Accountability Framework: Have we arrived there yet?

Media Appearances, Taxation, Frontier Centre

A few weeks ago I made reference to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. It has come up with a national Municipality Transparency Index. Saint John was rated last on a list of 133 cities. Armed with awareness I decided to spend a bit of time digging through the City of Saint John’s website in an effort to become more enlightened.

Remember the old adage "caveat emptor" – let the buyer beware? Maybe I’m just not that good at navigating, but looking for meaningful information was a bit like slashing my way through the thick brush of the Amazon with a machete and no compass while looking for a lost Inca treasure. As I slashed my way through the several layers of the website I did come across a little treasure called the Accountability Framework. Here it is, cut and pasted from the website:

"The City of Saint John is committed to demonstrating accountability to our residents and taxpayers. In June of 2008, Common Council adopted an accountability framework that is designed to support our efforts to provide effective and efficient service delivery. The accountability framework is comprised of three key components – strategic planning, performance management and public reporting. It identifies processes for:

* Setting clear objectives through strategic planning or policy development;

* Identifying measures to track the progress towards stated objectives;

* Measuring performance;

* Communicating performance results to the public and other stakeholders through regular reporting;

* Comparing performance to desired results; and

* Realigning or eliminating service offerings to enhance or improve service delivery with the goal of better addressing the needs of the public."

That was nearly three years ago. Are we there yet? Have performance standards for all levels of the city’s 800 employees been put in place and are they being measured?

You don’t have to be an efficiency expert to realize that if one employee takes two days to do a job that should have been done in one day, the cost is twice as great as it should have been, and will translate into a higher cost for services delivered.

Benchmarking should never be arrived at by some arbitrary method. There are performance standards for virtually all industries and sectors. At the very least a municipality has the opportunity to measure itself against its peers. One method would be to express the cost of municipal services delivered by dividing the population into the annual operating budget to provide service costs per person. It’s a bit like getting your report card from the teacher who tells how you are doing compared to the rest of the class.

So let’s compare report cards:

* Rothesay – $1,280 per person per year;

* Quispamsis – $1,187 per person per year;

* Grand Bay/Westfield – $988 per person per year;

* Hampton – $1,303 per person per year;

* Saint John – $1,973 per person per year.

It’s not enough to compare the cost of services delivered – it is also necessary to compare the quality of those services.

Would I expect Saint John’s cost per person to be comparable to the surrounding municipalities?

Absolutely not.

However, costs have to be low enough for Saint John to stay in the game and remain an effective competitor in retaining or building on its population base.

When folks are shopping around for a home don’t you think they take a close look at what each municipality has to offer as well as the cost of services delivered? You bet your bottom dollar they do.

The other day I drove past the once-thriving Co-Op store on the city’s west side. It’s demise was not instantaneous – it occurred over time. As competitors moved into the city, it failed to reinvent itself. It gradually lost customers to competitors offering better prices, better service and better value.

Therein lies the message for Saint John’s city council and management team, should they choose to listen.