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Friday, December 07, 2007

Thoughts on the "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" Contract

So the Murray Smith contract as Alberta’s envoy in Washington DC is finally public knowledge. I posted on this on November 14 saying I couldn’t understand the stance of the Stelmach government around withholding details on the Smith and Love contracts.

The Privacy Commissioner had ordered them released and saw no merit in the governments concerns over Mr. Smith’s privacy. Full disclosure, I know Murray Smith politically and personally and thought he was a terrific choice for this new position.

I did not know any of the specific details of the appointment or his contract at the time and only know what I read in the media about it. My only issue is still why this matter had to be FOIPED and why was there any resistance by the government to disclose the terms of the agreement?

The terms of the compensation and “preqs” may be seen as too much for some people. I don’t think the compensation was out of line so given the nature and the importance of the job. Others have argued that this was like any other foreign office appointment and why was Smith dealt such a different contract than a career bureaucrat.

Smith is not a career bureaucrat. This was a time specific independent contractor arrangement. That was the best way to proceed for this new undertaking to get Alberta’s position on key issues into the Washington consciousness.

For the first issue, the Alberta needed and experienced and effective dealer for our concerns with the US on many fronts. In those days they ranged from softwood lumber to mad cow to trade and energy issues plus homeland security angst in the States. Alberta would not be served well by a bureaucratic approach. This was not a position mostly about analysis, process and operations.

Smith would be dealing with issues that were sensitive political, policy and Intergovernmental concerns within Canada as well as with the States. These concerns would be complex, significant and often urgent enough that the position would need to be answering directly to the Premier’s office. That is why Murray Smith, with his political and professional experience, was such a good choice. That is why Gary Mar is also a great replacement choice.

The government was asking someone with experience and competence to take three years out of their life and take on a difficult and complex job with lots of risk and numerous elements of significant concern to the future of Alberta. You also had to have the ability solve real problems by getting the Alberta position and issues clearly and competently to the right people and the right places in the American governance system in a thorough and timely manner.

You had to start the job immediately and be prepared to jump into the tasks quickly and effectively dealing with all issues and events we know of and be nimble and capable enough to handle anything else that might arise. There is no easing into the job and no “how to manual” to follow. You have to figure it out as you go along and failure is not an option. And by the way, there is no job for you to come back to when you are finished this task.

So why the secrecy around the contract in the first place? Beats me!