Opinion: Five Ideas to Free Up Alberta's Public Service

Citizen frustration with elected politicians and politics is well-documented but who is paying attention to the backbone of government, the bureaucracy? Watching competent deputy ministers in Ottawa become increasingly unmotivated and cynical, often choosing to mute themselves rather than speak truth to power, begs the question: How can politicians fire up the blood of a younger generation to want to make a difference in public service?

The Alberta Legislature dome is seen in Edmonton, on Wednesday, May 11, 2022.

Ottawa isn’t the only place facing these tough questions. Six months ago, I asked a highly motivated, highly qualified, enterprising young leader why he chose to leave a great job in Alberta’s public service to join a private company. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a case of being lured away by more money. His answer was succinct: “The bureaucracy is not a place for ambitious people.”

If Alberta’s much-touted entrepreneurial spirit isn’t cohering for younger generations, what can be done to attract enterprising young leaders to work in the public service? Remember, what’s staring us in the face are tech-savvy new leaders, comfortable working from a coffee shop’s Wi-Fi, responsible, and keen on making a difference.

And we’re living in a world where those hunting for ambitious talent aren’t just looking at university transcripts. Elon Musk, architect of arguably the most enterprising businesses on (and off) the planet, has made it clear to job applicants: If your brain is polluted with business-speak from higher learning, do not apply. Musk is looking for ambitious talent that aims high and isn’t constrained by rigid ways of thinking.

Whoever ends up in the premier’s seat in Alberta, we invite you to consider these five ideas to fire up Alberta’s bureaucracy:

First, declare meaningful public service reform a top priority and assign the job to a minister. It’s in the public interest that public service be modernized with a focus on serving Albertans. Say it out loud: “Things will be done differently, effective immediately.”

Second, up-end the organizational culture of the public service to reward open-minded exchanges, differences of opinion, and even challenges to the elected. This requires technical expertise at all levels of government. Currently, the “generalist” is lauded as the highest aspiration of the public service. Those viewed as most capably staying “out of the weeds” are rewarded with promotions, and technocratic thinking is discouraged. This is backwards; in today’s industry and non-profit sectors, deep technical thinking is an advantage, if not a necessity, in an economy increasingly prioritizing technology in combination with rapid policy and regulatory changes driving adaptive change.

Third, open up the back-and-forth between the private, non-profit and public sectors. Encourage and enable more private and non-profit sector employee secondments to the public service, and vice-versa. It’s simply unrealistic to assume a 35-year public service employee will have a realistic understanding of the private and non-profit sectors without meaningful secondments or time spent outside the bureaucracy.

Fourth, command-and-control and top-down decision-making practices will be discouraged. Remote worksites will be normalized and the geographic location of individual ministries dispersed across the province. Imagine this: the department of agriculture is located in Red Deer; energy is moved to Calgary, to be nearer to provincial and federal energy regulators and business headquarters; tourism is based in Kananaskis or Canmore. In effect, the public service is based nearer the relevant public.

Fifth, incentives must change to better reward innovation and be tied to how well policy and programs can be implemented. If a democratically elected government cannot efficiently implement its priorities because of slowness of the public service, this is a fundamental failure of bureaucratic design. This isn’t an appeal to making the public service more partisan, but simply more responsive to the will of Albertans, represented by the democratic legislature.

Put simply, allow the ambitious to be ambitious.

Like it or not, we rely on governments to deliver a whole lot of things: ideas, services, infrastructure, policy, reputation, and competitive opportunity. If we don’t have the best and the brightest — and allow the ambitious to be ambitious — in those public service roles, the people of Alberta will be held back. We require bureaucrats who will challenge the status quo and test new ideas. This approach isn’t partisan or populist or establishment; it’s just smart.

Whoever wants to be our province’s next premier, can you please renew the public service to make it more representative of the public it is designed to serve? Don’t just hope that ambition will bubble up from the bureaucracy.

Link to original article: Edmonton Journal