Rodney Ghali

Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet, Impact and Innovation Unit at the Privy Council Office

Rodney is the Assistant Secretary to the Cabinet of the Impact and Innovation Unit at the Privy Council Office, Government of Canada. He is responsible for leading the exploration and execution of new and innovative policy and programmatic approaches under Impact Canada, focused on improving impact, accountability and value for Canadians. Prior to his current role, Rodney was Director General of the Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention, Public Health Agency of Canada, where he was responsible for overseeing the Federal Government’s policy and programs in the areas of healthy living and chronic disease prevention. Previously, Rodney spent a number of years at Health Canada in various positions such as Senior Advisor to the Deputy Minister and Director of Strategic Policy. He has worked on numerous legislative/regulatory initiatives and health-related issues including: food and consumer product safety, reproductive technologies, aboriginal health, blood safety and mental health. Rodney holds a Master of Science (neurobiology) from McGill University and an Honors Bachelor of Science (genetics) from the University of Western Ontario.  

Work and impact

Sustainability and social impact are 100% interwoven with everything that I do. Working in the public sector, our raison d’etre is providing a thriving environment for our citizens. In that sense, what I do on a day to day basis is trying to improve the lives of Canadians.

I’ve spent about 25 years in the federal government. My career has spanned a number of different policy areas but most of it has been within the public health domain. Over the last five years, it has spanned basically every domain possible due to the nature of the work I do in the Privy Council Office. I have worked in areas such as energy, the environment, indigenous issues, technology, and innovation. The important part to note is that across all of those areas of focus, the objective has always been the same, which is developing policies and implementing programs to improve the lives of Canadians. That’s one of the interesting things about the public sector, you get to work in a number of different areas and you can pursue areas of interest that you may have, but there is always that one overarching goal in mind.

Similar to many people in their 20’s I didn’t really enter the space intentionally. My educational background is in genetics and neurobiology so I was on the path to be involved in the sciences coming out of my Masters degree at McGill. I decided that I didn’t want to go on to do my PhD and saw some interesting job postings within the government. At the time I didn’t really know what the federal government did but I had always had an interest in public policy, even though I had never pursued it from an educational standpoint. I decided to apply for a job in order to get a sense of what it was like to work in the government and over time, some very interesting opportunities presented themselves that opened my eyes to the scale of the impacts a career working in government could have through enacting various policies and programs.  

On some level yes but as mentioned above, I did not enter the space intentionally. There was a draw for me as I recognized that there were opportunities to benefit the country as a whole and that I could contribute to making Canada better, but as I was entering the workforce in the mid 90s, talking about sustainability and social impact in your career wasn’t as prevalent as it is today. The desire to make an impact was always there but I didn’t know how to express it at the time.

I’d say it is the fact that sustainability and social impact is a discussion point now and people are excited about getting involved. The idea of focusing on the triple bottom line and aligning the interests of the public, private, and social sectors is an important area of focus and I believe we are at a point where there are enough people across all three of these sectors that have aligned interests. It’s no longer about convincing people that this is the right thing to do and we’re now at a point where we are actively working to operationalize that. We’re still at the beginning and it will take years to get there but that’s a thrilling and exciting place to be right now as all three sectors are coming together to work towards the common goal of keeping this planet alive and ensuring that citizens are thriving.

There are a lot of misconceptions about working in government. The first one being that working in the public sector, or more specifically, the federal government, is bland, boring and it’s not a stimulating environment.  That likely stems from the sentiment that the federal government feels more distant from the citizens than the provincial or municipal levels of government and the ability to see the impact of your work within the public sector takes time. This is especially true at the federal level because when you work at the provincial or municipal level it feels a bit closer to the citizen, and therefore maybe a bit more fulfilling. Not every job will involve all the areas that excite you but the federal government in particular is way more dynamic than most people realize given the breadth and depth of responsibilities that the federal government has. It’s also important for people to note that there’s a difference between the job as it appears in an org chart and the things that you can do in a particular role. Once you’re in the role, depending on the organization you’re in, the opportunities at times can be endless in terms of what aspects you want to work on. You can work on everything from energy policy to innovation and technology. Basically, anything that you can think of, is an area that you can work in, within the federal government. 

While we are focusing on the public sector, I would suggest this applies to any organization. When looking at a job, the focus should be less on the job description and individual tasks and more on what are the goals you are working towards? I have had many job descriptions over the last 25 years and I don’t know if I have ever really followed any of them exactly as they appeared on paper. Focus on the outcomes and impact you are working towards rather than the individual tasks associated with each role because you will find that the tasks become a lot more fluid than you think on your way to achieving those outcomes. The tasks are a means to an end rather than the defining characteristic of a job. 

Being in the public sector, people don’t immediately think of it being fluid due to a stereotype about it being overly bureaucratic but it’s important to call out that every sector has its bureaucracy. It’s not as if the private sector is completely fluid and free of bureaucracy and it’s not that bureaucracy is a good or a bad thing. It just is what it is. If an organization is mission oriented and it understands what its goal is, there won’t be anything that is overly static because things can change in order to achieve that goal. Government is no different and that’s where the career can be extremely fulfilling. As you stay focused on your goals, you can pivot and move as you need to in order to adapt and refine processes based on your current needs and that change is really thrilling. 

The main thing I want to convey is that the public sector is actually a very vibrant career choice and while I don’t feel it needs to be a lifetime career for people, I’d like to see more people coming in and out who have worked in other sectors that can bring different perspectives in, and then take the lessons they learn back out into other sectors. It is critical to understand how each of the different sectors work and the different levers that can be used to drive change. Understanding what each party brings to the table, including yourself, is important to build strong partnerships that are mutually beneficial as we all work to achieve goals linked to the common values and interests I referenced earlier. 

Life and aspirations

There is no typical day for any Assistant Deputy Minister, in particular, within the Privy Council Office but there are general themes. For example, between fifty to eighty percent of my day is occupied with external discussion. So in spite of the fact that the Privy Council Office is much more of an internally focused department, as it serves the prime minister in his office, my job is mainly dealing with people on the outside. I negotiate parameters around concepts that we are looking to advance and new partnerships that make sense for those projects.

In terms of work life balance, especially now in the COVID context, the line between my work life and home life is blurry. I would say that it is a classic situation of if you love what you do, it does not feel like it’s a job. There are days where I love what I am working on and so I don’t mind that my headspace is occupied with the next thing that we are looking to tackle or change. At the same time, I’ve got a young family with three kids at home which also causes that line between work life and homelife to blur because as I look at them and their future, and how I’m going to affect them, that just naturally bleeds into my day to day. This means it doesn’t necessarily feel like a burden, which is the key that we should all be looking for in terms of meshing our work with our lives.

As mentioned before, a large part of my job involves negotiation and that involves persuading people to do certain things that I think are the right things to do to achieve a policy objective.   That’s often hard because it involves changing the status quo which is inherently difficult. The easy thing to do is just go with the current, but over the past decade or so I have made an intentional effort to go against the current, knowing that better is possible.  This approach applies to all sectors and not just when you are working for the government because in any bureaucratic system, there are functional areas that you have to continually help persuade. You have to persuade leaders within the policy sphere, policy implementation, HR, Finance, Audit and Evaluation, etc to adjust and adapt to current contexts.  You need to good understand of know how everything works in your system so if you have to adapt something, for example, revamp your accounting practices so that you can be measuring and paying for outcomes versus an output, you know how to do that effectively. It’s a highly complex ecosystem and so it can get tiring to be negotiating all the time. But the only thing you can do is stay focused on the goal and continue to work towards it and try to breakthrough.

I am always focused on what comes next and so part of my job as a leader within my team, and within government, is to be on the bleeding edge of what I think a relevant and thriving government should be. As I think about what I do now, which is focused on more dynamic policy, development and implementation, outcomes based models, new public policy tools like behavioral science, and challenge based approaches, I am focused on figuring out where else these tools can be applied most effectively. How and where else can they be used and can you develop new partnership models that I believe are the key to long term success. On top of that, how do I solidify these practices that we are doing within our team and the Privy Council Office? Those are all things that I think have a very long future within government to ensure that our institutions remain relevant for the citizens that we are serving. Those are the things that I am continually thinking about and there is no end in sight for me at this point. I still feel energized by the vibrant work we do in government and I don’t see that ending anytime soon because it’s a constant cycle of new focus areas to explore.

Advice for the next generations

I would say the skill of curiosity is an important one. That applies to working in all sectors and not just the public sector because at the end of the day, we are all problem solvers. I think people who are good problem solvers are curious by nature and tend to have good analytical abilities. You have to have the ability, and desire, to consume information from all sources, and the ability to analyze that information and come up with hypotheses’ and potential solutions that are, to the greatest extent possible, unbound by your own biases. Those are the skills that I feel I have and I also look for them in the people that I hire. Additionally, you need an unbelievable amount of humility to work in this space because you need to be able to know when you don’t have all the answers but be willing to go search for them and talk to as many people as you can to get answers. That can mean talking to people with different points of view and working hard to understand where they are coming from. That takes a lot of effort and really does take humility to be willing to do that. The best leaders at all levels are those that are the most humble, and are the most willing to do that. Those are all skill sets that go beyond your knowledge and what you learned in university or college. They are things you can learn and apply in any job. It’s important to take the knowledge you gain from school and combine them with those other skills that transcend specific industries or fields of focus. On top of those, traits like perseverance, resiliency, and adaptability are important because you will work for a long time and the workforce is constantly changing. Most new members of the workforce are not going to be like me where you’re going to spend 25 years within one sector, even though my career has been so different because the federal public service is so diverse. I have switched jobs every two to five years and so it’s felt like multiple careers all within one career path. 

The short answer is no. People may think that they will need a degree in political science or public policy but as noted before, I had an undergraduate degree in genetics and a graduate degree in neurobiology. At the time it seemed weird to people but this gets back to my point around skill sets, and being able to apply what you have learned to your job. The things I learned within the science discipline taught me how to understand problems and to find potential solutions to address them. There are definitely some jobs where you obviously need certain degrees or certain designations, but beyond those specific roles where you need those designations, a specific degree isn’t as needed. Degrees are important because they help you develop the skill of learning which is critical in any role and your degree may lead to you being drawn to a particular field but beyond that, it all comes down to your skills and not your degree.

As someone who manages a team, the dynamics of that team is something that occupies a lot of my mental space. When building a team I am looking for specific things due to the nature of the work that our team does. Personality is very important in the sense that it is critical that the people on the team are engaging and have strong interpersonal skills to be able to engage with external stakeholders in the way that we do. I look for people who are able to explain ideas in ways that are easily understandable even if they are complex. Going back to a skill I highlighted earlier, humility is very important because we work alongside a lot of subject matter experts and the team needs to be comfortable knowing that they may know less about those particular subjects than the people we are working with and so they may have a better way of doing things than the way that we thought was best. Another set of traits that I mentioned before that are important on my team are resilience and perseverance. They are critical because to get anything done that is not the status quo will just naturally take a lot of time. That means that they need to be able to keep pushing no matter how long something takes. We can’t give up when things get difficult. Many people may consider those to be “soft” skills but I don’t like referring to them like that because I view them as core traits for the members of my team. This links back to the question about education in that to me, I really don’t look for a specific degree as long as you have those skills I just mentioned. Regardless of your education level, if you are missing those core traits you won’t be a fit for the team. It’s important to note that that doesn’t mean I hire all of the same people. Those skills I mentioned manifest themselves in very individual ways for each person and so the team itself is incredibly diverse and we are able to have lively discussions on issues where disagreements are welcome to help us come to the best solution. We can have those disagreements because ultimately what unites us is a shared objective and focus.  

Looking back I don’t think I would have done anything differently. I’ve managed my career in a way that has led me to where I am now and I’m in a place where I get to do interesting work. I have always looked for opportunities that have excited me, irrespective of the level of job. People tend to be fixated on salary and levels which is fine as long as that is the component that gives you the most satisfaction, but that has never been the primary motivator for me. I never would have had the career path that I have if I’d done that because what has always influenced my next step has always been, can I occupy a position within an organization that gives me at some level, the ability to mold it in a way that I think makes sense and allows me to test the boundaries of that organization. I would encourage everyone if they feel they have a similar mindset to do the same thing and always be driven by the interesting opportunity. The other things will always come at some point. You will move up a level, your salary will increase, and maybe you’ll get a cool title or even get to make up your own title.  I never would have anticipated all the opportunities that I’ve had, all the interesting places I have gone to and the people that I have met. It astounds me at times, but I attribute that to what I just mentioned in that I’ve looked for the opportunities rather than the job descriptions.  My career advice for others would be exactly that. Be smart about it and take calculated risks, but look for those opportunities as opposed to titles and salary if you can. It’s a thrilling time at the start of your career especially, and the landscape is a lot different than when I started in terms of opportunities. It’s definitely still difficult in its own way but there are opportunities out there for everyone.