Transcript – Episode 28: Chat with Deputy Minister Marta Morgan

John Hannaford: It’s a pleasure to be your host today for another conversation with another member of our community here at GAC. Today, it’s a real pleasure to get a chance to have a little chat with Marta Morgan, who is our new—well not so new anymore, but new-ish—deputy minister of foreign affairs. Marta, I just thought we could maybe talk a little bit about this medium, the podcast, because I know you’re somebody who has made some recommendations to me over the course of the last little while—podcasts you’re keen on—and the sorts of things that you’re listening to outside of reading memos and doing all the other work being the deputy minister for foreign affairs, and just kind of interested in what areas you’re most interested in, in terms of podcasting.

Marta Morgan: Well, thanks, John. It’s great to be here. I’ve heard so much about the GAC podcasts, and I am very happy to have this opportunity to talk with you. I think it’s such a great idea. I am an aficionado of podcasts. Not that I have a lot of spare time, but I really do like to listen to them. My favorite is The Daily, the New York Times podcast. Right…

John Hannaford: Me too.

Marta Morgan: It takes on the big issues of the day. I’ve got really hooked on the hurly-burly during the election campaign, which I think is the…

John Hannaford: And then you hooked me…

Marta Morgan: Which I hooked you on and multiple others, which was a great Canadian political podcast with, hosted by David Hurley, but also with Scott Reid and Jenni Byrne from the Conservatives. So like three really, you know, three real political veterans talking about their take on the election. So that was fun. But mostly, I actually just listened to fun stuff, like my current favourite is a cooking podcast called the Milk Street Radio. And they have a cookbook out, which, the cookbook got me onto the podcast anyway. So cooking podcasts, I’ve just started another one called The Happiness Lab, which is about how to have a happy life. So I kind of listen to anything that sparks my interest.

John Hannaford: Are they Canadian or are they American?

Marta Morgan: I think that Milk Street is out of Boston, and I think The Happiness Lab is out of the U.S. too. So occasionally, I’ll pick up another—the Washington Post daily podcast as well. But, so those are my faves.

John Hannaford: So they’re kind of distractions as much as they’re…

Marta Morgan: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Distractions and things that I’m interested in. Yeah. It’s a nice way to hear people that you wouldn’t normally hear talk about things in an informal setting.

John Hannaford: Yeah, I agree.

Marta Morgan: Like us today!

John Hannaford: Exactly. And they could be sort of longer conversations too that you often get in, sort of radio broadcasts or whatever. It’s one of the things I really like. I like the long form interviews. The Daily is terrific.

Marta Morgan: Exactly.

John Hannaford: I completely agree. I completely agree. Welcome! This started, I guess, about two, three years ago. And there’s been a kind of standard pattern as to how some of these conversations work. And one of them is to get a little bit of a sense of you as a person and your background and what brought you into the government. And, you know, what has been your career path up until now?

Marta Morgan: Okay, great. That’s a great question. So, first of all, I just want to say that I feel so lucky that I ended up in the federal government. I applied for a summer job when I was in, when I was doing my undergraduate. I got the summer job, and then the rest sort of unfolded from there. And I never would have imagined how my career would have gone at that time.

John Hannaford: Which department did you start in?

Marta Morgan: I was at a department that actually ended up being eliminated the following year, which is the Ministry of State for Economic and Regional Development. So, now you guys can go and check how old I am, I figure. But, I was a child when I was hired. So just to keep that into account. But, so, my career has mostly been focused on policy. But I’ve had a fair amount of diversity in terms of the areas I’ve worked in. So I’ve worked in five federal departments, as well as six years outside government at the Forest Products Association of Canada, as VP of trade and competitiveness.

And, I won’t take you through all of them except to say that some of the highlights for me have been the introduction of the child tax benefit, which has proved to be an extremely effective mechanism and platform over time to reduce child poverty and required a lot of work with Canada Revenue Agency, Department of Finance, provinces and territories. So, one of those multi-table effort, interdepartmental efforts, that really paid off, and I actually worked on that with Margaret Biggs, who’s a former deputy minister of CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency] here and international development. So that was a great one, one of the highlights of my career.

I spent about five years at Industry Canada in various roles, and the highlight of that was working on telecommunications policy, so leading efforts to reduce cell phone bills and increase competition, and that was still an issue in this election campaign. So I guess there’s more still to be done on that front. But sometimes these things take time. And also at the Department of Finance, I did two federal budgets. So the last budget of the outgoing Conservative government and the first budget of the incoming Liberal government, which was a great opportunity to really see, at the most senior level, how governments shape their priorities.

So it’s been great. And I came here after three years at Immigration, and my tenure there was really dominated by the need to attune our immigration system to the economy and to our economic and labour force needs as well as the irregular migration issue. So it’s been great. Great. I’ve had a great ride. I’ve worked with amazing people in the public service. I can honestly say that I would never have had any idea when I started that this was even possible. And it’s been very, very rewarding.

John Hannaford: And so, I often get asked—I actually was asked in the last of these podcasts—sort of lessons learned from your experience and the things that you should, younger officers should be thinking about as they sort of plan out their career. What do you take from your experience as to how people should conduct themselves and plan?

Marta Morgan: I would say two things: Try to work on things that motivate you and stay with them long enough so that you can make a difference, would be my first. And secondly, try to work with really good people, because I think that the learning that we do in our careers, we do mostly on the job, and we do, and learn a lot from our colleagues and our supervisors. So if you can work with a great team, you will be so much further ahead.

John Hannaford: Right.

Marta Morgan: And then, you know, going back to my first point, stick around long enough to make a difference.

John Hannaford: Right.

Marta Morgan: Because that’s when it’s really satisfying. And when you can really deploy your knowledge and your skills to, you know, advance the organization’s goals. That’s the kind of thing that I think helps you, and it also helps the organization.

John Hannaford: And if you’ve been kind of…have you been a planner with respect to your career, or have you more or less sort of taken opportunities as they’ve arisen?

Marta Morgan: I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this, but I’ve really…it’s all really been unplanned.

John Hannaford: It’s been my experience, too. That’s why I ask the question.

Marta Morgan: Yeah, like I really have responded to opportunities as they’ve come along and responded to them based on those criteria. So, you know, sometimes you end up taking positions because you kind of have to, and that’s, it can surprise you what you get out of those positions. And sometimes it’s because…it’s a little bit more purposeful. But no, I’ve never really plotted out my career path. I’ve just…just tried to be discerning about what I chose to do, and then really worked hard at it. And then other things have come along.

John Hannaford: Yeah, that’s been precisely my experience too. And these things kind of make sense looking backwards, but they don’t. You couldn’t have anticipated starting as a summer student, you know, [and know] you were going to end up here at Foreign Affairs.

Marta Morgan: No, and sometimes, at the time, you take a position and you can’t really quite figure out why. But it always…I think, over time it’s the accumulation of experiences [that] really leads you to the next thing.

John Hannaford: Right…right. And your experience here at the department—what are your impressions and comments?

Marta Morgan: The thing that hits me the most here, at Global Affairs, is the complexity of the department. The complexity of the department and the complexity of the context in which we operate. The world today is rapidly changing. Aspects of the global order that have been taken for granted are being re-examined. And how Canada should be positioned to further our own interests and also to advance our values on a global scale. These are the questions that we face each day, in all the questions that we put our energy into. This department brings…I’ve seen that expertise here, the deep expertise. I’ve seen the enthusiasm. I’ve seen the creativity that this department brings to these complicated issues. And also just the breadth, I mean, the breadth of the issues that we lead on…

John Hannaford: It’s the world…

Marta Morgan: …is considerable, and I think for me, that was probably the biggest surprise when I came here as deputy minister.

John Hannaford: What do you think the things are that we collectively should be working on? As you say, it’s a complex world, ever changing, and you know, what do you see as kind of priorities for us as an organization in the next period of time?

Marta Morgan: Well, I think that we…I always kind of put things in my own mind into three buckets. One is sort of, what are our proactive priorities? What are our reactive priorities? And what’s our management agenda? And I think that on the proactive side, I mean, we always need to be, need to be identifying Canada’s interests in the world. Whether it’s our trade interests, our interests in pursuing stability in democracy and peace. We need to identify areas where we can make a difference, where we can make the rules-based international order stronger, where we can strengthen our trade relationships, where we can promote stability and peace and, you know, order and good government in other parts of the world. So I see both of those as important, both the values-based and the interests-based. And, and for us—because, you know, the world, as you said, is a big place—it’s a complicated place. We need to be the people who can advise the government on where can we make a difference? Where can Canada’s proactive energy…with we bring it to bear, really make change?

John Hannaford: Right.

Marta Morgan: So I think that’s one thing. We’re always going to have to react to what’s going on in the world. And we’re called to participate. We’re called to work with allies in difficult situations. And, you know, there’s a never ending sort of set of issues there. You know, right now, obviously, we’re really preoccupied with the situation in Syria. And, you know, those situations do emerge with great regularity.

And then on the management side, you know, we have…there’s a, there’s a big management agenda here that many of us are involved in. We think of ourselves as a diplomatic corps, but we have a huge management and operational branches within the department who support everything that we do. So whether it’s our security, whether it’s our security abroad, whether it’s our, you know, getting through our first external competition in years…

John Hannaford: Yes, it’s very exciting.

Marta Morgan: You know, all of those things, I think are really important for us as well.

John Hannaford: And just building on your, your…talking about the complications of the world and the challenges of having a big organization like this…the, the issues around the development of the people within that context. We were chatting a little bit before we got, before the recording started about the session that we did with Louise Blais on mental health, which I found very powerful, and I’m kind of interested in how you see us working collectively on issues around the well-being of the people who work here. Because obviously that’s kind of the critical piece of our functioning is having a very high-performing group of individuals who can bring their expertise to bear on both the priorities we’re pursuing and the reactions that we have to have to the world.

Marta Morgan: Yeah, I mean, the issues around mental health and well-being, I’m really glad that they’re getting as much profile as they are within the federal government and that we, as management teams, are spending as much time talking about them as we do. Because, I think, there’s a sort of…we need to lead by example, and we need to have strategies within our organizations that support people’s well-being and support their mental health. And, I think, we need to be talking about it more. So, I was really taken by the podcast…by the podcast with Louise Blais as well, because my experience has been that, on issues of mental health and well-being, that the more that we talk about these issues as senior leaders, the more we normalize them. And the more we make them part of our everyday conversation and the way that we, as managers, manage, the way we lead, the way we think about how we work within our organization. So I think we need to have the right policies in place, and the right management tools in place. But I also think we have to do the culture change part.

John Hannaford: Completely

Marta Morgan: And, you know, I think we’re all responsible for that.

John Hannaford: I completely agree.

Marta Morgan: So when I was…When I took on my first role as assistant deputy minister, I had been out of government for a number of years. I came back to work. My daughter was nine. I came back to work in the government, and she was nine. And I made a point of talking about, “I have to leave. I have to. It’s my day to go pick up my daughter, or, oh, my daughter was sick,” you know. So I made a point of talking about that just to normalize it within my organization so that everybody else who had a kid that they had to pick up or who was sick or whatever saw that that was OK.

John Hannaford: Right.

Marta Morgan: And so, you know, I think that that’s, you know, that’s something that, that we can all do to, I think, to help on the culture change. Obviously, it has to be more than that.

John Hannaford: Right.

Marta Morgan: But that’s one element of it where I’ve really seen a change in the last even five years or so.

John Hannaford: Yeah, I agree. And the cultural piece is so important. It’s partially about communications, is just partially about behaviours and reinforced in positive behaviours.

Marta Morgan: Yeah.

John Hannaford: So, just speaking of life outside of this place and, you know, we talked a little bit about our common admiration for podcasts. What other kind of issue? What are your hobbies? What? You know what, what should people know about you? Or people might not know about you, I should say. We started by talking a little bit about our common admiration for podcasts. I [was] just kind of interested in other things that people may not know about you that shape your life outside of this place.

Marta Morgan: Well, I have to say, you know, it’s kind of interesting. You have different kind of stages in your life, right? And my life since we adopted my daughter was really, it was work and family. And there were not a lot of hobbies, I have to admit. And, but now that my daughter’s a little bit older, I find time kind of freeing up a little bit. So it’s nice, it’s nice to know that…that happens, too. I like to cook. That’s why I listen to cooking podcasts. I like to…I’m trying to learn how to play tennis. It’s been a multi-year process. And I have to say, it’s not been entirely successful, but I do enjoy it. And actually, you know, it’s been really fun to do something really new.

John Hannaford: And you didn’t play at all?

Marta Morgan: Well, I played when I was a teenager, so it had been a long time. So I had to be completely reformed, apparently, from what I had learned back then. So anyways, it’s an ongoing process. But I have to say it is really fun to learn something new. And it’s actually kind of fun to do something that you’re not really good at.

John Hannaford: Right.

Marta Morgan: In a strange kind of way. So I’m enjoying that a lot.

John Hannaford: Yeah, well, excellent. Well, look, Marta, welcome again to the department. It’s terrific to have you as a colleague. And I think, you know, your appointment was certainly very warmly welcomed by, I think, the department as a whole. And so, it’s terrific to get a chance to work with you and a terrific chance to chat a little bit today.

Marta Morgan: Well, thanks a lot, John. It has been a pleasure, and I will listen attentively to your podcast.

John Hannaford: Excellent, thank you.

Marta Morgan: Thanks a lot.

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