Separation Key to Winnipeg Renewal

Commentary, Municipal Government, Frontier Centre

The science of creating effective organizations occupies many shelves at the library.

Much of it is fairly straightforward: define your goals and create a clear action plan to get there; determine core activities; figure out what services and products your customers want; and measure out what they cost so you can decide whether to produce them in-house or outsource them.

Meeting these general guidelines imposes several more specific requirements: always focus on results, not process; reward personnel for achieving results; and carefully define and separate the roles of policy makers, the big-picture people, and policy implementers, the technicians and professionals who devise ways to deliver the product.

When these principles are consistently applied in the private sector, the sky is the limit, as Manitobans witnessed in last week’s blockbuster Canwest media deal. These folks know where they are going. They have a vision, a plan and a team with effective scope to act within the broad parameters of a corporate framework focused on results.

The financial rewards of political life are comparatively dismal, and “big picture” people don’t come cheap. But there is every reason to believe the same principles can lead us into a long overdue public sector renaissance.

The governance structure of the City of Winnipeg, in terms of the criteria offered above, can never perform well. Buried anonymously within hundreds of constraining pages of legalese lies one of the main causes of Manitoba’s most visible public policy disappointment — Unicity. It partially explains the city’s precipitous decline from Canada’s third- to eighth-largest urban centre within a quarter century. It is the failure to separate clearly the roles of elected councillors and administrators.

In recent months a raft of news reports has again highlighted cases in which elected officials routinely meddle in complicated areas that are normally the sole domain of professional administrators. These include real estate and lease transactions, zoning and labour contracts. The results are predictable. Taxpayers pay for administrative machinery that idles on the sidelines, with administrators deferring to elected officials who can make trouble if not appeased. A “cover your rear” culture is the product, one in which safety from unpredictable council behaviour is found by following the rulebook and policy manuals in excruciating detail.

Aside from the delays, special deals in which community assets are sold too cheaply or contracts are let at above-market prices create real costs. The City has also acquired a reputation as a cumbersome and unfriendly place to do business. The problem is now so bad that construction companies and developers have to spend large sums on lobbyists to manoeuvre their affairs through an ever-shifting labyrinth of personal, political and bureaucratic fiefdoms. Others simply have a policy of no business involvement with the City.

The good news is that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Those who want to get Winnipeg off the slow track can look to other cities that are organized differently and adopt the principles that underlie their success.

Phoenix, Arizona, had about 50,000 residents at the time Winnipeg’s stature peaked after the Second World War. Today, the rapidly expanding city employs 13,000 staff to provide services for 1.3 million people. Along its path to success, it pioneered the concept of public-private competition, where in-house staff compete, often successfully, against outside vendors. (This model is now spreading to more US cities, most notably Indianapolis). In 1994, Phoenix won a prestigious international award from the Bertelsmann Foundation for being the best-run city in the world.

Phoenix’ structure and governance model is contained in its city charter, the legislative equivalent of our City of Winnipeg Act. A critical difference is that it explicitly recognizes the need for separation between the role of elected officials and the role of city administration. It states that the mayor and the council are the policy-making body and that they provide policy direction to the administrative staff. The city manager is responsible for the “efficient, ongoing operation of the city.”

This basic rule of effective governance is enforced through the ultimate sanction: removal from office. Here is the section worth copying in a long overdue modernization of the City of Winnipeg Act:

“Except for the purpose of inquiry, the council and its members shall deal with the administrative service solely through the City Manager and neither the council nor any member thereof shall give orders to any subordinates of City Manager, either privately or publicly. Any member of this council violating the provisions of this section shall be removed from office as in this Charter elsewhere provided.”

Manitoba has paid a high price in lost opportunities by erecting structures throughout government without similar safeguards. Operating on the same discredited belief that tells them they can be skilled operators and stewards of commercial enterprises, our politicians are allowed to dabble in administration, an area in which they have little expertise.

Changing both is a start to putting Winnipeg and Manitoba back on a natural growth track. Melding Phoenix’s clear delineation of roles into the City of Winnipeg Act offers a quick and relatively painless way to do it. Of a handful of reforms that would place the city back into the fast lane, a clear separation between council and administration would reverse a dysfunctional governance model that has severely penalized our great city.