Serving Up Change

By Geoff Braun, Director of Policy and Research, CCVO

The Menu

A number of unique items appeared on the menu during Premier Redford’s leadership bid and in the 2012 general election. There was stable and predictable funding for the nonprofit sector, wage parity with comparable positions in the public service, and meaningful involvement in the public policy process.

The Appetizer

The sector’s first taste of what the Province would be offering up came in the form of the Social Policy Framework. By and large, people liked what they saw: a creative and robust approach to public consultation, transparency, and the ability to engage policy makers. When the dish arrived, it resembled what people remembered talking about. It was garnished with hope and spiced with a dash of renewed trust.

The Main Course

Then came the main course, in the form of Results-based Budgeting and Budget 2013. This is where we are now. Results-based Budgeting was the signature dish and everyone knew it was coming. But many are finding it hard to swallow. Take those providing services to adults with developmental disabilities, or nonprofit homecare providers. What appeared before them came as a surprise. They’re not quite sure how it came together, and it’s not sitting well. In many it has triggered a strong reaction.

A Case of Indigestion

So what has happened over the past several months? And what does it mean going forward? The theme that keeps surfacing is one of disconnect.

In some instances, such as the creation of the Social Policy Framework, the level of consultation has been unprecedented – as has the extent to which the sector has been able to engage with senior bureaucrats. However, this cannot be said of other significant decisions. One would be hard pressed to find anyone within the nonprofit sector who would argue the wisdom behind reviewing the 40-year-old Summer Temporary Employment Program (STEP), or that there might be a better alternative to the Community Spirit Program. But both of these programs were eliminated on short notice, without consideration to the impact on Alberta nonprofits, and with insufficient time for them to develop contingencies.

Likewise, there are many operating within the Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) realm, who agree that it’s a system that needs fixing. But anyone familiar with the PDD service delivery system knew that it would be impossible to recoup $40 million over a nine month period without putting Alberta’s most vulnerable in harm’s way. They know that transformative change – the kind that would see significantly more disabled Albertans transition into the workforce – takes time and resources. They knew (or at least hoped) that at some point a moral imperative would kick in and funding would be restored. For now they have a couple months of reprieve.

But why were they made to fight like mad? Why were families and individuals with disabilities put through so much uncertainty and stress? Why did service providers, already strapped for resources, have to divert so much time and energy to getting the attention of elected officials? Where did a government that has committed to protecting Alberta’s vulnerable come up with such an ill-advised plan?

Easing the Discomfort

There is no simple remedy, no antacid that’s going to eliminate the burn. But there are things that all of us can take away from what has occurred in recent months.

Government can

  • Pace the change. Know that organizations have expertise and infrastructure that serve as valuable assets to the province. Know that there are real human consequences when plans are rushed and not fully thought through.
  • Create a mechanism that lends transparency to Results-based Budgeting. The Challenge Panels, charged with reviewing government programs, need a process to test their ideas.
  • Restore trust. It can begin by acknowledging and owning up to mistakes, by apologizing, and by understanding that trust is lost when the high level messaging contradicts what is being implemented on the ground.
  • Keep consulting. As mentioned earlier, the level of engagement with the sector is likely without precedent. But it cannot be restricted to where it’s safe to have the conversations. Nonprofits are in many instances the eyes and ears of government. They need to be heard.

For its part, the nonprofit sector needs to:

  • Understand that change is underway. Decisions are being made, implementation timeframes are short and there is the potential for huge impacts on organizations and the people they serve. If your organization hasn’t been affected by the change agenda yet, you need to think about how programs have been offered to date, and how they might change.
  • Never lose sight of the fact that your organization is a means to an end. In this era of competition and constant reminders to be “business like,” this is easy to forget.
  • Know the provincial agenda, which means knowing the focus is on outcomes. This is not new. What is new is a budgeting approach that makes new demands for results. Also know that amidst the promises made were less overt suggestions that the change ahead might include rationalization within the service delivery system.
  • Speak truth to power. If the plan needs work, if it’s going to have unintended consequences, make it known and show up with solutions.
  • Collaborate and acknowledge when things go well. Within the public service are countless committed, bright and well-intentioned individuals. Democracy and public policy are messy and complex. When good policy is enacted, let public officials hear about it.

The Final Course?

One thing is certain...there will be no dessert. Rather, some advice for those who might be disappointed to hear this:  Albertans have come to expect a high level of service, but we cannot have our cake and eat it too. By the government’s own estimates, Alberta would generate $11 billion more in revenue were it to adopt the tax regime of the next lowest province, fully one-quarter of the annual budget. If we want to achieve the goals set forth in the Social Policy Framework; if we want communities that support a high quality of life, then maybe it’s time to re-consider the revenue side of the public finance equation. In short, we might knead more dough.

Geoff is the former CEO of Prospect Human Services and ED of Green Calgary, and has extensive experience within the fields of child and youth care, disability services, career development and environment. Geoff holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Victoria.