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Pivoting When the World Changes: Getting the Most Out of Municipal Service Delivery Reviews in the New COVID-19 Reality

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The Importance of Municipal Services

Public Works. Public Health. Transit. Emergency Services. Parks and Recreation. Housing. Economic Development. The list goes on. For many citizens, municipalities are where the rubber meets the road – figuratively and literally – more frequently than with any other level of government. Municipal services matter, and not just the ones that people see. The ones that keep things humming behind the scenes matter too. And never has that been more apparent than during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the pre-COVID era, municipalities had to balance the delivery of basic services with fiscal constraints arising from a limited range of revenue tools. And they had to do this while keeping an eye towards the future to support the needs, growth, and prosperity of their local communities. The right mix, level, and organization of services is different for every municipality, and striking that balance means stepping back and taking a strategic view. In the province of Ontario, for example, the Government has announced the Audit and Accountability Fund (AAF) and the Municipal Modernization Program which provide funding for Ontario municipalities to do just that. Many municipalities have already taken advantage of this funding and finished their review, some are ongoing, while others are just beginning the process. However, this exercise can be valuable for any municipality across Canada that is looking to modernize, reduce costs, or improve efficiency and effectiveness.

The Impacts of COVID-19

No matter where a municipality is in this review process, COVID-19 has changed the game. Municipalities are now grappling with emergency management, increasing demand for evolving essential services, rapid transitioning to digital service models, and supporting staff, communities, and businesses to stay safe and prepare for the recovery. Meanwhile, revenue is deferred and declining. In the process, many municipalities have demonstrated tremendous innovation and leadership. We have seen municipalities across Canada connect, engage, and support their citizens and communities in new ways as the pandemic impacts almost every facet of public life.

It will be important to both take stock of and make stick these positive changes in a post-COVID world. The pandemic has also put a spotlight on weaknesses that may have come as a surprise to many municipalities. It will be important to improve the things that did not work well during the pandemic to prepare for the new reality and long road to recovery in the “pandemic economy”.[1] The country will be travelling a bumpy road down the other side of the curve as it readies itself for potential subsequent spikes and waves of pandemic activity. Going forward it will be critical for all municipalities to reevaluate their priorities and reimagine what they do. Municipalities must be prepared to pivot their organizations while providing leadership during a period of great uncertainty.

Service delivery reviews must also benefit from the lessons municipalities have learned through months of responding to COVID-19. At Optimus SBR, we have been fortunate to work with a range of small and large municipalities on service delivery reviews before and during the COVID-19 pandemic and we have learned some important lessons along the way. Below we outline some considerations for municipalities as they proceed with a review, whether they are just entering the process or implementing changes coming out of one.

Rethinking Reviews to Reimagine Service Delivery Post-COVID

For municipalities about to embark on a service delivery review, there are a few important things to keep in mind:

1. Be Clear and Ambitious
What are you trying to achieve? The Government of Ontario has said municipalities can undertake different types of reviews, including “line-by-line” (read: cost reduction) and “effectiveness and efficiency” (read: doing things better) reviews, among others. Given this, you will want to be clear with the province, your Council, stakeholders, and the public on just what exactly this service delivery review is about. Objectives need to be clear, expectations need to be set, and tradeoffs will need to be made.

When setting these objectives, take stock of what has been possible during the pandemic and don’t be afraid to be ambitious. We have seen rapid change in several aspects of municipal operations and things that might have seemed impossible or out of reach before the pandemic may be more achievable in our post-COVID reality.

2. Prioritize Areas of Focus
Focus your efforts. Municipalities will likely find that they get more value out of a deeper and more focused review – concentrating on areas with the biggest impact, performance issues, resource intensity, and scope for improvement – than one that is broad but shallow. This will allow for a more thorough analysis and a clearer path forward where a broader review may only result in superficial change. When picking priorities, it will be important to consider how perceptions and expectations of essential services have changed during COVID-19, as well as whether some service models cracked under the pressure of the pandemic.

3. Communicate and Engage
COVID-19 has resulted in heightened anxiety levels for staff, stakeholders, and citizens who are looking for leadership, information, and reassurance. We have seen increased visibility of our municipal leaders during the pandemic as well as the rapid adoption of virtual tools and platforms for communication and engagement. These developments can and should be used to support Service Delivery Reviews to ensure that interested groups have a voice in making changes even in an era of physical distancing.

So principles of good engagement apply more strongly than ever. Get people’s input before ideas are fully (or even half) baked. Buy-in is stronger when people see their input shape changes, and as ever, the front-line and service recipients will typically know things that management does not. Taking advantage of this knowledge will be even more critical given that so much has happened in such as a short time.

4. Capitalize on Broader Organizational Benefits
While these reviews are a great way to identify improvements and prioritize opportunities, they also bring other benefits. Some municipal organizations have struggled to maintain employee engagement during the pandemic and Service Delivery Reviews provide an opportunity to engage teams and make workplace cultures more resilient to change and focused on continuous improvement. They can also help build internal capacity to improve services and act as a window for high performers and future leaders to shine.

Pivoting Implementation of Service Delivery Reviews Post-COVID

For the municipal reviews that started and finished before the pandemic or were interrupted mid-stream, the state of the world and thus priorities have changed. While you likely have several opportunities to move forward with and want to benefit from all the work done for the review, you may be unsure how to move forward in this new environment. Here are a few ways to think about pivoting on implementation given the new realities of COVID:

1. Pause to Reassess Priorities and Incorporate Lessons Learned
It is important to pause and reassess whether the transformation priorities you set pre-COVID are still relevant, consider how your organization and operating models have changed, and how the needs of your citizens and communities have evolved. This does not mean starting from scratch, but it does mean making sure you are prioritizing things that will help respond to COVID pressure and make innovations and improvements from the last few months stick.

2. Making Progress on Implementation During COVID
Getting moving on quick wins, especially ones that respond to pressures and challenges related to COVID, will help build trust and credibility with stakeholders and build positive momentum that will be invaluable as you tackle the larger, more complex strategic initiatives.
At the same time, it is easy to underestimate how much effort it will take to get things done – transformation cannot be done off the side of someone’s desk. We have seen massive redeployment of resources to respond to COVID and it will be critical that, as “business as usual” activities resume, transformation efforts are supported with the right resources – people, tools, and technology – along with the project management capacity to ensure things keep moving on time and budget.

Finally – we can’t say it enough – communication and engagement will continue to be essential during COVID to build understanding and support as well as ensure ongoing connectedness as transformation activities move forward.

3. Investing Scarce Resources to Achieve Clear Outcomes
COVID-19 is having large financial impacts on municipalities and more pressure is expected as we move into recovery mode. In an environment of fiscal uncertainty, it is critical to be clear about investment requirements and ensure they are tied to meaningful outcomes, whether they are service improvements, savings or both. To enable investment, needs must be clearly communicated and tied to tangible and measurable impacts to demonstrate return on those hard-earned taxpayer dollars.

Conclusion

As municipalities continue to respond to the pandemic and prepare for our new post-COVID reality it will be essential to pause, reassess, and pivot. The province’s funding for service delivery reviews is a unique opportunity to do just that and can be helpful no matter where a municipality is on its modernization journey.

Optimus SBR’s Municipal Practice

Optimus SBR is an implementation-focused firm that specializes in turning policy into action. Our Municipal Practice, part of our broader Industries and Government Practice, has conducted a range of engagements for municipalities covering frontline and back-office services, transportation and transit, social services, public works, emergency services, public health, long-term care, community and economic development, and numerous others.

If you found this helpful, give us a call, or send us a note.

Terri Lohnes, Senior Vice President and Practice Lead
Terri.Lohnes@optimusssbr.com
416.649.6017

David Lynch, Principal
David.Lynch@optimussbr.com

Michelle Lenarduzzi, Senior Manager
Michelle.Lenarduzzi@optimussbr.com

 

 

[1] For an accessible and helpful overview of what this could look like, see Gans, Joshua (2020). Economics in the Age of COVID-19. Cambridge: MIT Press. Open access version available at https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/economics-age-covid-19.

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