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‘Control freak’ versus ‘Tommy Team’

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper could learn a lot about management from Tommy Douglas, former NDP premier of Saskatchewan.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/11/2010 (4452 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper could learn a lot about management from Tommy Douglas, former NDP premier of Saskatchewan.

Two new books clearly outline the management styles of the men. In Harperland: The Politics of Control, political journalist Lawrence Martin says “in just a few years, Stephen Harper came to amass executive power and dominate Ottawa in a way few, if any, other prime ministers have.”

Managers are supposed to get work done through others. But Harper gets work done through his own efforts or those of confidants a few offices away. Initiatives come from the Prime Minister’s Office. Communications are closely controlled. There’s an emphasis on scoring political points.

“As opposed to more circular patterns of an organization where information is more broadly shared, only the prime minister and his chief of staff knew everything,” says Martin. The prime minister liked the structure because “the top priority was discipline, (was) not screwing up.”

In short, Harper, “a control freak,” is a lousy manager.

Douglas, on the other hand, ran a more open administration. In their book Tommy’s Team: The People Behind the Douglas Years, Stuart Houston, a Douglas expert, and Bill Waiser, a historian, say Douglas had an “uncanny knack” for choosing the right person for the task at hand.

And he ranged the world to find the right people including a member of one of the UK’s wealthiest families and a world expert on rural health. The diminutive premier had socialist leanings, but he was “both realistic and practical.”

He made clear to his experts what he wanted and when — particularly in the case of health care — but he rarely told them how to do their jobs. Douglas delegated responsibility, but he did not abdicate.

As a general manager in the federal public service for 20 years, the Douglas accomplishment I most admire is this: When they stormed into office in 1944, most of his followers had never been in government before, but because of Douglas’s management skill they were able to clean up the leftovers of the Great Depression and the Second World War; to start a complex health care program, North America’s first, and to deliver 16 consecutive balanced budgets — all without the help of massive oil, gas and potash revenues.

Even with these resources, Saskatchewan’s current prime minister Brad Wall, a Tory, is in deep deficit country. Since coming to power, Wall has increased program spending an astounding 10.1 per cent a year, almost triple the growth of the population and inflation combined.

Douglas seemed to enjoy the 17 years he was premier (1944 to 1961). When you think of him, you have a mental image of a man smiling broadly. Think of Harper, and many of us see a glum individual with what one writer has called “husky dog eyes.” I’m not sure what that means, but I don’t pat husky dogs.

Harper, however, is accomplished at the game of political dodge ball.

Remember the fuss over allegations the government allowed Afghan authorities to torture war prisoners? That helped cause a much-criticized prorogation of Parliament and an extraordinary ruling from Speaker Peter Milliken condemning the government for breach of parliamentary privilege for refusing to release uncensored documents. Thanks to Harper’s manoeuvres, the torture issue is now lost in the swamp of an ad hoc parliamentary committee.

The Harperites have not got along with some senior public servants. The Liberals have a list of 10 who “have been fired or have resigned because their advice has been at odds with the Conservative agenda.” The list includes Monir Sheik, Canada’s chief statistician, who resigned over changes to the census.

And what happened at the political-public service interface to create a situation in which 75 per cent of the money earmarked for the largest federal infrastructure program was not spent last year? That lag undermines the government’s claim the fund created jobs.

After Liberal Ross Thatcher took over Saskatchewan’s government, two of Douglas’ chief aides — Al Johnson and Tommy Shoyama — went to Ottawa to try to tame the Liberal government’s high-spending ways. Johnson became public service head of the Treasury Board, which has a key say on government spending, and Shoyama became deputy minister of finance, the department that raises government revenues.

Their efforts and the efforts of others came to a head when David Dodge became deputy minister of finance, a post he held from 1992 to 1997. Dodge convinced his minister, Paul Martin, that big cuts had to be made to government spending if the government was ever going to balance its budget. Martin took his advice.

Public servants are rarely recognized but Johnson, who died last week in Ottawa at age 87, and Dodge, who was made a director of Scotiabank the same week, have both been given a long list of awards and honorary degrees.

Will the man with the “husky dog eyes” ever change his management style? It will be interesting to see what happens when Nigel Wright, a Bay Street golden boy, becomes Harper’s chief of staff in January.

Tom Ford is managing editor of The Issues Network.

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