Since September of 2014, I’ve had the fortuity of interning at the Deputy Minister’s Office at the Ministry of Health. I could not imagine a better placement. The Deputy Minister of Health (DM), Mr. Max Hendricks, and the Assistant Deputy Ministers (ADMs), along with other Ministry staff, are providing me with invaluable insight based on their experiences as leaders in very high levels of government. With their support, I am being exposed to a wide variety of high-stakes meetings that contribute immensely to my becoming a well-rounded professional. Through the internship, not only am I acquiring immense knowledge about legislative and policy-making processes, but I am becoming ever more aware of the importance of serving as a liaison between key stakeholders.
Over the past months, I can say without doubt that there has been no day when I didn’t step out of my comfort zone. But being aware of the unique opportunity ahead of me – Health is the biggest ministry in Saskatchewan – I knew from the start that taking full advantage of this experience would require getting comfortable with, and moreover enjoying, fast-paced new experiences. On my second day as an intern, I attended the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (PAC). This was my first experience witnessing the interaction between the Legislative and Executive branches. On the committee sit members of the ruling party and the opposition, who question Ministry officials and CEOs of Crown Corporations on their implementation of recommendations put forth by the Provincial Auditor. Shortly thereafter, I started attending meetings on the Child and Family Agenda, a government initiative to improve the welfare of citizens in the province. This time, I observed a different side of the legislative process: several ministers gathered to discuss how to balance the needs and rights of varied stakeholder groups while improving the lives of Saskatchewan children and families. Being privy to such conversations exposed me to a side of politics I had not learned about in graduate school. By subsequently attending meetings with the Minister of Health, in which the DM and ADMs brief him on a variety of matters, I learned that policy development is far more of a delicate, balancing act than meets the eye.
Being a public-policy nerd, seeing policy unfold before my eyes was fascinating. And it wasn’t long until I became involved in it: on my second week as an intern, I was tasked with writing a briefing note (BN) to inform the Minister of Health about a proposed new program. This was a months-long process, but having sat in on briefings, I applied a very different perspective to my writing than that taught in graduate school: I knew I had to be concise and analytical, but now also mindful of how different policy alternatives would affect citizens in the province. Sometimes, what appears to be the obvious solution to the eyes of an economist isn’t the preferred alternative – and for valid, important reasons. It wasn’t an easy task. Many interactions with stakeholders took place to understand the funding and the structure of the program, and the BN came back countless times with red pen informing me revisions were needed. Throughout the process of laying out the structure of the program and its funding components, I was also responsible for explaining the analysis to the DM and ADMs. It would have been far easier for the ADM in charge of this portfolio to request that an experienced policy analyst write the BN, but she took the time to mentor and guide me through it – and that made all the difference. I subsequently wrote two more Minister’s BNs under the guidance of the other ADMs. There has been no greater reward than seeing the knowledge I learned in the classroom applied to documents that are presented to the Minister.
Among the many things I am learning under the tutelage of the DM and ADMs, one of the most imperative has been the importance of serving as a liaison between key stakeholders. The ability to foster positive, productive relationships that advance stakeholders’ strategic priorities and goals is an essential skill to have, both in the public and private sectors. The unique opportunity to be present at negotiation tables with unions and associations is exposing me to the intricacies of achieving balanced outcomes and advancing strategic priorities. Furthermore, by attending the Provincial Stakeholder Advisory Group (PSAG) and being involved in the government’s initiative to reduce wait times in emergency departments, I am gaining valuable knowledge on how consultations with varied groups are carried out and used to form a coherent and balanced course of action that has buy-in from all parties involved.
My internship will be coming to an end in April, but I can say with confidence that I’ve learned more about leadership, conflict management and real-world policy development in eight months than I had throughout graduate school. It has been the most interesting experience of my career thus far, and it is teaching me lessons that carry over to any work environment – be it public or private. As such, I strongly recommend that other graduate students take advantage of internship programs. Many of the skills acquired through this experience can’t be taught in school. While it is important to have the perspectives of our fellow classmates and professors, having mentors who provide new points of view, share diverse leadership experiences, and ask different sets of questions is key. People filter out dissenting views and opinions far too easily, but personal and professional growth require critically evaluating such views, considering what our goals are, and defining a path forward that engages others in achieving such goals. Mentors and coworkers, classmates and professors, friends and even competitors are all part of this.
Larissa Ducatti Flister is a MAEPA student from the University of Regina campus, and a Provincial Intern at the Ministry of Health.