Deputy Agriculture Minister Is Making His Mark

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Subsequent ministers and

their deputies took a knife to that bloated situation, but they may have gone too far.

It’s one of those expectations or maybe fears, depending on your perspective, of what changes new government ministers and deputy ministers bring with them as they assume their offices. I guess it’s part of the political nature of wanting to put your mark on a department, or just trying to make things better.

No one is going to deny that Minister Groeneveld hasn’t put his mark on the agriculture business in Alberta, especially the cattle sector. The words age verification and Groeneveld have become forever linked in Alberta cattle industry history – or infamy, depending on how you feel about that topic.

But there is another person who has literally changed the lives of both a government department and many people. That would be deputy minister John Knapp. I have personally known him for 30 years and worked with him in a previous life, so my views may be biased, but that also gives me the privilege of being forthright.

Upon ascendancy to the deputy minister throne (John is a career bureaucrat) he initiated an internal consulting process that saw him turn the department back to the future – at least sort of. John came out of the glory days of Alberta Agriculture when there was a District Agriculturist on the main street of every town and village in Alberta.

There were busloads of specialists, technicians, home economists, analysts, marketers and experts of every kind, and head office in Edmonton (known as Mecca) was bursting at the seams. Department bureaucrats were so jammed for space they had to sit on each other’s laps and wrestle for parking space.

Subsequent ministers and their deputies took a knife to that bloated situation, but they may have gone too far. Alberta Agriculture almost disappeared from the countryside and seemed to have become a glorified call centre. Back in Mecca, the department devolved into an endless exercise of committee meetings and navel gazing.

To be fair, issues such as BSE, droughts etc. did refocus their perspectives into being a cash cow for hard-pressed producers. Thankfully at the time, powerful minister Shirley McLellan knew how to use her big stick and extract billions of dollars out of the government for producers.

In his redirecting plans, John decided to return in a small way back to the roots of the department. His first step was to reopen Alberta Ag offices in the countryside – at least, 13 of them. They were not the lavish operations of the past, but more attuned to front line face-to-face contact. Part of that process was the reduction of 130 department employees. That pain was somewhat mitigated since many were old veterans who welcomed early retirements or buyouts.

But going back to the future has its risks. The Alberta agriculture industry is not what it was 30 years ago. There does seem to be an understanding of that reality. There won’t be District Agriculturists on every corner in rural Alberta. What has happened is that the department will be working a lot closer with ag fieldmen who work for the various ag service boards in the country. That makes sense – being those folks have been a much under-appreciated resource for many years.

One area that our erstwhile well-meaning deputy and his minister boss have ventured into, which is fraught with minefields, is industry politics. The creation of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency has upset the political apple cart in the cattle industry in particular. Governments hold big sticks over certain groups in this province because of their regulatory powers. That fluid situation emboldens some groups but it scares others, it doesn’t have to be that way.

In their enthusiasm for change, bureaucrats can become arbitrary (really!) so it behooves them to step back sometimes and ask themselves whether there a better, more conciliatory way. It’s not that hard on the ego, guys.

From this old warhorse’s perspective who has seen Alberta Agriculture go through various reincarnations, the search for a perfect department goes on. This latest exercise is one of the better efforts.

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