‘We need all the voices at the table’: Five minutes with Elise Legendre, chief data officer at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

By on 03/07/2024 | Updated on 04/07/2024

In this sister series to our ‘Five minutes with’ interviews, we share insights from women civil and public servants as part of our Global Government Women’s Network coverage.

In this interview, Elise Legendre, chief data officer at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, tells Global Government Forum about the best piece of career advice she has received, why diverse representation matters more than ever in the civil service, and an area of public policy that needs more action.

What drew you to a career in the civil service?

Honestly, it was paid sick days! I had a young son, we were both sick and here I was trying to finish a report for my employer – thinking I really needed a job where I could take sick days. A few weeks later, I saw a job posting open to the public for a commerce officer with the federal government and threw my hat in. The rest is history and I have been with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada for over 20 years now. Once I was in, what I discovered was that, in addition to great benefits for a young family, the civil service also allowed me to contribute to the greater good, levelling the playing field so that every member of society can fulfill their potential – that really spoke to me and continues to motivate me today.

What have you achieved in your career that you’re most proud of?

I am a proud public servant so there are many achievements that I am proud of. Recently, in April 2024, we were the first department in Canada to release a public-facing tool that uses generative AI – AgPal Chat. I am proud because we were able to demonstrate that yes, the civil service can be innovative, that there is a lot of talent within our ranks and that, by working collaboratively, we can deliver positive results in a timely manner.

Join: Find out more and become a member of the Global Government Women’s Network

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

There have been so many, it is hard to pick just one. Early on in my career, I was assigned a mentor through a leadership development programme. In one of our sessions, he said to me: “You are smart Elise, you do not need to prove it every time you open your mouth”. It was wise advice and it really helped me re-evaluate how I was engaging with others, listening more to understand better the problems we were trying to solve, making more room for others’ perspectives and embracing true collaboration.

How might the civil service be different in 25 years’ time?

I think the civil service will be very different in 25 years’ time in terms of how we deliver programmes and services, but I hope the core mandate of serving the people for the advancement of the greater good will remain the same. I believe we are at a turning point right now, on the cusp of a profound transformation with all the promises of data-driven technologies such as artificial intelligence – essentially, moving from the Industrial Age to the Digital Age. Now more than ever, we need a strong civil service to ensure that all the people benefit from this transformation, and no one gets left behind.

In your opinion, what are the implications if women are not adequately represented in decision-making roles in the public service?

We need all the voices at the table. The implication of not having women and other equity-seeking groups represented in decision-making roles is that the decisions made may not take into consideration their perspectives as fully as they could and as such, may not be leading to programmes and services that truly meet the needs of those populations. Representation matters and the public service needs to represent the people it serves.

What can men in senior roles do to help advocate for female colleagues and to ensure they have influence in their teams and organisations?

Other than ensuring that gender parity is an integral part of hiring processes and policies, recognition goes a long way. Not only acknowledging the contributions of women to the organisation but also recognising that there are different leadership styles – make room for those differences and celebrate them.

Read more: Canadian government departments are balancing AI optimism with caution

Which public policy affecting women and girls do you think is the most important at present and why?

We need to do more to end gender-based violence and in my view, it starts with early childhood education, access to quality health care and empathy/conflict resolution training in schools. It also requires more investment in social services to help with frontline response. The consequences of gender-based violence are generational trauma that are impacting all of us – it is holding us back. Women and girls need to be safe, to realise their full potential because when they do, we all benefit.

What attributes do you most value in people?

Kindness – because kind people take care of those around them, they bring out the best out of their people and, overall, make the world within their realm of influence a better place.

What’s your favorite thing to do at the weekend?

Anything to do with food! I love cooking with my partner, putting on some music and trying new recipes or going out to try a new restaurant or having friends and family over for a big meal or having a nice hearty brunch after a lovely hike.

What is your dream holiday destination?

All of them. I love travelling, exploring and discovering new places and people. Getting out of my comfort zone, trying new things and getting inspired. So my dream holiday is always the one coming up and this time around, my partner and I are planning a road trip along the Gaspesie Peninsula here in Canada where we will be able to enjoy the outdoors, sea kayaking, hiking, eating fabulous food and visiting art galleries, museums and distilleries, with some stops to reconnect with friends and family along the way.

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AccelerateGOV: Elise will be speaking at the AccelerateGOV conference in Ottawa in October on the topic of how to deploy AI in the public service. Find out more

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