A Better Municipal Workplace

Municipalities are the front line of local democracy and good government. They deliver critical infrastructure to communities every day, and heavily influence quality of life.

The COVID-19 outbreak has literally changed the way the world does business overnight, and municipalities are no exception. Forced to work remotely, public sector entities have devised short-term strategies and tactics to address their immediate needs. On a daily or weekly basis, refinements are made as municipal Councils and staff settle into new working arrangements.

The Need for Customized Business Solutions

Municipalities are highly variable in such terms as:

  • Population and density;
  • Rural versus urban;
  • Service levels;
  • Northern (more remote) landscapes versus southern conurbations (e.g. the Greater Golden Horseshoe);
  • Unique community culture;
  • Age, size, condition, amount and variety of hard and soft infrastructure;
  • Financial (assessment base) strength;
  • Municipal employee complement and contracted services;
  • Political and community preferences as to how municipal services are delivered; and
  • Communication practices and preferences, including the use of multiple language messaging.

The Municipal Challenge

The diversity of municipalities necessitates a flexible and effective approach to identify and make improvements specific to each municipality, be they short term or more lasting changes.

Municipal Business Transformation Isn’t New, But the Current Conditions Are

Prior to this global pandemic, changes were already being made as to how municipal business was being carried out, both internally (i.e. corporately) and externally (i.e. to the community and more broadly), albeit at a lesser pace. Some past business changes have included:

  • Online registration for community activities, such as swimming lessons, in place of in-person registration;
  • Online fee and charge payments;
  • Work from home on a limited basis to allow municipal employees to better balance “work and life” priorities, including child care, health and transportation challenges;
  • Staff being able to access on-line management support tools (e.g. the Harvard ManageMentor™); and
  • Greater online community engagement to allow citizens to review information and analysis, and to provide their input as their personal schedules permit, and typically with municipal deadlines for input.

The Global Pandemic as a Business Catalyst

The global pandemic has had the effect of catalyzing shifts in municipal business practices literally overnight. This is evidenced by:

  • Virtual staff, Committee and Council meetings on a regular basis. Many web-based platforms such as Zoom have become heavily relied upon to share information and to convene formal meetings;
  • Work from home for many if not most municipal employees;
  • A greater shift to task orientation, and lesser focus on time management. Municipal staff may be increasingly asked to achieve specific milestones on a daily or weekly basis;
  • More web-based learning;
  • Use of remote platforms for limited community meetings; and
  • The daily redeployment of employees where tasks may be shifting. For example, staff may be deployed to other municipal activities while their home position is dormant (e.g. arena operations staff).

A New Method to Support Catalytic Change

When the global pandemic begins to abate in a sustained way, and the re-opening of communities begins in earnest, important decisions will need to be made as to how municipal business will be carried out on a go-forward basis.

The emergence of new business policies and practices has two implications. First, there may be practices that should be continued in place of less effective previous business strategies and tactics. Secondly, there is an opportunity to use the current “culture” of openness to change to further advance other improvements to municipal policies and practices.

To address these, a new method and approach that is deeply empathetic and personal called human-centred design (HCD) can unlock the potential for catalytic change.

Why the use of human-centred design for municipalities?

The use of a human-centred design approach is a very well suited platform to assist municipalities in transforming to a “new normal”. The HCD approach offers a unique structure and process, wherein citizen satisfaction is focal, and the protection and enhancement of public interests is foundational for municipal settings.

Human-centred design, popularly known as “design thinking,” is an iterative, collaborative approach to problem-solving. We “de-risk” problem-solving by co-designing with end users, building solutions in small testable steps, and collecting feedback while there’s still time to improve the results. 

The most important thing about solving problems with human-centred design is that it keeps the stakeholders at the heart of the process. Problems are defined and described by the people who deal with them. Research includes consulting individuals with lived experience and testing prototypes of our solutions depends on feedback from real stakeholders. Human-centred design is how we put creativity and empathy to work to solve problems.

This is Different from Traditional Approaches

Human Centred Design is an innovative problem solving framework that:

  • Designs with and not for the customer;
  • Achieves a deep understanding of the agreed-upon problem;
  • Arrives at workable, people-centred solutions, based on less-traditional personal, data-based insights;
  • Creates one or more prototypes for customers to ‘road test’; and 
  • Realizes authentic and loyal partnerships to implement, monitor, measure and adjust the solution if necessary. 

HCD is focused on the individual behaviours and preferences of real people

  • The work is informed by data coming from deep within the community, such as grocery stores, seniors and youth centres, food banks, malls, homeless shelters, dog parks and farmers markets; and
  • Uses less traditional data collection approaches, like observational research.

HCD builds from individual thinking to group consensus in confirming a problem statement, collecting and interpreting the data, and in arriving at strongly supported solutions with workable implementation plans.

  • Develops prototypes for the community to ‘road test’ before arriving at a final solution; and
  • Creates strong individual ownership, team alignment, and group loyalty solutions, and a commitment to make future adjustments if necessary.

HCD is a high energy, fast-paced team approach that creates equal participation for everyone—oh, and it’s fun.

How does HCD differ from more traditional problem solving approaches?

Project ElementHuman-Centred DesignMore Traditional Approaches
Stakeholder StatusParticipatory equals commit to a fast-paced process founded on focused consensus and practical considerationsInterested people respond to posted notices of an opportunity for public input

Problem IdentificationParticipants work together to ensure the problem is identified accurately, (and not one or more of its’ symptoms)Problem statement is often provided by the sponsoring/responsible municipality
Developing OptionsStarts with individual ideation by all participants, and evolves into structured consensusLimited options are developed and presented by municipality for participants to respond to (e.g. low, medium, high)
Arriving at SolutionIterative, human-based actions with defined public interest value propositions. Strong focus on implementation, like developing prototypesMore linear and can be more “high level” solution than implementation focused
After the SolutionMonitor, measure, and adjust proactivelyOften reactive response if problem continues– can be due to a workable implementation plan not having been developed 
Ongoing Participant PhilosophyPride of inclusion, ownership of solution, openness to make subsequent adjustmentsOwnership by interested public is less “sticky”

Benefits of Municipal Business Transformation

Municipal Business transformation should ideally be examined in a comprehensive, inclusive, engaging and “real world” way. The potential outcomes of such an examination can include:

  • Better use of technology to make information, analysis and participation easier to access outside of “ Monday to Friday, 9 to 5”, allowing citizens to participate if and when they choose to do so, and to be better informed;
  • Better employee engagement, retention and attraction, including remote working arrangements that both empower and ensure accountability;
  • Smaller office space needs for some municipal staff;
  • The creation of new and more contemporary public engagement tools which may complement existing forums (e.g. delegations before Councils), and assist with other household logistics, such as child care;
  • The offering of new forums, such as community-wide innovation summits ;
  • Informal and (potentially) formal public meetings;
  • Better established protocols for virtual emergency response briefings; and
  • Expanded or new e-permitting (e.g. for building and sign permits).

For municipalities, key dividends accruing from using HCD in your business transformation process include:

  • Greater efficiency and effectiveness, hallmarks of good government and a commitment to a continuous improvement lens;
  • Better citizen service;
  • Improved employee engagement, retention and attraction;
  • Stronger shared corporate and community strategies and tactics (better alignment of common priorities);
  • Improved resilience by being better prepared to respond to future business disruption (and resulting change imperatives). Virtual transformation opportunities are not see as a total substitution for in-person conversations that are critical to transparency and access to local municipal democracy, and that is expected to return to post-pandemic; and
  • Establishing a new municipal transformation framework that can be activated as needed well into the future.

Want to talk more about the opportunities for catalytic change and transformation?

We love to talk about HCD and the ways to unlock the opportunity for change inside your municipality. Get in touch with Rob.