Personnel is policy.
Those are the insightful words of former Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the great bureaucratic operators of modern American history.
His point was that the chief executive can direct his or her agencies to undertake this or that policy, but the bureaucracy will often resist change — both because it has its own priorities and because of plain old government inertia.
Unless you put your people inside that bureaucracy. When Cheney’s foreign policy rival Colin Powell became secretary of state, Cheney made sure John Bolton had a top job at State to push Cheney’s agenda, as Dexter Filkins reported in a recent profile of Bolton.
The “personnel is policy” Cheney-ism came to mind last week when I learned that Josh Syrjamaki was named chief of staff at the Minnesota Department of Corrections.
When Gov. Tim Walz left Congress after his election last year, Syrjamaki was his chief of staff, which means he’s a trusted Walz hand. Syrjamaki is an alumnus of the office of the late Sen. Paul Wellstone.
It’s not surprising that Walz would put one of his closest advisers inside the Department of Corrections.
We don’t know exactly what Walz wants out of the state’s prisons, but he’s been hinting at major change since before his inauguration.
No matter his audience, he’ll often talk about how a failing school means more people in prison, while a prison without any education component means higher recidivism.
His budget request includes a position that will coordinate among the Departments of Education, Higher Education and Corrections to design a program to prevent incarceration and recidivism.
How receptive do you think the state’s prison bureaucracy will be to this approach?
Maybe they’re totally on board with it, but with Syrjamaki in place, Walz will have eyes and ears to make sure.
Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan had planned to visit the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee this weekend with prison officials for “private listening sessions with incarcerated women of color and indigenous women, and Department of Corrections staff and pregnancy doulas followed by a tour of the facility,” until negotiations at the Legislature forced her to postpone. Syrjamaki and Flanagan aren’t the only Walz advisers engaged on prison policy.
First Lady Gwen Walz has made prison reform a life mission. She sat in on the job interview of DOC Commissioner Paul Schnell and encouraged Sarah Walker — a lobbyist on criminal justice issues — to apply for her job.
A friend from Tim Walz’s congressional career introduced Gwen Walz to the Bard Prison Initiative, which aims to give prisoners a liberal arts education.
Gwen Walz has close relationships with some of Tim Walz’s longest serving aides.
Hiring an old D.C. hand to be a top executive in the Department of Corrections may seem like a departure. But it’s no accident.