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.