First Fix City Council, Then Staff: BENN



Reforming Ottawa City Hall does not start with training for staff. It starts with training for councillors.

Business 220: Change must start from the top.

While there are many stages to change management, I want to focus on the first two.

Step 1 has two parts. First, acknowledge that change is required. Second, recognize that the time to effect change is NOW.

Step 2: Stop generating pre-conditions and excuses to effecting change.

Let me cite a recent example to illustrate the challenges in getting “the top” to effect change.

A few months ago I was talking with College Councillor Laine Johnson about the failure of the project manager handling the local traffic management study to identify and include a demographic that constituted about 25 per cent of the Centrepointe community, notably the greater than 2,000 City of Ottawa employees who contribute to and suffer from traffic problems in Centrepointe. The project manager, in response to my suggestion that he reach out to his colleagues in the two city facilities in Centrepointe responded with a lot of words that can be summed up as:

  • never done that before;
  • not going to start now; because
  • it is too much work.

Johnson acknowledged that the process (but not the attitude) was problematic, but now was not the time to take the department to task for following a one-size-fits all, standardized checklist that was designed decades ago for generic neighbourhoods. Now was not the time to do their job better. Now was not the time to ensure that the solution that would be set in concrete (literally) would properly address the situation.

Rather than strike while iron was hot, the councillor said that she and a number of other like-minded councillors were waiting for … well, suffice it to say that the laundry list was long and littered with preconditions over which they had little or no control.

Back to Step 1, part 2. Yes change is necessary, but not urgent. On to Step 2. Pre-conditions are just excuses to not act now. Maybe later. The problem with pre-conditions and excuses are that there is no end to them. Just like the paper cups at Tim Horton’s, when they take one off the top, there is another one below. When the stack gets low, they add another pile on top.

Until councillors individually and as a whole are trained with how to effect change, nothing will change. Too many councillors, notwithstanding their best of intentions, don’t know what they don’t know. And they refuse to even countenance the very concept that they don’t know what they don’t know.

Therein the problem lies. What to do when the people at the top are not inclined to acknowledge that they are part of the problem?


For You:

Good People Get Bad Reps At City: THE VOTER

City Looks Up To See Low: BENN

Nooo … Not A Tent City: PATTON

3 Responses

  1. David says:

    I see the fundamental problem differently. I think there is no shared understanding at City Hall of what the roles of Council and Staff are.They are very different roles, and they need to be carefully defined as does the structure and processes by which they work together. The recent deliberations about what / whether something went to Council or not is symptomatic of the malaise – neither party really knows what is Council’s and Staff’s role and responsibility. Herein lies a major operational issue – and that issue needs to be resolved ASAP.

  2. Liz says:

    Public Sector Management a 101: Visible leadership at the top is central to cultural change. The top is the Mayor and the City Management. The Councillors have even less power to effect change in City Management since a slew of provincial acts on “housing” have stripped them of their role in the development of the city,. And city politics are transactional not evidence based. So the levers for change are minimal.

  3. Ron Benn says:

    David, the essence of your comment is to set a pre-condition to effecting change. First we have to do this, then that, then another thing.

    Instead, using my example, the councillor should have contacted the department manager and whoever is above them and say words to the effect of “A mistake has been made and it needs to be corrected, now.” The councillor, department manager, project manager and the next level up manager meet, and discuss the nature of the mistake, notably blindly following a generic checklist rather than applying situation specific professional judgement. They then agree to the following action plan:

    1. Extend the consultation period.
    2. Notify the community segment that was ignored.
    3. Update the pre-amble to the generic checklist to require the project manager to consider whether there are any unique or extenuating circumstances. The project manager must note with a written statement (not another box to be checked) that there are or are not any such circumstances.
    4. Notify all other department managers, across the full width of the very broad city organization chart, that they must update their checklists with the above mentioned explicit requirement for staff to ensure that they have considered unique/extenuating circumstance BEFORE routinely going through the motions of blindly following generic, one size fits all checklists.

    Well, maybe that last sentence can be tightened up a bit. It would be a shame to have the opportunity sidetracked by being accused of micro or not so micro aggressions.

    There you go. One small change that may impact, at a micro-level the culture of going through the motions, all done before the first coffee break of the day.

    Note that at no time have I suggested that the mid-level project manager be reprimanded. At no time have I suggested that his/her/their manager be pulled up on the carpet. Just a timely (as in within a day or two) session where the focus is in how to do the job better. How to ensure that mistakes that may (or may not) have an impact on the effectiveness of a quarter of a million dollar project … and all the other projects in the pipeline, are not repeated.

    Finally, change to an organization’s culture can and should occur at a macro level, which requires planning. However, it can and should also occur at a micro level. But at the micro level it is absolutely necessary to react to the problem immediately, while it is still fresh in everyone’s minds. Sounds a bit like parenting, or training a puppy, doesn’t it?

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