The Cuff Report – Tricky Treat?

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Local Government, Manitoba, Uncategorized, Winnipeg (historic)

Last week Winnipeg City Council accepted much of consultant George Cuff’s report on its operations. Just before Hallowe’en, too, when folks have fun trying to scare each other.

Cuff’s report, while frightening, wasn’t much fun. It describes a horror story at City Hall-an overly complicated, unfocused and expensive organization that performs poorly. The roles of Council and the administration are chronically confused, producing a lack of vision, organizational drift and little or no accountability.

Cuff describes all the classic problems that bedevil mature, process-oriented bureaucracies. No one is in charge. Council wastes its time on "administrivia", worrying about trees, not the forest. Meanwhile the city drifts along with its costly, low-performance system. "Departments operate in silos", focusing excessively inwards: "The system needs to focus more on service, efficiency and effectiveness and less on self-preservation."

Cuff also highlights the absence of accountability: "the lack of performance appraisal for management has had a detrimental impact on the organization . . .. Automatic increments for management do not follow normal practice." He diplomatically twits a system which "talks about continuous improvement when the need is for fundamental change . . .. Winnipeg simply can’t afford to be over-governed or over-managed. There is a need to look at core services." Translation: the organization is too big and top-heavy, and it needs slimming down.

Give Council and the Mayor credit for accepting many of Cuff’s recommendations. While queasy at the prospect of change, our councillors need to send a strong signal that it is starting, ready-or-not. Terminating the confusing and underperforming Board of Commissioners system does that.

If there is a weakness in Cuff’s prescriptions, it lies in increasing the power of elected officials. By involving itself in too many details – tasks like negotiating contracts with employees and establishing the overall organization’s size – council will still restrict its own ability to deal with the "big picture. This is risky – talent levels in our political classes are uneven at best. These are "how" issues that ought to be the focus of the new city manager. Council should concern itself with final results, with the "what" the process achieves.

Why limit the manager by interfering with methods? A better separation of roles would avoid immersing the council in the politics of service delivery, which usually favours the status quo. Such diversions turn the council’s attention from the critical task ahead, which is to transform a low-performance, spending-oriented government into a high-performance, customer-oriented one.

How can it be accomplished? Very few insiders understand the mechanics of high-performance government, particularly the need for precise accounting and performance-measurement systems, converting internal organizations into business units subject to competition from outsiders and building confidence while implementing sensitive downsizing strategies. "Big picture" visionaries who can communicate positive change have little time for the mediocrity of traditional bureaucratic systems. On the flip side, public sector salaries at the top echelons, contrary to the conventional wisdom, are insufficient to attract talented private sector managers.

Other governments have dealt with this by raising top-level salaries. More significantly, they have directly legislated a performance framework within government that works well no matter who is administering it. Australia and Britain require full-cost accounting and competitive tendering for services. New Zealand requires more: city councils must publicize operating plans in advance detailing all service levels and costs. It also focuses the council’s role by prohibiting direct involvement in the "how" of service delivery. The city manager is the sole employee of council. Her or his performance is measured from a "best bang for the buck" perspective, meaning they have no incentive to retain less effective models of service delivery.

Such systemic change should come from the province and Gary Filmon’s government has a unique opportunity to take up the challenge.

So don’t expect Igor to emerge straight, handsome and graceful from Dr. Frankenstein’s lab just yet. But at least he won’t slobber as much.