23 September 2016

Reforming the way government works #nlpoli

Conservative and New Democrat goons are fapping themselves into a frenzy on Twitter over Bern Coffey's appointment as Clerk of the Executive Council.  Qualifications don't matter, they would have it.  Bern Coffey's appointment is partisan just because Coffey is a Liberal and therefore it is bad.  No Liberals should be appointed to anything.

Derpy Conservative David Brazil dismissed Coffey in an interview with NTV News because Coffey has no connection to the provincial public service. He's an "outsider" supposedly. The facts are irrelevant: Coffey spent a couple of decades as a highly successful Crown prosecutor before he set out on his own about 16 years ago.

Dipper boss Earle McCurdy thinks Coffey is "lacking the right qualifications" although McCurdy had no idea what the right qualifications would be other than, say, not being Liberal.

For his part,  Premier Dwight Ball told NTV that Coffey's job will now involve "challenging" the province's public servants so that the government has the best information possible when making decisions.

Such is the shallow nature of provincial politics these days.  Even Dwight Ball's comments don't accurately reflect what is going on.

Ball did not just appoint Coffey to "challenge" the public service.  Ball respects Coffey's opinion and his way of thinking and working.  Every Premier has around him people like that.  Coffey spent a couple of decades as a Crown prosecutor before leaving to start his own practice 16 years ago. Coffey's most recent public job was as lead counsel to the Cameron inquiry on hormone receptor testing.  Coffey is an experienced and knowledgeable fellow and there's every reason to believe he will be a fine Clerk of the Executive Council.

He is most certainly not like the typical patronage appointments made after 2003 by the previous administration.  Joan Cleary is a good example.  The Danny Williams Conservatives appointed the failed candidate to head the Bull Arm Corporation.  She had no experience. Cleary ran into trouble when she violated the Public Tender Act and handed a $75,000 contract to her former campaign manager.  When the scandal broke in the House of Assembly,  Kathy Dunderdale lied in the House of Assembly about it.

That's the standard we should use to evaluate Bern Coffey since Cleary is the poster-child for a patronage appointment.  By that standard,  Coffey scores off the charts.  What makes Coffey's appointment stand out, though,  is that he has not been promoted from within the ranks of the existing public service.  The last - and only other - time this has happened was in 1996 when Brian Tobin appointed Malcolm Rowe to the top public service job.  Plenty of capable people have been appointed into deputy minister and assistant deputy minister positions from outside the public service but this hasn't happened typically in the top job.

There's no surprise that Ball took this route since his chief of staff's last political job was as executive assistant to Brian Tobin. He just went with what he knew best.  What's significant about the Rowe appointment is that it was the precursor to the practice under the Conservatives after 2003 of switching people from political jobs into the public service and back again or of putting active partisans into public service positions.  The most blatant example of this was the appointment of Paul Reynolds to the position of chief electoral officer.

The most common example of this fluidity was in communications.  After 2003, the positions were political in fact while being nominally in the public service.  Paul Davis cemented the partisans in place and, thus far, Dwight Ball has done nothing to change the practice. He kept all of the Conservative partisans and, after some initial uncertainty replaced the top Conservative partisan in communications with his own.

Even in the other positions, the distance between the politicians and their appointees grew smaller and smaller.  If nothing, some of Williams' earliest tantrums made it plain to the public service that survival - let alone advancement - depended entirely on ones willingness to enable the Boss' wishes.  He revamped the pay scheme and, as with Nalcor senior executives, rewarded top senior servants with enormous salaries and contract perks. That's why, for example, at least one of those Ball dismissed walked out the door with 15 times the average annual pre-tax pay of workers in the province.

Ball is taking a political knocking  - again - because he promised to make these sorts of appointments using the so-called independent appointments commission.  In this case, as in the recent batch,  Ball didn't use the commission.  There's been no explanation for why Ball went this way. There's no need to go through all that again.  It's all in a post called "Message Control" from August.

While everyone has been fixated on one or another of the very superficial aspects of Coffey's appointment,  no one has noticed that Ball has just continued doing what's been going on all along. He's just kept on doing what the politicians have been doing since about 2003 or so.  Everything has stayed the same, as a result.  Even the zero-based budgeting exercise or whatever they are doing for the budget start from the assumption that whatever has been going on for the past few years is right. Cosmetic change is the inevitable result.

Well, at least in the short-term.  The thing is we don't know how long Dwight Ball is going to stay around.  If someone could tell him out to go without triggering a disastrous election, Ball might well announce his departure from politics after an obligatory year.  In any event, he may not last next summer.

In the meantime, Coffey does have some latitude to implement some changes of his own.  Ball talks about challenging the existing public service, but Coffey might well be able to implement a professional development program or career progression scheme that would provide for the longer-term leadership of the provincial public service.  The goal would be to create a situation in which future appointments in departments would have a larger purpose and that the pool of available leadership would be quite strong.

The provincial public service has been notoriously closed, with little opportunity for external periods of individual development.  Secondments to other governments or to the private sector as well as academic sabbaticals can be a useful way to encourage new ideas and skills. It happens elsewhere.  it can and should happen here as well.

There is a position available at Memorial University, for example, for public servants to spend a year studying some aspect of public policy.  The last Channing Fellow was appointed to a one year term in 2008.  It's a travesty that the position has remained vacant ever since.

There's no reason why the public service shouldn't be open to periodic infusions from outside the career service altogether. The use of an appointments commission is one way to deal with this for the senior ranks of the public service.  Another way to go would be to use an executive search firm for certain appointments. And of course, the Clerk of the Executive Council ought to have a file ready to hand of eligible individuals whose career path marks them for a vacancy.

What the government ought to avoid is anything that limits the power of the cabinet to make appointments in the first place.  The ideas in the preceding paragraph would to increase the sources of qualified nominees for certain appointments.  One of the notions that would inevitably grow up along the way is that the public service is something very distinct within our system of government.  That's a notion that has been a source of strength elsewhere but it is one that has been weakened here over the past couple of decades.

The reward for the politicians from the genuine professionalization of the public service is one that  knows its business and that can provide sound policy advice that isn't partisan.  We would create locally what has existed in other provinces and in Ottawa for decades.  This is precisely the opposite of where the provincial government has been going.

Such a strengthened public service would need a counterbalance, if  the government is to work successfully.  The counterbalance to a genuinely professional public service would be a professionalisation of the political side of things.  We would take the existing fused organization and create two distinct groups - one political and one non-partisan - to provide the Premier and cabinet with contending ideas.

Such an approach would genuinely challenge the existing public service, as Dwight Ball puts it, and it would do so much more effectively that appointing one or two people among the dozens of senior public servants in the fused system.  The Premier and cabinet would not be one one side or the other of this set-up but would be in the middle.  On most issues, they could count on at least two sources of policy advice.

In that sort of world,  Dwight Ball would have appointed Coffey to a policy position, not to a position in the public service.  Coffey would also make an excellent policy advisor to the natural resources minister, for example, or as the head of a policy team outside the public service, reporting to the Premier and cabinet.  These sorts of groups exist in other places. There's no reason why such things could not happen here.

People have been quick to condemn Dwight Ball's selection of Bern Coffey to head the public service.  The criticism levelled thus far is simplistic and ill-informed.  Ball hasn't  given any indication he is trying to reform the way government operates.  That remains the single biggest criticism of him.  He campaigned on a promise of change and so far has has delivered more of the same.  That said,   Coffey's appointment could lay some of the groundwork for such a change by Ball's inevitable successor.  We do not know how long Ball will continue as Premier.  By all appearances it may well be sooner rather than later.  That means we will all have to wait and see how things unfold with a new Clerk of the Executive Council.