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Take away all of the flowery language in the news release issued Wednesday and this is what have: Premier Brian Pallister has hired two people with no experience in public administration or executive-level management to oversee two of the largest departments in government with budgets totalling more than $3 billion.
The first appointment of note is Tracey Maconachie as the new deputy minister of Economic Development and Training, the province's primary department for attracting new businesses, creating jobs and overseeing post-secondary education. It is the fourth-largest department in government with a budget of $970 million.
For anyone coming in from outside government, a department of this size and scope would represent an enormous challenge. But it may be even more daunting for Maconachie, given that she has never worked in government and never held an executive-level management job.
Immediately prior to this move, Maconachie, who in the 2016 election was the Tory candidate in River Heights, was president of the Bioscience Association of Manitoba, an industry lobby. She also received two patronage appointments from the Pallister government to Crown boards: Research Manitoba and the Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries Corp. Most of her working life was spent in sales and middle-management at Merck, the pharmaceutical multinational.
Notwithstanding the assertions made by the premier's spokesman, there is little precedent in this or any other government for hiring candidates with so little experience in government and department–specific subject matter.
Similar questions no doubt await Kathryn Gerrard who, up until this week, was director of Mental Health Transformation — a low-level political staff position with the Priority and Planning secretariat of the Pallister government — a job she held since May 2019. She is now the deputy minister of Families, one of the largest and costliest departments in government, with thousands of employees and a budget of $2.1 billion.
Prior to her decision to join government, Gerrard had a long career at Bell MTS, serving as director of sales and, later, general manager of AAA Security, now known as Bell MTS Smart Home.
The premier also took the unusual step of moving one of his senior-most political staffers into the deputy minister ranks. Elliot Sims, formerly the director of legislative affairs for the Pallister government, is now the deputy minister of regulatory accountability and associate clerk of the executive council for legislative and regulatory affairs.
Sims does have nearly a decade of experience in legislative affairs and made a short stop to serve as the Manitoba director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. However, the decision to make him a deputy minister is odd because he does not have a department to oversee. And because his role as deputy clerk is normally contained within the confines of political staff.
How is the government justifying these moves? A spokesman for the premier noted that all of the new deputy ministers got their positions after a full competition that involved, at its conclusion, an assessment by four current deputy ministers. The final decisions were based in part on recommendations by that panel.
On Gerrard, the spokesman said that despite having spent just one year in that job, and having no background in mental health or family services, she "oversaw the implementation" of 30 initiatives across the departments of Health, Justice and Families.
As for Maconachie, the spokesman said her experience working for a pharmaceutical company, and her continuing work linking government, post-secondary institutions and the private sector, make her a good fit for the new role in Economic Development and Training.
Notwithstanding the assertions made by the premier's spokesman, there is little precedent in this or any other government for hiring candidates with so little experience in government and department-specific subject matter. But then again, this is a government that has been accused previously of politicizing senior positions normally reserved for career public administrators.
For anyone coming in from outside government, a department of this size and scope would represent an enormous challenge. But it may be even more daunting for Maconachie, given that she has never worked in government and never held an executive–level management job.
David McLaughlin, the current Clerk of the Executive council, went from being Pallister's two-time campaign manager to the highest-ranked and paid civil servant in Manitoba. The NDP did on at least one occasion promote a political staffer as clerk (Paul Vogt) but it's still a very rare strategy.
McLaughlin has a wealth of experience working on the political side of this and other governments in Canada. But that doesn't mean he isn't an awkward fit in a role filled by people who spend years preparing for the role.
What does it all mean? There are a number of obvious conclusions to be drawn and none of them are particularly flattering to career public administrators in the Pallister government.
Hardcore Tories will argue the culture and mindset of career public administrators is part of the problem they are trying to fix. Government is too expensive, taxes are too high and people who have made their living from the provincial treasury simply do not know how to get value for taxpayer dollars.
But is the antidote hiring people who do not have subject-matter expertise or experience managing large organizations? It would be hard to find examples in the private sector where someone without training or experience in executive-level management would be given an executive-level job, particularly if they couldn't demonstrate fluency with the core business.
In both the public and private sectors, senior-most leaders spend years training to take over entities the size of these two government departments. That kind of experience simply does not appear to have been a consideration this time around.
If the ultimate concern here is value for taxpayer dollar, then hiring the wrong person for the job, even though they might know the right people, can hardly be considered an improvement.
Updated on Thursday, September 10, 2020 at 8:22 PM CDT: Corrects spelling of Tracey, typo in election year
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