Committed leadership needed for Alaskans

Posted: Monday, February 09, 2009

Alaska would be in a world of hurt without competent and committed career state employees. It's a blasphemous thing to praise government workers, but it is something that needs to be said.

As a young deputy commissioner at the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, challenged with closing out decades of old capital projects, I imagined the commissioner's office in a rowboat pulling hard at the oars simply to tweak a super oil tanker's course a degree or two. Change in direction for this large state agency came slowly.

At times this was a frustrating feeling, but today I am grateful for that same image. The state of Alaska is maintaining a safe course largely through the talents and commitment of today's career state employees.

Having personally served in leadership roles in four administrations, I know well the challenges in successfully directing the wide range of departments, commissions, authorities and other organizations that make up our state government today. Telecommunications advancements aside, leadership from the top cannot be provided via Blackberry.

There have been fewer than six cabinet meetings during the entire Palin administration. Walt Monegan had met personally with Palin just twice in his year and a half in office. The governor's unwillingness or unavailability to meet with, or simply to return calls to, a wide range of Alaska leaders is becoming legendary.

Without cabinet meetings and regular communication between the governor and her top management team, it is impossible to generate coordinated direction for any administration.

Alaskans depend on their state government more than residents of any other state. In comparison to most states, Alaska has a relatively undeveloped layer of local government. As a result, the state often finds itself providing local services. Consider the broad coverage provided by Alaska State Troopers. And since the U.S. government owns most of Alaska, it is frequently through state government that Alaskans effectively reckon with federal issues in our state.

If it wasn't for career state employees performing their jobs professionally, state government would not be cruising forward as well as it is for Alaskans today.

Managing government is not very glamorous work, but it is critical to the daily lives of tens of thousands of Alaskans. Maybe that's why both our governor and lieutenant governor so quickly sought other work as vice president and congressman. Had they been classified state employees, they would have barely made it through their probationary employment periods before seeking new jobs.

Alaska and Alaskans need committed leadership now. While Alaska's economy is holding up at the moment, we are facing an economic precipice. The luck of $150 oil or even $40 oil won't last forever. Remember Alaska has already faced $10 oil three times as recently as 2000. Ninety-three percent of all state revenues depend on the oil industry; production is dropping and new sources of petroleum production are tough to come by. Natural gas production is awaiting a gas pipeline that is no closer today than it was three years ago.

A full one-third of Alaska's economy depends on the oil and gas industry. A second third depends on federal spending in Alaska. The remaining third of Alaska's economy depends on everything else, including fishing, tourism, air cargo, marine transportation, timber and mining.

After Palin told the nation she "took on big oil" and accused our next president of "palling around with terrorists," decision-makers who affect two-thirds of Alaska's economy are none too favorably disposed towards Alaska's current administration. Alaska needs oil and gas production and oil companies need Alaska; gloating only hardens the other side in any negotiation.

It will fall to career Alaska state employees to maintain a productive working relationship between the oil and gas industry and the federal government.

And it will take true leadership and statesmanship at home to bring the parties together to build a gas pipeline and to build new relations with the federal government. In the meantime, I want to say to the competent and committed career state employees, thank you.

• Bob Poe has served four administrations in Juneau and is a candidate for governor.

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