Friday, March 13, 2015

Wicked and Tame Versions of Climate Change

Most complex problems are “wicked” problems. That is, the etiology of these problems is complex, not simple, involving multiple and layered interactions between different causal factors. For example, poverty is a wicked problem – there are a range of causal factors and layers of issues associated with why poverty exists and why it manifests itself in the way that it does. The solution to poverty is also complex – just giving people a living wage helps, but doesn't deal with all aspects of poverty.

Climate change is a wicked problem. We are unsure of all aspects of cause, the interaction between causal factors and what constitutes an impact of climate change versus natural variability.  For example, the role of water vapour, clouds, sun, CO2 and other factors are not fully understood and we have no really robust model of climate which has true predictive power.

Many like to think that problems like poverty, hunger, climate change are not wicked but “tame” problems which we fully understand and which have known causes and effects. Indeed, the whole narrative that “C02 is the primary cause of contemporary climate change” is a convenient, tame narrative since it enables solutions to be proposed which are (in theory at least) “do-able”. The inconvenient truth is that we do not fully understand climate change dynamics and that we are unsure of what causes what when it comes to impacts. We are pretty sure, for example, that extreme weather events are not due to climate change (at least according to the peer reviewed evidence and the IPCC).

The idea of “tame” problems depends on a very strange notion of “consensus science” and the marketing of the idea that “the scientific community is aligned”. In the case of climate science it is abundantly clear that this is not the case. No amount of name calling and labeling can disguise the fact that senior figures in the appropriate disciplines do not subscribe to the tame view of climate change. It is also clear that there has been process corruptions in the way in which science is both gathered and presented, especially by the media.

This is the topic discussed on what I regard to be by far the best blog to read about climate change – that managed by Judith Curry and known as Climate, etc. Judith is a climatologist, a scientist in search for truth, is not funded by fossil fuels and is a genuine scientist of the Popper school (with a deep understanding of the social construction of evidence and scientific practice). But her search is for truth and understanding, not influence and funding. She is a Professor at Georgia Tech.  She is also passionate about not just evidence, but the philosophy of science.

I strongly recommend you spend time exploring Judith’s mindful and insightful blog.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Alberta Universities - Challenging and Uncertain Futures

Two reports, both published in the last few days, should give our Government cause for pause as they think about reducing funding for post-secondary education in Alberta. We are not in good shape.

The first is the annual rankings of Universities around the world. Canada has just three in the top 100 – University of Toronto (16), McGill (35) and UBC (37). For engineering, we can add Waterloo (68).  No Alberta institution makes this grade. What is interesting is that the middle of this list is now increasingly featuring Asian and Latin American institutions. Sometime ago, the University of Alberta indicated its intention to be on this list. It is not.

The second report is from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, which looked at the performance of Canadian institution in terms of key outcomes  - job qualifications and earnings; access to education based on levels of student aid and debt; research funding and reputation. Again, Alberta did not appear to be the shining star of Canada. Indeed, we had the second worst outcomes overall in Canada, slightly ahead of Saskatchewan. The report indicates we are a high cost, low outcome performer.

No doubt the Government of Alberta will seize on this point – “high cost, low outcome” – and blame those who lead and manage our Universities. In some cases, this may well be correct. But the reality is that the Government keeps changing the rules of the game. Making Mount Royal and McEwan Universities, expanding private Universities, permitting degree granting for Colleges, capping tuition, developing clear and focused research strategies which may be appropriate but don't match the skills and capacities of our institutions, changing the basis of funding – all lead to Presidents and their leadership teams working in an atmosphere of constant uncertainty. The high point of this was the difference between a planned addition of monies quickly followed by a budget reduction, all within 2.5 months during the brief tenure of one Minister.

What Alberta needs is a focused strategy for its post-secondary system that goes beyond the crude rhetoric of “skills” and “employability” (not that these are unimportant). Just what do we want our universities and colleges to contribute and what is a plan for enabling this to occur with a sense of stability and focus so that leaders can lead and managers can manage.

Something needs to happen in any case. We sit with our major Universities running deficits and one – Athabasca University – in deep and serious trouble. A bold decision has to be made – merge it with McEwan, close it (it's a jewel in Canada’s crown – our only open university), privatize it or create some kind of public:private partnership.

Making this decision will tell us a lot about the way the Wildrose Prentice Government sees universities.

When Janet Tully and I wrote our book Rethinking Post-Secondary Education we explored the changes which need to occur because the world of higher education is fast changing. We outlined a great many options and strategies which need to be considered, but the key is public commitment to public education. As funding per capita for higher education students declines in real terms, it gets more difficult to be strategic – Presidents and their teams are in “reaction” and “problem solving” mode more often than in planning and development mode. I know, I have been at the table. What they need now is long term, stable funding decisions and a Government that gets out of the way so that they can do the institution building and transformations they see as appropriate to their strategic intent.

Cutting them now at 10% and making no decisions about their future will increase the uncertainty and cause more harm than good. Money isn’t everything with respect to this challenge, as the HEQC of Ontario report makes clear. But it certainly helps.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Alberta: Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste!

There is an old saying in political circles – at least the ones I was involved in: “never let a good crisis go to waste!”

Yet in Alberta, squandering a crisis is what we are used to. In the great rollercoaster of the 1990’s and the present collapse of oil prices, our beloved and simply wonderful Government (sic) avoid tough choices and hope for a rainy day, while at the same time beating up the public service. Klein did it. Prentice is about to do it.

Yet a crisis is a great opportunity to engage, inform and change. As we saw with the GSA issue, if you want to truly engage Albertans they will get engaged. You may have to sort through a range of different issues, but this place is an engaged place, especially when it comes to social issues. It is also a place with a large number of knowledge workers – give us a bone to chew on (like what are the alternatives to running a government on oil and gas fumes?) and we will come up with creative and imaginative responses. If you ask us to change, we will – look at the transformation of our attitudes in just 25 years to LGBT issues. Klein opposed gay marriage and opposed giving equal rights to LBGT. Bill 10 reflects the will of the people and LBGT now have rights not just for GSA’s but under Alberta’s Bill of Rights. Citizens did this. Remember: governments don't start parades, they get in front of one that is moving.

So if the Government are about to miss an opportunity, loud voices are needed to ensure that there is a parade they need to get in front of. Public Interest Alberta has the knowledge and can provide thought leadership, the Alberta Party and NDP seems to have traction (no idea what is happening to either the Alberta Liberals or the Wilder We Are Still Here (We Hope) Wildrose) – but there is no parade. Time for coordinated, concerted action. Time for us to make something useful out of the crisis.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Alberta's Public Servants Deserve a Better Government to Work With

Wildrose Premier Prentice thinks if he says something often enough then Albertan’s will accept it as a truth. For example, if he says often enough that the biggest problem (other than the so-called deficit problem, which is in fact an ideological debt) is the cost of the public service, then this must be true. Trouble is, he is wrong.

First, the public service is the size it is because of decisions the Progressive Conservatives have made. We do realize that part of the Premiers fantasy world is that he represents “new management” (notice that this isn’t the same as new leadership), as if this means that he is the CEO of a completely different and totally new government. Clear nonsense, as we all know. He is leading almost the exact same group of people (with a few exceptions) who agreed to the current salary and pension arrangements, who headed Ministries which were allowed to grow and who gave themselves pay rises.

Second, his suggestion that there is a need for a coordinated approach to public sector pay is exactly what the Redford Government (remember that?) actually did. A group of Ministers who led the largest employers (Jeff Johnson, Fred Horne, Dave Hancock, Thomas Lukaszuk met weekly to coordinate their approach to public sector pay. Jeff Johnson repeated Dave Hancock’s feat of bargaining for teachers pay Provincially rather than via each of the school boards, which used to be their statutory duty. Thus the reason pay is what it is that cabinet and a coordinated group of Ministers made it so.

Third, the reason pensions are not reformed is that Dave Hanckock as Premier “killed” the pension reform bill the former Finance Minister Doug Horner insisted was needed and the Wildrose Premier Prentice has not reintroduced it.

Fourth, Alberta actually spends less per capita on its public services than many other Provinces in Canada. As of now, we rank 6th in Canada in spending per capita on health, education and other public services. After the proposed budget cuts, we will likely by in 8th place. According to figures published by the Royal Bank of Canada, Alberta currently spends about $9,786 per person on public services, slightly less than the average for other provinces. If the proposed cuts are enacted, this would be reduced to $8,905, ahead of only Ontario and Quebec, whose more urbanized populations allow them to deliver services more cheaply.

Fifth, the average teacher is Alberta (and there is a big difference in pay between a starting teacher and a Principal) earns $93,681 – up $9,414 since 2010. The average MLA earns $127,300 – up $49,162 since 2010. We can argue whether these salaries are high or low, but the reality is that the decisions to award them were all made by Government (in fact imposed by Government in the case of teachers – they were not bargained for, they were imposed).

Finally, Alberta’s debts (including debt guarantees, contingent liabilities and program obligations) are around $200,176,000 and rising, though our net debt position is positive. We do pay over $530 million a year in interest payments and we are incurring more debt as we rush to catch up on infrastructure not replenished during the Klein era and not strategically developed to match population growth. We are likely to find ourselves playing constant catch up on this file. Yet at the same time as we accelerate our building program for schools, we are looking likely to be reducing our expenditure on hiring teachers. These are all Government of Alberta decisions.

Attacking the public service and asking them to carry the can so that Government can continue to support those who can afford to pay more taxes and to support a Government that seems ideologically incapable of making sound economic decisions (as we shall soon see – budget on March 27th) is lowering morale. Many of the smartest people in Government are looking to leave and will do so when the Government starts to reintroduce pension reform and roll back wages. We need to honour and respect smart public servants and encourage them to act not as supplicants to a lost and gone Government but as servants for the public good. High quality, strategically focused and capable public servants who are remunerated well for the work they do and act as representatives of the peoples interest is exactly what Alberta desperately needs right now. Attacking them and making them “scapegoats” undermines them. Not at all what Alberta needs.

Monday, March 09, 2015

Guest Blog: Don’t Blame the Premier for ‘Mansplaining’ J-C Couture and Stephen Murgatroyd

“Basically all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs.” This regrettable slip from Premier Jim Prentice that awkwardly attempted to summarize the contested history of our province has understandably evoked outrage from many quarters including advocates for the one in ten of Albertans (including the 48,000 children) who live in poverty. Then there is the pesky problem of the growing disparity between women and men documented in a recently released study by Queen’s University law professor Kathleen Lahey. As her report illustrates, Alberta women’s full-time earnings – now the lowest in Canada compared to men - were 63% of men’s, much lower than in neighbouring Saskatchewan, where women earned 80%.

For many Albertans the premier’s unintended dismissal of a variety of economic and social conditions linked to ‘women’s issues’ cannot be ignored. We need to look no further than the cuts being contemplated to public education in the coming budget. The projected loss of 2,000 teachers this fall will devastate the teaching profession, 78 per cent of whom are women and who work an average of 56 hours a week – more than any of the OECD countries except Japan. Then there is the fact that Alberta remains one of the last three provinces in the country to introduce full day kindergarten or that we remain the one of the lowest performers on the United Nations’ indexes for readiness to learn and support for daycare. All of these realities fall disproportionately on the laps of Alberta women who already do more hours per week (35) of unpaid housework than any other province.

While these conditions blow apart the Premier’s assertion that Albertans have had “the best of everything” rather than joining in on the frenzy of twitter and piling on our hapless Premier - who we actually believe wants to get it right – we would rather take pause and consider more sympathetically “mansplaining” as a way to understand the Premier’s mystifying comments. 

Perhaps if Premier Prentice had read, “How to be a man in 2015” by the Guardian columnist, Max Olesker, his troubles could have been avoided.  As Olesker writes, “I’m not sure when I first heard the term “mansplaining” – the act of a man explaining something condescendingly to a woman – but I do know that as soon as I became aware of it I felt terrified that I’d inadvertently done it at some point.”

After considering his comments as an example of ‘manslpaining’, one would hope that Premier Prentice is as mortified by his comments as many Albertans are. Whether it is the Premier’s unintended dismissal of women’s issues or the prospect that he may hollow out public education and support for Alberta’s children and youth, whatever course he chooses in the upcoming March 26 budget, hopefully he will not resort to another episode of ‘mansplaining.’

Instead he could chose to focus on making Alberta one of the most equitable communities in Canada. The evidence is clear that the more equitable a society is the healthier it is, the longer people live, there is less crime, more students finish school, college and university and wellness and happiness rise. Unequal societies make sure that some do well whilst most do not.

Alberta is becoming more unequal - we can see this in our school systems and the way in which those with special needs are neglected and included into classrooms which make no sense to anyone: too many students, not enough support and too little capacity to manage these complex situations all thoroughly documented in a recent independent report.

Teachers, perhaps when looking in a mirror, don’t blame themselves – they look to a systems failure to imagine and then delivery a better future for all Albertans. Meanwhile, as documented by our colleague Pasi Sahlberg of Harvard University, it is well-established that the road to educational development is through a commitment to gender equality at all levels of society.

Yet here in Alberta, we are quickly losing the capacity for schools to be great places for all students especially in the context of the growing diversity and complexity of Alberta’s school communities (see here for an in depth analysis).

So rather than ‘mansplain’ this away, Premier Prentice might want to start to explain why he is seeking to promote inequality, embrace austerity and become the voice and representative of a small cadre of Alberta’s elite who are - not by accident -  typically males.

Dr. J-C Couture coordinates research with the Alberta Teachers’ Association. Stephen Murgatroyd is a freelance writer, consultant and imaginer. Although self-professed nurturing males they too struggle with ‘mansplaining.’ 

What do we Know About Wildrose Premier Prentice?

What do we know now about Wildrose Premier Jim Prentice? What does his actions, words and behavior tell us about him? This is what I am observing:

He is imperial – he expects his instructions to be followed, for example by Committees of the House over which he has no jurisdiction. He alone rules. He sees his cabinet members as followers not colleagues and we have seen several of them blindsided by his decisions or contradicted.

He has partial hearing – he listens with one ear to the corporate entities that have supported the PC’s for over 40 years and doesn’t listen at all to those who take a rational cold look at Alberta’s situation. He is quick to ensure that people know he cant hear them by repeatedly denying major opportunities for transformative change. This is coupled with the fact that he is partially sighted – he can only see in one direction.

He has visions – he sees where others can and is sure that his visions represent the ‘new reality’ of Alberta. A much smaller, leaner and meaner public service; a more compliant public; a less needy group of people even if they are working poor, single parents, disabled or otherwise in need of our collective support.

He is positioning himself as a saviour without the necessary characteristics of compassion, engagement, healing or ability to inspire. Indeed, he is fast becoming an anti-saviour, having engendered more resentment in a shorter time than any of his PC predecessors.

 He is not to blame. Indeed, he positions himself as faultless and his government as having been sent by some divine process to “save Alberta”. The fact that almost all the people around the cabinet table conspired to get us into the situation we now need saving from is ignored in the new rhetoric of “Prenticism”.

He is strategically na├»ve. He is presenting himself as a strategist, yet his policy positions are imported (cut Government, promote austerity, ensure the rich are happy) – which is no strategy for Alberta. What Alberta needs is honest straight-talk – without looking in a mirror – a systematic, results based approach to budgeting, selective and strategic budget reductions in Government departments, a rethink of health care, strong devolution in education (massively reducing the role of Government and trusting school boards and schools), a new regime for revenue which follows the advice of the Premiers Council on Economic Strategy and a much more effective, transparent and engaging system and process of governance for Alberta. His strategy – import Republicanism and take a shotgun to the budget rather than a snipers rifle – is not a strategy at all.

He is not a leader. Genuine, authentic leaders engage and inspire. He has enraged and created despair amongst those who have spent their life rethinking Alberta and trying to help Alberta communities and Government become the Alberta the world needs to see.

So that is what I think we know about our Wildrose Premier. He does dress well, is articulate and seems to be a stable and mindful person. I am sure he genuinely believes he is doing the right thing. The trouble is, it is not right for Alberta.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Alberta is One of The Wealthiest Places on the Planet - Why Do We Have a Financial Crisis?

Let us get one thing clear. Alberta is a very wealthy place. Here is a table of GDP per capita for each Canadian Province / Territory and the UK (source Statistics Canada and Gov.UK)

State / Province
GDP/Capita (US$) 2014
Newfoundland and Labrador

Nova Scotia
New Brunswick

We have more than twice the tax room of the UK, yet our Government behaves as if we are “maxed out” on taxation for corporations, individuals and resources. While all agree that services should be provided as efficiently as possible, almost no one agrees that this should be the only way in which Alberta responds to the incompetence of the present Government (which got us into this mess by not thinking clearly about its dependency on royalty revenues).

Part of the problem is that the GDP/per capita figures masks the rising nature of inequality in Alberta. We have a growing number of working poor, poverty is rising and women, FNMI, recent immigrants and those facing energy poverty get hit hard by rising prices and the cost of housing. Those at the top of the pile want to preserve the status quo (and they bankroll the present government), those at the bottom of the pile have no voice.

This is why the current debate about budgets and the role of Government is so important. Wildrose Premier Jim Prentice has a chance in a generation to fundamentally change the paradigm and do the right thing. From all he is saying, he will keep the paradigm and reinforce its key idea: let the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and we can screw the middle class (especially the public servants). This is pure Republicanism come to Canada. It is the tragedy that is about to happen in Alberta.

There will be fancy rhetoric, all sorts of doom and gloom and all sorts of promises that “front line services will not be impacted by any of our decisions”. Its all a smoke screen for what is about to happen. Just follow the money – see who wins and who looses.

It is “trickle down” economics with a touch of austerity and a big dose anti-professionalism. Klein-Smart. It is the new Republicanism, the new cocktail for the rich. All of which we have clear and compelling evidence that it will not work and is more likely to make things worse than better.

What is interesting is that we have no opposition to speak of. No alternative to vote for in the snap election that Wildrose Premier Prentice seems likely to call. This too is part of the new Republicanism – we replace monarchy with monarchy and call it something else.

Alberta is in trouble. It need not be. But it is. Will anyone offer to save us from the new WIldrose Premier?