City Hall: Best Practices, Worst Practices: BENN




Best practices. A fundamental element to changing corporate culture? Or just two words in a vision statement?

The City of Ottawa has articulated, on more than one occasion, that it is implementing best practices. Is it? Ask yourself how many times you have heard phrases like “we have always done it that way”? Or “we are not prepared to change how we do things”? Or “that would be a lot of work”? Or words that mean the same thing?

Earlier this week, I encountered just that situation. An e-mail response regarding a suggestion on how to ensure that a significant group of stakeholders who had not been notified could be included in an online consultation. From an organization that claims to espouse a culture of best practices.

For an organization that is dedicated to implementing best practices, “We have always done it that way” should be an invitation to examine how a situation could be handled in a manner that achieved a more effective outcome. An acknowledgement that there is always room for improvement. A decision made and communicated by the senior-most levels of the organization to challenge the status quo. To strive for better. That is what “best practices” looks like.

“We are not prepared to change how we do things” is an explicit refutation of a senior level directive to embrace best practices. How should the mid and senior levels of the city bureaucracy react when they see that? What about members of council? It has long been identified by organization behaviour specialists that ‘the tone from the top” must support the action plan. I am not suggesting that a person lose their job over this. No. Far from it. This needs to be viewed as a set of opportunities.

An opportunity to offer training not only to the individual but to their manager and their colleagues. The whole department. Why? Because it is entirely possible that the training the city did provide (a big assumption) was not effective.

It also needs to be viewed as an opportunity by senior management (city manager and mayor) to send a message to everyone in city hall stating that best practices is a vital element of city policy. That every effort should be made by staff to ensure that they are open-minded about alternative ways of doing something. To pro-actively seek out alternative ways of doing things. That “we have always done it that way” is not an acceptable reason for refusing to even consider alternative ways of doing things. That is what tone from the top looks like. At least in organizations that are serious about effecting the changes that they talk about.

“That would be a lot of work” might be a correct assessment of the situation. But that doesn’t mean that the extra work should not be performed. Staff should be instructed to identify the benefits of not doing something the same way it has always been done. For example, we will reach 20 per cent (real figure in the situation I am referencing) more stakeholders. These are stakeholders who might generate a much more representative response. A response that is more inclusive of the community. A response from a more diverse stakeholder group. Then determine how much more work it will take. In terms of time to accomplish the outcome. In terms of incremental dollars to third parties (inside city hall dollars are just accounting allocations, therefore count as zero, at least in the short term). Whether these are one-time efforts or recurring. Then discuss the alternatives with mid and senior managers.

That is what best practices look like. As for what best practices look like down at city hall? That depends on the choice of font in the document that was written. The one that was filed away, never to be looked at again.

Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association for the better part of three decades.


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1 Response

  1. The Voter says:

    A couple more “excuses” at the City:

    “My boss would never go for that.” Well, she or he certainly won’t if they don’t hear about it so give them the opportunity to say “Yes”. You miss 100% of the shots you never take.

    “There’s no room in the budget for that.” Then introduce the concept now and put it in next year’s budget. This excuse is offered by those who have the song “There’s a hole in my bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.” playing on an endless loop in their brains.

    “We tried that before and it didn’t work.” When you delve deeper into this one, it turns out that it was tried when Denis Coolican was the Regional Chair. There’s no recognition that things might just have changed since then.

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