Friday, May 29, 2015

The dance of governments; a new cabinet

A habit hard to break is to analyse the latest cabinet shuffle. I caved to my craving this week and did a historical analysis of Alberta department creations, merges, and dissolutions. Editorials on cabinet shuffles tend to focus on partisan and regional agendas. Have the North and South been equally represented? How about regional/rural? Is everyone's pet agenda represented? How about gender and generational representation? But my concern is prosaic. How is this change affecting the departments themselves? From my many years working as a civil servant, I know the shuffle of a few cabinet ministers results in a cascading effect resulting in the moving of 35,000 workers to new departments/ministries, new letterhead, different offices. Sometimes it's a simple matter of contracting some sign painters and slapping on a fresh coat of paint. Other times department merges are more like "Clash of Cultures" Version 17.0.

Here's a Mind Map diagram representing all the department changes since the province's beginnings in 1905. In it you can read our government's and province's shifting priorities over time. I'm hoping you can zoom in to the detail.

Solid departments like Justice, Education, and Agriculture have always been with us, with minor adjustments to their portfolio. The minors like Culture and Parks are added, dissolved, re-established, merged, and tweaked to suit the day's fancy. Flash-in-the-pans were here and are pruned back to where they came from or off the agenda altogether, like Gaming and Consumer Affairs. Sometimes splits are reconsidered and two departments are absorbed back to their parent department.

When I finally added the latest cabinet portfolio to my diagram today, I noted some highlights.
  • The Status of Women get priority, not seen since 1938. 
  • Public Security/Safety is no longer it's own concern. This seemed to be a particular agenda of our last two governments. 
  • Children's Services similarly is absorbed in to it's parent department, though children do get a mention in the news release. And the Calgary Young Offender center is off the chopping block this week. 
  • Persons with Developmental Disabilities is also absorbed and gets no particular mention in cabinet. Likely a result of a smaller cabinet rather than a shift in priorities. 
  • Housing does not get it's own department either.
  • And finally but not least of all, Sustainable Resource Development is all but gone. It's functions have been absorbed by Environment, Energy, and Agriculture.
Pairing Agriculture with Forestry is a new one, and here I predict a titanic clash of cultures. The departments serve a different clientele with very little overlap. Both are equally passionate; budgets jealously guarded. I'll enjoy watching the shakeup on that one.


A new chapter in the story of Alberta, news release, Government of Alberta, May 24, 2015
An Administrative History of the Government of Alberta, The Provincial Archives of Alberta, 1905-2005

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Enduring Bureaucrat, or, Everyone Needs Something to Do

Have you noted as I have how agencies, once established, endure well past their function? Consider the work of the foley artist.

This sound-effect job was birthed with radio, giving depth to radio drama, drawing the listener in to the action. With the advent of movies and television, though, the foley artist continued. Once a job is made, the enterprising continue to work hard to find their niche.

The same goes for the bureaucrat. Once graced with a budget, an enterprising bureaucrat will work hardest to justify his or her continued necessity, even perhaps at the cost of emerging needs. How does one go about disbanding an agency that has outlived it's usefulness? There will be protests and pain, for sure, as its supporters mourn it's loss.

An agency that may have outlived their origins for example, is the Victorian Order of Nurses (Florence Nightingale's practical nursing has proved itself more useful). In their history linked here, the VON use emotive language like "vital" and "treasure". Is there any service unique or valuable that the VON provide that could not be absorbed in to regular nursing? This is an example of an agency, budget, and bureaucracy that frankly, isn't needed.

Squirreling out obsoleted bureaucracies and agencies is one way to keep taxes low while improving service levels. This is not painless or simple though. There will be loud, emotive protests. This is the sort of activity that a new government may want to consider in the early days of their administration, before re-election looms.