By Karen Kelly
At a recent social gathering, Dan Arnold, the long-time director of Research, Advertising and Correspondence in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office, joined a table of past prime ministerial colleagues who had earned a Master of Political Management degree from Carleton’s Clayton H. Riddell Graduate Program in Political Management (MPM).
“It just so happened that a lot of them were from the political management program and at one point, there were four or five people talking about their experiences,” recalls Arnold, now the Chief Strategy Officer at the polling firm Pollara and a contract instructor in MPM. “They all spoke very highly of the program and felt that it gave them good experience for the roles they are taking on in the government.”
In fact, at least 18 Political Management graduates and instructors have worked in the Prime Minister’s Office, either for Justin Trudeau or Stephen Harper, since the program was launched in 2012. This includes two MPM grads who are currently working in Prime Minister Trudeau’s research shop: Hilary Martin (‘16), director of the office and Jacque German-Doucet (‘21).
Arnold was in the Prime Minister’s research office during three federal campaigns — 2015, 2019, and 2021. He advised the Trudeau Liberals by moderating focus groups, tracking nightly trends, and using a seat projection model to map the electoral path to government. He says working in the research arm requires an understanding of every job in the PMO, so it’s no surprise that MPM students and graduates thrive in that role.
“The program teaches skills across different areas, such as policy, communications, and advertising. So MPM grads can understand a lot of the challenges in other departments,” explains Arnold. “That gives people the grounding they need to work at the highest level of government.”
In 2016, Arnold hired MPM student Alex Kohut (MPM ’16) as an intern. Kohut subsequently worked in the PMO for six years, eventually taking the job as senior manager of research and advertising. He soon discovered the MPM program set him apart from other staffers.
“Everyone was learning on the spot, but I felt that I was so much better prepared for everything,” says Kohut. “I knew how to plan for a campaign; how to write a briefing memo; and how to prepare communications products while everyone else was trying to figure it out.”
Kohut analysed focus groups, surveys, and analytics to identify Canadians’ views on different topics. He would then present the findings to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the cabinet ministers.
“[Trudeau] is a very detail-oriented guy, intellectually curious and he likes to dig into topics,” recalls Kohut. “We always had a good informed conversation with the people around the table.”
The intensive master’s degree program remains unique in Canada. Paul Wilson, Stephen Harper’s director of policy from 2009 to 2011, helped found the program with core faculty members Stephen Azzi, Jennifer Robson and the inaugural director André Turcotte. Jeni Armstrong joined the program in 2020, adding considerable expertise in communications after many years in senior roles in the Trudeau PMO and Finance Minister’s office. In 2022, PMO alumna Sabina Saini is serving as a “Practitioner in Residence.”
While many recent graduates have worked in a Liberal government, the MPM graduated its first cohort of students when Stephen Harper was prime minister. While the party in power nationally may change, one constant in the program has been the cross-partisanship of the students it attracts and the offices they join after graduating.
“The MPM program recognizes that people who work in and around government — such as political staffers — need practical training for their roles. The focus is not on ideology, but on professionalism,” says Wilson, who is currently an associate dean in the Faculty of
Public Affairs. “We introduce our students to people working behind-the-scenes in politics, as well as those on the podium, and do so in a multi-partisan environment where students and instructors come from across the political spectrum.”
Each student completes a 10-week practicum in an office related to political management. They often work with ministers, members of Parliament, party organizations, government relations firms or associations, or other politically related entities at the federal, provincial, or even municipal level.
Prof. Jennifer Robson, who was named director of the program in July 2022, notes that the program may be even more valuable today than when it started 11 years ago.
“There’s a lot of turnover, but the demands on staffers and advisors seem to be accelerating — there is less time to learn on the job. And maybe more than ever, we need spaces where a Liberal, a Tory, an NDPer, and a nonpartisan can go into a room and come out as close colleagues.”
Examples of alumni who have served a Prime Minister
- Matthew Burbidge
- Sam Chaudhury
- Vida Ebadi
- Jacque German-Doucet
- Emily Grant
- Alex Kohut
- Laura LeBel
- Hilary Martin
- Brittany Perreault
- Melissa Rumble
- Ben Sparkes
- Cameron Wilson
- Kristin Wilton
Some past and present instructors who have served a Prime Minister
- Jeni Armstrong
- Dan Arnold
- Rachel Curran
- Bill Fox
- Guy Giorno
- Jennifer Robson
- Sabina Saini
- Marci Surkes
- Paul Wilson
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