The message is municipal

There were no banners proclaiming the change. No one raised a toast to the newcomers, or offered secret handshakes. But this year’s Lac Carling Congress clearly delivered a message to participants from municipal governments: Welcome To The Club.

For the first time at a Lac Carling conference, municipal governments received special attention as partners in the transformation of government services. They began to feel at home – and quite enjoyed it. Municipalities have always been invited to Lac Carling, but in previous years never felt fully accepted into the club.

There were only five of them at the first Lac Carling Congress in 1997. “It was intimidating,” recalls Lorne Seaton, associate director of IT for the City of London, Ont., and a participant in every Lac Carling Congress. “I felt like standing in a corner.” This year, Seaton said, he felt comfortable among familiar faces and saw municipalities treated as equal partners in many initiatives.

Others among the record-high 27 municipal participants also remarked favourably on the attention they received. Peter Bennett, manager of information systems with the City of Winnipeg and one of the three conference co-chairs, was downright boastful. “In this year’s program we have made a conscious effort to reflect the importance of municipal governments in transforming service delivery,” Bennett said in his opening remarks. “This is a tremendous thing to happen for municipalities across Canada.”

Bennett, the first municipal delegate to serve as a co-chair at Lac Carling, rhymed off the prominent roles of municipal participants.

Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell was the keynote speaker on the second night – and his just-do-it address was the most warmly received of any conference presentation. Jae Eadie, councillor and acting mayor of the city of Winnipeg, served as chair of the political leaders panel – which also included Councillor Len Goucher of Halifax Regional Municipality and Councillor Peter Hume of the City of Ottawa.

Serving with Bennett on the conference steering committee were Kathy Yung, manager of information technology services for the City of New Westminster and Stephen Wong, director, application and professional services for the City of Toronto. But there was more to the municipal flowering at Lac Carling 2004 than a higher profile. This was also a conference of optimism, where concrete, practical progress in transforming public services was on display. Greater municipal participation was clearly an enabler of that.

Part of the reason stems from the municipal experience. Local governments are under daily pressure from constituents to deliver results, now.

“E-government has created what I call a super breed of electorate, and, by necessity, a more responsive politician,” Goucher of Halifax told the political leaders panel.. “Politicians like myself can no longer hide behind the veil of bureaucratic red tape created in large part by obscure or inaccessible bureaucratic processes.

“The expectation we’ve created within the constituency is of almost instantaneous response,” Goucher said. “Not only to service issues – when is my street going to be swept, or why is my water bill high – but, ‘There are pigeons in my back yard; I want you to implement a pigeon bylaw, what’s your position on this, councillor? And I’d like to know tomorrow.’ ”

Hume of Ottawa agreed that municipal constituents, accustomed to debit cards and paperless airline tickets and Internet banking, have sharply raised their expectations of government services.

“What do constituents want? They want to be able to track their complaints online. When they make a service complaint about having a tree trimmed or having their street swept, they want to go online and see how that complaint has been dealt with, when the work has been scheduled, when the truck has left the yard. They want to be able to view plans and provide comments online.

“They don’t want to wait,” Hume said. “They want that information instantaneously. This has created an extreme challenge, both for politicians trying to keep pace, and for those who are trying to deliver services and information to the community.”

Municipalities have responded to this challenge with a record that is, on the whole, the best among governments. A glance at the results of the three Citizens First surveys to date reveals that many of the highest-rated services delivered by any sector are municipal. This has not escaped the notice of the senior levels of government, and may be a reason why they have begun treating technical and service managers from municipalities as peers.

Brian Marson, senior adviser at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat and a thought leader of the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service (ICCS), said in an interview: “The research tells us that municipalities have higher-rated services than the provinces and the federal government. That suggests that the municipalities are an area which the whole public sector can learn from, and probably have more best practices collectively to learn from than one would find in 10 provinces and three territories.” This has an impact beyond Lac Carling. Marson said he sees increasing municipal influence on the collaborative bodies for which Lac Carling serves as an annual milestone: the ICCS, the Public Sector CIO Council (PSCIOC) and the Public Sector Service Delivery Council PSSDC).

“What we are beginning to see emerging in Canada is what I call a single community of practice involving all levels of government, where we have a common research agenda, a common understanding of what citizens need, a common way of measuring – which is the Common Measurement Tool – and a best practices pool that is expanding because the municipalities are involved.”

Many projects featured in presentations at Lac Carling had prominent municipal themes. They included:

• Taking Care of Business. This first-of-a-kind study of business attitudes toward government services was sponsored at the municipal level by the cities of Ottawa, Halifax and Vancouver, and by the Ontario and British Columbia chapters of the Municipal Information Systems Association (MISA).

• Interjurisdictional Service Delivery Project. The Regional Municipality of Halton, in southern Ontario just west of Toronto, has joined with Industry Canada and the Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services to test a methodology to enable collaboration and alignment among the three levels of government in delivering services. Specifically, they found that the methodology could help to synchronize the many permits required to open a restaurant in Halton. Planning is now under way to apply the methodology in a wider project called BizPal, aimed at aligning information on permits and licences in three sets of municipal and provincial jurisdictions: Whitehorse and Yukon, Kamloops and British Columbia, and Halton and Ontario.

• eContact. This is an Internet-based tool designed to improve citizens’ ability to locate government services easily, across all channels and jurisdictions. A pilot project under the governance of the PSSDC-PSCIOC Joint Council is being implemented by the City of Winnipeg.

• 211. Since June 2002, the City of Toronto has been a member of a partnership offering multilingual telephone access to non-emergency social, health and government services by dialing 211. Client satisfaction is more than 90 per cent. Calgary and Edmonton are next in line to join tri-level partnerships coordinated by United Way agencies.

• Collaborative Seniors’ Portal. The City of Brockville is a partner in, a portal providing single-window access to government services for seniors and a successful pilot for a federated portal framework developed by Ontario’s Management Board Secretariat. Various federal and provincial departments are working to expand the seniors’ portal to other municipalities.

• Express Address. The cities of Saskatoon and Regina have joined with four of Saskatchewan’s largest Crown corporations in a partnership called eSask, which has created a Web site called It enables citizens to notify multiple organizations at the same time about a pending move. What is the value that municipalities bring to such projects?

To Greg Georgeff, conference co-chair and corporate chief information officer of Ontario, the answer is, “Municipalities have the closest alliance with the citizens at large. “Everybody in the room respects that the municipality has a higher frequency of citizen-to-jurisdiction contact,” Georgeff said in an interview. “And because the municipalities have more experience – have more products, essentially – at the citizen level, they definitely bring in a huge experience and wealth of knowledge in terms of how to actually approach the citizen.

“Municipal governments are clearly far ahead in things like transparency. Some municipalities have the transcripts of Council and committee minutes available on the Web the next day. And I watch with interest, because I’m taking a lot of cues in terms of what we might do with the transparency agenda within the provincial government. That’s one place where municipalities are definitely out in front with spear in hand.” Another important municipal characteristic is sheer numbers – somewhere between 4,500 and 5,000 of them in Canada, depending on various definitions.

“Municipalities introduce a level of complexity to some of these discussions that ultimately needs to be addressed,” noted Roy Wiseman, Chief Information Officer of the Region of Peel in southern Ontario and a leader within MISA Ontario. “If you are implementing something like eContact, you go across a small number of federal and provincial and territorial jurisdictions – and then there’s that exponential growth at the municipal level. It’s always helpful to understand how that complexity is going to play out.

“And it’s not just in pure numbers, but also in capability,” Wiseman said. “How do you make that capability with eContact work in, let’s say, Northern Ontario, where you have no community outside Thunder Bay with a population of more than about 5,000? You have to think through those processes. I think it’s easy for the senior levels of government to overlook those.”

All told, the impetus of the municipal experience was clearly a propelling force at Lac Carling 2004. Nevertheless, they are new members in the club, and there were gaps in their representation. You could look in vain at the conference for municipal delegates from Quebec, or from most of Canada’s largest cities. Some influential projects and discussions, such as those dealing with privacy, authentication and integrated business registration, did not have municipal participation. And there is no municipal member on the Public Sector Service Delivery Council. Still, as Georgeff put it, “There is no doubt that there are some gnarly issues to deal with, but we are finally starting to see some of this stuff jell.” There will be more jelling in future.

The municipal delegates held a breakfast meeting on the last morning of Lac Carling 2004 to share their enthusiasm and talk about forming MISA Canada as an organization to deal with other levels of government. Other delegates implicitly encouraged a larger role for municipalities in future conferences and projects in remarks at the final plenary session. Delegates collectively voted to make “engaging municipalities” one of the highest-priority recommendations to pass on to the PSSDC-PSCIOC in planning for next year’s Lac Carling Congress.

They also recommended that inclusion of municipalities should be considered for all inter-jurisdictional projects.

As a smiling Peter Bennett said in his closing remarks, “I think we’re being courted.”

Lawrence Moule ([email protected]) is co-editor of Municipal Interface, the national professional journal of the Municipal Information Systems Association.

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