Introduction & Getting Started

Reflections on a year in Economic Development in Alberta – Part 1


A year ago, I took a leave of absence from Berlin Communications when I was asked by one of our clients, Invest Alberta, to join their executive leadership team. I joined because I was amazed at the opportunity to position Alberta globally, and it sounded interesting and fun. I worked on developing Alberta’s brand position in the global market, and attracting high-impact, high-value companies to choose to come here. It was an informative look “behind the curtain” for someone who’s never worked in the public sector before, and I had some incredible experiences learning about what motivates companies to move here.  I’ll share some thoughts and observations in a series of posts over the next few days.

Nothing in the series is confidential or commercially sensitive information – it is simply my synthesis of publicly available information mixed with my own point of view. I’d be happy to discuss any of the topics here in more detail if you’d like. Please be in touch if so.

Getting Started

Prior to joining, I had spent some time with Invest Alberta’s inaugural CEO, David Knight-Legg, learning about the vision for the organization and what he hoped to achieve. He’s an exceedingly persuasive guy, and he convinced me to take a temporary leave from Berlin to help get it going. So I was excited by what was possible, but also very aware of the magnitude of getting the organization up and running. Starting a Crown Corp is a big and complicated undertaking, with many different people who are impacted, and who have ideas about how it should go. At Berlin, we worked several years ago as the agency for Energy Efficiency Alberta, which was unlike Invest Alberta in its subject matter, but quite like it in terms of the priority that it was given by the government of the day as well as the public and media interest in the work. 

Governments set up various arms-length organizations to carry out specific functions in many different instances – we’ve worked with Crown Corps as well as Delegated Authority Organizations, which is another mechanism that the Government of Alberta has at its disposal to get certain specific things done. It is an unusual space where you have in some ways a market-focussed mandate, but also accountability to the elected and unelected components of the sponsoring government. When I went in, I had thought it would feel about halfway to government and halfway to the private sector. I’d now say it’s closer to the government side of the continuum. The operations of most Crown Corporations are publicly funded, and this requires a level of oversight and accountability to the public, through the government. 

Governments are in many different lines of business, and often that work can be done from within a department. However, there are good reasons to have a specific scope of the government’s work done by an arms-length entity sometimes, and Crown Corps are set up for this purpose. Clear delineation at the outset of the reporting relationships, governance, funding agreements, and scopes of work are important to build a foundation of long-term collaboration and success. You’d often hear the analogy “building the plane while flying it.” I think that’s apt. I saw some similarities in this regard between Energy Efficiency Alberta and Invest Alberta – there’s a ton of pressure put on these things to shine and succeed right away, and that’s a really hard thing to do. It takes time to get the right people at the table, develop all the right stakeholder relationships, get into a good rhythm of the work, and deliver results. This is true in business as well. 

You’ve probably heard a band or artist say “it took me years to become an overnight success!” Things rarely just all fall neatly into place – it takes a little while to get there. If I were advising a government on the evaluation of a new Crown Corp, I’d urge a combination of patience plus accountability. We’ve been doing Berlin for 10 years now, and in some ways it seems like we’ve just started to get good at it. I’m sure a Crown Corp doesn’t get a 10-year runway in a 4-year election cycle, but it will take some time to determine whether the investment will pay off.