At the 2017 IPAC conference in Charlottetown, George Ross, Editor-in-Chief of CGE sat down with Marcia Nelson, Alberta’s Deputy Minister of the Executive Council, Cabinet Secretary and Head of the Alberta Public Service.
Ms. Nelson assumed her current role in April of 2016 and before that has had a distinguished career in Ontario and Alberta, having held a number of executive positions including Deputy Minister of Housing, Health, Infrastructure, and Innovation and Advanced Education.
Here is the full interview with Marcia Nelson.
Since you have assumed your role in Alberta there have been a number of significant challenges for the Public Service. Not the least of which has been a difficult period fiscally given energy prices and other economic factors. How has this affected your work especially in the early days of your mandate?
Alberta has boom and bust cycles, and its fiscal framework is highly dependent on natural resource revenues. As the economy heads into a trough, it’s very, very challenging on the fiscal framework. Since I arrived in Alberta in 2001, there have been a number of economic cycles that have required the Alberta Government to dramatically adjust its fiscal plan and significantly reduce spending. This has a significant impact on the work of the public service as the focus shifts to restraint and spending cuts. Managing through these cycles and continuing to serve the government and provide those critical services to citizens is really what we’re all focused on.
A lot of times in my experience, this type of crisis, whether it’s a fiscal shock or technological, drives innovation in the public service. The focus is on maintaining vital services, getting higher value from spending and doing things in different ways. I’m sure that’s also the case in Alberta. In your view does the Alberta public service have that innovative culture that allows it to rise to these challenges?
It is critically important that we meet the challenge of being able to innovate. The Alberta Public Service is very dynamic and relative to other, larger jurisdictions, very nimble. There has been a lot of political permission for experimentation, to try something and see how it works. That built the kind of culture that led us to try some things.
One of my key goals is to breathe some more life into that for the Alberta Public Service. I want to make sure that we continue to embrace those opportunities. Necessity is the mother of invention, right?
When you absolutely need to think about where your resources are and what your constraints are, you have to do some things differently. That is why I came to the IPAC conference which is focused on public service innovation — there are some great ideas being shared here.
Some might say that all of this, leading a large organization such as the Alberta Public Service when it’s focused on innovation, requires courageous leadership and the right culture. How’s your team and are they ready to hit these challenges head on?
I think the team is in great shape and getting better. The period of the conclusion of the forty-four year Progressive Conservative government in Alberta was a very tumultuous time. I think we had five Premiers in four years. You know how that kind of change in political leadership affects the public service. You’re always trying to figure out the direction of the new government, and when you have that much change, it makes it very difficult.
There was a period there where the public service was just searching for signals to try and align. With the new government and a four-year mandate and some consistency in leadership, I think it’s opened up opportunities for us to do some innovative things.
I think the team is pretty excited about that and of course, because we have the fiscal constraints we’re facing, it just requires a different mindset. I would say, regarding the courageous leadership point, the government’s very focused on trying to protect the public services that support Albertan’s in their day-to-day lives. That doesn’t mean protecting the status quo because we have restrained budgets at the same time as our population grows and inflation continues to rise. That means you’ve got to figure out how to build a better mousetrap — that’s the mission that our deputy minister’s team is currently pursuing.
I think it’s fair to say that all Public Sector Executives are spending a great deal of time thinking about the public service of the future. With the emergence of Open Government concepts, Digital Government, AI, Big Data and rapidly changing citizen expectations, it feels like we are on the cusp of a very significant change, perhaps the biggest change since the internet. Do you have a picture of this future state of public service clear in your mind?
I agree with you George. I think anybody who says they can see the future is a little bit deluded or maybe I’d like to see the crystal ball that they’re holding because we’re in this period of incredible dynamic disruptive change. The rate of change in the past five years will be exponentially outgrown in the next five years, and all the business models that we’ve been using are transforming in front of our very eyes.
I think the public service will be as relevant, 10, 20, 30 years from now as it is today because the work that we do, the support we provide to the public, the public service mission will continue to be an important contribution to our society. How we do it and what those business models look like is going to be very different. Part of our challenge now is not to be left behind. Maybe in some ways, it’s to leapfrog over some of the things that we haven’t been as up-to-date on as we maybe might have needed to be, but we’re going to have to leapfrog over that into the next generation of technology solutions and business process design solutions.
We’ll look a lot more like the population that we serve. I tend to think that the work is going to be higher value work, not a lot of transactional work. I think we’re going to be much more integrated across provinces, across the orders of government, as well as with the people we are both serving and regulating. So we’ll be much more connected with our customers than we are today.
And our organizational, institutional and governance models will be tested as well I assume? It does feel like our rigid, old, hierarchical structures will be affected.
I think the Westminster model has proven to be remarkably resilient. I think that model is going to be around a good long time. How we work in it is changing even as we speak. Yes, there are silos, and yes, it can be rigid but, we’re working in a networked world; so we are all working across departments, we’re working across governments, and I think the model allows for that.
I also think the federated model has proven to be incredibly resilient and it’s because it allows for differences. I think it enables us to innovate and learn from each other and scale things in a way that makes sense for where we are. I think there’s an elegance to the model that we have. The federated model that we have allows us to maybe be the best at the things we can be the best at and not try to do everything.
We talked a little bit about government’s mandate for the Alberta public service, what other priorities do you have?
Government has laid out their priorities for making life better for Albertans, that’s their overarching mission. Within that, part is making life more affordable, so we’re moving forward on things like affordable housing strategies and increases to the minimum wage. We are also focused on protecting the public services that Albertans rely on when they most need it – healthcare, education, and social services.
A lot of time, effort, and resources have been invested in a jobs plan, incorporating job creation, economic diversification and certainly support for the energy backbone that is central to the economy in Alberta. We are going to see a lot more on that front. A big part of the jobs agenda has been the Climate Leadership Plan because it was viewed as very important for Alberta to establish a strong environmental protection leadership plan to develop our resources in a responsible and sustainable way.
What about for the public service? Do you have any goals for public service?
As a clerk and head of Alberta’s public service, my number one goal is to make the public service stronger. That means investing in leadership and executive development. I think it’s essential, so that’s job one.
We’re doing a lot of work on employee engagement too. I mentioned that period where we had a lot of turmoil at the political level and public service looking for signals on where to align their work. It was a challenging time for the public service and I think we just have some work to do to help engage our staff and have them feel like they’re connected to the work that government wants, that they’re valued and respected and are important to the life of both the government and for the people of Alberta.
The other piece is investing in making the Alberta public service a great place to work. We have introduced a respectful workplace policy and new diversity and inclusion initiatives to make sure that everybody that works for us and with us thinks it’s a great place to work. At the end of the day, I hope to have a strong pipeline of leaders that we’re growing, that our staff on the front line see how their work is connected and valued, and then the people who are working with us felt respected and included and just proud to be Alberta public servants.
Now tell us a little bit about how you manage this personally, these jobs are not for the faint of heart?
As you would know having been a deputy minister, it’s a big job. I’ve been a deputy minister now for almost ten years, and I think a big part of the model for me is getting good people in the right places. Having that strong team around you is important. You’re never doing all this stuff by yourself. I think you also have to bring a bit of a sense of humour to your work. I think for most deputies, probably top of the job description should be to be calm. I really enjoy the job. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to serve in this job.
Yes, that interface, especially between clerks, deputies too, but clerks I think in particular, that interface with the government is an area of real focus. It takes a lot of skill to manage that because our job as public servants is to bring life to the government’s agenda, bring life to their vision, but at the same time we have to mind that little bit of a gap between the elected officials and the public servants. Serving but maintaining that independence and providing professional non-partisan advice. Any tips for anybody on how to manage that?
I think the clerk’s role, as in the deputy’s role, it to act as a bridge between the political side and the public service. A big part of that is an interpretative role, listening to the government and trying to understand what it is they want to achieve and then listening to the public service about how things can be achieved, what their advice is and then communicating that back to government in ways that they can understand.
A big part of the clerk’s role is a communicator and interpreter, a bit of a pathfinding role because you have very different partners on either side of that relationship and you’re trying to find a way to help them work together. Some of that is just learning about each other and communicating, all the time, about what’s happening on both sides of that relationship.
Listening is key – listening on both sides – understanding both worlds and sharpening your skills on how to communicate in language that all understand is important.
So before I let you go and given we are in the middle of another terrible year with the BC Wildfires, can we talk a little bit about your experience when it comes to last year’s Fort McMurray situation?
I think the training that we had as a public service in the previous disasters served us very well. We had excellent people on the ground, and the whole province came together very quickly to help Fort McMurray and very shortly after that, the whole country came together to help Alberta and help Fort McMurray.
It was an incredibly moving and inspiring experience as a public servant because at one level it’s overwhelming when you have a city on fire, and 80,000 people need to be evacuated and billions of dollars of industry and infrastructure are at risk, but when you see how all the public servants and the public and elected officials at all levels, when you see people come together like that and the country pulled together like that, you can’t help but be incredibly inspired and grateful. It was a very difficult, tragic time for people who lost their homes but at the same time, it really brought together a solid community in the province that helped and supported each other.
It really seemed to be one of the public service of Alberta’s finest hours. It was just amazing to watch that from a distance.
When you are a public servant, and these kinds of events happen, it’s the time when the population looks to you to stand, and I have never seen the Alberta public service fail to stand and take that call and to deliver support and services when they need it. What makes us public servants is that we’re there when citizens need us. I was never more proud of the people that work in our public service and all those connected agencies that worked with us. Everyone pulled and worked together to the best result we could have hoped for. It was quite a time.
This interview first appeared in the November 2017 issue of Canadian Government Executive.