WisPolitics.com is profiling some of the newly announced state agency heads. Our latest installment features Department of Administration Secretary Joel Brennan.
Brennan most recently served as CEO of Discovery World, a Milwaukee-based science and technology non-profit. He previously worked as a legislative assistant for then-U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett and ran Barrett’s gubernatorial and mayoral campaigns.
48 years old, born in Milwaukee.
25-year career in public policy. Served as a legislative assistant for then-U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett. Worked in legislative affairs for Miller Brewing Company. Ran Barrett’s campaign for governor in 2002 and mayor in 2003. Became CEO of Discovery World in 2007, a role he held until joining the Evers administration.
Undergraduate degree in English and political science from Marquette University. Graduate degree from the University of Chicago in public policy.
Met his wife, Audra, in graduate school. Two children: Allison, 13, and Connor, 12.
Favorite non-work interests?
Enjoys spending time with family and coached basketball for both children. Also coaches baseball. Fond of outdoor recreation, golf, crossword puzzles and reading.
Why the interest in being in the Evers administration?
This is in some ways a return to public policy for me. For 11 years I worked in a very nonpartisan job running a nonprofit. And it allowed me an opportunity to work with people from all over the ideological spectrum, and people who wanted to work on issues surrounding education, surrounding workforce development, surrounding public policy related to freshwater science. I was drawn back to the work because I believe that Gov. Evers is an honest person who is committed to doing the right thing. I don’t think he is an ideologue by any stretch. I think he’s a pragmatist who is really looking to make some changes and get things done, and I believe there are things that need to be changed at the state level. And so I felt a call kind of back to that service. I feel like I bring a breadth of experience and things that I’ve done over the course of my career that hopefully can be helpful in the job.
What are your priorities for the agency under your leadership?
To be effective, to be transparent. DOA is an interesting and complex organization. And one of the things that make it complex is that most of the constituency we have is across the rest of the enterprise. And so how well we do is hopefully reflected in how well other agencies are able to do their work, how well we interact with the Legislature. How well the governor does over the course of four years being able to complete his agenda and being effective in getting things done. So I hope that we’re going to be seen as responsive, as available and accessible to various parties and that we’re going to be effective in actually getting things done.
What should the agency be doing differently?
I’ve had conversations with legislators who have said that they had infrequent contact either with the secretary’s office or with the department. These are not people from one party or another; it was kind of broadly across the Legislature. And I hope that one of the things that can be a hallmark of any of the agencies is that we are seen as being accessible to the Legislature and being responsive, whether it’s an issue that’s a constituent issue that they come up with or a broader policy objective that they’re interested in. The department has a lot of opportunity to work across the enterprise. And so I hope we can be very responsive and effective in being accessible to the Legislature.
What’s the best advice you’ve received since getting the job?
One of the best pieces of advice was that I was going to get lots of pieces of advice and that no matter what happens, to ensure that we keep our eye on doing what’s right. If we’re focused on that, then everything else will kind of take care of itself. And so I hope that’s the approach that we’re trying to take here. The other that I don’t know whether I’ve taken to heart as much as I need to is don’t get too high or too low. Part of the way of being effective at doing a job like this is just evening out the peaks and valleys and just being able to keep going no matter what is happening around you.
I don’t think I’ve gotten any bad advice. I hope I’m always willing to lend an ear to somebody who has useful input. One of the things that I found valuable is very early on in my tenure here, and even before I took the job, I was able to talk to a number of former secretaries. My guess is that they would all describe the job a little differently. Everybody kind of puts their own stamp on it. But being able to sit down with someone like Jim Klauser, who everyone over the course of a generation would recognize as somebody who kind of wrote the book on how to do this job and expanded the impact of this agency. I think that was really valuable for me. Scott Neitzel is somebody who I worked with at the Wisconsin Center District and who became a friend over the course of the last several years and I was able to work with, so people like that, their advice is always going to be valuable. But there’s going to be lots of other input that’s going to be valuable as well. And I hope I sift through it in the right way, and I’m able to take the best aspects of all of it.
See past WisPolitics.com interviews and videos with other cabinet secretaries: