The other day on the campaign trail I met a Bearded Dragon.
He was curled up in the arms of a little girl, blinking sleepily in the afternoon sun. He practically purred when I stroked his chin. (Yes I know they don’t purr but I swear he smiled when I touched him).
It doesn’t take much to make a Bearded Dragon happy—a clean cage, fruit and vegetables and the occasional Madagascar hissing cockroach and he is good to go.
Not so with the human residents of Calgary Elbow. Like most Albertans they’re riled…and with good reason.
They’ve just learned that over the past 43 years the PC government created 194—repeat 194—agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs). These ABCs “manage” more than two-thirds of their tax dollars and are subject to less financial oversight than ministerial departments (and that’s not saying much).
The Big Four
The heavy hitters in the world of ABCs are Alberta Investment Management Corp (AIMCo), Alberta Treasury Branches (ATB), Alberta Capital Finance Authority and Agriculture Financial Services. Collectively they manage over $143.1 billion in assets.* Lord only knows how much money flows into and out of the remaining 190 ABCs.
Albertans have no idea who runs them, how their CEOs and boards of directors are selected, how their budgets are set and, most importantly, how well they perform.
Premier Prentice promised to put our minds at ease by appointing Hugh Bolton, Linda Hohol and Larry Pollock to conduct a “governance review”, starting with the big four.
This is a good plan but doesn’t go far enough.
The purpose of a “governance review” is to confirm that there are processes in place to assess a CEO’s performance and that the appropriate risk management and conflict-of-interest policies exist. It is an inward-looking exercise that doesn’t come close to living up to Mr Prentice’s commitment to “strong public agency board governance, accountability and transparency.”
Mr Prentice must expand his governance review into an accountability review—one that checks to see how well the ABCs are performing.
Alberta Health Services, the ABC with the biggest budget ($18.3 billion) is a case in point. Alberta spends more money per person ($6787) on healthcare than any other province, and yet our results are mediocre.
As an aside, Linda Hohol, one of the three people appointed by Mr Prentice to run the governance diagnostic on the ABCs, conducted a governance review of Alberta Health Services in 2013.**She made a number of excellent suggestions on how the governance of AHS could be improved.
Fred Horne, the former Health Minister, shelved her report and fired the AHS board instead. Then he unilaterally appointed an outside consultant, Janet Davidson, to run the $18 billion enterprise by herself. Ms Davidson moved on to become Mr Horne’s deputy minister and was replaced by Dr John Cowell, former head of the Health Quality Council. Dr Cowell and Ms Davidson played musical chairs a year later when she replaced him after his one year term expired. (She kept her job as deputy minister). Fred Horne lost his cabinet post when Mr Prentice became premier and replaced him with Steve Mandel. Mr Mandel says he’ll reinstate the AHS board.
If this sounds like a governance gong show, that’s because it is.
Good governance is extremely important, but it’s not enough. The ABCs must deliver good results.
The public has the right to know which ABCs are performing well, which are mediocre and which are underperforming. Once we’ve identified the mediocre and underperforming ABCs (and Alberta Health Services is at the top of the list) we need to determine whether their performance can be improved…failing which they must be replaced with a better structure.
Albertans want more than the promise of good governance. They want to see concrete results; because unlike the Bearded Dragon, a tasty cockroach and a tickle under the chin just doesn’t cut it anymore.
*Alberta Government Press Release, Sept 24, 2014
**Health System Governance Review Task Force in a Governance Report submitted to Minister Horne in February 2013