High Performance Winnipeg?

Commentary, Municipal Government, Peter Holle

Imagine the year 2011. A booming Winnipeg has just won an award as one of the best-run places in the world, earning international distinction as a "high-performance" city.

It happened after converted all its operations to the competitive model. Using advanced measurement techniques, the City now specifies customer service levels precisely and buys them from either from in-house work teams or competing suppliers.

Surprisingly, internal suppliers held their own, by simplifying work methods, trimming costs and eliminating bureaucracy. They earn substantial bonuses through "gain-sharing", a system that rebates 25% of the difference between bid costs and actual costs. The "spend it or lose it" mindset is gone, and work teams are self-regulating. Since laggards hurt gain-sharing, teams deal with them immediately, without the old, self-serving bureaucratic grind.

A customer service ethic permeates civic government. The city is truly online. Building permits are processed in 24 hours. Bill payments, complaints and service inquiries are conducted by e-mail, with response times logged and measured. Customer service agents work from home offices. Customers receive a written explanation for complaints not dealt with promptly. Hundreds of citizens are surveyed bi-monthly on service satisfaction.

Separating elected officials from administrative details lies at the heart of Winnipeg's new philosophy. Council focuses on the big picture, sets measurable performance goals and then gets out of the way. City staff receive performance bonuses for efficiency, improved service and positive survey results. That includes the police, now rewarded for crime reduction.

The council's new model freed politicians from distracting, petty minutiae. Like a board of directors, council meets twice a month on Monday evenings for four hours. They set priorities and monitor performance reports.

Redundant civic office buildings, lands and other assets that fail to generate a market return on capital have been sold. Using the P3 model, major infrastructure like the new water plant have been built for hundreds of millions of dollars less than projected by a consortium of competing engineering companies.

Part of the proceeds was deposited into a fifty million dollar arts endowment fund, whose growing revenue stream replaced the annoying amusement tax. Administered by an arm's-length board representing the arts community, it provided a key industry with a stable funding source while removing the need for political subsidies.

This released capital and the savings from a 35% improvement in productivity were split. Upgrades for bike paths, parks and the beltway road system took half, and tax reductions, including elimination of business taxes, the rest. Environmentally smarter user fees shifted revenues away from property taxes. A redundant Plan Winnipeg is gone since there are real cost advantages to living in the centre city.

Zoning deregulation unleashed unique and economical warehouse loft condominiums. The riverbank area from the Alexander docks to the Forks became a prime tourist area attracting millions to its lines of shops, hotels, cafés and attractions. Better policing, the end of rent control and shift to user fees has attracted 50,000 new residents to downtown, now the most fashionable place to live in Winnipeg.

Welcome to the new Winnipeg, Canada’s most dynamic, high-performance city – confident and cool. What a transformation.