One of the major challenges facing municipal governments is the decrease in highly qualified personnel that can enter municipal service to replace retiring staff. Although new programs at the university and college level do seem to produce a few more graduates, it remains to be seen if these skilled applicants will choose to settle in more remote or sparsely-populated regions, or if they will solely be knocking on the doors of the GTA. Moreover, we might ask if the number of graduates will be enough to satisfy succession planning initiatives. In this post, I will discuss an option that may seem to be a stopgap, but that ought to be implemented as a core strategy in every municipal administration. There are two takeaways of this post: (1) Investment in skills acquisition and networking opportunities for staff will eventually result in net benefit; and (2) Organizational development begins with staff development as the essential ingredient to operational excellence.
Scarce financial resources in the municipal context has meant staff are asked to do more with the same or less. At other times, where budgets allow, there might be up-front investment in equipment or software designed to improve productivity and efficiency, but existing staff may not have access to the resources to obtain the necessary training. It is no secret that adopting, say, a whole new records management software system may be a swell idea, but if the staff are not trained in it, its value is limited. In order to optimize the integration of new software and equipment, training is required. Simply throwing tools at people without adequate training is not likely to go very far. If we understand staff as a form of “soft asset,” then skills enhancement only improves upon the value of that asset.
It is not just software and equipment that changes over time, but practices and processes. There are those who specialize in designing innovative and more efficient ways of delivering services, just as there are those among staff who by trial and error come upon a better way of doing what they have always done. How do these innovations travel? How are they communicated? In what ways can they be better communicated across the entire municipal sector?
There is no doubt that senior management will generally have more opportunities to connect via conferences and retreats with their equivalents from other municipalities. There, they can learn new strategies for more effective management in their area, and compare notes on what does or does not work. Imagine, however, if we could extend something similar to staff, providing them with the means to acquire new skills, upgrade existing skills, and to network with their contemporaries.
There are three parts to this solution: skills acquisition/upgrading, networking, and cross-training. The first two have an external component, while the third can be done in-house.
* Skills Acquisition/Upgrading: There are a number of options to enhance the skill set of staff. These might include workshops provided by the supplier (for example, any workshop offered by the supplier of a new piece of software), or courses at the postsecondary level, be that college or university. In the latter case, the employer would effectively subsidize the staff member to attend school on a part-time basis while also maintaining their status and duties in the office. As there are increasingly more options for distance learning, this can be done at a more flexible pace.
* Networking: Just as management and other professionals see a benefit in connecting with others in their field, the same might prove a benefit for staff. As stated above, comparing notes on what does or does not work, sharing innovations, and developing rapport with one’s contemporaries can enhance the sense of pride in one’s role in addition to learning new ways to improve productivity.
* Cross-Training: A flexible, robust, and dynamic workplace should contain a commitment to a staffing philosophy whereby it can be responsive to the occasional absence or other contingency.
And this brings us to the role senior management can play in cultivating a training culture as part of staff and organizational development. I can break this out into smaller component parts as a guideline:
Role Benchmarking: As role assessment is generally done in cycles to evaluate each staff member’s job description, this can be bundled together with role benchmarking. This practice allows for better measurement that identifies what gaps exist between staff performance and optimal result. This should never be used to punish staff, but as the beginning of a conversation between management and staff to problem solve together. And that brings us to...
Staff Feedback Sessions: These can be done individually and in groups. In order to save time, skip the negative stuff everybody already knows, such as budget constraints and staffing shortages. In fact, it is a bad idea to lead with the budget as a motivation to simply “do better” or “more with less.” The budget may be used to trim or adjust expectations, but too often the talk of money forecloses other opportunities that may in fact be cost neutral or will deliver a stronger return on investment. The real focus of this exercise is to ask staff “what obstacles do you face?” and “what can we do to assist you in optimizing performance?” Tying that in with the prospect of providing training opportunities externally (courses, degrees) or internally (cross-training) may result in some positive uptake. As an added bonus, it demonstrates the leadership of management in being engaged with its staff on a collaborative level.
Individual Development Plan (IDPs): Optionally, coming out of these sessions, staff members might be invited to prepare a summary of development strategies that would both help them achieve their career goals, and that of operational excellence. These strategies should be within reasonable limits; i.e., not everyone requires an expensive MBA to perform their jobs, but it can only be of some benefit to assist an employee who works with the budget in their desire for an accounting designation.
Implementation: If the IDPs include a reasonable and achievable timeline for training goals, management is then tasked with an approval process for any continuing education or workshops the staff member has outlined. These timelines are critical to ensure that, if a staff member will require a reduced workload to pursue further studies, there is no interruption in service.
Supporting the training goals of staff comes with some risks, and this is beyond just the expenditure. Some managers may fear that enhancing the professionalization of their staff will make them more marketable, and thus there is always a small risk of experience-flight. That is, the staff member who realizes her or his value is higher and says, “thanks for the CGA! I’m resigning and taking up a new job that pays better in the municipality next door.” No manager wants their department to be viewed as simply a stepping stone to better work elsewhere, as that would not be a good return on investment locally (but it would benefit the municipal sector at large). But we should not exaggerate this risk, for if the staff member enjoys a good work environment and is committed to the community in which they live and work, it is more likely they will stay.
ROI may not be immediately evident, but it will show in the long term as departments become more productive and efficient as a result of training opportunities. A certain patience is required as cost savings will not materialize overnight.
What is truly risky is denying training opportunities to staff. Assuming all managers want to see their departments functioning at optimal levels, withholding investment in staff training is a lot like owning a home and never doing any repairs or improvements. Your staff can only achieve at the very top of the skills they possess.
Overtraining may also be a risk. Be sure that it is a voluntary training culture that is supported, not a mandatory training dictatorship! There are obviously situations where additional training is absolutely required, but in other cases it should simply be encouraged and supported.
There is no doubt that, for many municipalities, the provincial desire in the 1990s in returning to wholesale municipal restructuring (not seen since the regionalization and county restructuring initiatives of the 1960s and 70s) was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the appearance of inviting local design and solutions, much of the amalgamations were in the hands of the provincial government through its proxy commissioners. The “logic” behind these amalgamations was to streamline service delivery and achieve cost reductions by eliminating duplication, as well as downloading some of the more costly provincially provided services unto municipalities through what was then called the Local Services Realignment. The impact of increased roles and responsibilities was supposed to be offset by amalgamating municipalities into larger units that could afford to take on the added burden. Although today the current provincial government has made steps to upload some of these services, this does not prove sufficient to fully rectify the issues that came of amalgamation or reverse the damage that was done during the Harris “common sense revolution.” In fact, even if all the services downloaded on municipalities were to be uploaded by the province, the financial impact of LSRs would still be felt. It is like suddenly being obliged to make car payments on a car one cannot afford, and even if those payments are taken over by someone else, you’re still out the payments you made that could have gone to other spending priorities.
Bigger is Not Always Better
It is one thing when two groups unite voluntarily because cooperation and collaboration may provide stronger advantage, and quite another to be forced into unification for survival. The crisis was not of the municipal sector’s making - things were financially on relative even keel after the restructuring experiments of the previous decades. It is hard not to see the Harris Government’s move as anything more than a manufactured crisis, and a cheap way of balancing its budget at the expense of a lower tier of government. We see such off- and downloading in the current relationship between the federal and provincial government in terms of eliminating the escalator funding for healthcare, and instead tying it to indirect measures like GDP.
The amalgamations that resulted in what can be deemed a kind of shotgun wedding, created larger municipalities. However, despite what may appear to be a viable solution in going for economic strength through size, this would prove to have an impact on service volume, capacity, level, and quality.
Let’s remember that this provincial exercise where it showed its muscle, was not just some minor, cosmetic change: the number of municipalities decreased by nearly 50%. It not only left a lot of (now merged) municipal governments gasping for air as they took on additional service delivery roles, it also left a bad taste in the mouths of those who believe local governments should have much more autonomy to go along with any additional responsibility - this autonomy largely stripped down courtesy of provincial commissions. Between the new roles and an arduous property tax reform, this not only put a chill on local governments that they had to go about restructuring before the province imposed an uglier solution, but it also was prohibitively expensive - something that undercut the very rationale behind the amalgamation exercise. Transition costs alone would have pretty much eliminated any of the projected savings, and even the projections taken on their own merits without factoring in transition costs did not exactly pan out.
Moreover, the community impact (the so-called “soft” quality of any municipality) is still apparent today. This is not to say that the mergers created in every case a kind of snake and mongoose situation of competing interests and identities, but there are still cultural and community tensions that are tied to older municipal boundaries. For some living in a particular pre-amalgamation enclave, there is certainly a sense of pride in self-identifying with what constituted that enclave’s identity. The loss of autonomy through merger creates a host of problems at the level of perception and identity, with some communities accusing councils of favouring another community at their expense. In some cases, the merged communities have very different interests, goals, and values, some of which are tied to economic identity. For example, an agricultural community may balk at being hitched to a largely dormitory community of ex-urban retirees that embrace gentrification (and, speaking of agri-communities, that is an area that I will address in a future post regarding decline and the need for creative diversification).
So, in sum, what were the previous markers of identity and “place-making” has to be rewritten, almost from scratch or modified substantially to accommodate the new amalgamated arrangement. This can result in an inter-municipal struggle as each community will seek to preserve its unique identity, but also to assert its “dominance.” Such struggles are usually expressed informally in conversation and attitude as residents of a community will say negative things about the other community; and formally through elected representatives on council who may be pressured to fight for the community specifically as opposed to governing for the whole municipality. Such arrangements make it so that each community in the merger sees the other as “alien,” and perhaps as receiving more benefit, or being of a lesser value.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that the restructuring and amalgamation exercise is classic neoliberalism applied. The downloading of responsibility and risk with a proportional loss of power and autonomy is emblematic of the neoliberal modus operandi. The provincial Tories perhaps convinced themselves this was a necessary move, beguiled by the apparent projected cost savings, but those savings came at the expense of a major buck-pass, and even though some of those downloaded services have since been uploaded by the Liberals, it is more akin to an egg: once it is broken, you can’t un-break it. For several years, municipal governments were carrying the load of many provincial services, to the tune of billions. That money is gone.
It is very unlikely that we will ever see a province-wide push for de-amalgamation. Although current trends do not suggest there is much appetite to go through a similar process again, there is also no provincial support for turning back the clock. And nor should there be if only because the process would entail spending a great deal of money undoing all the hard work municipal governments have done in trying to make the amalgamated communities work.
For better or worse, we are all stuck together. However, this can be a moment in which we can shine. There's a very real opportunity being seized by some local governments to redefine and promote a new identity that actually preserves the traditions of the former communities to create more dynamic and diverse identity. There will always be complaints that revolve around perceptions that some other community in the merged municipality is taking on more of the tax burden and receiving less services, but we need to step away from the tax questions and identify what truly distinguishes these new, pluralist community identities. And it is happening - not because, but in spite of, amalgamation.
There has been some chatter in a few circles about revisiting the amalgamation question and pushing it further. Talk of "super-counties" or the elimination of the tier system has been floated. That may possibly be fine if all we really want out of our local government is a large, centralized administrative bureaucracy that has a larger service area, but the wheels fall off the bus of that idea if people actually want effective representative government. Let's always remember the problems that arose when we started cutting down the number of school boards that now have larger areas to administer, or the bureaucratic entanglements of vast intermunicipal boards and agencies (largely only answerable to the province in some cases if they are created by statute). In a future post, I'll explore this question of creating super-counties as really just old wine in new bottles.
Municipalities are the most undervalued level of government in Ontario. They shoulder an incredible burden in the delivery of services, and operate in both representative and administrative capacities. Although attention to municipal affairs becomes so readily eclipsed by the flash of federal and provincial politics, there is nothing more immediate, relevant, and essential than the services provided by your local municipality. It affects us every day - from when we take a shower in the morning, put out our garbage, drive or cycle on the roads, and take our leisure in the many parks and recreational facilities. But, like so many things so close to us, it is easy to take it for granted.
The appetite for change was more than apparent in October, 2014 as several new councils were elected, ushering in a lot of bold and passionate rookies with a desire to put their stamp on policies that are innovative and facilitate constructive change.
It is no secret that municipalities are generally tasked with a lot of the heavy lifting, and yet do not get a proportionate share of the tax pie. Their autonomy is somewhat boxed in by provisions in the Municipal Act 2001 (amended by Bill 130 in 2004). They also face unique challenges with respect to community identity after the Mike Harris government, seeking efficiencies, enacted a double whammy of forced amalgamations and the downloading of services (the arguably inefficient and unjust LSRs - Local Service Realignments). Municipalities in this context still face numerous challenges, but they also have new opportunities - PPPs (private-public partnerships), shared services, dedicated economic development positions, and a growing sense of value has burgeoned in the past several years positioning municipalities as change agents and optimizing their political power to put pressure on provincial government. We have always to remember that municipalities are on the front-line of providing quality of life for residents of this province.
My focus is on rural and sparsely populated municipalities. Their issues and challenges are very much shared across the province. I believe there is a strong and prosperous future for these regions, and there is something far more preferable in said regions that one will not find in a larger, urban centre. The issues these regions face are partially the consequence of demographics, and partially remaining challenges that are holdovers from the 1996 amalgamations. Here are just a few of the many issues, in no particular order, and areas that I will be focusing on in the coming months, years, and (hopefully) in the context of a future municipal career:
There are several new ideas to meet these challenges. Some municipalities are seeking to make themselves “market ready,” and that involves the creation of an economic development officer position (the so-called “Ec-Dev” push), and municipal marketing plans, downtown master plans, beautification, and so forth. Others are pursuing the prospect of expanding their PPPs, as well as seeking shared services arrangements with neighbouring municipalities (for example, the sharing of a fire chief). Boosting culture and environment are also key to inspiring growth and quality of life. I would argue that there is a need to create a Parks & Recreation Director position in every municipality (more on that in a future post).
In the context of strategic planning, I am learning ever more as I go. I suspect that my entry into the MAP program will further my understanding of many of these issues, and empower me to take on a leadership role in advocating for positive change whereby rural and sparsely populated communities thrive and prosper for many generations to come.