How to Merge Private- and Public-Sector Practices

The NCC’s Martin Bernier shares four tips for increasing efficiency through a hybrid work model

Before joining the NCC in 2011, Martin Bernier made his career largely in the private sector, where he led several IT projects in Canada, the United States, and France. In 2000, he opened his consulting company, BIS Advisor, and later became vice president of IT for Brookfield Renewable Power Inc. With BIS Advisor, Bernier became involved in health care and other governmental projects, which allowed him to leverage his experience in private business. Bernier completed an MBA at Québec City’s Université Laval. (Photo by Frank Esposito.)

1. Focus on becoming a true partner

When Martin Bernier came to the National Capital Commission (NCC)—the Crown corporation ensuring that Canada’s Capital Region is a source of national pride and significance—he brought with him the idea that each department must perform and contribute at a high level. Bernier didn’t just borrow this concept from his career in IT; he put metrics in place to measure his success. Those metrics include things like cost savings and projects completed over time. “A department is a cost for a private organization, and departments that don’t provide value get cut,” says Martin Bernier, who serves as chief information officer and director of IT and geomatics.

Bernier wanted to make improvements at the NCC, but he found that he first needed to truly understand his new organization. He met face to face with each of 60 division employees and discovered that they needed stronger strategic and tactical plans. Then he took surveys and led group exercises to identify weaknesses and opportunities. “Most IT departments entities tend to just respond to calls,” Bernier says. “I wanted to improve IT infrastructure and put good processes in place so that we could better partner with the business to address issues before those calls come in. That’s what a strategic partner does.”

2. Walk, don’t run

Public organizational charts tend to cause silos with members accustomed to working separately. In building an effective strategic plan that would help increase performance at the NCC, Bernier looked to promote collaboration. “We redefined our vision with our business partners and whole groups, knowing that change takes time,” he says. After gathering necessary input, he took the data back to his team to discuss ways to effect organizational change. That’s when Bernier realized his IT staff didn’t have a formal list of active projects. “Most people knew priorities but failed to articulate a clear plan of attack,” he says. “We went back to the basics.” Bernier asked his associates to put project plans in writing and helped his team define clear, measurable goals based on feedback from various departments. The exercise helped the IT department build its toolbox and prepare to work more on the business side.

3. Speak their language

Those who transition from private to public work may not be surprised at the increased red tape associated with bureaucracy, but Bernier says there’s always a way to work through problems, policies, and processes. Doing so, however, may require some verbal gymnastics. “Those who have spent their entire lives in the public sector are used to certain words and certain ways of doing things, and you have to adjust your approach and show them that change is possible,” he explains. “They’ll likely say no at first. They’ll tell you that ‘they’ don’t allow it. Ask who ‘they’ is. Then go meet with the person or department and explain to them what you’re proposing and why it will work.”

These conversations are often simple in private business, where IT leaders can ask for $1 million and demonstrate a $2 million return to get approval. Bernier found himself up against this challenge when looking to replace the NCC’s outdated phone system that was too expensive to operate. Even after he demonstrated a two-year break-even schedule, his partners in business were still reluctant to approve the line item. Bernier worked to gain approval. Then he ran a public RFP, selected a company, and implemented the project in just sixth months. “You have to find places to make some gains,” he says. “Replacing the phones seems expensive up front, but you have to make people look at the savings over years.”

While the phone project wasn’t a huge risk, it helped Bernier prove his point while providing momentum for future projects. Public employees are often afraid of budget cuts or freezes, so leaders must maximize every opportunity. In replacing the phone system, Bernier took advantage of a chance to reduce operational budgets, allowing him to move on to other important initiatives, such as a business optimization project to replace financial operations and asset-management systems.

4. Develop effective employees

Most business leaders relish the opportunity to build a team, but that opportunity can be a challenge in the public sector, where long-tenured employees are deeply rooted in their positions. “It’s harder to change people in a public-sector setting, even if you really need to,” says Bernier, who says only a few people leave the NCC’s IT department. When they do, Bernier spends time defining the new requirements and conducting interviews to bring in the right people who understand the nuanced differences between public- and private-sector jobs. For those employees already on board, Bernier pushes development. “I believe in people, and I don’t insist they do the impossible,” he says. “I ask them to try new things.” When he arrived at the NCC, many IT employees hadn’t learned new technologies or new skills in many years. In such a setting, mentoring and professional development becomes critical—and it has become an area that Bernier is readily addressing.