Alberta’s boards and commissions review will change the work, and face, of government
Originally published in The News a publication on provincial politics and government affairs.
When Michael Phair was named chair of the University of Alberta’s board of governors last month, critics were quick to cry foul.
Accusations of partisanship ran rampant online, as Phair was seen to represent a continuation of the plum, party-driven assignments that flourished under 44 years of Conservative party rule. Only this time, it was a lefty politician given the post under the NDP government.
The appointment seemed to be a full 180 degree turn from the previous U of A board chair: Doug Goss, the Tory party stalwart who participated in an ill fated press conference with four other businessmen last spring to call on Albertans to stop the New Democrats from being elected. Goss was one of a cohort of Progressive Conservative members, supporters, and former candidates who hold majority positions on several of Alberta’s 301 agencies, boards and commissions (ABC’s).
The NDP last November announced a review of the governance, membership, and role of these organizations. Premier Rachel Notley recently criticized the executive compensation schemes at ABC’s and suggested her government will rework the pay structure and incorporate more oversight.
What has been less discussed, however, is how the new government will overhaul board composition. And whether party membership will remain the key hurdle to clear for those who hope to clinch a board position.
BIG JOBS, LITTLE OVERSIGHT
Phair, an amiable, passionate, and capable politician, was widely praised and congratulated when handed the post at the U of A — despite the handful of critics who viewed the appointment through a political lens.
“His merit is there,” says former Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, who notes that Phair has worked at the University and both advocated and worked on post-secondary issues during his time on council.
Blakeman served as an MLA from 1997 to 2015. From formation to staffing, the province’s agencies, boards, and commissions, were never regularly evaluated for necessity, compensation, or composition, she says.
“If there’s one word that applies it’s inconsistency,” says Blakeman.
It’s a troubling indictment of a system that directs the spending of over 50 per cent of Alberta’s budget and makes decisions that affect Albertans’ health, education, and financial security. The provincial government will review the mandate, effectiveness, relevance and composition of each ABC within a year.
“This is how the job of government is done,” says Jim Lightbody, a professor of political science at the University of Alberta, of the board system.
These organizations advise government on policy direction and command institutions as large as the University of Alberta and the Alberta Treasury Branch, and as small as the Alberta Shorthand Reporters Association and the Kananaskis Improvement District. ABC’s also take the lead on issues such as liquor, gaming, and horse racing.
“It matters to us because these people can be ombudsmen,” says Lightbody.
The ABC system proliferated during the Klein era when farming out policy recommendations and management to arms-length organizations was seen as a way to cut-costs. After 44 years, one party rule started to affect composition. Compensation was also an issue, as last year it was revealed some CEOs were making over $600 000.
“If you have 44 years of one government, the concern is you have appointments of people who demonstrated their good citizenship through their PC membership,” says Lightbody.
An examination of 100 of these organizations by the Edmonton Journal in 2007 found an overwhelming number of appointees didn’t just hold membership in the PC party, but were former candidates, or members of executives at the party’s constituency and provincial levels. The Journal analysis showed that 46 per cent of the membership of boards and commissions examined were held by PC members, who only made up three per cent of the population at the time.
Former premiers Jim Prentice and Ed Stelmach had proposed reviews, but left office too early for substantive work to start. Early into her term, Notley committed to a review and the announcement was made in November.
The overwhelming presence of PC members on boards has been excused by saying that appointments were based on merit. The process previously in place to ensure merit-based appointments was a directive from former premier Ralph Klein to have independent review panels examine resumes, but that system was criticized as it allowed ministers to override the recommendation.
RECRUITING SHAKE UPS
Talk of merit was central when the ABC review was announced in November. Finance Minister Joe Ceci assured new appointments would be based on merit, not party affiliation.
“Our goal is to rationalize and standardize people appointed to sit on these boards,” Ceci said at a news conference.
But little is known about what process is being undertaken. The office of Alayne Sinclair, who is listed as the Appointments Director in the Office of the Premier, declined to be interviewed for this article. But anyone can scan the Government of Alberta jobs website to see numerous postings for board positions.
Observers say the premier’s office is pushing for gender parity in appointments. The News spoke with two professional women who were contacted by Sinclair’s office and asked to consider applying for board positions. These women had the impression there would be a focus on having ABC’s better reflect the diversity of the general public.
University of Calgary political science professor Melanee Thomas says the premier has sent signals, by ensuring parity in her cabinet formation and cabinet shake up, that parity and diversity are important in new appointments.
“This is good because all the research shows that women bring different information into democratic deliberation and policy discussions,” says Thomas. “The research also shows in order for women to have equal influence in this kind of work, you need a super majority.”
Observers are also watching to see if appointments will better reflect Alberta, beyond just a diversity of party affiliation and gender.
“This has to be more than a witch hunt for Conservatives,” says Lightbody, from the U of A.
Laurie Blakeman says New Democrats can be very loyal and hopes new appointments are about more than just replacing one party for another on the province’s ABC’s.
“Because these programs are giving advice on programs and services or administering them, they should be as representative as the assembly,” says Blakeman. “They should represent the population.”
But there’s also the question of if these groups will continue to exist at all.
“We’re getting the sense of what’s necessary and what’s not necessary,” said Ceci at the November news conference. Ministers are evaluating the relevance of each organization that reports to their ministry.
“Do we want to keep this ABC, do we want to see amalgamation, or do we want it brought back to government itself?” said Ceci.
Dissolution of some boards would not be a bad consideration, says Blakeman. She believes inconsistent creation resulted in unnecessary organizations, and that some have outlived their relevance.
And Thomas says amalgamation into a ministry could benefit democracy.
“If you’re bringing it into the public service you’re bringing it under the purview of the minister and there are accountability conventions that are constitutionally triggered,” says Thomas, who also points out a lot of money could be saved by cutting some boards and commissions.
“There’s a lot of work done by ABCs that gets done in house by the civil service elsewhere.”
Some questions may be answered when the first phase of the review is revealed. The review of the 136 agencies that fall under Alberta Public Agencies Governance Act is due to be finished this month. The next group will be the 141 not governed by the act, and the final group are the post-secondary learning institutions, due to be completed by the fall.
There’s more from the third issue of The News:
Look for a profile of Progress Alberta, the newest progressive advocacy organization that is trying to stir -sometimes colourful — debate on social media. And catch up on highlights of the last two weeks at the Legislature with our handy Legislature Wrap Up.
As an original source of political news and commentary in Alberta, The News from Alberta Counsel provides a fresh look at legislation, policy, committee debates, the civil service, along with party updates and events.
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