Change Alberta’s Public Sector: A world turned upside down? by Kirk Niergarth

“Pressure without reason is irresponsible, but reason without pressure is ineffectual.”

So wrote Allan Borovoy who spent 40 years “raising hell” with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and died less than a week after the NDP’s majority victory in Alberta. Were he around to advise us, Borovoy would undoubtedly argue that the work of organization and activism should only be amplified after the election victory.   Governments, Borovoy once wrote, will more often be convinced to take action because of “political tension than by logical syllogism.”  Following that logic, pressure from left-wing Albertans is more important now than it was before the election.  Pressure from right-wing Albertans has already begun with “chicken little” protests over raising the minimum wage.

Pressure certainly, but reason too.  What can be reasonably demanded of our new government?  How can we create a real ‘Alberta Advantage’ as opposed to the current advantages for the highly advantaged?  Wouldn’t a meaningful advantage for Alberta be a healthy population with access to the finest medical services in the country? A first-class education system that helps people to live creative and fulfilling lives, with learning opportunities available to all who sought them not just those who could afford them?  A province that refused to accept that some of us live in poverty?  These advantages sound idealistic, but, in a jurisdiction with, by considerable margin, the highest median income in a rich country, they are not unreasonable.

Thinking that these goals will be attained with money alone, however, is only less naïve than the Wildrose party’s highly imaginative concept of improving public services by cutting them. For one thing, the fiscal constraints on the provincial government – albeit needlessly created by absurd public policy over the last 25 years – are nonetheless real and will take time to change.  Second, to effect these changes, the government will need the support of a public that has been immersed in the propaganda of the right-wing media for decades.  Though 40% of Albertans voted for the NDP,   a widespread, populist suspicion of government in this province remains.  The NDP, in promising not to institute a sales tax for evidently populist reasons, is clearly aware of this public attitude.  Party insiders perhaps occasionally read the Calgary Sun.

There seem then to be two alternatives.  The cautious course would be to govern in a way ideologically indistinguishable from the PCs and, presumably, make incremental changes (possibly over the next 43 years).  The other option is to foster major innovative overhauls for the delivery of public services in this province.  The risks here are substantial.  Failures would be trumpeted in the media and could alienate voters.  For long term success, however – which would mean re-convincing Albertans of the capacities of the public sphere – actual and substantial change must be delivered.

Change does not come easily to public institutions such as hospitals, universities, and school boards.  Their complexity creates what appear to be bloated bureaucracies.  Right-wingers suggest that the antidote is to mimic corporate sector organization. In fact the elaborate infrastructure of administration within the corporate sector is the current model for the public sector. This infrastructure is sorted according to byzantine, hierarchical charts akin to the family tree of a particularly enthusiastic genealogist.  Usually at the bottom of such charts are the people who most directly provide public service:  teachers, doctors, nurses, snow plow drivers, professors, janitors, etc.  Middle branches have many and varied leaves: legal advisers, risk managers, human resources professionals, ergonomic experts, accountants, data analysts, communications experts, information technologists, consultants of various stripes, and managers of all sorts.  Perched atop of the chart are the executive class – the presidents, vice-presidents, directors and so on.  Perhaps in some cases the elevation provides these birds with a superior perspective; from this worm’s eye view, however, it seems that they instead fly at some remove from the fundamental business of the provision of public service, answerable only to boards floating even higher in the stratosphere, somewhere among the clouds.

The corporate model that we have applied to our public services is fundamentally designed to foster hierarchy and subordination, and, ultimately, to accrue benefits to those at the top.  If mimicking the private sector is the goal, than it becomes entirely reasonable to believe that large salaries are required to recruit executives because, somehow, being a boss is just so damned difficult.  It can appear to be a wise investment to spend scarce dollars on a marketing strategy to communicate the value of a “brand” instead of, say, focusing on actually being excellent.  With a government (for decades) in a sensual tango with the corporate sector, it is little wonder that this mirroring has occurred.  Perhaps with a government with different priorities it would be possible to try something different.

Certainly, many managers and administrators in the public sector work very hard and provide valuable service.  As Charlie O’Brien, the Crownest Pass miners’ representative in the Alberta legislature, said of mine managers after the 1910 Bellevue mine disaster, “we do not hold the individual responsible for conditions that exist, but rather, that the conditions around us, our environment, is largely responsible.”  In other words, the problem is systemic.  Too often management acts as if the work force is made up of recalcitrant children, in need of policing and discipline.  How would our public sector institutions function differently if administrators understood that their primary role was to provide front-line workers with the agency, the autonomy, and the authority to provide outstanding public service through the institutions in which they work?  In sum, getting the hell out of the way.

This does not mean that administrators need to “consult” more with front line employees in the decision-making process.  “Consultation” as it is currently practiced is a veneer that is no substitute for genuine collaboration. Flip charts are opened, opinions are voiced, ideas are recorded (whether they are considered or not is another question) and then, somewhere outside of the flip-chart room decisions are made by those who are accountable only to the quasi-corporate board up in cloud cuckoo land.  Is it not possible that front-line workers could (outside of determining their own salaries) set institutional priorities and establish the budgetary parameters in which administrators would have to work rather than vice versa?  “Bottom-up budgeting” in which workers and clients set the agenda would have a fundamentally different mindset than the top-down model that is currently practiced because the starting point and priority would be the point of delivery, the fundamental raison d’etre of the institution.  It would require a relinquishment of control by senior administrators and a leap of faith that would be enormously difficult for them to take voluntarily.

For good reason, public sector administrators tend to be risk averse.  No one, naturally, enjoys being sued or wants to be known to have presided over an enormous screw up.  Unlike the pirates of the corporate world who, if gambles pay off, might commandeer even more obscene amounts of treasure, the captains of our public institutions prefer a calm sea, even a dead calm with no discernible forward momentum.  There are many ideas for improving healthcare and education in Alberta that do not require increasing budgets, but do require administrators willing to accept that risk and failures are the required costs of innovations.  It hardly seems intuitive that a provincial government should encourage risk-taking among leaders in the public sector, but how else will change occur?   In our current media climate, when scandal and perpetual outrage seem to dominate the market, it will be extraordinarily difficult to chart such a course – but while the political capital of the government is high they must make every effort to convey to the public that successes will not be achieved without failures and those that never make mistakes are only those who never get anything done.

Albertans, so the opinion polls say, value public services.  They can be convinced to pay for them, too, I suspect, if it is obvious that the goods are being delivered.  And, they can be.  Some seventy years ago in Saskatchewan, the Tommy Douglas administration was enormously ambitious, extremely effective, and economically responsible.  In part this was because of public sector workers and leaders who believed that things could be done differently, done better, and that they were part of a movement that was going to change the world.  They were naïve, perhaps, on the latter score, but their more modest successes led to real tangible gains for working people in Saskatchewan and, ultimately, Canada as a whole.  Pressure must be kept on the new government to make similar gains here.  And, the pressure is on all of us to help them do it.

 Kirk Niergarth is a historian and teacher in Calgary.

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