Penny Ballem was clearly Mayor Gregor Robertson’s top choice to lead Vancouver’s civil administration: within a week of his election, former manager Judy Rogers was gone and she was in.
Ballem has a reputation for forthrightness and distinguished public service. She quit her post as deputy minister of health with the Liberal government in 2006 after criticizing Premier Gordon Campbell’s approach to public health. Ballem took over as Vancouver’s top administrator just before Christmas last year.
What occupied your time between leaving the Health Ministry in 2006 and starting at city hall?
A lot of consulting. Also, some work for an organization in the States called Healthwise. Some volunteering – I’m the chair of the Just Aid Foundation, which raises funds for Burma. Oh, and I’m a new grandmother; I have a baby grandson, Sasha.
What makes a good doctor?
My father-in-law was a doctor, and he gave me some advice: “Penny, just listen to the patients.” Far and away, the thing that’s served me the best is being a good listener. Learning how to be with people and listen and help them make difficult decisions.
Is there a crossover there for a city manager?
I think so. To be an effective leader, you have to make hard decisions and deal with people in a way that makes them know you’ve heard them. To be heard, and to have your issues legitimately discussed, is one of the most important things for all of us. You know, the most interesting thing about this job is that municipal politics is the roller derby of politics.
Do you have an appetite for administration?
Well, not “administration” – it’s such a terrible word. It’s not administration you like; it’s the chance to lead and to move important agendas. It’s in my blood: my father was a municipal politician, a mayor, and my uncle was a federal cabinet minister for many years. To me, they’re very interesting jobs. When I was away from it, I missed it.
What did you miss?
I love wrapping my mind around the very difficult problems of governance. It’s intellectually the most challenging work I’ve ever done – much more challenging, in many ways, than medicine, which is, at the end of the day, pattern recognition. Public policy, by comparison, is brutally hard. I love the challenge of working at the intersection between elected officials and the civil service.
And how do you intend to direct traffic at that intersection?
What I always tell the bureaucracy is that it’s our job to create the opportunity for elected officials to make the best public policy choices. It doesn’t matter what your politics are, the problems are all the same. The differences you see across the political spectrum are in how elected officials want to effect change.
You know, one of the things the public doesn’t understand – because they have this ugly notion of bureaucrats – is that government is filled with committed, bright, very experienced people. They’re doing a job that, until you’ve done it, you have no idea how hard and important it is.
What’s at the top of your inbox right now?
Three things: learning the machinery of the city and how to make it work, getting our budget in shape and the Olympics – it’s a really big file.
What’s on your bedside reading table?
Mostly council reports, actually. Ha! That’s no good.
Which sport will you be watching most closely at 2010 Games?
Women’s hockey – and I’m determined to be watching women’s ski jumping.
What song would you like played at your funeral?
Oh, goodness gracious. Tough question. Dido’s “White Flag.” You know, “I will go down with this ship. I won’t put my hands up and surrender.”