‘They call it public service for a reason; you are serving something that is bigger than yourself’: five minutes with Stephen Burt, chief data officer of Canada

By on 13/09/2022 | Updated on 20/09/2022
An Image of Stephen Burt, Chief Data Officer of Canada in GGF's Five Minutes With graphic

In this sister series to our ‘Five minutes with’ interviews, we share insights from the civil and public service leaders that will be speaking at our free AccelerateGov conference on all things digital transformation, taking place in Ottawa, Canada, on 5 October.

In this interview, Stephen Burt, chief data officer of the host government of Canada, tells Global Government Forum about how to modernise public services, learning from Australia, and his possible alternative career as a historian.

Register now: Top government transformation officials – including Canadian government CIO – to address AccelerateGov digital transformation conference in Ottawa

What drew you to a career in the civil service?

The Canadian federal public service offers a tremendous opportunity to do work that you enjoy and that also makes a difference. In my early years I loved that the size and scope of the public service allowed me to do many different things depending on my interests and personal circumstances at the time. I’ve been able to steer my career across policy and operational files in defence, national security, intelligence, international relations, and corporate functions. It is hard to imagine careers outside government that would offer such a wide variety of opportunities.

What more do you want to achieve before you retire?

I would love to be able to say that I made a tangible contribution to modernising the public service both internally and in how it delivers for citizens. We have so many areas where we have accumulated sand in the gears, and where processes and culture have yet to take advantage of modern tools and mindsets. I want to be able to point to a new approach to data and digital that makes the experiences of both citizens and employees better, and know that I played a part in making that happen.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given in your working life?

Sometimes we all have to hold our nose and do jobs we don’t love, but whenever you can – whether looking for a promotion or simply a change – seek out interesting work with people you like.

What advice would you give someone starting out in the civil service?

They call it public service for a reason; you are serving something that is bigger than yourself. You can manage your career in many ways: holding closely to the terms of your contract or going above and beyond; staying with one agency or moving around; focusing on what interests you most or striving for promotion. But you must serve the public interest ahead of your own. The public service is not perfect; there are many things we could do better. And as with any career, you have to take care of yourself, set limits and stay well; no one else will do that for you. But if you lose that sense of serving greater purpose, it may be time to move on.

Which country’s civil service or which government agency are you most inspired by and why?

I am always impressed by Australia’s ability to blend private sector innovation and drive with the best traditions of Westminster parliamentary government. There is an impressive Australian openness to learning both formally from strong schools and think-tanks, and informally from best practices beyond the public service. I would love to see more of that in Canada.

Are there any projects or innovations in your country that might be valuable to your peers overseas?

Canada has a long history of negotiating outcomes in public policy that I think position us well in the data and digital context. We have a talent for creating principled frameworks and directives that set boundaries for what we want to achieve while leaving flexibility on how specific groups and organisations deliver their specific operations and goals. Our Directive on Automated Decision Making and associated Algorithmic Impact Assessment, with a mechanism for regular reviews is a great example of this.

What attributes do you most value in people?

Polite yet direct and honest views are key in senior colleagues. Often in government we have a culture of speaking in code and talking around things. I really appreciate people who will tell you straight out what they like or don’t like. Even better is when they propose a different solution!

If you weren’t a civil servant, what would you be?

I’m a closet historian. If I hadn’t stumbled into public policy in grad school, I would almost certainly be an academic in some aspect of classics and antiquities.

What’s your favourite thing to do at the weekends?

On weekends I’m a homebody. I like to unplug from work and relax with family and friends. But if my partner and I have a long weekend or some vacation time, we travel! As the pandemic winds down, I’m extremely happy and grateful to be able to go places again.

What is your favourite book?

I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan, and while I love many of his books it is his classic 1990s comic series The Sandman that is closest to my heart. My oldest daughter and I have totally geeked out over the recent Netflix adaptation.

Find out more about the AccelerateGov conference organised by Global Government Forum and hosted by the Government of Canada – including the agenda and list of speakers – here. The event is free to attend.

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About Richard Johnstone

Richard Johnstone is the executive editor of Global Government Forum, where he helps to produce editorial analysis and insight for the title’s audience of public servants around the world. Before joining GGF, he spent nearly five years at UK-based title Civil Service World, latterly as acting editor, and has worked in public policy journalism throughout his career.

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