Public-private partnerships are often the only way to get things done, but there are right ways and wrong ways to go about creating them.
In this Technicity GTA panel, moderator Hanif Mawji, vice-president and general manager worldwide commercial, AMD discussed the issues for all sides with Sterling Lee, Durham regional councillor, Town of Ajax, representing government, Monika Jaroszonek, chief executive officer, Ratio.city, which provides data-driven tools for urban transformation, from the private sector, and Adam Abernethy, central region director, Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA).
Mawji kicked things off by asking whether partnership collaboration has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I definitely think it has,” Lee said. “Ajax is on the far east side of the GTA and we don’t have the same advantages that Toronto and Hamilton have, being very close to the tech centre. So, because of the pandemic and because no one is allowed to drive anywhere, we actually have an equal footing in setting up these meetings that we wouldn’t normally be able to get because of distance, because of time. We can just have these one-hour Zoom video conference calls and start engaging these partners more proactively. In our very specific example, it’s actually been very beneficial to us.”
Jaroszonek agreed. “What we’re seeing a lot of is this realization that we need to support a flexible workforce, that people need to be able to have the tools to work remotely, to work from home,” she said. “And I can use general trends that have all of a sudden been super accelerated.” She said that municipalities have to rethink legacy systems that rely on local servers and desktop computers and look at how to help staff be agile with tools that would make their lives easier so that they can work from home, get access to the information that they need to continue to do their jobs, and engage with the community as they used to do in person.
“There were a lot of lessons learned,” Abernethy observed. “Which is part of what happens when you go through something. It’s a lot easier to do your disaster planning – whether your disaster is a global pandemic or a small fire in a server room – a lot easier to plan your disaster when you’ve seen some disaster. So now that we’ve seen a really big disaster, we’ve all gotten a little better at it.”
The discussion then turned to the best ways to partner with municipalities, and how to become more collaborative. The overarching message was to ask private sector partners for patience.
“I think the key thing we have to remember for municipalities, though, is that the private sector has to be more flexible and patient if they want to work with us,” Lee said. “There are tons of procedures and policies that our staff have to work within the confines of to make things happen. We are a business that reports directly to the residents and so we have to make sure that everything is accounted for and our T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted.”
It’s not just public-private partnerships that have challenges, Abernethy noted. They can also be an adventure. “We had a lot of working sessions and knowledge sharing going on between the City of Oshawa and geographically local people, and even still we had a lot of interesting procedural hurdles to get over,” he said. “So soon as we mixed several cities together, even though we’re all trying to solve the same security and data problems, we had an absolute nightmare just trying to expense pizza to feed everybody at lunch. And that’s real – you don’t want to play at that battle every month just to get everybody in the same room solving an actual real problem.”
“The next pizza’s on me,” Lee laughed.
On a more serious note, he went on to explain that Ajax is a lower-tier municipality in Durham Region, where the eight municipalities had always fought among themselves rather than working together. Now, it’s changed, as the Region realized that the municipalities would have to collaborate to compete with Toronto and Hamilton and York Region.
“One of the key things we’re doing is, we have a regular information share, like (Abernethy) was referring to, of all the municipal Lakeshore municipalities, and we created a Durham Region economic development Task Force, so they meet regularly,” Lee said. “We have buy-in from all municipalities and they meet and they collaborate to share ideas and best practices.”
“From my perspective, it’s great to hear that there is this idea of regional cooperation,” said Jaroszonek. “The way that we’ve been approaching collaboration with municipalities is to try to reduce the risk for everyone around the table, and so how can we bite off a small piece, how can we do an initial pilot that proves the thesis, that reduces the risk for everyone and that is able to measure, some results. We had a pilot with the City of Toronto Urban Planning Department, for example, we had a number of their users, start to use our tools for a six month period. We set up some objectives, and we checked in on a very regular basis. We were able to get some measurable impact.”
Mawji then wondered about how Lee and Abernethy handled partnering with different levels of government, and what best practices they could suggest.
One of the challenges, Lee noted, was that although each municipality is in the business of helping its residents, sometimes they just don’t speak the same language – their organizational structures differ, and sometimes it’s difficult to even identify the right person to attend the meetings. But, he said, the opportunity for shared knowledge is such that everyone has to put politics aside.
“It is important for this discussion,” he said. “I can’t always further the interest of Ajax solely when it comes to Durham Region, because then I may be putting the other seven behind, and it’s a really short game. It’s ultimately sharing my knowledge, sharing capacity, and using political capital to achieve these kinds of end goals.”
Abernethy agreed, pointing out that there’s almost no competing, and that Whitby (another Durham Region municipality) has an innovation department whose mandate is to come up with new ideas.
“Which to me, that’s amazing and very forward-leaning, and I’d love to see more of that,” he said. “And once again, if one of those eight municipalities under the same umbrella is doing it, why aren’t we all? Why aren’t we all just throwing money into a bucket and fixing it all collaboratively?”
From Jaroszonek’s point of view, that kind of department makes her life easier because it can tell her what the council’s strategic objectives are, and what problems the city needs to have solved. “If we know that our products can help solve that specific problem. It makes it easier to approach the right people in the right way,” she said.
However, Lee noted, while a problem-solving department is a brilliant idea, it comes with a cost that has to be sold to constituents.
To conclude, Mawji asked each panellist to contribute one partnership idea that would help organizations collaborate better.
Jaroszonek began, saying that if a department with a problem that Ratio.city can help with has the confidence to go outside traditional procurement processes and set up a pilot project, it can test out its ideas with limited risk. “It’s a way to be able to test innovations that may not be fully formed,” she explained. “You can break it down to a few component parts and be able to test it. You can then be able to measure results and go back and say, hey you know what this little project worked, it didn’t cost too much, it didn’t involve too much risk. Now that we’ve got this proof point, let’s go back and expand it. I think that’s one way to think about integrating innovation into some of these departments that are otherwise really constrained by current processes.”
From a municipal point of view, Lee said partnerships work best when expectations are clearly laid out, preferably in writing. “But the one piece of advice I can’t stress enough is, be patient and flexible. Because we are coming out of this infancy and we’re coming at a really breakneck speed, and we have to make sure we do everything with due diligence. So just be patient to municipalities is probably the most important tip I can give.”
Abernethy got the last word, saying that from the municipal staff perspective, there’s one thing he’d like to see before partnerships are established: guidance about what could and couldn’t be done. “I think that kind of guidance, even if it started at a regional level or even just a geographic cluster that gets together and says, ‘Hey, here are some policies and guidelines and we’re all going to agree with this, we’re going to agree to sell this to our constituents’, and it’s got weight, traction in all directions now.”