When I first heard about the Manning Centre’s Conference on Alberta’s Future, as someone who values ANY conversation about a better path forward, I eagerly signed up. No conversation is bad conversation.

I then spent the next month being extremely excited about the prospect of the discussions this – no doubt – smart group of people was going to have. Then, about a week before the conference, we were emailed the agenda for the conference and my giddiness began to wane.

The agenda had set out something extremely prescribed. The format was to be six topics with the same order:

  1. Presentation by the speaker offering an assessment of Alberta’s current performance along with ideas to improve our performance (20 minutes)
  2. Question period with the speaker (15 minutes)
  3. Small group discussion led by moderators (15 minutes)

Someone please correct me if I got the times for each section slightly wrong. (Note: Normally I wouldn’t make a big deal about maybe getting these small a detail incorrect, but given the moderators singular focus on not going overtime, it seems important to have accuracy in this area. Several times he shouted for “ORDER!” and at one point refused to let a questioner ask her question because of time limitations. In response to her saying, “That’s not fair!” he seemingly with callousness said, “That’s the role of the chair. Next time come to the mic earlier.” At the end of the day he did apologize to everyone if he seemed gruff on the time issue. Agree with him or not, you can’t argue he did a great job keeping things moving forward and ending on time, despite the group’s best efforts to turn the day into solid side conversations.)

After hearing the speaker’s suggested solutions the 15-minute group discussion at your table of 8 people was focussed on answering three questions:

  1. Do we accept the speaker’s assessment of Alberta’s performance in this area? If not, what is our assessment?
  2. Do we agree with the proposed solutions and alternatives? If not, how would we alter them?
  3. What additional ideas, solutions, and alternatives do we think would improve Alberta’s performance in this area?

The group answers to the questions were recorded and handed in as the next speaker was introduced.

Our ambitious schedule for the topics and speakers was as follows:

  1. 09:00 – 09:50 Fiscal Responsibility – Mark Milke – Director of Research, Frontier Centre for Public Policy
  2. 10:00 – 10:50 Balanced economic growth – Michael Percy – Dean, Business School at the University of Alberta
  3. 11:00 – 11:50 Environmental Conservation – Marlo Raynolds – Executive Director, Pembina Institute
  4. 12:45 – 13:35 Democratic Participation – Peter McCormick – Professor of Political Science, University of Lethbridge
  5. 13:45 – 14:50 Health & Education – Peter Cowley – Director of School Performance Studies, Fraser Institute, and Nadeem Esmail – Senior Fellow, Fraser Institute
  6. 15:00 – 15:50 Leadership on the National Stage – Monte Solberg – Former Federal Minister

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the “unconference” model. Recently I’ve attended CivicCamp, TransitCamp (in Edmonton), CivicCamp 2, Reboot Alberta, #yegdata (in Edmonton) and Calgary Conversation 2, all of which have used the unconference model where participants are asked to ‘leave their hat at the door’ to engage as equal citizens and to set the topics of discussion themselves through a quick democratic process. Even when the format for the day is highly prescribed the participants at these events felt engaged because they were controlling the topic of conversation. This is why my giddiness began to wane after seeing the agenda prepared by the Manning Centre. We, as a participants, had no say in the topics we felt were of importance for discussion, and out of a nine and half hour day, participants were only scheduled one and a half hours of time to express their opinions. And even then, two thirds of that discussion was focussed on the speaker’s points, not the participants.

I guess the reason I was disappointed with the format boils down to this: I thought the Conference on Alberta’s Future was occurring, in the words of Nicholas Gafuik, Executive Director of the Manning Centre, “because Alberta is in a time of change and there is a need to generate ideas, proposals, and plans for shaping a more positive and inspiring future for our Province” and I didn’t feel like participants were given much of an opportunity to help achieve any of these goals. Instead the Conference was a conversation about the solutions put forward by the six speakers. Which is still valuable, it just doesn’t help achieve this inspired goal.

Please take a look at the format again: speaker talks for 20 minutes, questions for 15 minutes, followed by a 15 minute small group discussion complete with written notes, then about an hour later it’s on to another session with a different topic. That format reminds me more of school than anything else. And I’m confident very few people would argue school was a place that oriented students to come up with solutions in their classroom. School was about learning – taking the knowledge of the speaker and distilling it into your own life. This certainly is not a bad thing! As a matter of fact, it’s vital! It’s not, however, the format best oriented to “generate ideas, proposals and plans”.

I did feel this was really what I, and the other participants, got out of the Conference on Alberta’s Future too. There was a HUGE amount of learning going on. The speakers were fascinating and provided a litany of information. In some cases, the speaker was providing so much information they needed to skip forward in their notes/slides because they couldn’t even pack everything they wanted to share into 20 minutes! Personally, I learned a lot on each of these six topics this past Saturday, and for that I consider the Conference an un-mitigated success. Unconfrences may be great for coming up with solutions, but someone still needs to drop the knowledge so others may absorb it and come to their own conclusions. And right now, outside of universities, I can’t think of many other venues through which this kind of information is being shared.

My only hope is that the Manning Centre does not try to present the information contained on those sheets handed in at the end of each topic as anything other than a distillation of what the speaker talked about. To present it as consensus or policy suggestions would, in my opinion, be disingenuous. The format for the day was not conducive to that kind of an outcome.

A result of a potential mismatch in goal and format, I think can be seen in the last session of the Conference. During this session, summaries of what was written down by each group on each topic were presented. Following this, attendees were asked to vote on whether or not the summary accurately depicted the conversation had at their table. From what I saw, for the first couple summaries the majority of participants meekly put up their hands for the affirmative, almost to say “yeah, kind of, I guess so, that looks pretty accurate for the most part”. However as things went on, more participants began to realize they had no idea if the information they were being presented with was accurate or not because they were only sitting at one table – they had only participated in approximately 1/16 of the overall discussion. Each conversation was obviously different at each table, so the information on the screen that was different from their conversation just as easily could have been from another table as it could have been made up out of the blue. (The good news is the Manning Centre had previously stated they would make scans of each topic sheet available online. This will allow for verification of discussions, but it still does not make the votes meaningful.)

Another issue with these summaries goes back to what I spoke of earlier in this post: they did not reflect many of the beliefs of the participants, mainly they reflect the discussions we had about the speaker’s talk. So a statement such as “Alberta should invest in technology to help solve the democratic deficit” only means, the speaker mentioned this and we talked about its pros and cons as a potential solution; it does not mean we thought this was the best solution or that it should not be explored in favour of other potential solutions. The questions we were asked did not ask us to rank or make recommendations, instead they simply asked us to discuss the speaker’s solutions and to offer some of our own. The result of this format is that two thirds of the ideas on the summaries are the speaker’s ideas – regardless of whether the participants agreed with those ideas or not – because two thirds of the discussion was geared toward discussing those ideas.

This becomes a major issue when you consider there was only one speaker per topic – one set of solutions proposed. The summaries being highly weighted to the issues that speaker spoke of, and a casual observer can be forgiven for thinking these are the ONLY solutions being offered. This result could already be seen in the discussions being had on Twitter during the conference. When someone writes “new taxation model being explored”, it’s hard not to think the participants are suggesting a new taxation model be explored, instead of taking the statement at face value: we talked about it, no suggestion is being made. If more than one speaker had presented on each topic (something that logistically would have been impossible give the broad-range of topics being addressed) then the line would have been “taxation model A versus taxation model B being explored”. That can no longer be misinterpreted as a simple statement of fact; it is clearly a debate that will result in a suggestion.

In some cases ideas were put on the summary because “one table mentioned” it. Meaning, at best, that idea was discussed by 1/16 of the participants, and even then, they may not have reached consensus it was worth exploring let alone endorsing.

Despite the easy to misinterpret outcomes of the Conference on Alberta’s Future I am incredibly glad I attended. As I said above, we have an understanding deficit and more events like this that are focused on passing on knowledge will only make Alberta an even more well-rounded province of engaged citizens. Something we certainly could use much more off.

I pass on my congratulations to Nicholas and the entire staff at the Manning Centre for putting on an engaging and superbly run event. As I imparted to Preston Manning at the conclusion of the Conference, I hope this is not the last one the Centre does. There is much more to be explored and many more solutions to be discussed. We need more groups and individuals such as the Manning Centre and its namesake who are willing to host events to do just that.