• Sean M. O'Connell

Strategic planning for London



On Monday Jan 14th, 2019, I went to the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee meeting at city hall. Naturally, I was but one of two people in the gallery. Usually if you want to know what is happening in London politically this is the meeting to attend. On the agenda was the strategic plan for 2019. If you don't know, strategic plans are the overarching direction of policy for the city and encompasses the next four years at city hall. Strategic plans are important as they are the guide posts for how the city will conducts its policies over a council's term.


What I didn't expect was for council to literally break into small groups for a group think exercise on what they should include in the Strategic Plan. My assumption was that they would have already prepped a plan for debate. However, the timeline for this process will take place until late March of this year. The plan usually consists of a vision (ideas), values and a mission statement.


For the next hour councillors sat and had discussions about what points they would like to include. When that was completed, councillors had a debate on when they should debate their raw product statements. It was painful to say the least as it went on for almost 60 mins.


Councillor Van Meerbergen (who I cannot fathom why he is back on council) failed to understand how a mission statement is suppose to work. He asked before any policy has been formulated about how following a mission statement would be 'too rigid'. It was explained to him by staff, that this process is about broad themes and concepts. There is a great deal of flexibility for councillors to operate in.


Councillor Squire chimed in that he did not wish to debate endlessly about the wording of a mission statement. It was after that statement that the debate over debating started. He complained over the fact that only 90 people has submitted feedback/input in regards to the mission statement process. I do take issue with complaining about the lack of input when city hall has a significant public communications problem. Most people, including myself, did not know that this process was open for input.


Although the group think was a different approach that yielded initial statements, the councillors did not explain their goals as an organisation in any meaningful sense. There are a number of implicit assumptions and lofty notions. Let's take a look.


Vision:

1. Our region’s capital, advancing commerce and connecting people through culture, entertainment, and sport as the heart of Southwestern Ontario.

2. A bold leader in fostering an innovative, prosperous, and liveable city connected to the world.

3. A diverse community of neighbours building for a prosperous future.

4. A city of unlimited potential where enterprise is valued and dreams are realized.

5. A resilient community where all are welcomed and valued, building for a prosperous future.


I get the idea behind point one and it makes sense except for 'our region's capital'. Point two is a good statement but there is a lot of work behind those concepts in order to achieve it. Point three and five overlap however there is an implicit assumption that people aren't welcomed or valued? I think it may be more useful to speak about strengthening or building communities. Point four is another implicit assumption that enterprise is not valued. London is full of entrepreneurs. Nor can we be a city of unlimited potential when our number one wedge election issue was about the bus rapid transit system. The statement overall is far too lofty even for an idealist like me. The reality is, as a city we do not have policies that promote growth.


Mission:

1. A responsive and modern public service partner that fosters change to build a better London for all.

2. Engaged and responsible public servants building a better city for all.

3. Delivering opportunity with respect, compassion, and accountability.

4. Serving in partnership with respect, equity, and inclusion to build a better city for all.

5. To help Londoners prosper and grow in an inclusive and connected community.


I like the idea of thinking of city administration as a 'public service'. Point one and two overlap but again there are some implicit assumptions with these statements. Are city staff not engaged, responsive or responsible? I don't know what point three means by 'delivering opportunity' however I would expect that everyone desires respect, compassion and accountability. I would caution against using 'buzzwords' in a mission statement. Concepts must able to be meaningfully acted on otherwise it is just fluff. Point four makes sense but would clarify whom the city administration is serving in partnership with. Point five is good too.


Values:

1. Good governance, driven by community, acting with compassion, moving forward through innovation.

To be considered: (energetic collaboration, clear and lateral thinking, calculated risk taking, strong ROI and SOI, value for money, rapid advancement, technological innovation, economic vitality, individual sustainability, municipal self-sufficiency, personal productivity)

2. Results focused. Collective accountability. Serving a diverse community

3. Initiative. Integrity. Compassion. Inclusivity. Accountability


Good governance is relative in London. We either elect good councillors or not. It is also a 'council' meaning collective decisions. I don't know what 'driven by community' means? Does that mean councillors are beholden to special interest groups in their wards? Compassion again is relative to the individual. Organisations aren't 'compassionate', people are. Innovation is a good value that must be nurtured and funded to achieve. ROI and SOI is nonsensical, if ROI means 'return on investment' I would like to remind councillors that council and the administration are public servants not a business. The primary responsibility of City hall is to provide services to the public. Value for money is a double edged sword, either yielding saving or incurring costs depending on how a purchase is handled. Clear and lateral thinking is rubbish. People think emotionally first. Why would city hall use calculated risk taking as a value? Rapid advancement means nothing, without context. Technological innovation is also rubbish as a value. It is a process to improve or make efficiencies in an organisation. Economic vitality sounds great but not practical, it is an aspiration. Individual sustainability or municipal self-sufficiency? What do they mean by that? Personal productivity as an public organisational value? Non-starter there. Point two makes sense and can be acted on. Point three are again, buzzwords.


London has concrete problems (i.e. homelessness, transit, economic stagnation) and those could be the focus of what council intends to do achieve over the next four years. A mission statement should reflect this.


Mayor Holder gave the impression that he didn't particularly care for this brainstorming process nor a mission statement as he instantly pushed for these to be published for public consultation. These ideas were not ready for public consumption as they are unrefined. Value and mission statements have to be articulated and drafted before public consultation. Council brainstormed for an hour and then voted to send it out...I seriously do not understand what they hope to achieve.


I want to stress the importance of this process and the mission statement itself. Ideas and values reflect what you want your administration to act on. There are consequences for bad policy. A good leader internalises this process and knows the value in it. This is how policy is acted on. London needs direction and a solid plan. For example, as of today I saw on Reddit where someone in Windsor was asking whether they should move to London or Ottawa. The responses were disheartening. Everyone but the one (person who never been to Ottawa) suggested they go to Ottawa. How are we suppose to be a prosperous city when our own residents can't identify what makes London a good place to live?