Today, we find ourselves at an incredibly amazing milestone. After mere months of development, several vaccines are being reviewed, approved and administered around the world. The loss of thousands of Canadians has been devastating and unforgettable, but we now have a way forward.

As we move forward, there continues to be reflection and learning about how municipalities have had to respond to the Pandemic. In the spirit of continuous improvement, or as many say “building back better”, it is important to take stock of our many learnings. Here are ten things that I have seen or heard about from municipal colleagues:

  1. Necessity is the mother (or father) of invention, and municipalities have been very creative. There are countless examples of creativity, and municipal staff should be commended for their ability to “think differently” in such compelling circumstances. This includes increased attention on investments in local fibre works (e.g. to support massive e-commerce and work from home demands), remobilizing staff to fill temporary front-line roles, interim forms of recreation and travel (like temporary on-street bike lanes), and art walks.
  2. Citizens are looking to the public sector for strong leadership on a daily basis. It is insightful to see how citizens have looked to their elected officials to have a plan and to execute that plan well. Municipal Heads of Council, Premiers, the Prime Minister and Medical Officers of Health dominate the media on most days.
  3. Imperfect nimbleness is the order of the day. There was no time to draft a perfect plan and to debate it at length. As we learned more about the Covid-19 virus and how it is transmitted, municipalities worked iteratively, adjusting business practices on a daily basis if necessary, but never giving up. We must remember that the spread of the Covid-19 virus is dynamic, invisible and fast-moving as well, and depends on the behaviours and habits of individuals.
  4. Nothing can replace in-person democracy, but municipalities have managed to keep community engagement going. It has been remarkable to see municipalities not only offer virtual participation, but for so many citizens to respond by participating in these very different ways. Municipal web sites and social media have also been supplemented. I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge the importance that the media plays in keeping the community apprised of many factors too, such as changes to restrictions, and who are the people most heavily impacted.
  5. Societal inequities have become more visible, and demands for immediate action are pervasive. It has been insightful to see municipalities find temporary shelter for the homeless (like vacant hotel rooms in Toronto), and to even fit out and make available small shed-sized structures to house people in dire need, as has been the case in the City of Kitchener. However, more permanent solutions and other societal changes (briefly described below) remain in the early stages of discussion and response.
  6. There has been a shift from “municipally-guided stewardship” toward more participatory democracy. It can be argued that for decades, municipal Councils and their staff have largely “stewarded the public good”. Today, we see demands for diversity, equity , inclusion, and anti-racism strategies, with  rallies and calls to action on a consistent basis. City Halls and municipal offices have often been the chosen location for these calls to action.
  7. Municipalities must have tangible strategies and tactics to support their employees or risk widespread burn out, leading to major productivity decline and potentially talent loss. At its outset, the Pandemic compelled everyone to make major shifts, like working from home. However, recent studies suggest that current work arrangements are not sustainable (e.g. blending work and personal hours, resulting in much longer work weeks). The risks of injuring or losing people talent is very real, whether it occurs in the coming few months or in a year’s time. Mental health supports have also seen unprecedented increases in demand, resulting in long waits for many people.
  8. Some new tools and business practices will emerge as better and more sustainable outcomes for municipalities. As I noted above, the move to virtual meetings over a variety of different software choices has been impressive. However, in cases where issues are complex, like homelessness, addictions and health care reform, coupled with demands for more participatory democracy, other approaches to problem-solving will emerge. One of those approaches is Human-Centred Design, which invites key stakeholders to come together and share their experiences, to identify the real problem together, and to collaborate to reach real life solutions that work for the beneficiaries of services.
  9. Employees with broad skill sets, and flexible labour relations have been critical success factors. Skills like excellence in communications (e.g. plain language and easy to find important facts), technology savviness (e.g. rolling out contact tracing apps), creative thinking and operational nimbleness (i.e. the ability to get things done quickly) have been invaluable. Likewise, active collaboration between collective bargaining units and management has been visible and is extremely commendable.
  10. Attitude is everything! At the end of the day, the elected people and municipal staff are all members of a community or communities. We are in this Pandemic together, and municipal work needs to be seen as seamless (i.e. not compartmentalized), with protecting the health of citizens being at the centre of everything that municipalities do.

To all municipal Councillors and staff, be proud of what you have achieved, and take stock of your learnings. There are many outcomes that you can carry forward to serve more effectively and to advance the cause of greater participatory democracy in municipalities across Ontario and Canada.

This blog is dedicated to the memory of all the people we have lost from Covid-19.

The ideas presented in this blog recognize that increasing participatory democracy must be implemented in environments that are supportive of and open to change. Additionally, not all municipal issues of the day necessarily require broader participatory approaches.

Municipal offerings of greater participatory democracy can vary widely, and may depend on such aspects as the complexity of an issue, shared local priorities and community interest.

Human Centred Design (HCD) offers an engagement strategy that can directly support  greater participatory democracy. The application of HCD is typically dedicated to addressing complex issues, like homelessness and mental illness, but can be applied more broadly.

Rob Horne and his Municipal Innovation Group at Overlap continue to support municipalities in a wide range of capacities. Their support includes programs to train municipal staff in leading Human Centred Design workshops.

Overlap Associates remains available to discuss your interest in creating opportunities for more participatory democracy, or for other projects on your priority list. Please reach out to me or to one of my colleagues any time!

Rob Horne, Senior Advisor
Rob is a seasoned municipal administrator and in 2020, he spent time canvassing both practicing and retired municipal administrators to talk about the impact of the Pandemic on communities. His blogs capture a wide array of thoughtful insights from many of these people, and include reflections about how municipal business could be done differently and better.