16 January 2017

The Keystone Kops Ride Again (2013) #nlpoli

We already knew that the provincial cabinet had abandoned their budget before the document had been debated in the House.  That happened last week when the Premier ordered the justice minister and the attorney general to abandon the cabinet-approved cuts in the justice department.

Less than 12 hours after meeting with the same officials justice minister Darin King consulted before cabinet approved the cuts, King and attorney general Tom Marshall (right, not exactly as illustrated) told reporters that whatever those officials had said would now be the policy.

The change of policy is breathtaking enough.  Not only will some of the laid-off court security officers be rehired, but cabinet has also lifted the hiring freeze to allow the High Sheriff to immediately hire more staff.  Someone will also be appointed to conduct operational reviews of the three divisions – High Sheriff,  legal aid and Crown prosecution service – involved in the cabinet flip flop.

But that’s not the truly striking aspect of this abrupt change.

Watch the video of the media briefing posted by CBC
At 40 seconds into his remarks, King confirms that the direction to abandon the cuts came from the Premier herself last week.  The Lady indeed was for turning.

Note how quickly into the question and answer portion of the briefing Darin King tells reporters they need to talk to the High Sheriff to find out what is going on.  King clearly does not know.  He says that he doesn’t have “that level of detail” such that he could explain the reversals and the lifting of a hiring freeze.

At about the 12 minute Mark, David Cochrane asks the killer question.  If you finished a core mandate analysis,  asked Cochrane, how did  you “get it this wrong?” 

King immediately says that he does not consider that they got anything wrong.  In that one statement you can understand exactly, and without any further doubt, where at least one huge problem lies:  between King’s ears.  His attitude is entirely wrong since he is focused in the first instance in rationalising away this mess.  What King says is nonsense.

Then he turns to excuses, but the excuses reveal a much deeper management problem not just in his department but likely across government.  “We did not spend a year”, says King onhow long it took to conduct  the core mandate review.  That’s despite the fact it was the policy announced in the budget last year.  Presumably King and his colleagues did something else besides come to grips with their financial problems.

It gets worse.

King explains that the core mandate review that actually took place in his department was basically just a look at what the department was doing as a whole and in general terms.  None of it involved looking at the various constituent parts of the department, says King.

What’s more, all the same people from within the department who King met with on Wednesday also “had input” into the budget process before cabinet approved it.  That leaves unanswered the fairly obvious question of how King and his colleagues could make such detailed cuts inside his department apparently contrary to the express advice of his officials or, at the very best, based on cursory information.  King later on tries to explain that this complete reversal of position by cabinet was based on new information.  By new, King meant  information that was available when he made the decision.

The truth is that the officials in King’s department should all know their stuff.  They should be able to tell any minister what resources they need now and in the immediate future.  Nothing should have happened in the two weeks since the budget to cause such a complete reversal of budget policy.  Either these officials are incompetent and need to be replaced immediately or King is incompetent and needs to go as well.

Bear in mind that until now King insisted that he made the decision on the cuts based on sound advice, that they would not adversely affect the justice system and yada yada yada.  In the media briefing on Thursday,  King refers to it as the best information available at the time.  Let’s leave aside his ego-soothing rationalisations that he made the right decision before and now made a righter decision even if it is the opposite of the one before.  If the officials didn’t do their job, then they need to go.  The only other alternative is that King needs to be summarily dismissed.

Throughout this explanation in answer to Cochrane’s question,  King is obviously not in command of any details and at one point is forced to turn to Marshall to ask who “Donovan” is. King was referring to Donovan Molloy, the acting director of public prosecutions. King has been in his current job since October 2012.  There simply is no excuse for King's shoddy performance.

King won’t be replaced.  As King noted in the scrum and Premier Kathy Dunderdale said in a separate interview, the complete reversal of policy is a sign that they remain always prepared to change their minds about anything. That tells us that King’s entire performance was a declaration of how the entire cabinet functions. Dunderdale is backing him up.

The cabinet decision-making process is evidently flawed.  Decisions are apparently made in haste, often without consideration of detailed information. King confirms around the 20 minute mark of the scrum that he is not used to getting down to the levels of detail in departmental administration that he has been forced to do in the justice department.

Such an approach is a recipe for disaster. King’s revelation about his ignorance of details goes a long way to explain how government finances got into such an appalling state in the first place.  But from the perspective of someone familiar with the inner workings of government in difficult financial times, your humble e-scribbler finds it incomprehensible that ministers would not inquire about the basic elements of staffing and workload when making cuts of up to half the staff in some sections.

King says that the goal all along has been to ensure the proper discharge of the core mandate of his department.  King tells us  - at the same time - that he did not ask about something as simple as actual staffing levels versus approved staffing levels.  Given his experience, King should know that the two numbers are not necessarily the same and would definitely affect the department’s ability to do the job it needs to do. 

Well,  King didn’t drill down – in that horrible phrase - until after the public outcry.  But hang on, even now King is not aware of details and even job titles that he admits he “scribbled down”. 

At the end of the media briefing, both King and Marshall make the bizarre claim that good has come out of the past couple of weeks.  This is nothing but more of the self-serving rationalizations King spouted in earlier in the scrum.  There isn’t anything good about a situation that created such a mess in the first place, has done it before and will likely do it again.

There’s certainly nothing good in a government with a massive financial mess that ostensibly is trying to deal with it and which can be forced to reverse its position 180 degrees so easily.  We can only imagine what is going to happen in the next few weeks.  This may well be the first of many media briefings announcing that cuts are being reversed based on “new information”. 

That would only be more of the same.