A Promising Example of Successful Government & Sector Dialogue: The Workforce Alliance Experience

By Katherine van Kooy, President and CEO, CCVO

For many years nonprofit sector leaders have maintained that more meaningful and timely consultation between the government and the sector would improve public policy and help identify potential unforeseen consequences of policy or budget decisions before they have an effect on the sector and the clients they serve.  It has generally been a hard sell to get governments to put this into practice, but the experience of Alberta’s Human Services Workforce Alliance may signal a change in attitude.

In April 2012, the new Ministry of Human Services introduced the Workforce Alliance as a forum for senior government staff and leaders from community-based service delivery organizations to address some particularly challenging issues. The Government of Alberta works with hundreds of families and community-based organizations to deliver a wide range of vital services to vulnerable Albertans; however, there was growing recognition that, in a tight labour market, agencies and families were experiencing increasing difficulty in providing the competitive wages necessary to attract and retain qualified staff.

The focus of the Alliance over the first 15 months was on developing a set of short-term actions required to deal with the immediate issues, primarily related to compensation, while also developing a longer-term vision and strategies for sustaining the workforce, making it a desirable career choice, and transforming the way services are delivered to Albertans.

As someone who has been a strong advocate for this type of government/sector initiative, there are several things about the Workforce Alliance experience that I find really encouraging:

  • It provides a forum for full and frank discussions about difficult issues, such as the implications of the provincial budget on various programs and services. This is an invaluable learning opportunity for all involved to understand the broad policy objectives of government, implementation issues, unintended consequences and the constraints within both government and sector organizations.This forum also provides another opportunity for the nonprofit representatives to continue to build and extend their relations with each other, allowing organizations to find solutions that address the most pressing needs for human service organizations collectively, not just in relation to their own constituency.
  • The Workforce Alliance is an advisory body, and the government participants are clearly listening and responding to advice. One example of this in practice is the government’s decision to allow agencies to determine where to best direct additional funding for wage increases, which was a significant departure from the highly prescriptive approaches that were previously typical in certain programs.
  • There is a real commitment to following through. Working through the logistics of allocating the funding for salary increases has been a much more complicated process than imagined, but there has been a determination to work through the multiple challenges and deliver on the commitments.
  • The government representatives on the Alliance have set a tone that makes this work. There is an inherent power imbalance between government and nonprofit organizations, but the government participants have brought a respectful, collegial, transparent attitude to this initiative that has been essential to creating a constructive environment.

The Workforce Alliance is tackling some difficult and complex issues that will require sustained commitment and attention to resolve, but the experience of the past 15 months has demonstrated what is possible when government and the nonprofit sector work together.

Katherine van Kooy has led the Calgary Chamber of Voluntary Organizations (CCVO) since its inception in 2003. Katherine has a broad and diverse background in public policy and public sector management, consulting, strategic planning and organizational change. She has an Honours B.A. in Political Science from the University of Waterloo, graduate studies in International Affairs at Carleton University and an MBA from Cornell University.