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Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan is the 11th child in a family of 12 children, whose parents were both journalists. A graduate in English from Marquette University, Brennan began his path into political service by working with Tom Barrett on a bid for Congress, eventually following Barrett to Washington as a staff member. He came back to Wisconsin and after working on a ‘failed’ campaign for John Dicken for state Senate, Brennan went to work doing public relations and government affairs for Miller Brewing Company. Brennan returned to school where he obtained a master’s degree in Public Policy from the University of Chicago. He again returned to work with Barrett in his bid for Governor against Jim Doyle; becoming the head of Milwaukee’s Redevelopment Authority when Barrett became Mayor of Milwaukee. Brennan moved on to become CEO of Discovery World in Milwaukee, serving for 11 years before he was appointed and confirmed as Secretary of DOA. The Wheeler Report interviewed Brennan to talk about his position at DOA, and his thoughts on his tenure so far. After explaining his career path, Brennan said he thinks his 25 years of experience has been a “roundtrip back to public policy….But I think all the stuff that I have done has a breadth that has hopefully given me a wider view that is helpful in the array of issues that we deal with at the state, and even with the array of issues that are here at DOA.”
When asked about his “unique” position at DOA, being the individual who oversees the other agencies and administration, Brennan was quick to qualify that DOA does not govern other agencies, emphasizing he believed Governor Evers’ cabinet has 16 highly qualified capable people who are running their agencies and they don’t need DOA micromanaging their missions. Instead, he said DOA is responsible for managing the shared services, human resources, building maintenance, fleet services, and other services like those which have a broad enterprise across state agencies. Brennan said the complexity of the job is intellectually stimulating but also provides the opportunity to develop and strengthen relationships. Brennan believes strong relationships are important in his role especially with his colleagues, with the governor’s office, and the governor. He said strives to have strong communication between all the different entities he interacts with saying, “To be honest, I think that’s one of the things we have to do better. We have to be continually working on having the right level of communication and coordination.”
The State Transforming Agency Resources program was originally purchased under Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration and implemented by Gov Scott Walker’s administration. The program has had positive and negative issues over the different administrations, as it attempts to maintain the state’s finance, budget, procurement, business intelligence and human resource functions on its own IT infrastructure. Brennan said, “I think there is progress that continues to be made. Any time you make such a significant and substantial change it’s going to be incremental progress. I think people here are recognizing that it’s an evolution and a process that will continue.” He explained how changing from one administration to another has given the opportunity for “fresh eyes” to look at the system, but said he believes there will be continued “tinkering” and fine tuning in the foreseeable future.
“That’s one of those issues that no matter where you are, state, federal or international, this is one of the areas where you can’t spend enough time or attention,” Brennan commented when asked about the state’s cybersecurity. Brennan highlighted the importance of the work being done in preparations for the 2020 elections. Brennan said there are more resources being allocated to cybersecurity than in the past because they are addressing new issues. Brennan said DOA has started a new practice, modeled after what has been done in other states, of doing a monthly report on cybersecurity. The monthly reports are gathered and shared across the state enterprise system to ensure security. The importance of cybersecurity was explained when Brennan relayed a story about how in the past month or two one of the casinos in the state of Wisconsin was down for 2-3 days based on a cybersecurity issue. Additionally, local governments have had issues with cybersecurity affecting their systems. Brennan said DOA operates a “SWAT” style team that is able to provide assistance to others around the state and professional support. Brennan said, “It is an area that we will continue to focus on, and I don’t think you can be over-prepared for this. It’s something that there are significant resources being deployed all day every day.”
Recruiting State Workers
Both nationally and statewide, the unemployment levels are low, and workers are harder and harder to find and keep. Combined with a decreased population, Brennan was asked how the administration can attract and retain people for public service. Without hesitation he said, “Starting with the Governor’s first two executive orders (EO#1: Prohibiting Discrimination in State Employment, Public Services and Contracting, EO#2: Recognizing and Respecting State Employees) which were both about public employees and focusing on the strengths that every employee brings here. We start with things like respect. Those are the hallmarks of his [Evers] first days on the job and those have filtered through all of us who are part of carrying out that mission and his vision for the state.” Brennan talked about the workgroups being run by current state employees to make Wisconsin an “employer of choice.” Brennan then highlighted EO#59: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in State Government, saying leadership is creating an environment that respects and supports state employees. Specifically at DOA, Brennan said, “Having a culture, and having a specific intentional culture that is about transparency, about making sure employees who work for the state are valued, that their voices are being heard, that there is an open door policy in this administration.”
Brennan shifted the discussion to demographics and the workforce availability in the state of Wisconsin by asking the question “How do we bring people who are not currently in the workforce into the workforce?” He articulated his concern with the investments that have been made in the past by highlighting that “In the last few years, we have crossed the rubicon where we spend more on corrections than we do on higher ed. It was maybe two budgets ago, and we weren’t able to reverse that trend in the Governor’s 1st budget.” He went on to question if enough is being done to drive innovation through education while spending more at corrections. Brennan said those issues are structural and didn’t get to be that way in one budget, and won’t be undone in one budget, saying there has to be a systematic non-partisan/bi-partisan effort in conjunction with the private sector to make the right long-term decisions to ensure a healthy workforce in the next 15 years.
Experience as DOA Secretary So Far.
Brennan was clear on what was the biggest high point of his career as DOA Secretary so far, “The people. Being able to be part of the professional workforce that is here is something that I treasure and is a gift.” Brennan says he believes he has always had a high opinion of state employees but said the opportunity to work with them at DOA has given him a better appreciation for their professionalism. Brennan expressed that the people who come to work every day in state service are professional and exceptional, regardless of the partisan nature of some of the work and regardless of what party is serving in the administration at any time. “As a citizen of this state, I appreciate that more now than I did when I came in.”
Brennan went on to discuss some of the high points that he sees since Gov. Evers came into office, including increases in the transportation budget which he says is an investment in the infrastructure for the people of Wisconsin. He said he valued the opportunity to tour the state with district attorneys to announce there would be 65 new district attorney positions. Brennan called it a “once in a generation” event. He vocalized the need for corrections reform in the state of Wisconsin, saying it was important that all the parties involved in all parts of the justice system be engaged. Brennan called the new district attorney positions the “first step” in the overall effort to reform the correction system in the right way. Public educational investments were another discussion point for Brennan, expressing Evers commitment to education in Wisconsin.
As Secretary of DOA, on behalf of the Governor, Brennan communicates with the 11 tribes in the state. Brennan said he “Starts with a position of respect, communication, and accessibility, we have done lots to ensure that the tribal nations understand that they have standing here, that their voices are going to be heard, and that they are going to have an opportunity to engage with the state in the right ways.
“I don’t think they have always felt that, and they certainly didn’t feel that necessarily in the past few years.” Brennan is working with local governments and making them a focus for the administration.
“A personal highlight for me is the group of people I have gotten to work with on the cabinet for the last year. Almost none of us knew each other going into this, and you create relationships.” Brennan called the non-confirmation of Brad Pfaff as the DATCP Secretary a “black-eye” and said it has been a low point for his tenure as Secretary. “One of those colleagues that I have real high regard for now works down the hall from me instead of running the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.” He went on to question the references to the last time a Secretary wasn’t confirmed, arguing that if people looked into prior circumstances, they would realize nothing like this has happened before. He said it was ‘unfortunate’ that state government has gotten to this point.
When asked about the state’s preparations for the 2020 Census, Brennan deferred to Assistance Deputy Secretary – Tia Torhorst. She said the state is preparing to launch a new website to provide ‘toolkits’ for locals to help with local coordination and involvement. Torhorst said that while they would have liked to have had funds to engage and support further, DOA is working to be a strong partner and conduit to locals from the federal government. Torhorst said they will continue to “aggressively pursue” a speaker’s bureau to bring earned media. Torhorst emphasized the importance of an accurate count in the state discussing how every aspect of a community depends on those numbers. Torhorst highlighted that for every person not counted, it costs the state $13,000 of federal money. Brennan said Wisconsin has gone from 33rd to 46th in the nation for recovering federal dollars, calling it a nonpartisan issue.
Brennan concluded the interview by highlighting that he drives 150 miles roundtrip every day for work because he wants to do the work and he values what he is doing. He said he’s not the only person who does that, he pointed to state employees, other secretaries, and elected officials who leave their communities and their families 4-5 times a week to provide public service. Brennan said, “I don’t think anyone comes here to try and win Twitter wars, or to win the media story of the day. I think we all are here for a sincere effort to make our state better. After nearly a year on the job, I’m still focused, and I’m still hopeful that we’re going to find the right ways to get to common ground. We haven’t proven ourselves to be real great at it so far, and when I say ‘we’ I mean everybody. I intend to make sure that I, and my colleagues and the Governor, are going to redouble our efforts and focus on how to find that common ground.”