How'd You Get That Job? Samara talks to Neil Desai

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How'd You Get That Job? Tuesday, April 14, 2015 View Count = 5763

How'd You Get That Job? Samara talks to Neil Desai

Neil Desai

Samara talks to Neil Desai, former Chief of Staff to two former Ministers of International Development.  

What inspired you to get involved with politics?

In high school I participated in the Forum for Young Canadians. The program got me interested in federal politics and public policy. I decided to return to Ottawa for university and volunteered on The Hill and with the Forum.  In my final year of undergraduate studies, I served as a legislative assistant to an MP. After that I participated in the Conservative Party Internship Program. It allowed me to interact with partisan activists, MPs and the then Leader of the Opposition, now Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. In that short time span I was exposed to a broad range of issues and provided the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way.

How did you become the Chief of Staff to the Minister of International Development?

When I returned to Toronto from graduate school in the UK, I was working for an advocacy group. I joke that the new Conservative government had become tired of me holding their feet to the fire, so they offered me a job. For a brief time I worked as an advisor to Minister Jason Kenney. I then moved into the Prime Minister’s Office.

After almost four years in the PMO, I was ready to try something new; in 2010 I went to work helping to get the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs off the ground.

Following the 2011 election, the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff and a couple of Ministers suggested that I consider contributing to the new government. Given my passion for public policy and the opportunity to contribute to a government with a relatively long runway, given the majority standing in the House of Commons, I agreed to return to Ottawa to serve as a Chief of Staff to the Minister of International Development.

Neil Desai and Stephen HarperWhat does a day in the life of a minister’s Chief of Staff look like?

Before I took the job, one of the former Chiefs of Staff to the Prime Minister told me that you want it to be 60:40 “putting out fires” relative to “building houses”—and the “building houses” happens only after 8:00 pm. But in reality it’s more like 90:10. He was right.

No two days are the same. When the House of Commons was sitting, the mornings were usually spent “putting out fires,” which involved touching base with the communications team. In the afternoon, I began “building houses,” or moving into the world of policy.

As it became darker outside, I would consider the operational side of things—reviewing a steady flow of memos that largely covered grant and policy proposals. The proposals spanned everything from health initiatives in countries such as Haiti or Mali, to long-term institutional funding to international organizations like the World Bank or UNICEF. I was responsible for ensuring that whatever monies left the Canadian International Development Agency’s were defendable and in-line with government policy. That would get me to about 6:00 or 7:00 pm, at which point I would begin working on developing my own proposals on such things as private sector led, international development initiatives or the amalgamation of CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.

What was your favourite moment on The Hill?

I eventually proposed the amalgamation of CIDA and DFAIT. Others had put forward the idea in the past, but no one had offered a clear path to implementation. To have executed the change and have it succeed with widespread partisan, academic and media support was the pinnacle of my time serving as Chief of Staff.

What skills or expertise are required for a job on The Hill?

There is no degree that is “required” for a job on The Hill. Besides having a breadth of knowledge, being worldly and reading voraciously, there are a few skills that are important: writing—to be able to write in a compelling and concise fashion—and being able to deliver under tight deadlines. It doesn’t matter if you can put together the most intellectual and persuasive argument if it takes you a month—you may only have 45 minutes to provide comments on a Cabinet document.

It’s also essential to understand how this country works politically. I’d suggest volunteering on campaigns. I believe that spending some time at the local level is particularly important. Engaging with real people in communities, cities and rural areas is critical. Remember, whether you’re working in civil service or have a political role, it’s public service. You’re working for someone else. If you don’t talk to people, understand how they think, what they want from government, you won’t know how to serve them.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step to take?

I’d recommend having a variety of experiences in different sectors. Be politically active at the local level and work your way up. Also, take yourself seriously. I had no real family history in politics. When I decided to engage, I did so in a serious fashion. As a result, people took me seriously, despite my age, lack of experience or personal links to politics.

If you want to move up in politics, it has to be more than just a job to you. You must view it as public service. It will come with ups and downs, so don’t get into it for the highs and don’t quit if you hit a low. Know that it isn’t something you can or should do forever. Set out to serve your fellow Canadians. Once you feel you have accomplished what you set out to do, think about moving on and setting new goals, even if they lead you away from politics or government. You can always come back to serve your country again in the future.

MFteam_0069_NeilD Neil Desai is Director, Corporate Affairs with Magnet Forensics, a technology company in Waterloo, Ontario. He previously served with the Government of Canada in a number of senior roles in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development and the Prime Minister’s Office. He was named one of the top Canadians influencing Canadian foreign policy by Embassy Magazine and one of the top 99 young foreign policy professionals by the US-based Diplomatic Courier magazine.

Neil is a Fellow with the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He is also an occasional contributor to the Globe and Mail’s editorial page. He holds a master’s degree in international political economy from the London School of Economics and a bachelor’s degree with honours from Carleton University.


(Photo credit: Office of the Prime Minister, courtesy of Neil Desai)


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