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"Smart" Management at City Hall

Wed Nov 7, 2007 Miss Vicky 

So the Mayor "unveiled" his budget plan today. From what I heard, it wasn't much of a plan. Certainly not worth the buildup of the last couple of weeks. Apparently he's going to bring in "new ideas" and "smart management". Um....okay. What exactly does this mean?

The Citizen has helpfully put the speech on their website, so I was able to watch it this evening.
Lots of words, little substance, in Miss Vicky's opinion. And pretty predictable.

During the first part of the speech, he prattled on about his "achievements" in the year since the election. Apparently he and council "have changed the nature of many debates... this is what leadership is all about". Apparently council never embraced the idea of waste diversion before he came on board. He's taking credit for the green box program, despite the fact that this was several years in the making. Oh, and he killed that evil crack pipe plan. He seems pretty oblivious to the fact that council is as divided and dysfunctional as ever (Albion Road, anyone?), that his strategic directions exercise was a wasteful and ridiculous process, and that he has failed to secure council's commitment to his zero-tax-increase promise. I suppose he has change the nature of the debate by defining a zero tax increase as 2% for infrastructure and another 1 point something for the police. But somehow I don't think that's what he meant...

Ignoring the three something percent tax increase he's already committed to, he discussed how to achieve his zero-means-zero "mandate". Staff has been directed to find 188 million in cuts and operational efficiencies in the next 3 years. He said he thinks city management will find them but believes we can find much more if leaders are "consistent, courageous and focused" on changing the way the city operates.

That's all well and good, but what exactly are his ideas for achieving this? The speech was a little thin on details.

He did offer some hints, though. Apparently smart growth is going to require "smart management"... whatever that means.
He cited general administrative overhead (HR, IT and other departments) as one place where "smart management" could be applied. He wants to reduce it from 7% of the budget to 5%. How, exactly? Why, innovation! business intelligence! technology! and of course "courage, focus, and the will to make it so".

Apparently, "sometimes leadership is about setting targets". And then you simply "make it so".

The one concrete commitment he made in the speech was to create the "Mayor's Task force on e-government and Smart Management, which will harness the resources of Ottawa's leading technology community to recommend how we can adapt a business 2.0 model in the city of Ottawa". Details to be announced later; recommendations to be brought to council.

Miss Vicky is not entirely sure what a "Business 2.0 approach" would entail. Does it have anything to do with the Business 2.0 magazine that recently went under?

I predict the task force will be a massive waste of time and resources and will result in no earth-shattering changes to the city's operations. Unless, of course, councillors buy into the mayor's real agenda, which is to confuse public service with private enterprise and outsource as much as he can.

Getting more to the point, the mayor talked about "what services we choose to deliver and what would be more efficiently delivered by others". Apparently we need to understand core services and "focus on excellence". Again, no details. Kent Kirkpatrick has it in hand (that would be the dumb management we have, not the smart management we still need to get, if one takes Mayor Larry literally). When he eventually cut to the chase, he started talking about "contracting to specialists". "Why do we own our own parking meters", he mused. Hamilton privatized theirs, why don't we? Next suggestion: finding an outside agency to consolidate municipal and utility billing.

and therein lies the rub. Outsourcing. We can't be surprised that this is his agenda. He made his money outsourcing (and heck, if tenders go Calian's way, he'll make even more). Problem is, outsourcing in the public sector does not always result in efficient, quality services or even cost savings in the long run.... remember Walkerton?

Further musings: "do we have to own a hydro company to ensure dependable electricty in Ottawa"?

"You can go through the list of services from recreational services, some parts of our social programs... but those conversations will be ahead of us in the next year."

I agree with him on one point: there is no magic bullet to the city's financial woes. And that includes the selling off and contracting out of municipal services, thereby resulting in less control over quality and service delivery, less accountability, and (dare I say it?) less value for money in the long term.

I'd say it's going to be an interesting debate but I am dreading it already. City Hall is like a bad vaudeville show these days - embarrassing to watch. Between the police investigation of the Mayor, his political posturings, the ridiculous strategic directions process and now this cynical lead-up to the budget, wherein city staff are given a directive that no one (except perhaps our delusional mayor) expects them to meet without substantial cuts to city services, Miss Vicky's usual pastime of City Hall-watching has become more and more difficult.

And she suspects it won't get any easier.

Some people were moved to reply

Blake Nov 8, 2007 12:47 PM said:

I always like to read Miss Vicky. It brings balance into my life :-)

The one point I would like to add to her discussion here is if everything she says is true, how do we solve the cash problem at City Hall? Do we simply raise taxes to cover the gap? The fact that our costs to run the city are rising faster than the rate of inflation is of concern to me but I don't hear anyone screaming at that.

I would offer that "Smart Management" is not about the people that run City Hall but the process in which they do so. There are a group of councillors who are quite fine with the way City Hall is funded and the way that services are doled out.

In most of the press printed on the Mayor's speech, whose reaction did they focus on? Diane Deans and Kent Kirkpatrick. Did you read that Bob Monette thought the speech was good? Did you read all of Mr. Kirkpatrick's statements that said the outsourcing is a viable alternative and they need to look at it more?

We bloggers need to be careful not to just rehash the newsprint but add to the discussion from an informed point of view. Don't take that the wrong way. Miss Vicky is well versed on Ottawa politics.

The upcoming budget debates will be interesting for sure. We will have a lot to write about but in the end, I for one, will be interested in which councillors are really trying to keep our taxes down while providing proper services. And when we ultimately get to the next round of elections, I hope that Ottawa institutes the "Smart Vote".

Miss Vicky Nov 8, 2007 01:24 PM said:

Ah, but none of the Mayor's ideas will have any impact on this year's budget crunch. if they are indeed able to outsource (and that is another blog topic entirely) it would not happen for a while and indeed would need to be analysed very closely to determine whether it would not result in more costs in the long term.... the end result of a lot of outsourcing fiascos.

I would suggest that saying no to the police service's never-ending demands for more money would be one place to start. If they don't get their 9% increase - or even if they don't get all they want - that could go a long way toward protecting some of the services people rely on. If efficiencies could be achieved by merging billing and collections, why could these efficiencies not be made in-house?

It is also important to recognize that council and staff have cut to the bone in many areas during the last several years. Overtime and stress are a huge problem at City Hall, which suggests to me that the issue is that we do not have enough staff, not that we need to cut more. So perhaps it is time to look at all options, INCLUDING a tax increase to address the revenue shortfall at City Hall.

In my opinion, it's not about maintaining the status quo. The status quo is clearly not working. But these annual budget shenanigans, where staff are directed to come forward with cuts and efficiencies in the name of a tax freeze, followed by a massive public outcry and efforts to protect important services (Witness the Library Board's recent "we need a 5% increase or we'll have to close libraries"), followed by a grudging acceptance of a minute tax increase designed not to address the growing infrastructure gap or even consider an expansion or adjustment in services but to pacify a majority of councillors so they can get the bloody budget passed.... it's just getting old. Mayor Larry's unrealistic approach is not helping, nor is inability to build a team among council or even get senior staff on side. So we are kind of stuck with the status quo by default because the climate prevents real long-term thinking and debate about all the alternatives available to us.

amckay Nov 8, 2007 02:41 PM said:

Well, I certainly never thought I'd see the words "balance" and "Miss Vicky" in the same sentence when talking about Mayor O'Brien :-) OK, that was 2 (short) sentences.

I have not yet read the speech myself, but I sure am disappointed based on the reports I've seen so far. Though blake does makes some good points - be careful with what the media is reporting. Anyway, I was really willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but he's slowly eroding that. Though I still think any institution needs a good shaking up from time to time - maybe he'll pull a rabbit out of the hat.

I'm surprised to read that city staff are stressed. And honestly, based on my exposure to how other levels of government work, I'll take that with a huge grain of salt. Though I can't say I have any exposure at all to this level so maybe it's really so.

FWIW, I'm not the least bit opposed to outsourcing if it makes sense. The government can't / shouldn't do everything. Then again, I'm also baffled by the folks who are so insistent on zero tax increases. Didn't Ottawa just come out of a period of circa 10 years with no increases? If that's the case (can't say I've personally verified it), then I'd say we're due for an increase. I think cost-of-living increases should be what we are aiming for - so zero is just as irresponsible as 10% (just to pull a number out of my behind)

[Edited By amckay Nov 08, 2007 03:18 PM]

The Webgeek Nov 8, 2007 03:06 PM said:

One issue that bothers me greatly with this is his "Business 2.0 will save us" while not only expecting a freeze on "administrative spending" but also demanding a 2.1% cut in IT costs.

Now, I'm talking as someone who works in "Business 2.0". I've built these systems. I get paid good money to do so. You need to spend good money on these types of things.
You need to spend money to design a system that is secure, so as not to expose citizen's data to potential privacy violations -- not only from external hackers, but from non-essential internal staff. You need to spend money designing systems that are accessible. It has to work with javascript turned off. It has to work in ANY browser a user wants to use. It has to work with screen readers. You need to spend money designing a system that is usable. No one is going to use a system that requires an intricate knowledge of the inner workings of city hall procedure to navigate. it has to be transparent and easily understandable. You need to spend money on good help documentation and training materials -- both for the public, the various agencies and companies that interface with the city and for the workers themselves. You need to spend money on back-filling all you existing data into these systems. you need to spend money training staff on their use. you also need spend money to keep the old "paper only" system alive, since not every person owns or has access to a computer.

It's all well and good to say that new "Business 2.0" systems would be cheaper in the long run -- and I agree they probably would -- but you also have to spend money on developing a good system. Cheap out on it and you might as well just dump money into a trash compactor. All Mayor Larry seams to want to spend money on is task forces.

ecogeekgirl Nov 9, 2007 12:38 PM said:

Larry O'Brien reminders me of Mike Harris . . . need one say more.

alf Nov 10, 2007 11:35 PM said:

His speech is now on ottawa.ca along with Q an A's if you want to read it...
http://ottawa.ca/city_hall/may or_council/mayor/speeches/nov_ 7/index_en.html
You would think the Mayor wouldn't be using city resources for his campaign material but what do you expect.

Larry gave the example of Hamilton's privatization of parking meters. Guess what even Hamilton doesn't want to do this anymore.

http://www.myhamilton.ca/NR/rd onlyres/E090AFA9-8F51-40F3-B42 0-F9A225D88C7D/0/Apr18PED06124 .pdf

[linkified by the webgeek]

[Edited By The Webgeek Nov 11, 2007 07:52 AM]

The Webgeek Nov 11, 2007 07:55 AM said:

the city of Hamilton's site seems to be down right now, so I found the Google Cache of the linked page for our readers.

Miss Vicky Nov 11, 2007 10:03 AM said:

verrrry interesting, alf, thanks for the tip! Miss Vicky shall look into this further

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