Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Another outsider gets top government job

The news that Jessica McDonald is quitting the top management job in the B.C. government didn’t surprise most people, since they didn’t know she had the job in the first place.
But for the 35,000 people working for the government, lobbyists, politicians and those interested in how things work, McDonald’s surprise departure this week was a big deal.
The job title is deputy minister to the premier. But in a management sense, it’s something like being CEO of a corporation with $35 billion in revenue.
Premier Gordon Campbell set the direction, but McDonald figured out how to get there. The deputy minister sits at the point where politics and the public sector come together. The deputies in each ministry reported to her, not their ministers. The premier counts on both policy and political advice.
McDonald was a surprise hire when Ken Dobell, her predecessor, left the job after the 2005 election. She was 35, easily young enough to be Dobell’s daughter. and had little management experience.
McDonald’s work in Victoria began as a legislative intern when the Bill Vander Zalm government imploded. She worked then with Campbell’s chief of staff Martyn Brown. She moved into government, including a brief stint as a mid-level manager, and then started a consulting company. And she was married to Mike McDonald, who supported and worked with Campbell since his days as Vancouver mayor.
In 2003, Campbell hired her as deputy minister for special projects, a job that offered experience across government. She then got the job of planning for the Liberals’ second term, reporting directly to Campbell. It was a powerful position.
A year later she was the head of the public service.
It was controversial, naming an outsider with little experience to the top job.
Reviews of McDonald’s tenure are mixed. She brought focus to supporting and strengthening the workforce, a priority from day one in the job. Unfortunately, her last months were spent in downsizing.
McDonald also played a big role in striking a land use deal on the Great Bear Rainforest, generally considered a success. And she led the New Relationship with First Nations, which hasn’t worked so well.
The most common criticism was that McDonald grabbed too much control of big files, centralizing decision-making and pushing ministry management aside. Among other things, that created a bottleneck when projects bogged down in the premier’s office.
McDonald wanted to be in control. I had one of the few — maybe only — media interviews with her soon after she took the job, for a magazine. It took months of pushing to get an hour. At the outset, McDonald said she wouldn’t answer questions about herself — a problem, since the piece was a profile. (You can read it here; it was pretty good.)
There has been some talk that McDonald is responsible for the chaos since the botched February budget, but that’s not accurate. Decisions on the HST and the cuts to services — and the way they have been communicated — were made by the premier’s officer.
McDonald said she decided it was a good time to leave. There is no reason to doubt that.
Allan Seckel, who is replacing her, also has an unconventional path to the top job. He was a high-level Vancouver litigation lawyer, with clients from the airport authority to Bon Koo, an entrepeneur sued for $8 million by the Chinese government.
In 2003, the government launched a national search for a deputy minister to the attorney general, a cabinet post then held by Geoff Plant.
And Seckel, a former law partner of Plant who helped with his first election campaign, emerged as the winner.
Again, what’s striking about this appointment to the top job is the lack of experience. Seckel has done the deputy AG job and had some short-term experience in other areas. But he’s gone from lawyer to deputy minister to head of a giant organization — 35,000 employees, remember — with little practical management experience.
Seckel hasn’t made any strong impression, good or bad, in his current job. The Attorney General’s Ministry has been slow to bring forward needed legislation and has made little progress on reducing delays and costs in the court system. But again, that likely reflects the politicians’ choices.
The changes do matter. Seckel will bring his priorities and political and policy advice to the premier. He’s also likely to shuffle deputy ministers, bringing more change.
And he’s starting in the job at a very tough time.

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