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What are Premier Jim Prentice and his three 'agents of change' planning for Alberta's public service?

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Steve West

Premier Jim Prentice says he intends to "reform" Alberta’s public service, fix its low morale, reverse its "shocking" turnover and deal with its other "very significant problems."

He's appointed a former senior federal civil servant and well-connected business professor to be his "agent of change," along with a couple of right-hand persons to assist with this change agentry. Their work will start immediately.

Sounds way better, huh, than former premier Alison Redford's heavy-handed war on the Alberta civil service?

Well, if you think that, I'm sorry to have to inform you this is probably bad news for those who work in public service in Alberta.

I don't think Prentice has anything different in mind for you or your jobs than Redford did. It's just that the way he goes about it is likely to be a lot smoother.

Just for starters, anyone who believes in the value of public services should be wary when the term "reform" pops up.

"Reform" is the original neoliberal code word for "destroy." Alberta civil servants will remember Steve West, the Vermilion veterinarian who was premier Ralph Klein’s agent of change for the provincial civil service. Dr. West -- known in those days as Dr. Death -- was a "reformer" too.

There will be lots of talk about how the reforms implemented by Prentice's team of change agents are going to make things better for public employees and the public generally, but if they were planning to actually improve things, they'd use that word.

Now that's just suspicion based on bitter past experience, of course. For the rest, all we have to go on for the moment is very limited information available about Prentice's three amigos -- Richard Dicerni, his new top civil servant, whose official title is deputy minister of Executive Council; Oryssia Lennie, another veteran senior civil servant; and Ian Brodie, the best known of the trio, who was once Prime Minister Stephen Harper's chief of staff.

I spent enough time working as a civil servant many years ago in another province to know Dicerni's type. He’s part of that itinerant class of top bureaucrats known as the Mandarinate who flit from job to job, civil service to civil service, and public sector to private sector to academe, often under the patronage of an influential politician like Prentice. According to the Edmonton Journal, he "oversaw a public service overhaul" in Ottawa too. We all know how that's working out, don't we?

These types often speak multiple languages, have multiple advanced degrees and command extremely high salaries -- as a rule they are not, however, friends of front-line civil servants or the public services they deliver. They see the world through the eyes of the politicians they work for, and nowadays the prevailing ideology among those politicians is neoliberalism, and all the wreckage that entails.

We know Dicerni was until not long ago deputy minister at Industry Canada, where he worked with Prentice in his former federal incarnation. He has also held similar senior positions in the Ontario government and the private sector, where he has been associated with such entities as Ontario Power Generation, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. and Mercer Delta, a management consulting firm.

He's an adjunct professor at the University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business, which like any corporate-sponsored business school is not exactly a hotbed of social democracy, and on the board of the Public Policy Forum, a think-tank dedicated to getting the public and private sectors to work more closely together.

Ms. Lennie is cut from the same piece of cloth. She too has floated between senior bureaucratic positions in the federal and Alberta governments. She was Deputy Minister of Western Economic Diversification Canada, the highly politicized federal pork-distribution agency.

Her resume includes a many senior civil service jobs that place her on the political fringe of the civil service -- intergovernmental affairs, international trade agreements, head of Alberta's delegation on the failed Meech Lake Accord and the province's Senate Reform Task Force, which pushed for the so-called Triple-E Senate scheme to Americanize and bog down Canada's parliamentary system.

She took a secondment away from the civil service from 1973 to 1975 to set up and lead premier Peter Lougheed's correspondence unit. She is a member of the board of the Canada West Foundation, another promoter of the Triple-E Senate nostrum.

Then there's Ian Brodie, who mainstream media did kindly inform us was Harper's first chief of staff, though little else.

Here we find a character who is at the very centre of the disproportionately influential nexus of neoliberalism that nowadays runs Canada.

He is research director of the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, which as author Donald Gutstein points out in Harperism, How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada, functions as "a neoliberal think tank embedded within a university."

Brodie has a PhD in political science from the U of C. He studied there under former Alberta finance minister Ted Morton, a well-known neoliberal hard-liner and the worst premier Alberta never had. 

Typical of the far-right university types who make up the faculty of the so-called Calgary School, of which the School of Public Policy and the U of C Political Science Department are both integral cogs, Brodie once boasted of his success exploiting Canadian voters' distrust of academics.

During a talk on federal Conservative strategy at McGill University in Montreal soon after he left Harper's service, quoted by Gutstein, he bragged: "Every time we proposed amendments to the Criminal Code, sociologists, criminologists, defence lawyers and Liberals attacked us for proposing measures that the evidence apparently showed did not work. That was a good thing for us politically, in that sociologists, criminologists, and defence lawyers were and are held in lower repute than Conservative politicians by the voting public. Politically, it helped us tremendously to be attacked by this coalition of university types."

We can expect the same approach to evidence-based policy making in Prentice's upcoming campaign to "reform" the Alberta public service.

With the Wildrose Party seemingly on the ropes, and therefore no alternative to the PCs that Alberta voters are likely to support, Prentice and his three amigos can get right down to their plans for the civil service.

No wonder Redford's unconstitutional Bill 45, which attacks the free speech rights of all Albertans if they dare to talk about public service labour relations, remains on the books under Prentice!

So watch out, the fight to save public services, fair pensions for the people who deliver them, not to mention the very idea of a public sector, is far from over in Alberta. 

Keep your powder dry!

+ + +

Too many chiefs (of staff); not enough bureaucrats?

Well, some ministers just generate a lot of work, I guess.

The government of Alberta has updated its online employee directory and ... guess what? ... Health Minister Stephen Mandel has two … two … two chiefs of staff!

It’s not entirely clear which of Chief of Staff Jennifer Pougnet or Chief of Staff Christel Hyshka, who back in the day was a Liberal caucus staffer and later Mandel's by-election campaign manager, is the chief chief of staff.

Whatever. Maybe they split their duties supervising the staff of seven in the minister's office. Or maybe one of them just supervises Mandel.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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