Wednesday, April 02, 2008

When it comes to influence peddling its cronyism not lobbyists that are the problem

As you likely have heard by now, Ken Dobell - a special advisor to Premier Campbell - was fined for failing to register as a lobbyist and only narrowly escaped having influence peddling charges filed against him. This scandal having resulted from Ken Dobell taking a contract from the City of Vancouver to lobby the Premier while at the same time he was being paid under contract as a Special Advisor to the Premier.

At the time Mr. Dobell did not see himself as being a lobbyist, a term he still tends to view – as do many others – as a pejorative. But he was double dipping hence his situation where, if not for the kindness of the crown, he could have been tried and in all likelihood convicted of influence peddling.

So how is it that a man of Mr. Dobell’s intelligence and influence could have exercised such shockingly poor judgment? My view is that it was simply a bad habit born from the culture of cronyism that seems at present endemic within the municipal layer of government here in British Columbia.

Unlike the provincial and federal layers of government, there is very little in the way of media scrutiny of municipal governments. Thus some of the old boy hiring practices that were done away within the provincial and federal civil service still happen to a fair extent today.

Thus instead of hiring an independent and unbiased executive search firm some municipalities decide to cheap out by simply placing an ad in various municipal publications. Some such as the Regional District of the Okanagan and Similkameen (RDOS) take the step of hiring a consulting firm which is made up of fully pensioned former municipal executives. The problem with this is that apart from a few ads, such a firm is also going to rely on their own personal network of former colleagues to find candidates.

This sort of craven cronyism creates several problems. First of all there may be a pool of talented candidates that such a consulting firm may be unaware of; secondly there may be a pool of qualified candidates that crossed swords with this consultant when he was a Chief Administrative Officer, thus they know they will be automatically excluded; and, thirdly there may be some questionable candidates who were fired from a previous municipal job who still get put forward due to their personal relationship with the consultant. This situation can create a clear perception of bias, or worse an outright conflict of interest.

Every municipality that fails to hire an independent, professional (i.e. non biased) national executive search firm is likely elevating the chances that the person they do hire may be at best mediocre and possibly may not work out and all at the expense of the taxpayer. Nowadays CAOs are paid well into the six figure range and a two year severance package is now becoming standard.

Some municipal politicians feel that taxpayers would be upset if they knew they were spending tens of thousands of dollars on finding a new CAO. To those politicians I would suggest that taxpayers will be a lot more upset when in order to cheap out at the front end, you hire the wrong person and you end up having to pay that person hundreds of thousands of dollars in severance because you failed to hire an independent and professional unbiased executive search firm.

So rather than pointing the finger at those of us, such as myself, who work as Government Relations Consultants aka lobbyists, as having somehow been the source of the malaise that led to Ken Dobell’s transgressions; the NDP and the Attorney General Wally Oppal should start paying attention to what is happening at the municipal layer of government.

Michael Geoghegan is a consultant with offices in Vancouver and Victoria BC. He can be reached via his website at