Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Alberta Economic Summit and Tough Decisions

Most people celebrate the removal of a knee brace by doing something celebratory and fun.  I, on the other hand, celebrated by attending the Alberta Economic Summit on Saturday past.  The Summit was a gathering of politicians, academics, business leaders and citizens who passionately explored, dissected, discussed and debated the future of Alberta.

“Ah”, some might say.  “Harry is a sucker for punishment on the heels of his injury”.


As a long time Wall St. / Fortune 25 strategy advisor, I could not pass up the opportunity to participate in the Summit and I wasn’t disappointed by what I witnessed.

The Summit turned out to be an insightful, fascinating dialog representing ideas from the left, the right, the center and some people who have no idea where they stand.

Some ideas were nonsensical or worrisome …. for example:

Heather Smith, President of the United Nurses of Alberta, suggested that many problems in Alberta’s economy would automatically be solved if we had more public servants – that bigger is always better.  Sadly, here is an example of how well Alberta Health Services is doing when it comes to cost containment. <<Editor note: Sorry for the dead link – the Calgary Herald has subsequently removed the article that was referenced>>

Gil McGowan, President of the Alberta Federation of Labour, when confronted about the challenges regarding productivity, cited some mumbo jumbo about per capita public-servant-to-citizen ratios compared to other provinces as proof of productivity when the question was in regards to increasing individual and collective productivity.

Angus Watt of the Angus Watt Advisory Group and his response to a PhD candidate’s question about attracting more VC or other investment capital that was so wishy-washy that it almost sounded defeatist – as if investment capital would not be welcomed or would not work in Alberta.  I liked some of his other ideas but this one struck me as disappointing.

Some ideas were right on target …. for example:

Jim Prentice, vice-chairman of CIBC, for comments along the lines of “Canada being too complacent when it comes to making the most of its resource wealth” and “Canada not playing the global energy game with much skill, foresight or cohesiveness.”

Hal Kvisle, President of Talisman Energy, in his observations regarding the cost of doing business in Canada, the red tape that exists and the need to improve the productivity of workers in Canada.

Dr. Joseph Doucet of the University of Alberta, who resonated with me deeply with his call to implement metrics to measure productivity baselines, implement change and then measure the effectiveness of such change.  As Dr. Doucet and I agreed later in a one-on-one conversation, the great challenge with metrics is that the use of them introduces transparency and accountability, something not always welcome within government or any organization with productivity skeletons in their closet.

Peter Tertzakian of ARC Financial Corp, who shared insightful, pragmatic, strategic views on getting fair value for Alberta’s resources and his analogy that we need to focus on where we are going and not how fast we are going (the “staring at the dashboard to see how fast I am driving versus the importance of looking out the windshield” analogy).

Big Brothers and Big Sisters Edmonton Executive Director Liz O’Neill’s compelling ask of government not to cut programs while at the same time, sharing her brilliant analysis of how not-for-profits can execute more strategically, more efficiently, more effectively and with greater impact on those who consume not-for-profit services.  Her insight should should be required reading for ANYONE in the not-for-profit sector.

Leo de Bever, CEO of AIMco, in his correct assertion that not all taxes are evil when applied strategically nor is all debt bad when leveraged strategically.

Some were close ….

Dr. Tom Flanagan from the University of Calgary was close in his message regarding the need to cut spending and get spending back under control.  However, across-the-board cuts that he was calling for will have a crippling effect on the Province and I would prefer that enhancing productivity be sought instead, achieving the same effect of reining in unnecessary spending.  Ensuring that spending is more effective is just as valuable (or more) than merely cutting it just because it is inefficient.

And there was some fun ….

I was delighted that Danielle Smith, Leader of the Official Opposition, took a couple of minutes to chat with me.  In fact, I was doubly delighted when, as I approached her, she looked at my name badge and even though we had never met before, recognized me when she said “You’re the guy who is always tweeting at me”.  I was appreciative of the couple of minutes we spent together and I thanked her for her tireless service to Albertans. 

What was clear

For the sake of brevity, I can’t name every speaker and in truth, most of them did make some good points.  I also have to give a special nod to Gil McGowan for being the most energetic, engaging speaker (and he did make some good points despite my previous criticism).

A few things were clear to me as I participated in this Summit.

1. It takes guts, courage and strong leadership for Premier Redford to call such a group together and even smile while some panellists lobbed verbal grenades in the direction of her, her government and her political party.  The other leaders in attendance should also be complimented for attending and participating in the collaborative spirit of the forum.

2. While some people are proclaiming gloom and doom in the media, Alberta stands upon the strongest foundation of perhaps any area of North America and is poised to exploit this foundation if done so intelligently, being able to answer the strategic questions of “Why?” and “How do you know?” when making decisions.

3. The people representing the public sector seemed to bristle when the use of data, accountability and measuring productivity were brought up - things that MUST be on the table.  I grow weary of people who believe they are untouchable or who cite their own studies as proof that they are as productive as possible, especially when said people represent a MAJOR piece of the cash outlay of any government.

4. People fear taxes and debt “just because” instead of applying facts and science to the appropriate use of either (or they cherry pick data that feeds and justifies their fear).  Such fear is not rational nor is it intelligent when it means that one might avoid what could be the best choice of many difficult ones.

5. If you are the type of person who likes to please everyone, then politics is the last vocation you ever want to consider.

6. If the Alberta Government can figure out how to bottle and sell Barb Higgins’ secret to eternal youth, then their revenue problems are solved forever.

The Solution – Legislatively Speaking

1. Taxes aren’t inherently evil when used appropriately.  New taxes may need to be introduced intelligently in some form to solve Alberta’s financial challenges.  And besides …. lotteries have been referred to as a tax on the ignorant and we seem to have no trouble tolerating those sources of revenue!

2. Debt isn’t evil when one is leveraging low rates strategically to build for the future and may also need to be considered in some form.

3. Having one primary customer for one’s resources (i.e. the United States and oil products) is suicide for any business.  While the evolution of this was strategically short-sighted, we have other options that must be pursued aggressively.

4. Spending must be brought under control using sharp measurable outcomes, intelligent baselines and appropriate metrics.  As someone who has measured productivity, including in the public sector, when people like Heather Smith aggressively assert that healthcare is running at optimal productivity, I don’t know if I should burst out in laughter, tears or indignation. 

5. Enhancing efficiency and productivity trumps cuts any time.

The Solution – Societally Speaking

As someone who was privileged and honor to be invited to attend the event by MLA Rick Fraser, I had an opportunity to see democracy in action.

I was able to observe, listen to and participate with passionate, intelligent, eloquent people who are all focused on creating a better world for future generations.

And while we couldn’t agree on everything (and some things were generally rejected as insane) having the opportunity to experience and participate in the formation of our future is what makes democracy great.

For all the naysayers that I observed, especially in social media, I can only say this.

If the best you can do is lob verbal grenades and be critical of everything without offering anything of substance, then you don't deserve democracy.  You deserve a system that will really make you miserable and will then give you something to complain about.  But by then, you will not be permitted to have a voice.  Oh well – good luck figuring that one out.

In the meantime, the rest of us will do the best we can with democracy and no matter where we stand, far left, far right or somewhere in the middle, we must continue to listen to each other, to work together and to pick the best ideas of the many available to ensure healthy sustainability for the generations to come.

The tough decisions facing Albertans and all citizens of the world are not only within the responsibility of politicians to deal with.

They are a call for all citizens to complain less, contribute more and work collectively to build a better future.

It’s easy to hold governments accountable and responsible for solving our problems.

It’s much more difficult but equally or more important to hold ourselves accountable and responsible for contributing to the solutions that we need to strive towards.

Great futures don’t happen by accident.

They are created wilfully, strategically, intentionally, factually, collaboratively and passionately.

And so the tough decisions aren’t just for someone else to make.

They are for all of us to make.

Are you helping creating a better future for yourself, your family, your community, your province / state, your country and the world-at-large?

How do you know?

In service and servanthood,


Addendum – February 28, 2013

On February 28, 2013, Dr. Tom Flanagan, referenced in this blog, was dumped as an advisor to the Wildrose Party after making comments questioning the harm of child pornography.  The story can be read here.  I wonder if the story should be entitled “How to end a career in an instant”.

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