Profiles
May 7, 2012

Mutual respect: Alberta’s political leadership

As part of our ongoing series of conversations on the relationship between public service and elected government, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach spoke with editor Robert Parkins on how the province is meeting its mission and mandate.

What do you look for from public service managers – your management cadre?

The same values that I possess in terms of leadership – openness, transparency, accountability, a willingness to find solutions to difficult issues and challenges. We have a long history of outstanding, dedicated public service in Alberta. In fact, when I was first appointed Minister of Agriculture back in March of 1997, and we went to the first federal-provincial meeting in agriculture, it was amazing how other provinces were waiting for Alberta to articulate the policy position on a matter and then everybody kind of fell right in place, or most of the provinces at least. That spoke very highly of the depth and experience we have in our public service. A lot of our public service members are very well respected in business circles, whether it be in energy or environment or health.

Are there challenges? Obviously, yes.  Like any public service – or even the private sector – our experienced people are close to retirement. I think our average age of managers is around 50. Soon they’ll be retiring, so we have to cultivate and present to young people the fact that public service is a respectable career. It’s rewarding. But I find that we have to work harder to attract people. Of course, there have always been challenges in Alberta because the private sector sometimes pays more and attracts the best; we have to compete with the private sector to attract the best.

Let’s turn that around a little bit: What does the leadership of the public service require from you and your colleagues?

Since I was elected Premier, I’ve issued mandate letters to ministers and parliamentary assistants. Those mandate letters are shared with the deputies. The deputies use those mandate letters as the plan for the year. It has worked out very well. Collectively, all ministers and the premier and our senior officials have planning sessions as Cabinet. The deputies then take what we’ve developed as cabinet ministers in the planning session and start working on making recommendations on their quarterly policies to achieve the goals.

For example, take the teacher pension liability issue, which had been percolating on the back burners for years. You put it in a mandate letter and you’ve got a year to deal with it, come up with recommendations, start negotiating with the Alberta Teachers Association and bring closure to it. Once you put that down on paper and say your performance will be evaluated on this, you then have a document that you can refer to rather than something verbal and very general without specific goals.

I think that was one of the reasons we were so successful in the last election. We had about 18 months after I became Premier to campaign and we took so many issues off the backburner and dealt with them, we were able to deliver a report card to the public: this is what we set out to achieve and this is what we’ve achieved and completed. That’s an easy measurement, and if a minister cannot meet the particular goal or request, there has to be a very, very good reason. Sometimes it’s an external factor. It could be an agreement with the federal government and it takes a little longer. Or perhaps negotiations with First Nations, which would be out of the minister’s hands. But at least we’ve initiated the action and are keeping very close monitoring of the progress. Ministers report on a quarterly basis on progress of the major projects.

It comes to Cabinet?

Yes, we essentially have a document that’s got red light, green light and yellow light. Red light means you’re not getting it, green light means you’ve accomplished it, and yellow means you might be running into some issues – some factors that may be difficult. Of course, the world has changed dramatically in the last year. Oil has come from $140 a barrel down as low as $35; it’s recovered somewhat but that affects budgetary issues. The focus, though, of the government is always to improve performance as much as we can.

One of the old mantras of public service is the requirement to speak truth to power. What’s your take on that?

The idea being that even if it’s bad news, tell them it’s bad news? In all the ministries I’ve had the pleasure of serving, and as premier, that’s what I expect from my deputy and senior officials: Give me the straight goods, don’t embellish because often, if you’re a good minister, you are aware of some of those issues that may come forward. I appreciate the honesty of the deputy if there are certain issues tied to a particular policy direction that perhaps the elected officials may not be aware of. That doesn’t mean that we can’t move forward in policy. However, on the other hand, at least be frank in terms of the challenges and some of the issues that we may have to face as we move forward.

In that connection, I would submit that there is no provincial government in Canada that has gone through more change than Alberta, starting in 1993 to 1997. We shrank government considerably; we outsourced a considerable number of government operations, especially in the transportation area, and infrastructure. There was a little bit of pushback, but it was through the cooperation of our senior officials that we managed to accomplish what we did.

One good example is the privatization of liquor stores; I believe we’re still the only jurisdiction in Canada to do that. Others have tried, but never got there. Maybe senior officials in those instances said, we can’t do this because you’re going to have a problem with unions or some other issues. Here, our senior officials are so dedicated and work very well with government and it’s reciprocal. You can’t expect honesty if you’re not honest with them, and there have been some tough decisions. You can’t expect respect from your senior officials if you don’t reciprocate and give them respect, meaning that if we’re a team, we’re a team.  We’re honest with each other, we will vent our positions on various issues, we come to an agreement and we walk out as a team. To a very large degree, that’s been the success of this government.

Also, what I expect to see coming forward from the senior officials to our ministers – and then to Cabinet – are a number of options to achieve the policy direction. I don’t support somebody who gives you five different options and then says, well, I’d like to see your recommendation before we make a recommendation.

It’s often said that the public sector is becoming more and more risk averse. Accountability issues have a higher profile than ever, along with openness and transparency issues. Is that an issue here?

Since December 2006, when I was sworn in as Premier, we’ve moved a lot of new policies in terms of openness, transparency and accountability which help us in this area of risk aversion… This fall we’ll be doing the whole lobbyist registry, which is new in Alberta. Conflict of interest guidelines have been expanded. Now, any minister using a government plane – the manifests are public, you don’t have to search through Freedom of Information to find out who flew where or when. If I’ve got to fly to Washington, it’s public. We’ve also put in place all-party legislative committees – chaired by a government member – that can lift bills out of the House on second reading

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