OPINION | Ken Boessenkool’s advice for Kenney’s next chief of staff

This column is an opinion from Ken Boessenkool, He was a senior campaign adviser to prime minister Stephen Harper, and has worked or volunteered for Preston Manning, Stockwell Day, Jim Dinning, Ric McIver and Christy Clark. He is not currently doing any paid or unpaid work for the UCP or Alberta government.

Memo

Date:   January 6, 2021
To:      Alberta’s Incoming Chief of Staff
From:  Ken Boessenkool
Re:      Free advice … worth what you paid

Welcome to the most exhilarating, exciting and exhausting job in politics. 

As the top political staffer, you have an enormous opportunity to leave the province a better place than you found it. And given the circumstances of your arrival, that might actually be easier than you think. A government under fire is an enormous opportunity, though not without great risks.

There’s no magic elixir to being a successful chief of staff. You either have it, or you don’t. And no one really knows what “it” really is.

But this I do know, your role is one of political management, and there is a magic elixir for that, namely: Either you control the agenda, or the agenda will control you. 

You should wake up every morning knowing how you will control the agenda for that day. And you should go to bed every evening knowing whether you did. You’re winning if you control the agenda more than it controls you (yeah, 51/49 is winning, that’s why it’s exhausting). 

From my armchair, that ratio has tipped in the wrong directly for a while. It went really wrong on New Year’s Day. Much ink has been spilled on what went wrong. That won’t be my focus. 

Consider this memo my advice on how to get the government back on track

Immediate Action: Contrition and Clarity

You’re walking into a government that has lost control of its agenda. 

The inexplicable actions of a few have obscured the positive efforts of the many. The premier’s initial defence of these inexplicable actions will be fodder for your opponents for months, if not years. Here are three recommendations on getting through this initial challenge.

Zero Tolerance: 

Effective immediately, the government should announce that any caucus member or senior staff who leaves the province, unless on official government duty, will be out of caucus or out of a job. Period. This should last until some target number of Albertans are vaccinated — certainly more than 50 per cent. Consider getting all caucus members to sign a stay-at-home pledge. 

You need to do this because the inexplicable actions of a few have lowered the bar. You now need to start by raising the bar for yourselves well beyond what you expect from others.

Go beyond what is necessary as a sign of humility and contrition. And if you don’t think humility and contrition are needed, go sit in a bunch of swing-voter focus groups. 

Going forward, keep one foot (and one arm and one ear) outside of “the dome,” as they say. As my first political boss once said, “too many politicians spend too much time in their constituency office and not enough time in their constituency.” 

The inexplicable example set by the few has also lowered public confidence in the necessary public health measures currently in place. Setting a higher example and showing contrition are pathways to regaining public confidence in the actions we need to defeat this virus, including what appears to be a much more virulent strain just around the corner. 

Public Communication: 

All public communication on public health measures needs to be depoliticized as much as possible. 

The premier and ministers should play a supporting role, not a leading role, in public communication. Again, the public needs to hear more from health professionals and less from politicians. You can regain public confidence if it is clear you are listening to the people the public trusts — which right now is not you. 

I’m a big fan of ideology in politics, but there is a time to tone that back and give respected professionals their due. This is a pathway to rebuild confidence that you are doing things in the public interest, and not (as they saw demonstrated over Christmas) in your own.

Public Travel Guidelines: 

The various travel infractions and, in particular, the initial justification of those infractions by the premier and members of your government has left the public confused about what they are, and are not, allowed to do. To say nothing of what they are, and are not, recommended to do. 

Over and above the guidelines for your own caucus and senior staff, you need to communicate clearly what is required, and what is recommended, when it comes to travel by the public. 

You might consider recruiting mayors from Alberta’s major cities plus a representative sample of mayors from smaller cities to re-communicate these directives. 

You’ve lost credibility, and can use some of theirs. Plus it is in their interests as well as yours to ensure the public doesn’t use your government’s recent actions as an excuse to go lax on the rules. 

Short-Term Action: Vaccinations

Most governments in trouble look for a channel changer, some even manufacture one. You are very fortunate as you have one sitting on your doorstep: vaccinations. 

If your government does a stellar job of vaccinating Albertans, all may not be forgiven, but much will be forgotten. You need to gain control and keep control of the vaccination rollout. That should be your single-minded obsession. You can regain the mantle of providing good government if you can demonstrate leadership and competence on vaccinations. 

Again, here are three recommendations.

Internally:

The premier needs to give his full and daily attention to overseeing the vaccine rollout. 

Every resource of the government that can reasonably be turned to this activity should be. Every dollar that can reasonably be spent on this activity should be. I assume you will arrive with this in place, but if not, get it in place, and fast. I would block off one or two hours every single day for the premier to give this his personal attention. 

Nothing else the government is doing, or will be doing, is more important than this. 

Daily Technical Briefings: 

Paul Wynnyk, chair of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine task force, should provide highly detailed technical briefings to the media every single day. These should include as much data and analysis and forecasts as possible. The public is hungry for this data and you should provide it. My own bias is that you should be extremely conservative in any forecasts. 

One of the very few commodities that you can spend as a government is low expectations. 

So do what Ralph Klein and Jean Chretien and so many other governments did in the 1990s when reducing deficits: under promise and over deliver. Which in this case means vaccination forecasts that are on the pessimistic side — like deficit forecasts in the 1990s.

Communications: 

Albertans should hear the premier talking about almost nothing other than vaccinations.

Any other issues the government needs to communicate should be delegated to ministers or put off to some future date. When there are positive developments, the premier should tout them. When there are setbacks, the premier should acknowledge them and explain how the government will overcome them. 

The Premier is currently overexposed and has taken a solid public hit. Give the public a break from hearing from him on every issue all the time and have him focus exclusively on vaccines for at least the next 60 or perhaps 90 days.

In addition, every dollar that the government is currently using to communicate anything else — unless absolutely essential — should be diverted to convincing Albertans to get vaccinated and telling them how, where and when that will happen. 

Those COVID ads were brilliant and bought a lot of goodwill. Triple, quadruple or quintuple the creative and ad spend on new vaccine ads. Flood traditional and social media.

Vaccinations are your golden ticket: they are the province’s ticket out of the pandemic wilderness and your ticket out of the political wilderness.

Medium-Term Action: Constructing an Agenda

You are the top political adviser to the premier of Alberta, and leader of the UCP party. So on to some politics.

The UCP voter coalition: 

Alberta looks to be entering a phase where two political parties — Kenney with a united right and Notley with a united left — contest for power. 

This is the case in the other three western provinces and looks to be arriving here. The UCP dominates rural Alberta and the NDP dominates Edmonton. 

That leaves Calgary as the battleground. 

Getting your coalition right, regionally and demographically, will require serious work by the excellent pollsters I know you have access to. 

My sense is that angry rural populists, with short fuses and long memories, are growing as uneasy in your coalition as the suburban moms, with long fuses and economic anxieties. 

Things that keep the former in the tent — Ottawa bashing, partisan fights and silly referendums — are increasingly at odds with what is needed to keep the latter in the tent: a solid economic plan, open schools and accessible childcare. 

You may need to make some tough choices here. Do the hard work necessary so you can make them. This will be resisted by the rural caucus, who win their seats with commanding margins, and those who want to relive the winning ways of the old Wildrose Party. (Note to self: not winning ways).

But winning all those rural seats with big margins while losing Calgary means turning over government to the NDP — something no Wildrose wannabe wants. 

The Opposition: 

If I’m right about Alberta becoming a competitive two-party state, then your government henceforth needs to starve the NDP of attention. Don’t spend time criticizing them. There’s too much of that going on. Whether in the legislature or outside of it, talk about what the government is doing, not what the NDP has done or might do. Ban the names Notley, Phillips and Hoffman from all public communications. 

As the brilliant Canadian journalist Paul Wells has noted, political parties get the role they campaign for. Talking too much about your political opponents makes it sound like you are auditioning for the role of opposition party, not the role of government.

Or to put it more starkly: if your popularity is waning, the last thing you should do is regularly remind the public who the alternative is.

The Agenda: 

Someday, hopefully soon, Alberta will get beyond this pandemic. 

When that day comes, the government will need an agenda to take the province forward. Albertans will want to know what you stand for, not what you stand against. They will want to know what you will do, not what you will undo. They will want action, not reaction.

I suspect you’ve got three months, tops, to develop that agenda, and much of the groundwork has been done by your government in the past couple of years. Now you just need to put it together and tie a big bow around it.

And remember, no matter how it ends, this will be the most exhilarating, exciting and exhausting job you’ll ever have.


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