How'd You Get That Job? Samara talks to David Brock

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How'd You Get That Job? Monday, November 03, 2014 View Count = 4681

How'd You Get That Job? Samara talks to David Brock

2012_03_07_IMG_7138_retouched_newspaper sizedDavid M. Brock is completing a four year appointment as Chief Electoral Officer, Northwest Territories. In previous roles, he served in the Executive Council offices of the Government of the Northwest Territories and the Government of Nunavut. He studied political science at Dalhousie University, the University of Saskatchewan, and the University of Western Ontario. He is a Fellow of Action Canada, a Member of the Banff Forum, and was a Member the 2012 Governor General’s Conference, all national programs in leadership and public policy. As a volunteer, David is 2nd Vice-President of the Board of Directors of theInstitute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC) and Past-Chair of the NWT Regional Group of IPAC; serves as Chair of the Board of Directors for the Institute for Circumpolar Health Research; and, is a former director of the Yellowknife Ski Club. David is also active with the Canadian Political Science Association and the Council on Governmental Ethics Laws. His writing appears in Policy Magazine, Canadian Parliamentary Review, and the Literary Review of Canada.

What inspired you to get involved in politics/elections?

Public service inspired me from a young age. Every night my mother watched the evening news, and I closely followed big policy debates on the Free Trade Agreement, the GST, constitutional talks, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Eventually though, I realized that I had little interest in partisan politics. As that self-awareness deepened, I began to look to other mentors such as ‘the Ottawa Men’, Gordon Robertson, Escott Reid, and Norman Robertson. I admired these Canadians for their intellect, loyalty, professionalism, and modesty. Although not yet finished graduate school, I was hired by the Government of Nunavut to serve in the Cabinet Office during the first Okalik government (1999-2004), and was further inspired by territorial public servants such as Robert ‘Bob’ Carson, Anne Crawford, and David Akeeagok.

How did you become a Chief Electoral Officer? What path brought you to that specific role?

Two experiences were particularly important in giving me the confidence to put my name forward to serve as Chief Electoral Officer. First, I had written an MA thesis at the University of Saskatchewan on the prosecution and enforcement of election law in Canada; and, later, as a doctoral student in political science, I read more about comparative election administration and case law related to elections. Second, I had nearly a decade of experience in strategic policy and intergovernmental relations in Nunavut, Ottawa, and NWT. As a result of that path, I came to the Legislative Assembly with particular views about how to build a full-time elections management body and the importance of constructing a sound policy-basis for decision making. Fortunately, the Legislative Assembly endorsed that view and has continued to support our initiatives by passing legislative amendments and approving our budgets.

In a more procedural sense, I became Chief Electoral Officer after there was a public call for expressions of interest; in addition to a merit-based hiring process conducted by the Legislative Assembly, I was formally appointed by unanimous motion of the House.

2011_09_05_Returning Officers Group w SpeakerReturning Officers in the Great Hall of the Legislative Assembly, with David Brock (left) and Paul Delorey (right), Speaker of the 16th Legislative Assembly (August 2011)

What does a day-in-the-life of a CEO look like/ What does a CEO actually do?

The experience of a CEO in NWT may be different than in some other jurisdictions. This is because, although election administration was devolved from the federal Parliament to the territory in 1997, it was only recently that a full-time agency was deemed necessary for the territory; as such, part of our work during my tenure has been institution building. It is also important to recognize that I lead a small office with no more than a half-dozen full-time staff, so a CEO in the NWT is a hands on job; in addition to my leadership role, I have mostly been occupied with building a modern data management system for our register of electors as well as enhancing our legislative and policy framework.

On most days I am either giving direction, responding to enquiries, or asking questions.

Staff in the Office of the Chief Electoral Officer develop and execute their own projects in accordance with our overall planning objectives; this includes projects on youth civic engagement, producing electoral maps, modernizing training tools, and building on-line management systems. Staff and contractors seek direction from me at certain junctures, especially when it comes to clarifying our legal requirements, policy priorities, key messages, or budgetary allocations.

I frequently receive enquires from media, government departments, and academics regarding elections in the NWT and election management generally. For example, over the past four years, I’ve conducted approximately 200 media interviews on subjects ranging from the voting rights of correctional inmates to voter identification rules. The often fascinating questions put to me help to keep me sharp from a variety of perspectives.

Throughout the year I occasionally meet with fellow federal/provincial/territorial Chief Electoral Officers, observe other elections, and attend conferences on elections or public administration. These are excellent opportunities to ask questions and think about policy innovation, electoral systems, leadership, and good public management. One final point, I try to carve a little bit of time each week to read. I think this is critical for leadership. Scholarly periodicals, books, and policy magazines are particularly important to me for learning how to think differently about common subjects.

What has been your favourite moment in this job?

Perhaps my favourite moment occurred early in my term, in October 2010, at the Campaign School for Women organized by the Status of Women Council for the NWT. I was asked to speak for 30 minutes. I ended up being on my feet for over two hours fielding excellent questions from prospective candidates, potential official agents, and even a sitting MLA. It was the first test of whether (or not) I knew the territorial Elections and Plebiscites Act and could credibly interpret it for a practical purpose. Moreover, the event was planned for the same Saturday on which our first child – my daughter – was scheduled to be born. I had my mobile phone on throughout the session, and had full support from a room full of fantastic women.

2011_09_02_Commissioner signs writs

Commissioner George Tuccaro orders the Chief Electoral Officer to prepare the writs of election (September 2011)

What skills or expertise are required for this job?

The skills brought by Chief Electoral Officers vary across the country. Some common characteristics in Canada include calm under pressure, integrity, as well as a commitment to fairness and the rule of law. In the Northwest Territories, it also helps to have an appreciation of a diversity of cultures, be comfortable either wearing a suit into Parliament or riding a snowmobile to attend a community gathering, as well as always respecting the possible over the perfect. Any senior position in the North requires the public servant to be more accessible and hands-on.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a job like yours? What is a good first step for them to take?

There is no clear path into this position. The 14 Chief Electoral Officers in Canada come from a diversity of backgrounds, and many are appointed with no experience in election administration. I would encourage interested persons to study public administration, political science, education, and/or law; further, I would encourage experience in positions that require leadership, sound judgment and decision-making under pressure. For those already working in public service, I would encourage them not to overlook election management. Because the election agency is not a government department, fewer public servants get exposure to what we do. Elections is a field of public administration that affords excellent opportunity to contribute to democratic development, learn about local communities, and innovate. Unlike me, many of those appointed Chief Electoral Officer do so expecting that it will likely be their last full-time position in public service. Be prepared to take tough, principled, positions, and to be challenged on the merits of your recommendations and decisions. Regulating the process that determines political power is about much more than setting up polling stations.

Read more of the How'd You Get that Job series


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