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State attorney general visits Mercer Island

Attorney General Rob McKenna - Linda Ball/Staff Photo
Attorney General Rob McKenna
— image credit: Linda Ball/Staff Photo

Although there was no mention of his gubernatorial campaign, Washington state’s attorney general, Rob McKenna, sounded like a candidate at his Aug. 3 appearance before the Mercer Island Probus Club.

His speech, “High performance state government: Not an oxymoron,” focused on a leaner approach to state government.

With tight state resources, McKenna said various state departments need to find ways to provide good leadership through performance management. He said when he took office as attorney general in 2005, he had to win the trust of his staff, as well as determine how each employee was performing. In doing so, he implemented “speak-ups” where staff could throw out their ideas and suggestions to improve the office.

“I knew we’d really arrived after the third round of these meetings,” he said.

The latest focus in his department is implementing lean manufacturing principles of eliminating waste and preserving value.

He refers to his management style as an empowerment style of leadership, empowering his staff in order to get the very best from them. As a result, McKenna said he’s been able to shrink his office along with the shrinking budget, through attrition, not layoffs. Currently there are fewer than 1,100 in his department, down from over 1,300 from when he took office, he said.

McKenna said he completely overhauled the employee evaluation process in his office, rewarding employees on performance, not seniority.

“There are few things more demoralizing than to work hard, and pull your weight when the other guy doing the same job isn’t pulling his weight,” McKenna said. “You reward the best, and inspire the rest. I think this is a very good system.”

He said very few state agencies have followed his lead.

“State government is very expensive and most of the money goes to pay people,” he said.

He said over the period from 1997 to 2007 the number of state employees blossomed 16.7 percent, but has since come down some. He wants to bring the number of state employees down and increase the productivity of those who are already employed.

That, he said, will free up much needed money for schools, where he also would like to see rigorous teacher evaluations. The legislature did vote on a four-level teacher evaluation this session, from a two-level system, but the problem, McKenna said, is that it’s not linked to anything tangible, like compensation.

Born in 1962, McKenna just became the president of the National Association of Attorney Generals.

A University of Washington graduate, where he served as student body president, he earned his law degree at the University of Chicago. He is Washington state’s 17th attorney general. Since 1940, all of the state’s attorney generals have served 12 years, he said.

McKenna and his wife, Marilyn, have four children.

This is McKenna’s first run for governor.

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