than we are. Those are all things that I think about in terms of highlights. There are a bunch of files that I could rhyme off or deliverables that I had a hand in that I could list. When I think of highlights, those are the things that come to mind.

The perception is most business leaders would not even think of the breadth and scope of work that you can be involved within a life in public service. That was certainly what struck me when you and I met. There are a lot of people who don’t understand the work of the public service and, frankly, how it works. I had this big lightbulb moment when I started to wrap my head around what the Clerk of the Privy Council is and does in Canada. I don’t think many Canadians understand that. It’s an interesting thought process. Government is not a for-profit entity, but it plays a crucial role in society. The way that I think of that is governments raise the floor and private industry can raise the ceiling. We need both to prosper as a society. Can you talk to us a little bit about the role that the government plays in society from your perspective?

The government sector plays various roles and across various sectors. We could talk about this for days. Fundamentally, at a high level, when I think of the role of government, I think of how it preserves freedoms, how it breathes life into the rights and freedoms through putting laws in place, putting regulations in place. To breathe life into those rights and freedoms that we as Canadians have the privilege of having, quite honestly. The role that the government plays in ensuring equity of wealth and distribution, this COVID pandemic is a prime example of that.

Further related to the pandemic, the government’s role in managing economic conditions. How are we going to get ourselves out of this pandemic from an economic perspective and the recovery plan behind that? How are we going to stimulate things in working with the private sector to maintain a strong foundation moving forward? I also think that the government sector plays a big role in terms of stimulating innovation as well. The PM was announcing more funding for COVID-19 vaccine technologies and stimulating that innovation. Since we’ve been in lockdown, we’re putting out accelerated RFPs on the street so that the private sector can contribute to the response to help overcome challenges related to the pandemic. The government sector is a key and important enabler in that regard.

Riffing on that a little bit, there are a couple of theories out there. Theory X and Theory Y, it’s this idea of people are fundamentally good or people are fundamentally bad. I have been struck with the pandemic and how people have pulled together. I’ve always been a strong believer that people are fundamentally good. Leadership matters and people will follow the wrong kinds of leaders. There’s a call to action there for leaders across all stripes. I’ve also been struck by how Canadian politicians have put aside the partisanship and come together to solve some issues for Canadians, particularly with the pandemic. How do you think that kind of approach will shape the future?

I’ll stay away from talking about politics. What I will say is that in response to this pandemic, public servants have come together more than ever. I’ve been in the federal public service for years. They’re collaborating and staying connected inside and outside of the government. They’ve been testing and building new solutions and adapting to deliver what Canadians need quickly and supporting Canadians that need it most. All of this while taking care of each other and placing people at the center of this tremendous change that we’re all going through. Although public servants are delivering for Canadians, they’re people too.

They have their own personal situations at home and with loved ones. Dealing with that through this pandemic has been challenging. I’ve seen people come together and double down on efforts that matter. Although not perfect, we have to ensure that we capitalize on the opportunities to sustain the advancements that we’ve seen throughout this pandemic. We need to continue to learn. We need to continue to adapt. We need to continue to work across the various sectors, whether the government sector or the private sector. We will have failed collectively if we don’t evolve coming out of this societal experience that COVID has thrown us into.

I couldn’t agree more. Pat, what’s your call to action for our readers? What advice would you give to people who are interested in public service or to business leaders who want to partner with governments to build a better world?

As for the call to action, I would say get involved. Don’t stay in your lane and don’t be passive. Positive change, evolution, innovation, that won’t happen on its own. You have to almost will it to change. You have to drive it forward and you have to be persistent. Get involved and get out of your lane and work with others. As for those who might be interested in joining the public service, I’d say come on over. If you’re interested in making a difference and contributing in a real way to something that’s greater than yourself, the federal public service will give you that opportunity if you want it. 

For those business leaders who want to partner with the government to build a better world, I’d say there’s no better time than now. We’re banding together in many ways to get the country through this pandemic. We will have failed if coming out of this post-COVID, we revert back to our lanes, to our silos, to the regular way of doing things. Although a lot more work needs to be done, we’ll look back on this whole experience and we’ll find the positive and see that we’ve evolved as a country and as a society. At the end of the day, that’s a positive thing for all Canadians.

I must say, with the work that you’re doing and the role that government plays in society is very inspirational. It was great to have you on the program. It was great to talk about how government and business can work together to build a better world. Thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me.

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