On the Ledge: Jessica McDonald

What can be said about Jessica McDonald? Her rapid ascent, according to a consultant who has done time in government, was “like taking someone seen as a good but not spectacular player from the junior league and putting them on the all-star team… People were taken aback – really shocked.”


What can be said about Jessica McDonald? Her rapid ascent, according to a consultant who has done time in government, was “like taking someone seen as a good but not spectacular player from the junior league and putting them on the all-star team… People were taken aback – really shocked.”

The job of deputy minister to the premier has only ever been occupied by the big guys, in every sense of the word. McDonald replaces Ken Dobell, who is sticking around as an advisor, and follows heavyweights like Norman Spector, David Emerson, David Poole and Bob Plecas. She’s not from the same mould. She’s slender, soft-spoken – and, of course, a woman in what is often seen as a big boy’s club. But don’t underestimate her grit. McDonald was diagnosed with cancer in her early 20s, and a friend planned to meet her at a Vancouver hospital for her first chemo treatment. When the friend arrived, McDonald was sitting on the curb outside. She’d gone into the clinic, and had seen that all the pictures on the wall were in memory of people who had died. That’s not what patients need to see, she said. Take them down or I don’t come back in. And they did. “To me, that is Jessica,” says the friend, who still works in the public sector and, like most people interviewed for this article, asked not to be identified. Maybe that’s because McDonald still seems very much a work in progress. Ken Dobell’s place in the pantheon was never in question. The same cannot be said of his successor. Eight months into the job, she’s still being watched warily by people inside and outside government. So far she’s earned as much praise as criticism from a tough audience. But one question she hasn’t been able to shake is: Just who is she? Finding the answer can be a little like chasing Howard Hughes. McDonald has refused to talk to reporters through her first two years in the premier’s office, insisting politicians should be the ones in the public eye. This interview with BCBusiness was initially out of the question; then it was on, then off again, as various intermediaries pleaded the magazine’s case. Finally, McDonald said she would sit down to talk, but wanted to limit her comments to the public service. McDonald’s office is above Campbell’s in the West Annex of the legislature, a two-storey sanctuary connected to the main building by a dramatic stone bridge. Just outside her door, a circular staircase lets people dash between floors without having to go through the small lobby with its ever-present security person. The tape recorder had barely started rolling when McDonald made it clear that she wasn’t going to talk about herself. “I understand there’s a readership out there that has interest, but I’m not crazy about the idea of doing sort of a ‘look at me’ article,” she says. “I’m not inclined to answer questions about my personal life.” She was not, she added, willing to talk about policy, that being the preserve of the politicians. But McDonald’s job puts her at the point where politics and policy come together. She’s the head of the bureaucracy, but she’s also Campbell’s deputy minister, advising him on options and all the ramifications of decisions. “There is another discrete side of this office which is the political side of the administration, and certainly I guess I’m as close as you can get to working there,” she says. McDonald’s rise began 15 years ago when she was fresh out of UBC with an arts degree and some pretend political experience as the student ombudsman, leading a campus campaign against racist and homophobic graffiti. The office was revitalized under McDonald, successor Carole Forsythe noted, adding that to put in that kind of effort “you have to be nuts.” McDonald headed straight into a legislative internship after graduation, a move that took her back home to Victoria, where she went to high school, and plunged her into the heart of one of B.C.’s wildest political rides. One of four interns assigned to the Socred caucus in 1990, McDonald slogged away on research assignments while the Vander Zalm government self-destructed. She had a bleacher seat for the infighting, chaos and collapse. It was good training – one of those regular B.C. public spectacles on how not to run a government. And the stint produced some good connections. Martyn Brown, now Campbell’s chief of staff and top political advisor, was only three years out of the same internship program and already the Socred’s research chief, doling out assignments to McDonald. Now the two – along with deputy chief of staff Lara Dauphinee – are the people Campbell relies on most. Connections matter. McDonald isn’t just a bright person who happened to catch the eye of a premier looking for someone to take on a huge job, one of those Horatio Alger success stories. Back when McDonald was moving through the internship and into the public service, she was Jessica Mathers. The McDonald name comes from husband Mike, one of Campbell’s key supporters since his days as Vancouver’s mayor. McDonald did his stint as a legislative intern two years after Jessica – notice a pattern here? He went from there to a job as a political aide to then-mayor Campbell, and has been part of the inner circle since. McDonald directed Campbell’s campaign for the Liberal leadership and worked for the Liberals in different roles. He resigned as director of caucus communications when Jessica was hired in the premier’s office, talking about being a stay-at-home dad to daughter Charlotte. But that’s left him time to manage Liberal election campaigns and run his own consulting company, Rosedeer Strategies, from their home in the country south of Nanaimo. The company, to no surprise, is known for having a uniquely superb understanding of how things work in the B.C. government. Of course, it’s never been suggested that Jessica McDonald got her top job because her husband has been a full-time Campbell supporter since university. But for the 35,000 government workers who didn’t know either of the McDonalds, her sudden ascent has raised a lot of questions that aren’t answered by the sketchy six-sentence bio released by the premier’s office. Untangling her story begins with understanding why McDonald headed straight into a government job after her internship – and the Socred years – ended in 1991. She signed a BCGEU membership card and starting work as a researcher. Politics wasn’t the lure. “I wanted a career in the public service because of my curiosity about public policy issues,” McDonald says. In government she got the chance to work on a wide range of issues quickly, she says, from international business and immigration to family justice review to Crown land management and pricing. McDonald made steady upward progress over seven years working in government, but nothing suggested she was on track to become the big boss. [pagebreak] By 1996, she was one of 10 senior policy advisors in the land-use branch, and in 1998 she was promoted to a mid-level management job in the Crown lands branch. But that same year, McDonald saw opportunity in the mounting battles over land-use issues in B.C. The old days, when Crown land was just handed over for industrial use, had ended. Everyone was struggling to figure out how things were going to work now that environmentalists, First Nations, corporations and communities were all demanding a say. So McDonald quit and launched Tupelo Consulting, a one-woman shop. (True to form, she won’t disclose why she left, though Gordon Campbell hints at her dissatisfaction with the NDP government of the day.) Clients included First Nations, companies and other governments, but McDonald’s stint in government provided valuable contacts. Tupelo was paid $25,000 by the province for contracts in its first year. By 2000, government billings were up to $67,000. In the first full year of the Liberal government, Tupelo received $215,000 worth of government contracts.

It’s never been suggested that Jessica McDonald got her top job because her husband has been a full-time Campbell supporter since university. But her sudden ascent has raised a lot of unanswered questions

In the fall of 2003, a call came from the premier’s office, and McDonald jumped onto the fast track. She was hired as deputy minister for special projects, with her first assignment to sort out the same kind of land use and environmental issues she’d been dealing with as a consultant. The Liberals were frustrated that they were having the same problems the NDP did in resolving land-use issues and creating some certainty – in part because even within government, ministries couldn’t agree on a common approach. McDonald got the mandate to cut across government and figure out how to get the decisions made. She did so well that in the fall of 2004, McDonald got a new assignment that hinted at bigger things ahead. She would now report directly to Campbell, and would prepare the plans for the Liberals’ second term in government. McDonald would lead a thorough examination and evaluation of government operations. She’d look at the structure of ministries, the planning processes, organization and how services were delivered. Everything was on the table, and her reach extended to Crown corporations such as ICBC and BC Hydro. It was a huge job – one that signaled big things ahead and gave McDonald a chance to prepare for them. Campbell says he was thinking about succession planning. Ken Dobell was getting ready to retire, and it was time to think of a replacement. McDonald made the most of her assignments, he says: “What I saw in her was the ability to set goals, to bring people together.” McDonald can see long-term strategic issues and come up with the plans to get ahead of them, he says. She can execute, the premier says, and manage people, pushing and persuading and demanding as necessary. Campbell points to her work on land-use issues and economic planning as the kind of effort that persuaded him she was right for the top job. McDonald was able to get ministries and stakeholders working together and win agreement on stalled land-use plans for the Central and North Coast, he says. “She clearly shone.” The Central Coast plan got especially good reviews from First Nations and environmental groups, while business was just glad to get some certainty. But McDonald cemented her place with the bigger assignment of creating a ‘New Relationship’ with First Nations. The deal, reached last November after six months of hush-hush negotiations, marks a radical swing in Liberal policy. It commits the province to shared decision-making on land and resource management in areas claimed as traditional territories, and promises First Nations a share of the revenue and economic benefits. The deal was negotiated entirely by the premier’s office, without any significant role for ministries. And McDonald – along with the premier – made it happen. That’s exactly what’s making some people nervous, inside and outside government. B.C.’s business community, like everyone else, found out about the New Relationship agreement after the election, when the deal was already done. It made them edgy. Just what First Nations laws are going to govern forestry, wondered Rick Jeffery of the Coast Forest Products Association. Where are they written down, and how is this going to work? And they were more nervous because McDonald is an unknown – at least to them – with limited experience and no clear track record. Add to that the lack of consultation, and worries mount, even among people rooting for success. “She’s the great hope for making the New Relationship work,” says one business leader. “We don’t know whether she is going to pull it off or not. We have to hope that she understood the implications.” But Dan Doyle, a recently retired veteran deputy minister, says the New Relationship demonstrated McDonald’s leadership skills, inside and outside government. “She was alone except for a few people supporting her,” Doyle notes. But she made the arguments and won support, breaking the destructive government-First Nations deadlock. Doyle has seen deputy premiers come and go, and he’s been a fan of McDonald’s since watching her stint overhauling resource management. “It wasn’t going very far or very fast until she showed up,” he says. “What she brought to it was the ability to get the job done.” McDonald is bright and works incredibly hard, he says. “I had midnight calls from Ken [Dobell], and from Jessica, on things they were working on,” he says. The job takes toughness, he says. The deputy premier is often the one who delivers the bad news to cabinet ministers when their pet projects are being shelved. McDonald has already shown she deals with tough issues head-on. “She knows how to stick to her point and hold her ground,” he says.

Stumbles bring useful scar tissue. But they can also make managers wary of future wounds and overly cautious about decisions, and some senior government officials fear that’s happening with McDonald

McDonald is also scoring high marks from surprising sources outside government. Doug Kelly, an elected Soowahlie chief and co-chair of the First Nations’ Summit, says McDonald’s leadership on the New Relationship was impressive. “She certainly earned the respect and admiration of the First Nations leadership,” he says. McDonald listened well, and was quick to cut to the essential issues, he says. She was clear about what she could do, and what wasn’t going to happen. “There were times when we had some harsh exchanges,” he recalls. But McDonald kept at it. “She’s slowly winning our confidence,” he says. People can still underestimate an attractive younger woman, Kelly says. “That’s a mistake with Jessica.” [pagebreak] There’s every evidence that the government is also looking for a new relationship with public sector unions after four years of head-banging. It’s certainly on Finance Minister Carole Taylor’s agenda, and on McDonald’s. She’s off to a good start, says David Vipond, the negotiations director for the BCGEU. George Heyman and others from the union sat down with McDonald shortly after she got the job. “She has a genuine interest in improving the public service,” Vipond says. The union had its own concerns about the post-election government re-org, he says, and they were addressed within weeks. McDonald has fixed other problems within a day of getting a call. But she’s no pushover. “She gives as good as she gets – she’s pretty straightforward,” he says. “I wouldn’t underestimate her.” But other observers – inside government and out – have their worries. Mostly it comes back to inexperience. Aside from her brief stint as a relatively junior manager, McDonald had spent barely 18 months in the premier’s office before she got the top job. Managers learn by making mistakes on the way up, where they matter less, says one public service veteran. “You make a mistake at this level and you’re wearing it,” he notes. There have been stumbles. A couple of the elements of the post-election re-org had to be reversed, most notably the shuffling of responsibility for child mental health out of the children and families ministry – a move that left others in the public service grumbling about the lack of consultation in the top-down effort. And the government’s embarrassing last-minute rejection in December of BC Hydro’s long-term energy plan sparked suggestions the premier’s office had fumbled. Hydro executives trusted that the rest of the government was being canvassed. It wasn’t, and when the caucus saw the plan – which includes the controversial multi-billion-dollar Site C dam on the Peace River – everything went off the rails. The dam worried some MLAs, and the way private power producers were shut out as electricity suppliers worried others. Hydro execs were ordered to cancel a press conference and major launch campaign with only 24 hours’ notice. Stumbles bring useful scar tissue. But they can also make managers wary of future wounds and overly cautious about decisions, and some senior government officials fear that’s happening with McDonald. Too many issues that should be dealt with quickly at the ministry level are getting bogged down in the premier’s office, say critics. The system is gridlocked with briefing materials, ministry staff complain. The one person who really matters isn’t worried about McDonald’s relative inexperience. Gordon Campbell even gets a bit prickly about the question. “I was mayor of Vancouver when I was 38,” he says. “It’s not unusual for young people to be leaders. This isn’t something that happens because you’ve been around the longest.” But McDonald’s job is more complex and demanding than being the mayor, especially because she’s supposed to deliver a big change in the way government works in B.C. Campbell doesn’t want ministry boundaries to get in the way of dealing with problems – many of the issues government faces can’t be dealt with by one ministry. It takes a cross-government approach. Dealing with a threatened wildlife species could involve forests, environment, mines and agriculture, says McDonald. Having each respond in isolation risks conflict and inefficiencies. “So we pulled someone out of a ministry to take a look across all of those ministries,” she says. “How are we managing species at risk? What are the pressures? Where are we really getting to in terms of outcomes? Are we managing the crisis of the day, or are we looking out beyond that?” The result was a plan to set up a species-at-risk co-ordination office. Deputy ministers backed the proposal once they saw the benefits, McDonald says. “Nobody’s mandate has been taken away or removed. Nobody’s processes and responsibilities have been removed from them. Instead, they’re part of a new team approach.” Breaking down silos is what Campbell calls the process, and it’s one of the abilities he saw and liked in McDonald. But the changes haven’t always been smooth. The day after he was named environment minister, Barry Penner was maintaining he was responsible for endangered species. In fact, the new co-ordination office is over in the agriculture and lands ministry. And not everyone is happy with the shake-up in roles and responsibilities. Ministries have traditionally operated independently. The minister, guided by cabinet, conveys policy – sort of a chairman of the board. The deputy minister, a senior civil servant, is the COO who makes it happen. There are always divided loyalties – deputy ministers’ careers depend much more on the premier’s office than on the minister of the day. The premier’s office decides if deputies’ next moves are up, down – or out; but deputies generally thought of themselves as accountable to the minister. That’s changing. Cross-ministry efforts have to be co-ordinated and directed from somewhere, and that’s generally the premier’s office. McDonald has two deputy ministers, one for social policy and the other for resources and economic development, and the premier’s office has grown its own staff of policy people. One veteran observer with years in government says ministers have lost some of their ability to get things done in what are supposed to be their areas of responsibility. “You’ve got a huge increase in central authority,” he says. “Deputies say ‘I can’t give you an answer until I talk to the premier’s office.’” The centralized management of even routine issues creates delays and leaves ministers frustrated. And that, he says, will quickly become a big problem. McDonald will find cabinet ministers can become formidable adversaries if they see their ability to do their jobs undermined. The bad news for McDonald is that those cabinet ministers may soon be the least of her problems. There are big challenges brewing in the bureaucracy. “There’s an incredible rate of turnover,” she says. “What we’re going to face in the next 10 years is the loss of about 40 per cent of our junior managers, 60 per cent of our middle-level managers and 70 per cent of our senior managers,” she says. “That’s an incredible rate of turnover.” The government has to position itself as a great place to work to compete for the best candidates, she says. People have to be sold on the career value of spending some time inside government learning how things work, even if they don’t stick around. “There’s no other work or workplace like the public sector in terms of the kind of experience and the kind of contribution you can make,” McDonald says. “The career paths that we offer are really incredible.” And none, so far, more incredible than her own.