Indecent Proposal

I had this great idea. It was 2005 and I wanted to build a multi-plex hockey rink for the City. I assembled a piece of land, structured the financing and partnered with a non-profit operator such that all profits would be cycled back into the operations to keep the cost to Edmonton Minor Hockey as low as possible. It was a beautiful model that would fix the cost of minor hockey for the next 30 years at a price lower than it cost today. Just beautiful.

All I needed was the City to consolidate their operations from adjacent single-pad arenas and guarantee a lease for the equivalent amount. I couldn’t figure out why on earth they wouldn’t support my proposal.

Looking back, I realize I was wrong. So young; so naive.

Last week, the City of Edmonton made a business decision to consolidate office space which facilitated the development of a new tower in our downtown core. They were first approached by an unsolicited proposal that demonstrated the value of consolidating space, as an enabler to a new development. Like me, for the longest time the proponent couldn’t figure out why on earth the City wouldn’t support such a logical proposal.

But the City of Edmonton did the right thing.

It took an extra six months, but the City took the time to issue an RFP (Request for Proposal) and appoint an independent fairness advisor to oversee the process. They knew making a decision, any decision, with a private firm would come with the risk of massive public scrutiny.

Much can be learned from my little story and that of the office tower. Specifically, as we enter an era where public/private partnerships become more common, the private sector needs to understand and respect that whenever public funds (no matter what size) are being used to enable a development (no matter what size), the project will require: (1) a public RFP process; (2) a fairness advisor; (3) full transparency from the private sector proponent.

The City of Edmonton did the right thing, and it is important that the business community understand that the days of full transparency are here to stay. Backroom deals will be publicly scorned. Businesses will shoulder the consequences. And political leaders will wear the judgement. Most importantly, attempts to work around the transparent process harm our reputations and slow down the pace in which novel ideas can be realized in our city.

If we learn to do it right, we will accelerate growth. If don’t, we will live with saga after saga.

Building and/or Re-Building

There is a big blue Alberta flag that flies proudly in front of my house. There aren’t too many around, so this one seems to stand out. The big blue skies, snow-capped mountains, rolling hills, rushing rivers and vast wheat fields … such resilient history; much uncharted potential.

Our ebbs and flows, peaks and valleys, booms and busts have always challenged us … while our obstinance, optimism, defiance and tenacity have continually defined us. Through drought, flood, tornado, avalanche, blizzard, epidemic, landslide, hail, beetle and wildfire … we have always survived, always carried on … always will.

What I love about this province is that when disaster happens, we respond as if it was family and we pitch in to help as best we can. Firefighters head to Slave Lake to combat the flames while volunteers flock to Calgary to help clean up – each a unique act of kindness; all defining moments that unite our province.

Amidst endless effort to pit north against south and urban against rural, these unforeseen events and heartwarming responses are often the things that bring us closer together as Albertans. They allow us to build the Alberta brand – one of resilience, generosity, compassion, and collective responsibility – and they force us to drive through crisis while never losing sight of the provincial vision.

Over the past 30 days, southern Alberta has been devastated by one of these unforeseen events, and both the government and the people of Alberta have responded with the utmost resolve and compassion. An unbelievable outpouring of support … or actually … an unprecedented outpouring of support. So unprecedented, in fact, that it has changed the provincial vision and discourse from “Building Alberta” to “Re-Building Southern Alberta” which unfortunately now has the potential to undo the very things that have brought us closer together.

In times when the government is reacting with as much foresight and grace as possible, it is important that we respond as opposed to react … or over-react … to the fear that all focus has now shifted to the south. Our elected officials are tasked with governing the whole province, and in times of unforeseen crisis they know the importance of building the economic engine in the north while they figure out the policies and programs needed to help re-build the south.

As the headlines, blogs, talk-shows and tweets start to take shots at our provincial leaders who have worked relentlessly to restore the fundamentals, I hope all Albertans take a moment to appreciate our history of hardship and resilience, and our brand that is grounded in empathy and survival.

Governance in the Public Service

I’m feeling disheartened and concerned tonight.

Over the past decade, we have pushed and voted for accountability, transparency and good governance.  We’ve embraced the Neil McCrank Report on Boards, Agencies and Commissions, and legislated a Governance Secretariat.   We have moved to a world of Results-Based Budgeting and have graduated numerous elected officials and public servants with ICD.D (Institute of Corporate Directors) designations.

So much progress and ambition … to build a better Alberta.

Yet tonight, I have learned that the Alberta Health Services (AHS) Board stood by their conviction that certain bonuses were deserved by public officials, and now risk termination because they defied the demands of the Minister of Health.  The Minister stated that “We cannot and will not accept AHS’s decision.  It is completely out of steps with the times” and “we will ensure … they live within their means.”

This is where I’m challenged.

I watch the unplanned budget cuts to the health and education system like the rest of you.  I struggle reading Cam Tait’s articles on PDD.  I have friends whose jobs have been eliminated.  And I’m starting to feel this isn’t my Alberta anymore.

But … we put these Boards, Agencies and Commissions in place to steward these complex organizations on behalf of government.  We do so to de-politicize the decision making, and to increase accountability to us, the taxpayers.  We appoint good people, citizens of Alberta, to do five main things: (1) Hire the CEO and hold him/her accountable for performance; (2) Shape the strategic plan that delivers on the expectation of the Shareholder; (3) Approve the business plan and operating budget; (4) Assess and ensure organizational risks are adequately managed; and (5) Ensure the policies are in place to prevent risk, fraud or mismanagement.

By in large, these boards do a great job – AIMCo, ATB, AFSC, AGLC, AITF, ERCB, UofA, UofC and all the other acronyms.  So when the Minister … any Minister … decides to undermine these Boards and declare that they will make the decisions on budgets, programs or staffing, the whole concept of governance gets thrown out the window.  When such occurs, there is no longer a role for an independent Board, and the organization is nothing more than a department of the Ministry.

And I’m not just being hard on the government in power.

When the leader of the opposition states that “The Minister has to assert his authority and he has two ways to do it … he can issue a clear directive telling the Board to rescind the bonuses, or he has to fire the Board” she is equally as wrong, as both these options are also blatant political interferences.

Recent assault on Boards, Agencies and Commissions comes (1) When the government is not clear on their expectations for performance prior to budget approval; (2) When they use the budget as the tool to imply policy; or (3) When they change the rules mid-course.  Whatever the case, if Alberta is going to mature into a beacon of good governance, then we need to shift the blame away from Director education … and toward clearly articulated Shareholder expectation.

Commercialization Redefined

It’s convocation season … that spring season when the University of Alberta commercializes 9300 new products into the Edmonton market … all of which walk across the stage on two legs.  Our new medical students can save more lives.  Our new engineering students can build better bridges.  And our business students can start new companies.

Everyone is excited about the possibilities … except … there is a quiet hush and whisper that surrounds the liberal arts graduates.  Engineers become engineers.  Teachers become teachers.  Nurses become nurses.  But arts grads … what do they become?  This is the question that stumps many of our elected officials, who are quickly swinging the education pendulum away from “intellectual exploration” and rapidly towards “technical training” such that our youth can immediately become … as we say in economics … factors of production.

So for the public policy pundits, whose vision for Alberta is to be the industrial engine of Canada and the Banana Republic of North America, I offer the following perspective for consideration:

  • Not all liberal arts graduates work as baristas at Starbucks.  This fact disappoints many who love to point to the liberal arts graduate as the poster child for unemployment … but it is far from the truth.  You see, only some liberal arts graduates work at Starbucks, and thank God they do … because someone has to be responsible for weaving human psychology, anthropology, addiction and economics into a $50 billion empire built on $5.00 non-fat lattes.
  • Not all graduates with history degrees are unemployed.  Some are.  Some probably should be.  But some make a lot of money understanding that societal unrest in Chile affects the price of copper, and thus the price of electricity and the price of houses … and they tend to make terrific long term investors.  History grads also tend to understand that markets are driven by world events, and world events are driven by markets … making events like the Arab Spring – Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain – highly predictable.
  • Not all political science programs are the same, contrary to what some people might think.  But what all programs teach in common is that empires always overreach and they always overspend … and that politicians will always come up with ways to create more money while finding creative ways to avoid discipline.  Political history shows that debt ceilings and quantitative easings are often a band-aid solution to a slightly larger problem called fiscal hemorrhaging.
  • Not all fine arts students are street performers.  Some work at Apple Computer … because a guy named Steve Jobs believed that technology needs to be married with the humanities, and human beings need to interact with technology in ways that bring both joy and productivity.  Not sure if Apple will remain as the most valuable company in the world, but I have a feeling it has forever changed the way the world sees industrial design.

The case for liberal arts education needs to be reframed.  Not only is there economic return as shown through these cheeky examples, but there is massive societal return given that the root causes of our global challenges are often grounded in human behaviour … and the understanding of how people live, think, co-exist, network and interact … and frankly I’m not imagining a world where adding more engineers will help us answer the most important questions that seem to all start with the word … why?

The public policy pendulum across the country is swinging, and I am gravely concerned with the narrow direction we are taking around technical training at the expense of intellectual exploration.  It is not one or the other.  We need both.  We need the technically trained, but not at the expense of our need for interdisciplinary, liberal arts graduates to help us shift from an industrial powerhouse to an intellectually curious city that embraces creativity, entrepreneurism, thought-leadership and democratic freedom.

Great cities, provinces and countries have great universities … and our University of Alberta must continue to commercialize liberal arts students as part of the portfolio of youth that will help make us remarkable.