By Doug Hallett
The city is transforming how it does business as a local government, and this means rejecting the simplistic idea of looking at city hall as a “vending machine,” says Mayor Karen Farbridge.
“In the age of consumer politics, the role of government is reduced to a superficial transaction – you put your money in, and get a service out,” Farbridge said in her annual State of the City address.
“But if local government is just a vending machine – telling voters what they want to hear and dispensing services – how is it equipped to address complex challenges?” she asked.
Farbridge’s speech, to a breakfast meeting of the Guelph Chamber of Commerce at the Holiday Inn, focused on how a frequently misunderstood Guelph city hall is transforming municipal services. She also spoke about how the city is trying to close the gap between annual increases in property taxes and the inflation rate. “I cannot put it more simply than this,” she said in the speech prepared for delivery this morning (Nov. 1). “Local government in Ontario was not built to respond to the current pace of change or the challenges of a modern urban centre in the 21st century. Incremental changes to the way we do business simply will not be sufficient to meet the complexity of issues we face, escalating demands for service, new mandates without money and the speed of technological change.”
The average person finds it difficult to understand “what local government does or how to engage with it,” Farbridge said. “And it is hard to trust what you can’t see or understand.
“This is part of the problem – the lack of understanding, broadly speaking, of the role of local government in city building, along with the unrealistic expectation there is some ‘magic pill’ that can cure what ails us.
“I was told once that dealing with voters is easy – just tell them what they want to hear,” she said. “Political parties conduct public opinion polls to find out what voters want – and then sell it back to them, whether it is good for them or not. They hope you won’t connect the dots.”
However, a “vending machine” approach won’t work in dealing with Guelph’s challenges, Farbridge said. She said these challenges are related to such things as a tough economy, demands for services in a fast-growing and increasingly diverse city, and an aging population.
As well, “an era of information overload and social media, where we manage an exploding volume and complexity of information amid unprecedented expectations for real-time response, brings a new set of challenges of its own,” she said.
“A public opinion poll will not give us answers to the questions we face. A vending machine can’t address the complexity of information or speed of change.”
Local government has to be transformed from a traditional service provider to “an institution that also engages and inspires” and that works across public, private and not-for-profit sectors “to embrace opportunities that deliver public value.”
The hirings of CAO Ann Pappert and CFO Al Horsman since the summer of 2011 have completed the city’s executive team, she said, and the city got good news this fall when its credit rating was upgraded from AA (stable) to AA (positive).
“With our leadership in place and a positive financial outlook, council has turned its attention to the future,” Farbridge said, pointing to a new multi-year strategic plan approved by council earlier this year.
This corporate strategic plan is the city’s response to the challenges it faces, Farbridge said. “There is no magic pill. There is instead a relentless focus on core priorities and capacity building.”
Council has added the key position of internal auditor, she said, and it’s focusing on operational audits which aim for bold change that will “optimize taxpayers’ value for money and ensure we are delivering the right services, at the right level, in the most effective and efficient way possible.
“The business community would recognize this as ‘value-stream mapping’ – identifying which activities add value and those that don’t to eliminate waste in the system and to improve productivity,” she said.
“This work will support our continued efforts to close the gap between inflation and tax rate increases,” she added. She said tax rate increases in Guelph have “trended down” over the last three terms of council. Although 30 per cent of the city’s tax levy is set by outside boards and provincial agencies, not by council, “we continue to close the gap between tax and inflation rates through strong management.”
City hall has laid the foundation for growth to a population of 175,000 over the next 20 years through a fully updated Official Plan approved this year, Farbridge said.
Council’s strong track record, she said, also includes establishment of the Guelph Municipal Holding Inc. to better manage city assets such as Guelph Hydro, adoption of a new Downtown Secondary Plan, and recent success in “delivering five years of infrastructure work in a little over a year” with help from federal and provincial stimulus funding.
These “are not the actions of a local government that sees itself merely as a vending machine dispensing services. Rather, these are the actions of a council and administration eager to shape the community’s future in a bold way,” Farbridge said.
“If anything is going to crack us out of old ways of doing things, it will be the Guelph Wellbeing Initiative,” she added. That’s an initiative to capitalize on the local community’s substantial resources in a variety of areas to address “a gap between the community people want to live in and our current ability to deliver on these aspirations.”
She said Guelph has already distinguished itself as a national leader. “We have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country. For the last five years, we have been recognized as the safest city in the country,” she said. “And we continue to receive high livability scores from several sources.”
By Doug Hallett