06 March 2014

How did the Old Man work? (Part 1) #nlpoli

The Premier’s Office is a tough place to work.  The demands on everyone in the place are constant.  The implications of what you are dealing with in the office can affect one person or the whole province but more often than not the consequences will be dramatic.

As much as we’ve had some insight into the Conservative administration over the past couple of weeks and the past couple of posts, testimony at the Cameron Inquiry gave us some insight into how things worked during Danny Williams’ time in the Premier’s Office.

Williams appeared before the Inquiry on October 28 and both his chief of staff and communications director appeared as well.

An overwhelming volume of information…

“You know,’ Williams said, “the number of briefing notes that come in a year, I’m told, I think there may be about 400. I could be wrong on that. The number of press releases are probably 1200 to 1600, but the
number of contacts that come to the Premier’s Office, the eighth floor, in the run of a year from all sources are between 125,000 and 50,000 contacts. Now that’s an overwhelming volume.”  [pages 16-17]

Indeed it is an overwhelming volume.  Williams described a fairly typical arrangement:  his staff - especially his senior staff – and the senior public servants in the cabinet secretariat filtered the information that comes into the office so that the Premier sees what he needs to see and other information is dealt with by someone else. 

What wasn’t typical is a point brought out by Inquiry counsel Bern Coffey.  He recounted for Williams that both Williams’ chief of staff (Brian Crawley) and Clerk of the Executive Council Robert Thompson testified that “other than their memory or a sticky pad somewhere, a Post-It note somewhere, they had no mechanized systematic way of bringing things forward” to Williams’ attention. [page 18]

Williams’ agreed that this was the case [page 19].  He added that, from his own perspective, “the detailed systems in the office” were not something he got involved with.  Williams testified that he selected people for jobs and let them get on with it, using their best judgment.  As for recording notes on the work he did, Williams made it clear he consciously decided not to do that:

“I just decided that I just couldn’t do this and get the job done. If on a daily basis that I had to sit down and keep notes on every single conversation or every matter that came before me, then I would lose a lot of my time.”

The most interesting thing about this comment is that the Premier normally wouldn’t be the person who kept that diary and helped the Premier keep track of his personal work.  Typically, a Premier would have two personal administrative assistants.  One would have the job of keeping a daily diary of meetings.  A crucial part of the job is tracking documents into and out of the Premier’s possession. 

… and no system to manage it

These are not like anything Williams compared them to in the private sector.  Nor are they things like “politics” and the news media that Williams complained about in his testimony.  They are vital matters of importance to the province.  There is so much work in the office that no one person could keep track of it.  And, as anyone even remotely familiar with the workings of government knows, it is important to know what happened and, more particularly what the Premier and others decided and why.  It’s basic administration.

A entire legion of devils dwell in the details of government administration. If people weren’t keeping track of what Williams and his staff were doing, what he read, and what he decided, confusion very likely would appear on a regular and often inconvenient basis.

In a speech delivered to a mainland audience, Williams once complained that he spent upwards of half of his time dealing with the media, open line shows, and what he called “counter-spinning negativity.”  From that perspective, it’s rather laughable that he would be so concerned that he would personally have to “diarize and document,” thereby giving up what he considered to be “10 percent of my time to productive work.”

As Coffey clarified, he was also referring to a system of tracking things Williams had decided.  Some call it KIV, for “keep-in-view”.  There are all sorts of software programs or you can just keep notes with a pen and paper.  Coffey asked Williams if he used any system.  Williams replied:

No. From time to time, though, when I’m back working in the nights or weekends, I will sit down and do a list of things to do and that can sometimes include things that I need to get back to…[page 22]

Williams also testified [page 23] that he didn’t know if any of his staff used such a system:  “I didn’t see any evidence, nor did I question it, nor did I insist on it.”

Williams’ chief of staff testified on June 11 that he relied exclusively on the cabinet secretariat and the departments to keep track of issues.

COFFEY, Q.C.:  I take it though in your own position, in your own office, you have no actual system in place to keep track of whether-- to remind — because there are so many such issues.

MR. CRAWLEY:  Oh, you mean like a pop up on my calendar or something like that?

COFFEY, Q.C.:  Yes, exactly.

MR. CRAWLEY:  No, sir, I don’t, no. Again, you know, when a department has a file, they’re generally very good at keeping us in the loop. There’s, you know, some 20 odd departments out there. It’s not practical for me to call, you know, 20 departments every day and say "look, make sure I’m up to speed and the Premier’s up to speed on all the issues." That accountability is with them. [page 29-30]

The lack of a system to manage information extend to the briefing notes that came by the dozens into the Premier’s Office from the various departments.  Crawley testified at the Inquiry that he would save up notes and read them on the weekends.  But when asked by Coffey if he had any way of keeping track of who had read them or even if he had read them, Crawley said he didn’t.  Crawley did say that he kept what he called a “redundant filing system”. 

Beyond that, though, Crawley and Williams described a Premier’s Office that was supposedly reactive and entirely at the mercy of departments and the government central agencies.