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Telling isn't the same as asking: The failure of government "consultation"

Posted on May 20, 2014 by Greg Clark

By now you've probably heard about the Alberta teachers who gave up their long weekend to discuss the future of public education and vote on a series of resolutions, including a unanimous vote of non-confidence in Minister of Education Jeff Johnson. I was in the room when the vote took place; it was a remarkable show of unity and defiance from a group that has tried very hard to build a good relationship with Alberta Education and the minister himself.

I talked with dozens of teachers and asked them why they felt so strongly that this minister can no longer be trusted. It came down to the difference between teachers being informed and being genuinely consulted.

ATA President Mark Ramsankar outlined teachers' concerns last week. He talked about his surprise at learning the details of the Task Force on Teaching Excellence from the media, not from Jeff Johnson himself. This deliberate exclusion goes against Johnson's assurances that he wants to work with teachers to improve education, and it continues a pattern of "we'll tell you what's best" that completely ignores the role of front-line professionals in building a world-class, student-focused education system.

Do we need to ensure our education system changes with the times and continues to be one of the best in the world? Of course we do. No one wants to stand still, teachers perhaps least of all. But we can't improve education without trust.

Success in any organization comes from a commitment to continual improvement from all sides. In my experience in both the business world and not-for-profit sector, the most successful organizations are the ones who openly gather ideas and suggestions, then work together to ensure the product or service the organization is set up to deliver continues to be the best it can be.

Not once have I seen an organization succeed over the long term using a top-down management style.

And teachers aren't the only ones. The latest message from Calgary and Area Medical Staff Society (CAMSS) president Dr. Steve Patterson reports on the Zone Initiative Plan announced by the AHS. This plan will have a big impact on patients, physicians and others in the system, but was launched without consultation with the people on the front lines of health care.

Dr. Patterson says it best:

"Getting physician input on these issues is easy. If you want physician engagement you must allow physicians to have input into decisions that affect them and their patients. Announcing a plan to physicians is not input. It is information."

Casting the net a bit further, the PC government's restrictive attitude toward environmental reviews for energy projects means there are cases where no one is even eligible to provide input. Case in point, a proposed project near Lac La Biche had its public hearing cancelled after the Alberta Energy Regulator determined that none of the applicants would be "directly affected" including, remarkably, First Nations people who live close by.

All of this after a judge chastised the government last fall for excluding environmental groups from a review of an oilsands project. And who can forget the draconian and almost certainly unconstitutional legislation targeting public sector unions' right to free speech (Bill 45).

The PC government's determination to exclude front-line staff in the decision-making process has an impact on the bottom line. And not in a good way. Strong fiscal discipline, and by that I mean getting the most out of taxpayer dollars while delivering world-class services, is impossible without trust.

The government, and certainly the PC party, doesn't know everything. By working together with the people on the front lines, by empowering them to make good decisions, by building trust and listening, genuinely listening, to their input and ideas about how to make the system better will create better outcomes for the Albertans who rely on these services. We'll also find that an engaged work force helps find cost savings senior managers and government ministers can't.

It's sad (but not surprising after 43 years) just how far the PC government has drifted from the fundamental principles of consultative democracy. It doesn't matter who the PC leader is, it is inevitable that relationships will break down after such a long run of one-party rule.

Alberta needs a fresh approach. One that comes from more than just a change of leader.

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