Sunday, May 19, 2013

Some Thoughts on the Proposed GPS Policy

There's been quite a bit of media coverage over the last couple of weeks about a policy brought forward by administration to set guidelines for the use of various technical devices that are available in city-owned property - cell phones, radios, vehicles, water meter reading devices, for example.  Mostly, it speaks to the use of GPS (Global Positioning Systems) that are in such things, and how the city could use this GPS availability to track the location of city employees.

I voted against this proposal for a number of reasons.  While the main reason for the policy was suggested to be for improved safety, this seems to be a bit of a stretch.  Employees rarely work alone, and never in remote locations.  As well, I think that it's a fair assumption that work schedules and locations are known by supervisors, managers and co-workers - if there's a problem, finding where the worker is will be the least of the problem.  And a GPS won't be able to tell when there's a problem.

I was also concerned that the staff proposing this couldn't tell us of another municipality where this is in place, suggesting that either it isn't a good idea, or that full research on the idea hadn't taken place.  I'm a firm believer in gathering all the information that's out there before submitting a proposal, and that groundwork hasn't yet been done.  The concerns raised by the privacy commissioner the day after our meeting also seem to indicate that the proposal had missed a fairly important piece of research.

Although the proposal focused on the need for safety, many of the comments and questions since have focused on the potential of using this technology for monitoring where outside workers are, and when, and for checking on such things as length of coffee breaks.  I totally disagree with this.  We pay supervisors and managers good salaries, part of which are for doing the actual work of supervising and managing employees, and I believe that far better results occur from face-to-face discussions of expectations and issues of non-performance, than from electronic surveillance.

There's also an inequity here of how we treat inside and outside workers.  As far as I know, we do not monitor inside employees, who may well spend time talking to co-workers, on inappropriate web-sites, or updating their Facebook pages when they should be working.  Perhaps we're less concerned because the public is unlikely to see these behaviours and complain, but if we're going to set up a system for monitoring, we'd better be sure that we're treating all employees the same.

The proposed policy has been sent back for further development and consultation, particularly with the unions.  Hopefully, before it shows up before us again, the research has been done to answer everyone's questions.

" There will come a time when it isn't 'They're spying on me through my phone' any more.  Eventually it will be 'My phone is spying on me'." - Philip K. Dick

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Assessing the Risks of Change

Any time council proposes doing things differently, we're guaranteed to get emails or phone calls from residents or other interested parties about how we shouldn't make changes, because the change will cost more.  The most recent example is our decision to move to monthly water billing in January 2014, rather than the current quarterly billing.  The immediate reaction from some has been that our costs for the actual billing will now be triple, and certainly, for paper billing, mailing a bill every month rather than quarterly will cost three times as much.

Any time change happens, there is a cost involved.  What has to be part of the decision-making process, is an assessment of what benefits are associated with the change, and whether those benefits outweigh the costs.  In the case of monthly water billing, I think that the benefits of making it easier for residents to pay water bills, the reduced risk of delinquency of payment because we'll know monthly if if someone isn't paying, and the reduced risk of a leak going unnoticed are all big benefits that have to be part of the analysis.

We also need to see if there are ways of lessening the increased billing cost.  I'm not sure if administration has investigated the option of electronic billing, as provincial utilities now have available, but I think that's something that we should look into.  I also think that we need to figure out a way of encouraging more people to submit their meter readings electronically - what sort of incentives might increase the proportion of residents who voluntarily do this for us, reducing the need, and the cost, of having city employees read all the meters.

Now, those are just some simple examples of the sort of analysis that needs to be done any time we propose change.  Too often, I think that change is proposed because there is new technology available, and we want to try it out.  As an example, our move to I-pads a couple of years ago for meeting agendas and emails has not been totally smooth, and there's still a fair amount of paper that has to be put together related to meetings.  Emails sometimes disappear before they've been read, and I know that some councillors are concerned about email being accessible to administration, losing a sense of confidentiality that we had when we each had our own email on our own systems.  But none of these issues was discussed fully before the change was implemented.

We need to have as much information as possible, and we need to discuss openly all the pros and cons about any changes that we're thinking about.  It's just as important to think of all the potential problems ahead of time, and how we can resolve or avoid them, as it is to think of all the wonderful things that will happen with a change.  And each councillor needs to honestly look at both sides of the issue, no matter which way they lean, to ensure that these discussions happen.

Very few things in life, or at council, are purely black or white.  Weighing the costs and benefits takes time, but it also allows us to find the appropriate shade of grey that we can defend, and explain to our constituents.    I've found that most people, when you give them the complete picture, and the steps that were taken in making the decision, are appreciative of the effort that was taken.  They might have made a different decision, but most will also respect the fact that our job, as members of council, is to make those decisions to the best of our ability.  And then we move on to the next decision.

"If you are not willing to risk the unusual, you will have to settle for the ordinary." - Jim Rohn

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Couple of Water-Related Issues

Considering the high waters that have been making headlines lately, it's rather topical that water was also part of a couple of agenda items at last Monday's council meeting.  Both are issues that I've raised in the past, and finally other members of council are starting to seriously consider and debate the options.

The first one is to account for the utilities costs (water, sewage, garbage collection, recycling) for all city facilities.  I've been making this suggestion for years, because our user fees are based on such fees covering a  percentage of the costs of those facilities (generally 40 - 50%), and if you don't include utility costs when figuring these out, the result is that the user fees are based on a lower than actual cost.  So who picks up the rest of the cost?  The taxpayer of course.

I'm not sure why this inequity has been allowed to continue, but at least now, we'll know what the real costs are.  Whether we adjust user fees will be another decision to be made once we have that information.  Considering the increases in water rates that have been necessary this year, I think that this additional information will be useful for making future increases a bit more fair.

The second is the decision to start billing for water on a monthly, rather than a quarterly basis, starting in 2014.  I think that the arguments for this outweigh the additional costs.  Quarterly billing will be easier for families to plan and budget for.  In an extremely unscientific poll, when I asked other members of council when their next water bill was due, not one could answer.  Neither could I (although when I asked Andrea, she knew).  So if, for example, your water bill is lost in the mail, you're unlikely to realize it until you get the overdue notice.  If it comes monthly, you'll notice its absence.

For many families, paying one-third of the current bill on a monthly basis will be easier to manage as well.  Currently, our family's water bill is in the $210 range - setting aside $70 every month sounds easier, even though it will add up to the same thing.  And I would hope that, at some point, we'll be able to implement equalized billing, just like SaskPower and SaskEnergy do.  And to help reduce our costs, I'm hoping that the city can make the move to electronic billing, just like the provincial utilities are encouraging people to do.

With monthly billing, we'll also be able to follow up on non-payment of bills more quickly, and be able to note problems, like unusually high bills which may indicate a leak somewhere, more quickly.

Water is one of those city services that isn't very glamourous, but that affects everyone.  I hope with these two changes, we're moving to more equitable, and more affordable, provision of this necessity of life.

"Thousands have lived without love, but not one without water." - W.H. Auden