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2018 Report: Candid look at top issues keeping Canada’s CAOs up at night

by Municipal World
in Governance, Human Resources, Leadership, Management, ONLINE FEATURE
September, 2018

According to a new report, municipal Chief Administrative Officers (CAOs) are a reflection of their country: vastly diverse. Even so, CAOs from across Canada share the same fundamental commitment to finding solutions, and building better communities and service-delivery organizations. StrategyCorp’s report, based on the 2018 Cross-Canada Survey of City Managers and Municipal CAOs, provides a snapshot of the views of municipal CAOs from across the country, and identifies some overarching trends that are worth examining.

“If you need structure and predictability, you are in the wrong business.”

Top of mind issues include the continued pressures on municipal finances, recruiting challenges, and municipal restructuring (“the issue that won’t go away”). Asked to identify what issues keep them up at night, 80% made reference to the inadequacy of municipal revenue to meet the growing demand for services. However, this year’s interviews also produced some “new or re-profiled issues” that the authors believe deserve to be highlighted, including the following (excerpted from the report):

DISRUPTION– Whether it is new technologies, digital service delivery, fundamental changes to the traditional economic model for retail or tourism, or the unique demands of Millennials and new immigrants, CAOs find that they cannot rely on past practice to guide their approach to new problems and in the search for solutions. The new economy, the impact of extreme weather events and changes in the existing fiscal environment mean municipalities are rethinking their approach to fiscal planning, economic development and taking practical measures to explain and to manage the impact of climate change. The impact of the “grey tsunami” of Baby Boomers will affect everything from recruiting and retaining talent, to managing the very different service demands and planning preferences of the changing demographics of Canadian regions.

Transformative Incrementalism: A journey to sustainability

“We have a workforce that is used to doing things in a less than innovative way. We will have to do a lot of change management in retraining.”

INNOVATION – Innovation is taking the private sector economy by storm, and municipal professionals are joining that wave. From digital service delivery and electronic consultation, to advances in performance management techniques and processes and the use of technology to guide infrastructure asset management, traditional approaches to municipal issues are being displaced by creative and innovative new experiments and techniques.

“There are no sacred cows. Challenge everything we do… Be empowered to make change and do it better.”

RECONCILIATION– After the country-wide efforts to respond to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations, relations between municipal governments and Indigenous groups continue to evolve. From economic development and community collaboration, to symbolic recognition and sensitivity to traditional learning and decision-making processes, CAOs are engaged in a range of ground-breaking initiatives, both with First Nations and Inuit governments, as well as urban Aboriginal and Metis communities. We were particularly impressed by how municipal CAOs have embraced the importance of Reconciliation and are working to move the agenda forward in their communities.

“Reconciliation is a major issue – it’s not just about saying sorry, it’s also about adapting indigenous processes.”

POPULISM – Whether radically new ways to consult with residents, or the newly elected councillor or a mayor from the mold of Donald Trump, or social-media driven simple solutions to complex problems, or the loss of credibility of traditional stakeholder leadership, CAOs are finding that the cycle-time for finding solutions is shrinking, along with the traditional deference to professional expertise. CAOs recognize the need for a renewed emphasis on municipal good governance (from Council-staff relations through to municipal restructuring) and reminding the community of the importance of municipal professionalism.

“The Trump effect plays a role in it: for some of them it is normal behaviour – they feel they are free to behave in ways that would have been inappropriate before.”

While most participants for this year’s survey tended to come from large and medium sized municipalities, small urban, rural and northern were also represented. As such, the report captures a sense of the diversity of economies and challenges across Canada, as well as the different personalities and management styles of the CAOs and city managers that lead these communities. Despite their diversity, says the report, Canada’s CAOs, at their core, “share basic values of service, principle-centered leadership, building strong relationships and a belief in good governance and the importance of municipal professionalism.”

Video: Michael Fenn discusses 2018 survey of Canada’s CAOs and City Managers

Read the full report here.

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