Shuffling the Deck

By Geoff Braun, Director of Policy & Research

In the wake of a cabinet shuffle, there tend to be more questions than answers, and the one Premier Redford announced Friday is no different - particularly as it relates to Alberta’s social services sector, where employment and skills training has been removed from the Human Services Portfolio.

The New Landscape

In the days leading up to the shuffle, there was no shortage of speculation about how Premier Redford would use it to put some space between ministers and controversy. Commentators pointed to former Deputy Premier and Minister of Enterprise and Advanced Education Thomas Lukaszuk and the funding cuts to post-secondary education; and likewise to Human Services Minister David Hancock and the recent attention to deaths of children in provincial care and the earlier handling of cuts to Persons with Developmental Disabilities (PDD) services. Both of these Ministers find themselves with new portfolios, as does Associate Minister for Persons with Disabilities Frank Oberle. However, Both Minister Hancock and Associate Minister Oberle landed promotions. Minister Hancock replaces Thomas Lukaszuk and Frank Oberle returns to a full ministerial post, heading up Aboriginal Relations (replacing Robin Campbell).

Minister Lukaszuk finds himself back in familiar territory heading up the newly formed Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour (he was at one time Minister of Employment and Immigration). Replacing David Hancock and Frank Oberle are Manmeet Bhullar and Naresh Bhardwaj respectively. Bhullar was previously the minister for Service Alberta, a department that was born out of a desire to introduce more ‘enterprise wide’ systems within government and to lead efforts aimed at adopting a ‘one-window’ approach to government service delivery. His experience may assist with ongoing amalgamation and integration efforts within human services; however, Service Alberta seems to have lost steam in recent years and there is now less to integrate within Human Services.

Other movement of interest to Alberta’s nonprofit sector includes:

  • Robin Campbell replacing Diana McQueen as Minister of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (Minister McQueen moves on to Energy).
  • Doug Griffiths moves from Municipal Affairs to Service Alberta.
  • Ken Hughes moves to Municipal Affairs.

There do not appear to be any structural changes to these ministries.

Culture continues to be headed by Heather Klimchuk, Fred Horne remains Minister of Health, and Richard Stark, Minister of Tourism, Parks and Recreation. For a full listing of appointments, click here.

A Closer Look at Human Services and Employment

Perhaps the first question many within the social services realm will ask is, What does this mean for the Alberta Social Policy Framework (as well as the ‘still a work-in-progress’ Employment First Strategy)?

It’s unlikely that the Province will shift overall priorities around poverty, early childhood development, domestic violence and the like. In the coming days we’ll learn where income supports will reside and, over time, the rationale for creating a ministry dedicated to employment and training.

In some respects, what’s old is new again. The structuring and restructuring of employment and social services under Alison Redford era mirror transitions that took place under Premier Ralph Klein. In the 1990’s, a broad swath of social service programs, including income supports, disability services, children’s services and vocational programming,  were all housed under what was Alberta Family and Social Services (AFSS).  This was not dissimilar to the Human Services department we had pre-Friday’s shuffle.

After funding and responsibility for a fuller continuum of employment supports was transferred to the Province, they were aligned with the department of Advanced Education and Career Development (AECD), while income supports remained with Alberta Family and Social Services (AFSS). Eventually, income supports joined the “career development” component of AECD, which was hived off and became a part of Alberta Human Resources and Employment (AHRE). This was entirely consistent with the welfare reforms initiated under Premier Klein. Those who could work were expected to work. Even the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program (AISH), for a time, found its home in this ministry where income assistance recipients were viewed through a human resources lens. As evidenced by the Employment First Strategy, the overall expectation of those accessing various social service programs and benefits hasn’t changed – only expanded. It follows that there is a strong likelihood that income supports will follow employment and training to Lukaszuk’s new ministry (although AISH will likely remain aligned with Human Services and the disability portfolio).

Incidentally, those responsible for employment and training programs are quite accustomed to changing letterhead and ordering business cards. Since the 1996 signing of the Labour Market Development Agreement that transferred employment and training to the Province, the programs have resided with, (in chronological order):

  • Advanced Education and Career Development
  • Human Resources and Employment
  • Employment, Immigration and Industry
  • Employment and Immigration
  • Human Services
  • Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour


Over this same period PDD, with its own employment services, has resided with ‘Community Development’, ‘Health and Wellness’, ‘Seniors and Community Supports’, ‘Seniors’  and now, ‘Human Services’. The alignment of services for children and families has, by comparison, been more consistent.

A number of questions come to mind about the meaning behind, and potential implication of, this new structure; and specifically, the split between employment and social services.

Why was a new ministry created for employment, training and labour?

There are several possible reasons. The Human Services portfolio might have simply been proving to be too big. There might have been concerns that employment and labour force strategies could get lost within the more clinically oriented Human Services department.

One cannot ignore how the federal context might have factored into this decision. The Province is strongly opposed to the Canada Job Grant initiative - a restructuring of the previously mentioned programs transferred to the province under Labour Market and Labour Market Development Agreements (LMA and LMDA). The latter sees over $170 million transferred to the Province annually.   Thomas Lukaszuk knows this portfolio well and will be given the task of pushing back on what the Province believes is bad policy (he’s also been charged with implementing controversial legislation that restricts the power of the AUPE).

How will employment services be delivered to more vulnerable populations?

It can easily be argued that the Province has had an “employment first” policy ever since the Klein era welfare reforms, but less so within the PDD realm. When the Employment First Strategy was unveiled it signalled a significant change in the emphasis of services delivered to, and expectations of, adults with developmental disabilities. Employment supports have historically made up a very small portion of the services funded through PDD. Under the pre-shuffle Human Services, there was a greater potential to integrate and expand employment programming for this population. While the potential still exists, government structures are inherently hierarchical and collaborating across ministries is tough slogging.

A System in Flux

A lot has happened in the world of Social Services since Alison Redford became Premier. Services were incrementally amalgamated under Human Services; a Social Policy Framework was created; various issue-specific strategies were launched; funding was cut and then restored; programs were aligned and realigned; and it was announced that two major governance structures will be dismantled. At the same time, consideration is being given to alternate financing structures, such as the use of the relatively untested social impact bond.

The value and success of these various decisions will be understood in time. Those operating within the social services realm know that the context and the very nature of social issues are ever-changing. This is to say they embrace change – they see it as a constant.

However, change draws heavily on resources. Amidst all the change initiated by the Province, public servants and the nonprofit sector need to continue to provide essential social services. There can be no interruption. Quality cannot be compromised. But what is the capacity of the public service and the nonprofit sector to manage the change brought on by more restructuring and new leadership?

Prior to this latest cabinet shuffle, concerns were being raised about the pace of changes. Let’s hope the newly assigned ministers of affected departments are mindful of this as they establish their agendas.