Ralph & Buff

Premier Jim Prentice, former chartered bank vice-president, has created a “blue ribbon” advisory panel of big bosses from public and private sector executive suites to do something about sagging morale and high turnover in the Alberta public service.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Prentice started the month by naming his Big Three Agents of Change — or, as they’re known around here, the “Three Amigos.” They are:

–    Ian Brodie, University of Western Ontario business professor and first chief of staff to that well-known friend of the working man, Prime Minister Stephen Harper

–    Oryssia Lennie, former deputy minister of this and that in the Alberta and federal mandarinates

–    Richard Dicerni, Alberta’s top civil servant and another veteran of the mandarinate in Ottawa, Queen’s Park and now here on the northern bank of the North Saskatchewan

In case that level of attention wasn’t enough to get Alberta’s civil service underlings to stop feeling like they’re under-valued, under-staffed, underpaid and constantly under assault, on Friday the premier named even more big cheeses from the executive suite to the job of probing the mysteries of low morale and “shockingly” high turnover among the rank and file of the public service.

The latest batch of top-floor experts on what motivates shop-floor sluggos?

–    Jim Carter, retired president and CEO of Syncrude, with annual revenue in the order of $3.5 billion

–    Marc de La Bruyère, rental housing conglomerate Maclab Enterprises chair and trustee of a chichi U.S. prep school

–    Françoise Morissette, a Queen’s University business professor and adjunct business school prof at the University of Alberta

–    Linda Hughes, retired Edmonton Journal publisher and current corporate newspaper chain board member

In other words, what are technically known as “the suits,” or maybe “the usual suspects.” One or two of them may have had a real job for longer than the premier’s summer sojourns in coal mining way back when, but they’re far, far from it now.

And we all know there’s nothing like the plush carpets and heated toilet seats of the private or public sector executive floor, not to mention the Spartan prestige of the faculty club, to isolate a person from the rigours of the workplace and the financial challenges faced by the folks who toil on the front lines of the civil service or in like careers.

So I doubt that it’s just me who sees the irony — not to mention the utter foolishness — of bragging about a panel of professional mandarins and coruscating executives from the last century’s flagging industries being asked to create the public service of the future!

Just a thought, Mr. Premier, but if you’re thinking about a bigger role for the private sector going forward — which as a good neoliberal, you doubtless are — the newspaper industry may not be the right avatar of success to be looking at just now, if you know what I mean.

OK, enough sarcasm. What to do? Leastways, what should you do if you don’t want to be remembered for a bon mot like “let them eat cake.”

Well, duh! Consult the people who actually do the work, and by that I don’t mean a brief tour of the shop floor by execs in lab coats and cordovan shoes.

Ralph Klein did this back in 2005 when he had Prentice’s job, asking Dan “Buff” MacLennan, then the president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and a veteran Correctional Officer, to serve on a panel looking into how to stop young people from using crystal meth.

Ed Stelmach and his health minister Ron Liepert did the same thing, asking the Buffster to serve on the Minister’s Advisory Committee on Health led by Fred Horne, who was later health minister himself. The committee reported in the fall of 2010.

And, Mr. Premier, your health minister, Stephen Mandel, went to the same guy to serve on the Edmonton Mayor’s Task Force on Community Safety.

The latter two efforts took place after MacLennan had left AUPE to work for the private sector, but in each case the fact that he’d done a difficult job on the front lines of law enforcement and earned the respect of two premiers as a tough negotiator for tens thousands of civil service and health care employees lent credibility to the work being done and assured impacted workers they had a voice at the table.

In case Prentice didn’t notice, AUPE is the union that represents about 80 per cent of the 27,000 nervous and increasingly distrustful civil servants whose jobs and lives are about to be fiddled with by his “blue ribbon” panel of suits from the top floor.

MacLennan, of course, is not the only working person with brains and insights that might be tapped for such a panel.

But I wonder if it even occurred to the premier to ask someone who the people being probed knew and trusted to join this effort? Naw, didn’t happen, did it? That’s one thing about being the VP of a chartered bank and a Harper cabinet minister — you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the Hoi Polloi! Except maybe just before an election.

And when you never see them or think of them, it’s hard to remember they’re even there, dutifully paying the bills.

Well, it’s never too late to pick up the phone and call someone who has spent their career on the front lines, actually doing work.

If the premier can’t be bothered to do so, and decides to add underrepresented to the list above, I’m sure he’ll forgive the poor working stiffs in the Alberta public service if they view efforts of his panel of Big Kahunas with a certain degree of justified skepticism.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe...