City Councillors Should Spend Their Office Budgets

Commentary, Municipal Government, Steve Lafleur

Now that municipal election season is over in Manitoba and Ontario, city councillors are transitioning into the ordinary business of governing. One of the first tasks will be hiring office staff. Some councillors will be tempted to hire as little staff as possible to signal that they are serious about saving scarce public funds. That would be a mistake. No large corporation would scrimp on basic research and administration. Neither should governments. City Councillors should focus on representing their constituents rather than trying to run entire offices on their own. Having healthy civic institutions can be expensive, but they are worth the cost.

Council office expenses are often portrayed as waste. In reality, running a council office entails many jobs. Office administration, communications, and policy research are three of the core functions. Council offices need to respond to queries from constituents, communicate the actions of the councillor to the public, and decide how to vote on key issues. While doing these things with a barebones staff might be possible, doing them well requires manpower.

Ideally, council offices would also be pro-active in following policy research and debates from around the world to identify best practices, which might form the basis for new proposals or to vet legislation that is on the table. That can only happen if council offices have professional research staff. As much as we would like to think that councillors can form their own opinions, they simply don’t have time to read all of the available research.

Some might worry that research staff would end up making the real decisions, turning councillors into mere figureheads. In reality, councillors have to evaluate multiple considerations when voting on issues. At the moment, they seem to weigh communications concerns more than policy concerns. Hiring more research staff would merely re-balance the scales.

Crucially, having capable research staff could help councillors avoid superficially appealing policies that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Major corporations spend huge sums of money to avoid mistakes. Large organizations can’t afford to scrimp on due diligence.

Even hockey teams are starting to buy into the need for statistical research. While there is a heated ongoing debate over whether general managers should base roster moves purely on advanced statistics, most people can acknowledge that at very least it can help them avoid signing really bad contracts or making terrible trades. 
Evaluating data is important in all areas of life. Governments are more important than hockey teams, so surely we can’t begrudge councillors who pay for actual research.

The $10,000 condo incentive debacle in Winnipeg is one example of how lacking research capacity can lead to hasty decisions. Some councillors admitted to not having understood the proposal before they voted to adopt it. City council quietly reversed its decision. Cities can’t afford that type of fly-by-night decision making.

Increasing the research capacity of council offices would also help to build clusters of experts on Canadian civic issues. Currently there are few people researching policy issues facing most Canadian cities on a full time basis. There are at best a handful of academics and policy researchers at think tanks and advocacy groups doing so in most cities. That leaves many research gaps, meaning we have a generally poor understanding of many key issues facing Canadian cities. The incoming Mayor of Winnipeg discussed building a research bridge between the City and academia. This is a good place to start. Hiring some graduate students from the social sciences and planning departments of the universities would have both direct and tertiary benefits. Make no mistake: studying even a fraction of the policy issues facing Canadian cities is a full time job.

City councillors are elected to represent their wards, but they should not be expected to run day to day office affairs. That is why they have office budgets. There is no shame in delegating. Every councillor – particularly newcomers – should spend their entire office budget, focussing particularly on policy research. We wouldn’t expect Apple to launch a new product without doing due diligence. Why should we judge city councils any differently? We all pay for bad decisions by local governments. Paying up front for professional research staff is worth the investment.