Kwame Neba is currently the Vice President of Nunavut Operations at the Workers’ Safety & Compensation Commission of the NWT & Nunavut, the government body administering safety and compensation acts and regulations to pre-emptively and responsively protect workers in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. There, he works to foster relationships and networks with diverse stakeholders to further the development of effective programs and initiatives that promote safe and responsible workplaces. Originally from Cameroon, he has a rich academic background in law and service management and extensive experience in tourism management he developed before and after graduating from Johnson Shoyama Graduate School (JSGS) in 2011, all of which serve him well in the Canadian public service.
A Winding Path to JSGS
Kwame’s journey to the JSGS was spurred by his strong personal interest in public service and improving institutional systems and lives. After graduating from the University of Buea in Cameroon with a Bachelor of Laws in 1997, he had an opportunity to pursue a Master’s degree in Tourism and Leisure Services Management from Stenden University in the Netherlands. This in turn led Kwame to earn and accept a position as lecturer and Faculty Head of Tourism and Hospitality Management at Stenden University in Qatar, which he held from 2004 to 2010.
Public administration had always been a personal passion for Kwame, and he felt a growing desire to advance and apply his management skills in a policymaking context. This desire coincided perfectly with his longstanding interest in moving to Canada to pursue a public administration program. It did not take Kwame long to decide to pursue the MPA at JSGS, despite the school having only been established in 2007.
“I saw [the JSGS Master of Public Administration program] as the perfect opportunity for me to get the Canadian experience that would greatly help my prospects in the national job market, but in so doing also help me continue to pursue my passion for public service.”
Upon entering JSGS, Kwame faced the typical challenges of navigating a different society as a newly-landed immigrant. Notable early difficulties included adapting to Saskatchewan’s climate and culture while keeping up with his intensive MPA coursework, although being fluent in English eased the transition considerably. Furthermore, Kwame appreciated how JSGS staff, faculty, and other students collectively created a very collegial environment.
“The JSGS was very welcoming. At the time, it was not as diverse as I suspect it is now, but I was able to meet many great Canadian friends who helped me navigate the new systems.”
In addition to providing him with an in-depth understanding of Canadian governing systems, Kwame felt the JSGS MPA offered new perspectives on solving problems, both in and beyond his workplace. The courses he took on decision-making, which introduced him to behavioural economics and other new ways of understanding the science of how people respond to stimuli and make choices have been most transformative in terms of how he approaches challenges.
“The importance of every class creeps up on you through your experiences in the workplace. Courses such as quantitative and qualitative analysis provided some of the most clearly useful lessons and practical skills. I have since found that every class in the MPA program was important in helping me succeed in the policymaking world."
Challenges and Rewards in the Public Service
In addition to informing how he approaches day-to-day challenges in his workplace, Kwame believes gaining the JSGS MPA was highly valuable in terms of opening doors to working in Canadian public service. A contract position he held with Tourism Saskatchewan during the summer before his graduation, for example, translated into an extended-term position as a Quality Assurance Specialist and Industry Development Manager after he proved his competency to the organization. He then successfully applied to progressively more senior public management roles, first as Manager of Tourism Industry Services with the Government of the Northwest Territories and later as Director of Industry Development with Tourism Saskatchewan.
For Kwame, the key factor in each significant career step was being able to “demonstrate proficiency in the skillsets I needed to bring to the job.”
To this end, combining his MPA education with his extensive experience in service management provided Kwame with a strong advantage.
“It is rare for someone entering public management to have both rich practical experience and formal training in pub policy.” By possessing both, he believes he was able to enjoy a leg-up both in being considered for senior management positions and in being able to develop innovative solutions in his work as a policy professional.
Despite his rapid rise through the ranks of the public service, Kwame increasingly strongly desired to switch away from the tourism industry and explore other areas in which he could make an impact in the public sector. When he learned the Workers’ Safety & Compensation Commission of the NWT & Nunavut (WSCC) was searching for a Vice President to manage its operations in Nunavut, he jumped on the opportunity. Kwame was enticed by how the position demanded the management of an amalgamation of healthcare, insurance, and regulation, which would allow him to apply his policy knowledge and skills to constantly evolving situations.
In his role as Vice President, Kwame has come to understand workers’ compensation as “a unique form of social insurance” that combines proactive preventative regulation with reactive compensatory operations. Working to make workplaces as safe as possible and helping workers who have been injured overcome their challenges and smoothly re-enter the workforce has been very rewarding, as his services allow him to enjoy the “feeling of making a difference.” At the same time, Kwame recounts two significant challenges particular to his work as a public servant.
Firstly, Kwame works with employers so they understand that his work does not oppose their interests, but rather works for their benefit. Kwame shared that he often tries to explain that the purpose of his regulatory work is to “make myself unnecessary” by preventing workplace injuries and thereby removing disruptions and the need for workers’ compensation. One of his favourite phrases is, “A safe workplace is a profitable workplace.”
Secondly, Kwame’s role as Vice President requires him to frequently navigate “grey areas” relating to workers’ compensation, which can occasionally mean refusing WSCC services to individuals. It is the nature of his job that he is constrained to support only those who are injured in the workplace in a manner that falls under the commission’s jurisdiction, but this does not make it any less difficult to turn away people dealing with debilitating injuries who do not qualify for workers’ compensation.
In line with these challenges, Kwame strongly believes that while the “hard skills” he gained at JSGS (i.e. policy writing) are most immediately and obviously helpful, it is ultimately the “soft skills” that are “unlocked” through the MPA program that are most valuable in his work. For him, teamwork, leadership, and knowing how to effectively communicate with people of diverse backgrounds have proven most valuable and informative in the way he approaches his job.
“What the JSGS helps you discover and bring out of yourself, like empathy and being able to relate to what others are going through, is the most valuable part of the experience.”
Reflections and Advice
A decade after graduating from JSGS, Kwame has no regrets about choosing to pursue public service in Canada. As a policymaker, he has enjoyed being able to directly make a difference in the organizations he has worked with, and see some of the impacts reflected in society. Among the career achievements he is most proud of are the instrumental roles he played in developing a new 10-year tourism destination development strategy for the province of Saskatchewan and facilitating the development of an Indigenous tourism strategy in the Northwest Territories.
While Kwame credits his time at the JSGS for helping open doors in government, working in the public sector has taught him things about himself and public administration he could not have gained in a classroom. The true importance of relationship-building and what he calls “extrovert skills” are at the top of the list, alongside the reality that the policymaking process is not nearly as neat or linear as you might think. Kwame recalls that one rarely faces a situation in which a new public issue must be met with a new policy solution. Rather, policymakers frequently must work backwards and parse apart webs of policy issues and existing solutions to accurately identify the source of a pressing problem and determine the most effective remedy.
Kwame also counsels that being a good public servant requires being able to overcome frustration.
“It is the nature of our democratic system that public servants do not control the agenda for policymaking [and] must implement what politicians want you to implement. Every now and then you are required to stop the implementation of a policy mid-way because executive-level priorities have changed.”
For Kwame, the key to his career success has been focusing on his goal of making a positive difference in his organization and the lives of other people. With this drive, demonstrating competency and leadership in day-to-day work naturally opens doors for promotion in the public service. For future public policy professionals, Kwame advises scaling the ladder is a matter of one’s own choices and embracing an “open and continuous learning mindset.”
“Effective leadership in the public sector calls more for diverse experiences than specific expertise or skills. So have a career plan, but watch for networking and personal development opportunities and take all that comes your way.”
Kwame plans to take his own advice. His career goals remain the same today as when he graduated from JSGS a decade ago: take every chance to diversify his leadership experience in the public sector, and always leave his organization and society in better shape than he found it.