Planning for City Hall’s Next Generation of Leaders

Alberta, Commentary, Larry Mitchell, Local Government

Given that a large number of senior employees of the city of Calgary, including the present chief executive officer, are nearing retirement, it’s useful to consider the skills that will be needed from their replacements and the challenges they will face.

Attracting top people to a career in local government has been difficult in the last several years though a recession may change that somewhat. Still, among the young, resistance to working for local governments seems deep-seated.

In an informal survey conducted as part of the Frontier Centre’s local government performance improvement programme, the career prospects of recent graduates from the Saskatchewan Cost and Management accounting division were canvassed.

The sobering result of this survey was that none from the graduating class of over 50 successful young people who responded seriously considered future employment within the municipal sector.

Given such a resounding thumbs down from these respondents it seemed useful to ask why. The answers involve perceptions, both real and imagined, that municipalities do not provide prospective employees with sufficient challenge, reward, status or job satisfaction.

It doesn’t have to be this way. To be sure, to many, working in the public sector will always be less glamorous than the alternatives. In addition, the business of acting for a public entity in the full glare of the accountabilities involved— doing business in a “goldfish bowl”—will not suit everybody. But this should not mean that such employment is humdrum and de-motivating.

The best way to improve the quality of job aspirants for municipal employment is to improve the quality of the organization—at all levels.

Here are just two areas which will contribute most to improving the current negative perceptions of municipal employment prospects. Importantly, the improvements are clear examples of win-win strategies, good for both the municipal employee and for the municipal organization itself.

First, a culture of excellence must be developed which goes hand in hand with worldwide standards of performance measurement and best practices.

If the leadership of a city, largely the domain of the chief executive, sets the bar at a high level by insisting upon meaningful organization-wide excellence then positive motivated people within the organization will respond positively.

Added to which, with use of performance-linked salaries that recognize effort and professional competence, job satisfaction will rise and staff turnover will fall.

Second, for these cultural and employment conditions to be enduring, long-term sustainable financial and non-financial planning integrated within a performance-based framework must be implemented. Nothing detracts more from the pride, purpose, and motivation of employees than feeling that their organization is poorly guided with inferior plans and is lost or is floundering.

A major step for the new Calgary top-tier managerial staff is then to adopt and implement best practice long-term planning. The key feature of such plans is captured in just one word: integration. Municipalities are complex businesses.

They must respond to the four fundamental areas related to citizens’ well-being: economic, social, environmental and cultural desires and all within the confines of local economic affordability. Without excellent planning, optimal results cannot occur.

Calgary faces major challenges as do many of Canada’s big cities. Recruitment of excellent staff coupled to organizational improvements is therefore essential. In general, and in comparison to best practice from around the world, Canadian cities fall short in asset management and financial reporting. There is ample professional challenge in these two fields alone to in future require and hopefully attract the best of graduate and above levels of expertise.

By addressing these difficult issues head on and with honesty, perhaps a new era of senior management at the city of Calgary can reward both the desire of citizens for good government and their individual desires for satisfying careers.