Municipal Priorities for 2020 and Beyond: Part One

By Michael Fenn and John Matheson, with contributions from members of StrategyCorp’s Municipal Practice Team

Pundits and forecasters are unsure about the future – with the downstream impacts of COVID-19, the reckoning with institutional racism,  fallout from the impending U.S. election, disruptive changes in the economy and the natural environment, 2020 has been an exceedingly turbulent year for municipalities.

How are Canadian municipal leaders expected to “lead” when the future is so unclear? Perhaps it is best to look at what we do know and extrapolate from there.

Keynesian economics tells us that the best way to restart and sustain a battered economy has been public spending, bolstered by public borrowing. In response to the COVID-19 shutdown of the economy, we have seen federal debt balloon to the highest it has been in decades. That effort, complemented by provincial and municipal fiscal initiatives, and unprecedented infusions of credit from the Bank of Canada, headed-off an economic disaster for millions of Canadians. But it will leave a legacy.

In the short term, government support is positioned to cushion municipal operating deficits caused by extraordinary expenditures and revenue losses in 2020. This support includes the recent $19 billion “Safe Restart Agreement” announcement, which in the case of Ontario’s $7 billion share will include $2 billion for Ontario municipalities and $2 billion for public transit authorities. Many local leaders wonder what levels of support will be like for 2021 as they begin their budget planning process, with significant question marks about both the revenue and cost side for next year. Longer-term, it may result in renewed efforts to boost infrastructure spending, if capital budgets at all three levels of government can be preserved.

Before the end of this municipal council term in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada, the fiscal hangover will lead to belt-tightening, coupled with efforts to ensure that the economy grows sustainably and that further public spending is constrained. As we know from history, when constraint is adopted by other orders of government, the prospects for significant financial help for municipal governments from traditional sources will dim. Municipalities will all be urged, in UK journalist Ann Leslie’s colourful phrase, “to kill your own snakes”. If there was ever any doubt before the pandemic, we are now firmly facing a structural deficit, particularly in local government finance.

Much is anticipated for the “new normal”. We await a COVID-19 vaccine and the reinventing of the complex global supply chain for the goods and services that we use (and produce) every day. Some developments are with us to stay, such as remote working and telecommuting, more online retail and on-street product fulfillment, social distancing, and the increasing vagaries of a global marketplace. Many of these developments had been predicted – but were expected to happen over the course of a few decades, not months. It now appears that we may face a municipal version of Moore’s Law (which in the Information Technology field has accurately predicted a disruptive doubling of technological capacity every 18 months).

In parallel with the pandemic, we have also seen a global response to the death of George Floyd. Public demonstrations have led to demands for fundamental reform of policing. The Black Lives Matter movement has spurred re-thinking societal issues such as racial discrimination and response to calls for emergency assistance for incidents related to mental illness, addictions, and domestic violence.

As these economic, fiscal, and social developments continue, both from COVID-19 and other factors, some things are certain — like the continuing financial challenges facing municipalities — while we may also see pressure:

  • To increase productivity, to be more tax-competitive and to reduce public sector costs, which means reduced labour costs
  • To accommodate autonomous vehicles, ride sharing, ‘smart’ transportation, and more so-called “active transportation”
  • To absorb the land-use and tax impacts of fundamental changes to retail, office, parking requirements, and new models of housing for the elderly
  • To address environmental sustainability, housing costs and social inequality in our communities and in our workplaces on an accelerated timetable
  • To reform policing and society’s response to emergency calls-for-service for incidents related to mental illness, addictions, and families in crisis; and,
  • Making the leap to 5G mobile digital service delivery.

All of this, while simultaneously lifting the burdens of cost and uncertainty caused by traditional regulation and approvals and borne by those to whom we are looking to create and sustain employment and to revitalize economic activity. So where does all this leave municipal governments? What does the future hold? What items need to be on the agenda of municipal governments? There are at least eight likely outcomes. Two are outlined below and another six will be addressed in a subsequent article:

A changing municipal workforce

The municipal workforce will transform, as artificial-intelligence (AI) and machine-learning applications and monitoring technologies are used in all manner of repetitive or inspection-related processes, especially those guided by rules, established policies, standard conditions, and precedents. Just as asphalt-laying crews and meter-readers were displaced by paving machines and automated meter reading (AMR) in the 20th century, technology will improve productivity in labour-intensive functions. Whether it is incremental change, like replacing site visits with digital video inspections, or more structural change, driven by AI and remote-monitoring technologies. Process reforms will produce quicker, more consistent, and less idiosyncratic decisions on everything from business licensing and re-zonings to asset management and inspections.

Mirroring the banking and travel industries, which have displaced much of their routine in-person interaction with clients, municipal workforces must reskill. Fewer but more productive municipal employees will serve an increasingly larger and more sophisticated online clientele. The workforce that remains should be more diverse, in all aspects of that term. Fortunately, the 21st century needs of municipalities will make diversity objectives much more achievable than they were with a 20th century workforce built around seniority, fixed employee benefits, employment guarantees, and traditional skills.

Finally, municipal governments should adopt the so-called ‘commissioning’ model in the UK and EU, a model described in an excellent 2017 article by Taylor and Migone, then at Institute of Public Administration of Canada.[1] With ‘commissioning’, municipal governments play their role by ensuring that services and infrastructure are available on reasonable terms to their communities, their residents and their businesses, rather than assuming they must be provided by direct, monopoly delivery employing municipal facilities and municipal workers, financed by taxpayers.

New models of policing and public safety

Nineteenth century models of policing and fire suppression will need to evolve delivery models that reflect today’s public safety priorities. For example, responding to preponderant incidence of health-related emergencies, especially as the Baby Boomer cohort ages. These new delivery models will also be needed to address social, mental illness, substance abuse, and family crisis situations with responses more suitable for those calls for emergency assistance.

Rather than “defunding” police, we can expect to see measures to produce a new workplace culture in policing. This new culture should begin with “embedding” within the police workforce staff who have other professional perspectives on dealing with public safety and calls for service.

Modernizing policing will need to reflect four pillars of reform:

  • Becoming a learning organization that aligns its values and leadership priorities throughout the staff complement, and dissipates the informal ‘education’ of front-line constables
  • Re-engineering the hierarchical structure of police organizations to reflect contemporary priorities (mental health issues, technological advances, etc)
  • A risk-based approach to planning and staff deployment, with a focus on community collaboration, public health and social services (e.g., the comprehensive approach successfully employed by Karyn McCluskey with violent crime and gangs in Scotland) [2]; and
  • Despite reallocation of some police resources and the introduction of new contemporary priorities, preserving within policing a robust capacity for effective law enforcement and criminal investigations, with a focus on value-for-investment, outputs and outcomes.

We could also see an overdue and successful societal effort, led by municipal councils with recently announced federal support, to reduce the level of urban handgun possession. Success in treating the scourge of handgun deaths and injuries, as more of a public health issue than a criminal matter,[3] would certainly change the character and reduce the risk-profile of many urgent responses by both police and other agencies.

In our next article, we will look at another six developments on the post-2020 action agenda for municipal governments.

[1] Dr. Robert P. Taylor and Dr. Andrea Migone, “From Procurement to the Commissioning of Public Services”, Canadian Government Executive magazine, Nov. 6, 2017; found at: https://canadiangovernmentexecutive.ca/from-procurement-to-the-commissioning-of-public-services

[2]  Karyn McCluskey, “Report on the first 9 years outcome of the Community Safety Glasgow initiative”, (Glasgow, Scotland: 2016); Found at: https://www.saferglasgow.com/files/wp/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/csg-9-years-on.pdf

There are also a number of TED talks that she has given in which she describes her initiative and what led to its success.  Here’s a 15 min video that sums up her approach to such a complex problem:

Found at:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EXTSGrQ-nQU

[3] David Hemenway, professor of health policy and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center,  “Why is gun violence a public health issue?”, T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Harvard University (Cambridge MA: December 2015); video found at: https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/multimedia-article/why-is-gun-violence-a-public-health-issue/