Profile with Siobhan Harty

Siobhan Harty (Québec & St John’s 1989) is the Director General of Social Policy at Employment and Social  Development Canada. She worked previously  at Public Safety Canada and the Privy Council Office (the Prime Minister’s Department).  Siobhan holds a PhD in Political Science from McGill University, a MPhil in Latin American Studies from Oxford University, and a BA in Political Science from Concordia University.

Rhodes Project: Where do you call home?

Siobhan Harty: I’ve called Ottawa home since 2002. But I’m a Montrealer by birth, and Montrealers hold their city very dear so underneath it all, Montreal is still home.

Rhodes Project: What was the last book you couldn’t put down?

Siobhan Harty: I’m reading one now by Carlos Ruiz Zafón called A Prisoner of Heaven. It’s one of three books Ruiz Zafón has written (along with Shadow of the Wind and Angel’s Game) that take the reader through an intricate gothic murder mystery  set in Barcelona – a city that I used to live in and love. I’ll stay up all night to read through to the end – pure escapism.

Rhodes Project: If you hadn’t gone into government, what else might you have done?

Siobhan Harty: I wasn’t destined to go into government – it was a bit of an accident. I wanted to be an academic from a very young age. I always had a desire to be surrounded by books and to think through big ideas and to solve problems, and that is the course I put myself on. I finished my PhD at McGill, went into academia in the United Kingdom and absolutely loved it. But sometimes other things happen in your life and in my case it was that I had a daughter while living in the UK. My husband and I are Canadian and I became really homesick and missed my family, so I decided then that I would try to go home. At the time, the Canadian government was recruiting people with advanced degrees doing policy-relevant research, so I decided to give it a try.  It was an unplanned career change but I have been really satisfied. There are many similarities between what I was doing as an academic and what I’m doing now - I still solve problems, but now I apply the answers in a very different way.

Rhodes Project: What’s the best part of your job now?

Siobhan Harty: Having the privilege to lead a large organization of analysts and support staff working on Canada’s major social issues.  I love the responsibility that comes with ensuring that I have a high-performing team that excels at supporting our minister. It forces me to challenge myself continuously to ensure that the right talent, supports and rewards are in place to keep everyone moving in the same direction. The best part of my job is to make sure that every member of my team is motivated and when they are not, to find a solution.

Rhodes Project: What’s the most challenging part of your job?

Siobhan Harty: The work doesn’t stop! Most public servants have an innate desire to try to improve or fix things so there’s often a willingness to take on extra work – we like to solve policy puzzles. But public policy is often about compromises and you have to be willing to find workable solutions, which can be challenging to figure that out when there are competing interests and perspectives.

Rhodes Project: Having gone from academia into a policy-oriented position, do you find there are gaps between how academics process issues and how policy-makers do? Is this problematic?

Siobhan Harty: When I look to my academic colleagues now, I sort of laugh because they don’t entirely understand how public policy is made. But then I stop myself and ask “how could they?” You can’t possibly know unless you’re in a bureaucracy and nothing you read in a textbook could prepare you for how bureaucracies operate. We have to find ways to enable academics to have a better understanding of how policy is made. I also think academics can sometimes be far too critical of government decision-making and that’s possibly because they don’t always understand all the challenges and trade-offs that governments have to make every time a decision is put in front of them.

Rhodes Project: What role do you think social media has played and will continue to play on ethnic, religious, and national identities?

Siobhan Harty: My specialization is in 19th and early 20th century nationalism so I am fascinated by how social media has changed patterns of mobilization. We need to look no further than the Arab Spring to see how important social media can be for political mobilization generally. In situations where people don’t enjoy democratic freedoms, social media can provide a means to build bridges, within and across countries, and form coalitions that can affect change. For minorities of all kinds – religious, ethnic, etc – that’s a powerful tool. The challenge for them is that social media doesn’t come with a built-in infrastructure – it’s very virtual and it is not always clear what is bringing followers together. When you do manage to affect some level of change, it can be really hard to sustain. Traditional social movements would have invested more in identity formation, among other things.

Rhodes Project: With increased initiative from local governments and communities, should we be worried about losing federal oversight and the important regulatory role it can play in areas like civil liberties and minimum standards of living?

Siobhan Harty: In federations like Canada, there is always a need to try to find the balance between local level differences and national objectives.  Too much innovation that looks too different across a big country is going to start creating some disparities and inequalities. But while a federal government has to provide oversight and a national role, it tries to do while respecting local innovation. It’s the power of social media and the internet that’s made all that possible: our awareness of local differences and innovation is much higher as a result. I think national governments are struggling to identify an appropriate role in all of this.

Rhodes Project: What advice would you give to a young woman pursuing a career in government?

Siobhan Harty: In Canada, women are slightly ahead of men in terms of graduation rates from university, so there are many opportunities in many fields.  Today, a young woman in the public service has to be willing to be an agent of change: to bring new knowledge, new networks, collaborative ways of working with colleagues and citizens and to be committed to high performance and productivity. There are many opportunities for young women – and men – to help shape an agile and efficient public service because of the new attitudes and values that they will bring.

Rhodes Project: If you had unlimited resources to devote to any one issue, global or local, what would it be and why?

Siobhan Harty: I am really motivated by ideals of equality both as a political scientist and public servant. For me it would be to try to reduce poverty and low income and to ensure access to education – the evidence on the benefits is hard to refute. But then I would team up with someone else who has unlimited resources so we could also focus on democratic institutions. Individual opportunity needs to be supported by open institutions. 

Rhodes Project: What’s something you’re looking forward to right now?

Siobhan Harty: I am looking forward to getting to my cottage.  I have a family and we like to spend our weekends relaxing at our cottage, which is on an island on a lake in the Rideau Canal system that runs from Ottawa to Kingston.  

Back to Scholar Profiles F-J

© 2013