People or Frameworks?

Commentary, Municipal Government, Peter Holle

I am frequently asked about the relative merits of individual personalities in the campaign. Can so and so finally restore Winnipeg to its former glory? My answer usually disappoints. We expect too much. Politicians are mere mortals subsumed by the complicated machinery of government. As the city is presently structured, is it realistic to expect 15 councillors and a mayor to have firm hand on the operations of a city government with 8,700 employees, a budget of $721 million and billions of dollars of assets?

The idea that politicians run programs and services is a democratic fiction. In reality, the mayor and council sign off on monies and resources flowing into old, frequently antiquated systems. Forget about vision; often it’s more about brokering a spoils system for the interest groups, left and right, that intersect at City Hall. That’s why taxes and spending inexorably creep up.

Pre-Unicity, you might know your local councillor or even a manager in local government. But under amalgamation, a small-town management model co-exists rather awkwardly with a larger, necessarily distant and complicated bureaucracy. Elected officials end up as the citizen’s first point of contact, an inefficient complaint bureau dealing with expedited permits and pothole fixes. An apt analogy might be General Motors’ board of directors involving themselves in picayune problems at a hinterland factory.

The answer is to change the legislative framework of Winnipeg’s city government. The most successful cities thrive despite the uneven quality of elected officials. In those places, the rules typically mandate high levels of transparency in the cost of services, neutrality between in-house and contracted delivery and, most critically, separation of elected officials from interference in daily operations.

Employees are compensated in a way that aligns their interests with citizens and taxpayers. They get paid more for being efficient and innovative, not for spending more. Years ago, we saw a brief flurry of interest in the Indianapolis model, where unions competed with private contractors and pocketed bonuses of 25% of savings below bid.

My favourite high-performance city is Phoenix, Arizona, where personalities are secondary to a robust, high-performance city framework. Quality accounting information allows objective comparison of delivery alternatives. Term-limited councillors – with three terms max, two for the mayor – function as a board of directors who think about “the big picture.” If they involve themselves in operations, they face an ultimate sanction, removal from their seats.

There are no union or business candidates. All city employees are prohibited from electoral involvement, a clear conflict of interest. Nor can major asset dispositions or service contracts be discreetly influenced by friendly developers and campaign donors, as in Canadian cities. To maximize transparency, details of all proposals, bids and projects are disclosed to all on the city’s website.

The key to innovative, dynamic city government is restructuring governance so that stakeholders are rewarded for service excellence and maximum productivity. A high-performance, depoliticized framework must be embedded in a modernized City of Winnipeg Act. Framework trumps a highly talented, visionary mayor or councillor every time.