DM Brad Pickering “An example of
Active Engagement in Practice.”
Nary an eyebrow would be raised among those in the know if they happened to catch Sustainable Resource Development (SRD) Deputy Minister Brad Pickering and Alberta Energy Deputy Minister Dan McFadyen in a lively debate about caribou and moratoriums on mineral dispositions. After all, protecting the vulnerable caribou species in Alberta, a provincial mandate embraced by SRD, often rubs against Energy’s work in business development. Caribou comes up between the two ministries as often as money comes up in some marriages.
However, one particular such dialogue the pair engaged in would raise plenty of eyebrows because it would appear that the deputies had each crossed the floor. In fact, the uninitiated wouldn’t be able to tell which deputy belonged to which ministry. “We got into the discussion a fair length of time,” recalls Mr. Pickering with a chuckle, “and then, there was an unintentional role reversal. I started arguing Dan’s side of the equation and he started arguing mine. It was like we went around the ball in the sense that we each looked at our own side of the ball and why it was important and, then, as the other raised some points, we looked at his side of the issue. I found myself saying that something wouldn’t work because of certain reasons and then realized they were Dan’s reasons, not mine.”
Deputy Minister Pickering’s extensive background in real estate and land negotiation might have tempted him to capitalize on his colleague’s shift in position. “At that point I could have said, ‘Aha, I have him. Now I can close.’ But, instead, we stayed focused on the discussion, the vetting from all sides. We were able to release our individual positions in Energy and SRD and look at the issues from a broader Government of Alberta perspective. The debate continues but now we have a better understanding of the whole picture and a level of comfort and trust in talking about it.”
The open dialogue marked a watershed for the two deputies in embodying a SREM (Sustainable Resource and Environmental Management) approach to conducting business. SREM is a cross- ministry initiative designed to strengthen the way SRD, Energy and Alberta Environment work together in order to become the best environmental managers in the world.
As Mr. Pickering points out, the art of negotiation might not be so far removed from the art of open dialogue, after all. “I trained as a property assessor and evaluator and spent about 14 years doing real estate and real estate development. I did all of the acquisitions, disposals, negotiation and development agreements for Strathcona County/Sherwood park. What I found going through those experiences was that one year there would be a road taking on one side, then a few years later, a road taking on another side. You soon realize what goes around comes around, you have to be fair with people; otherwise, there’s always a day of reckoning. In the public institution context in which I worked, I found that while you naturally strive to achieve your objective, it is wise not to do so at the other party’s expense.
“I also grew to appreciate that you need to give people time and space. If you push people, you typically get a withdrawal; it’s just human nature. If you put that in a context of working with government departments, you have to be clear on what you want to achieve but be open enough to acknowledge that there are other interests and other ways of resolving things. Hopefully, you can achieve that resolution through dialogue.”
Approaches that Mr. Pickering used in his earlier negotiation work have adapted quite readily to the valued principles and behaviors of SREM: Acknowledging diverse positions and asking people questions to try to discover their interests and gain an understanding of their positions. “When we had to go through the centre of people’s house with a road, I’d start the conversation by admitting that this is a house to me, a commodity that trades in the marketplace. ‘That’s the way that I’m looking at it. To you, it is your home and you’re going to look at it a lot differently than I am. Perhaps you raised children here. There are some interests and values you have at stake that I’m not going to be able to compensate you for.’”
Mr. Pickering notes that the counsel Steven Wirth, Director of the Centre for Contemplative Dialogue, provided to the three deputies early on in the SREM initiative had an impact on him. What particularly resonated was the encouragement to test assumptions. “I think we bring preconceived notions to issues and discussions, so it is important to openly test these with others to see if they share them or are operating from a different set of assumptions. The way I get at that is to inquire. I’m now trying to be more deliberate about naming my assumptions and clarifying what they are based on: ‘Here’s my thought process. Tell me if I’m all wet.’”
Deputy Minister Pickering has also learned that building a strong basis of understanding and agreement is vital in the long term. “Sometimes it takes substantial time to achieve a meeting of the minds. However, the reality is that there is not a contract that has been drafted that can’t be broken. It is the true meeting of minds, the underlying agreement and intent that ensures you are working from a solid foundation. The rest is just the paperwork.”
By all accounts, the foundation of collaboration being built between the three deputy ministers through SREM is solidifying. Mr. Pickering notes: “SRD had concerns about an oil company siting facilities below the breaks in the Milk River Basin. Before SREM, we might have just complained about Energy’s release of mineral rights. Instead we discussed the issue and Dan asked his staff to talk to the company. Instead of confronting one another, we accept that we have a collective challenge and determine how best we can work through it together.”
Perhaps the most telling example of the trust that the three deputy ministers have established is the fact that they, together with the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, worked in open collaboration in preparing their budget presentations to the Cabinet Policy Committee. Mr. Pickering says that, “although, there were four departments looking at the prize, we all put what we were asking for on the table. We were able to go to the meeting without worrying about stepping on one another’s toes. Our presentations to the CPC not only reflected our priorities but they we are also respectful of our colleagues’ priorities.
“Budgets are hard to get. You tend to be in a defense mode, protecting the things you are trying to deliver on, budgets you’re trying to protect. I just don’t see that or feel that amongst the three of us any more. We’re not concerned about letting our guard down.”
Deputy Minister Pickering and his colleagues strive to encourage their staff to embrace the SREM approach to collaboration and problem solving. “Intuitively, I think we know when there are issues that relate to someone else’s domain so I encourage staff to pick up the phone and talk to their colleagues. Part of it is making sure that you don’t get blinded by your goals and objectives from a departmental perspective. Consider how the issues affect Environment and Energy and try to see things more from a broad government of Alberta perspective.
“The issues we deal with have a high degree of complexity, a high degree of emotional charge behind them and, sometimes, you think you just don’t need one more thing that might trip you up. However, it’s how you approach things. I’d rather be tripped up now than the day before I go into Cabinet Policy Committee. You might have an opportunity to fix something or change course of direction.
SREM probably takes more time but I believe you get a better result in the end.”