Seeing Through a Glass Darkly–At City Hall: A measurement of local government transparency in Saskatchewan’s two major cities

Commentary, Municipal Government, Mike Bridge

It’s election-time and that means promise-time. Regina Mayor Pat Fiacco has announced his main promise–setting up a mobile electoral office. Whether that’s a vote-getter remains to be seen, however, with annual city spending over $4,000 for each household in Regina and Saskatoon, residents should expect more innovative platforms from their candidates. Candidates could promise better disclosure of how their city measures up on items that likely matter to voters: Roads, housing, public transit, graffiti, fire service, snow clearing, and parks and recreation among other matters. 

But before voters can even figure out whether the existing or prospective politicians are offering sensible positions on a matter, they need information about how well their city performs in areas important to citizens. And right now, such calculations are not easy. Any municipal government will claim to perform well, but unless residents can access facts to prove or disprove such claims, there is no way to distinguish between rhetoric and reality.
For example, if a city claims to provide an effective public transit system, residents should be able to test this. The cost, the number of people using it and levels of satisfaction compared to last year would be reasonable things for people to find in the City’s annual report, but alas, such measurements are not published.
In the case of Regina, only when explicitly required to do so by the province, does the city publish objective performance data. The water and sewer budget is filled with data relating to the cleanliness of water. But this aberration raises the question: where is such performance data for the other nine of the city’s reported expenditure areas?
Saskatoon publishes a productivity improvements report, outlining areas where performance has improved and by how much. However this report talks about productivity improvements in terms of saving money. No doubt a popular achievement, but somewhat rudderless without reporting the kind of output measurement that is thin in both cities.
In total, it is possible to find performance data of some sort for only three of Saskatoon’s reported expenditure areas and four in the case of Regina.
Perhaps part of the problem is a confusion between results the various city councils are directly responsible for, and events largely beyond their control.  A good example is Regina’s 2008 annual report which lists 15 achievements. On closer examination, only four of these achievements are actually attributable to the city hall. For example, the expansion of the John Deere distribution centre and the opening of the Regina Wingate Inn undoubtedly benefit the wider community, but municipal government can hardly claim them as their own achievements.
A brief review of British Columbian, Australian, English, and New Zealand municipalities shows there is a better way for cities to help voters see into their tax-funded operations. In these cases, performance reporting that is quantitative, objective, comparable to other years, and linked to expenditure is often the norm.
For instance, Prince George has a comprehensive list of the maximum depths that snow can reach before ploughing is required, and there are separate standards for arterial roads, those downtown, residential lanes, sidewalks and other publicly-maintained surfaces. If residents are unhappy about the performance of snow removal, even the timeliness of responding to complaints is measured. Yet the closest Saskatoon and Regina come to such measurement is Regina’s opinion poll of residents’ attitudes to performance. But such general feedback without objective yardsticks isn’t informative for citizens nor helpful to city employees and management in the quest for improvements.
But even performance measurements are of limited use unless it linked to costs. The city of Christchurch, in New Zealand, publishes the both the cost and performance of providing each service. For example the cost of maintaining municipal roads is compared with the percentage of vehicles that travel on smooth roads and the average time for a ten- kilometre trip within the city’s road network. With this calibre of reporting, voters can make an informed choice about the performance of their city and whether services are improving or declining.
Voters surely want to know the value received for their $4,000- plus every year in taxes. Presently, voters lack the opportunity to decide if their city has performed adequately while politicians and others lack the ability to offer concrete remedies on how to improve. In the absence of performance reporting for both Regina and Saskatoon, voters instead must endure a campaign that offers up only mobile mayoral offices.