Delivering Better Public Service In Our Emerging Quasi-Pandemic World

Taking Stock

Like me, you all probably know where you were when the Pandemic shut down the world.

I was in London, Ontario on the afternoon of March 12, listening to my daughter successfully defend her doctoral thesis (proud dad!). The following morning, her university and everything else closed.

We had yet to understand the gravity of our situation or to think about and put in place all the virtual and other creative tools that have kept our world going since March of 2020. What we did experience was everything from families and employees being separated for months on end to worries about the fragility of American supply chains that Canada is so dependent on.

I continue to find it remarkable that only eighteen months later, we begin to see the substantial take-up of multiple vaccines to the point where we are actively planning to re-open our countries in more permanent ways. The fact alone that we have effective vaccines is still remarkable to me.

The Notion of Reinvention

As municipalities begin to transition out of the initial impact of the Pandemic, I have heard much discussion about creating a “hybrid” model for public service. In short, municipal programs and services would both go back to “normal” ( i.e. how they were previously delivered) and they would be slightly “tweaked” to incorporate Pandemic-generated practices that were both popular and effective for communities.

In my opinion, this is not the way to approach our collective municipal transition.

While the Pandemic’s initial impact may be largely “over”, we should expect to have to deal with variants for years to come, as we enter a “Quasi-Pandemic” world. What’s more, I believe that the Pandemic has catalysed the re-engineering of many municipal business processes in positive and sustainable ways that were long overdue and should remain in place in some shape or form.

Municipalities are the front line of local democracy, and they are responsible for managing so many essential services, like water supply and emergency response. I have been so impressed by the collective efforts to maintain these services, even when business adjustments did not work as planned. Municipal staff and Councils have had to be nimble in devising (and iterating) many work arounds and in strengthening local communication. Elected officials and staff should be commended for their professional commitment.

Municipal Reinvention in Action

Now that we are through the harsh initial stages of the Pandemic, how should municipalities reinvent themselves more permanently? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Always recognize that “perfect” is your enemy. Municipalities have tried a variety of work arounds during the Pandemic. Some have been successful, and others have not. The point to remember is that the public was and is tolerant of these prototyping attempts. There is no better time than now to continue to identify and test alternative business delivery models, and involving citizens, the recipients of municipal services.
  2. Capitalize on the openness of your citizens to change. Create and implement policies that authentically support diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as other forms of social justice. Symbolic or token gestures will be obvious to communities and will reflect poorly on municipalities.
  3. Offer service levels that are not higher or lower, but different. For example, shifting wellness program registrations to virtual platforms but still offering a phone number to speak to someone ( i.e. if computer use is a challenge) is a different service level than lining up outside a municipal building to sign up for a class or program.
  4. Overcome the “trust hurdle” with employees. Put in place individual work plans and corporate supports that reflect trust in employees to be more autonomous and that work to minimize or (ideally) avoid burn out. There will always be under and over-performers, but most people are diligent and personally committed to their corporate roles.
  5. Create and actively implement corporate policies that support talent attraction and retention. Like many sectors, municipalities are facing shortages of qualified candidates for employment. Flexible work arrangements are increasingly important , and have proven to be invaluable. An agreed upon work plan ( including milestones for delivery) is a powerful tool, as noted above.
  6. Use your newly acquired Pandemic knowledge to identify long standing inefficiencies. For example, virtual meetings have proven to be able to cut out much of the “noise” or rhetoric of people dynamics, as participants must work within a more structured medium.
  7. Recognize that home and other virtual environments are new and permanent municipal work spaces, and are clearly more beneficial for some employee activities than municipal offices for some forms of work. For example, municipal employees who must compose complex documents or negotiate settlements to avoid appeals ( e.g. through the Ontario Land Tribunal) can greatly benefit from work at home arrangements. This can be an “as needed” arrangement, and it can create better outcomes for municipalities in term of the quality of work and cost avoidance.
  8. Work diligently to bring back in-person Council meetings. If there has been one consistent message I have heard, it is the need for community members to be able to again address their municipal Councils in person and for those Councils to be able to debate issues of the day in the same room. It is the invisible synergy of active local democracy, and a hallmark of how our system promotes the transparency of open debate.
  9. Rethink linear and iterative community engagement, especially for complex projects. We have seen throughout the Pandemic that greater participatory democracy using tools like Human Centred Design have proven effective and have supported both community involvement and ownership. Good examples are found in the health and poverty sectors in a number of communities.
  10. Revisit and establish performance measures in a simple and practical way. Municipal Councils and their communities still require some measure of “how well” municipalities are doing.
  11. Establish “Resilience Plans” and share best practices. Identify what elements of corporate leadership and employee support are core to your business, and ensure they are well and sustainably resourced and documented in a Resilience Plan. Such a Plan should also identify things like the corporate values and objectives that must be achieved when alternative business practices are being considered, and staff wellness initiatives. All of this should also be reflected in broader municipal strategic planning documents, and extend beyond the contents of many existing emergency preparedness plans.
  12. Reconfirm that public service is a highly valued and engaging profession with your entire municipal team. There is nothing more powerful than actively listening to your employees and positively reinforcing their individual and team health as a municipal priority!

Overlap is Active in Municipal Reinvention Initiatives

The global Pandemic has necessitated change. It has also opened the door for implementing long needed updates regarding how municipal business is performed.

However, it is also imperative that municipalities not think about what can be added into traditional business practices. Thinking in a “hybrid way” is a limiting proposition toward achieving greater municipal efficiency and effectiveness. Reinvention removes these boundaries.

Much of Overlap’s municipal work is currently focused on Human Centred Design, business reinvention, master planning, diversity, equity and inclusion activation, and other strategic initiatives.

The Overlap team continues to assist its many municipal clients across Canada and internationally.

Rob Horne leads the Municipal Innovation Group with Overlap Associates. Rob has over 30 years of municipal experience, and he retired in 2019 as the Chief Administrative Officer with the City of Stratford. He recently completed his appointment as the 2020/2021 Planner in Residence with the University of Waterloo. Please reach out to Rob any time for an informal discussion about your community’s challenges and opportunities