Monday, October 10, 2016

Should the City be Run Like a Business?

One of the suggestions that is often made in on-line forums is that the city should be run like a business, and to ensure that, more business people should be elected to council.  I think that, as is often the case, people are looking for a simple answer to solve complicated problems.

Unfortunately, it's just not that simple.  Businesses are owned by one or more shareholders, and their main responsibility is to return profits to their shareholders.  The city, on the other hand, is a government, and its responsibility is to provide services to residents, in return for which the residents pay taxes.  The city is responsible for things considered in the greater good, whether they are profitable or not.  For example, green spaces like parks and playgrounds are not money-makers, nor are they essential like safe drinking water, but most people would agree that they make the city a much more attractive and pleasant place to live.

With businesses, there is competition.  If I don't like the service or products or prices offered at a certain store, I'm free to go elsewhere.  Good businesses know this, and will do their best to provide good reasons for customers to patronize them, whether it be cheaper prices, unique products, or superior service.  With the city, residents have no option.  You don't like how or when your street was plowed?  You can't pick up the phone and call a competitor.  One of the big problems for the city is how to offer equitable services.  For something like snow plowing, priority routes are identified, and the crews do their best to also get to residential areas when priority areas are done, varying which residential areas get service first.  Of course, another storm will set the whole thing back to priority routes, which then results in more complaints.

The double-edged sword of offering tax incentives to attract new businesses is an idea that is being offered by some candidates.  The downside of incentives is that they provide a competitive disadvantage to current businesses - if the city offered a tax holiday to Starbucks if they took over one of the current vacant downtown storefronts, I'm sure that the many coffee shops currently operational in the city would complain loudly over the unfairness of the situation.  Council currently looks at such requests on an individual basis; I think that we should also develop some guidelines around the size of incentives as related to the benefits to the city, whether it be number of employees, potential benefit to related businesses, or other criteria.

With regard to the suggestion that we need more business people on council, you might be surprised to realize that half of the current council is made up of current or previous business owners.  Having a council made up entirely of business people would not achieve the necessary diversity of perspectives that I believe is necessary for good decision-making.  And if we want to look at history, part of the reason that some areas of the city have fewer amenities than others is that before the ward system, council was largely made up of residents of the better-off areas, leading to more money being invested in those areas than in the unrepresented areas.

For all that, I do think that there are areas where the city could be more business-like.  For one, projects could be run more efficiently.  The boondoggle that happened last year on Eighth Street, when the repaving and pipe replacement work was abandoned for paving a parking lot behind SIAST, and not completed until this year, is an example of poor planning and execution that likely wouldn't have happened with a business, where work isn't paid for until complete.

Better communication is also an area where we could learn from business.  Business owners know that you have to keep the customer informed, whether it's about new products, sales, or renovations that are going to affect accessibility.  The city just isn't that good about informing residents about what's going on, in most cases, although the information package that recently was sent to residents about the upcoming election is an exception to that, and I must congratulate the City Clerk for that effort.

Finally, I think that the city could do a far better job in providing better client service.  All too often I'm called by a resident who is trying to get information from City Hall, and they get the run-around.  I've experienced poor service myself, when the person answering the phone in Finance did not identify themselves, and became quite rude until I identified myself.  Another councillor had a similar experience this past week, trying to find out about garbage pick-up.  While I realize that not all employees lack this understanding of the importance of providing good service, I think that setting some standards for how phones are answered, and how quickly messages are responded to, would go a great distance in improving residents' experiences in dealing with problems.

As I've often said, there are no easy solutions to the problems that come up when trying to run the city efficiently and effectively.  Council needs to look at the whole range of solutions, remembering that our final obligation is to provide a wide range of services as equitably as possible to all residents.

"It's easy to make a buck.  It's a lot tougher to make a difference." - Tom Brokaw

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