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360 Review with Ashleigh Weeden, SWEA, Southwestern Ontario

Posted on December 22, 2014


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Who doesn’t love a good ol’ fashioned performance review? ELGL loves them so much that we’re embarking on a “360 Review of Local Government.” We’re going to evaluate every single inch of the local government arena by talking to ourselves (a.k.a: other local government professionals), tech companies, journalists, professors, and anyone else who hasn’t blocked our email address.

ELGL loves Canada, not because of Nickelback, Alanis Morrisette, or Bryan Adams, but because of our Canadian correspondent Ashleigh Weeden (LinkedIn and Twitter). We bring Ashleigh into the fray for her performance evaluation of local government. Ashleigh works for the Southwest Economic Alliance as a Community Engagement & Benchmarking Liaison. If you need more Canada and Ashleigh, visit Hoot and Howl.


Ashleigh on Ashleigh

I work with communities to imagine what’s possible. Together, we ask powerful questions, build connections and create positive change. As an award-winning community engagement practitioner, my best work happens alongside radical leaders and diverse communities. Together, we find creative, practical solutions to complex problems – and have fun while we work! I live, work and play at the intersection of local government, civic engagement and community building, where I happily seek to disrupt the status quo in favour of a renewed and revitalized civil society. Using curiosity, humour, story-telling and personal connection, I break down barriers and build bridges – and take the lid off local government, inviting everyone inside to play. I believe that stories are powerful, relationships matter, and the questions we ask have the power to change our lives.


 The Evaluator

1

Your hometown? What is it best known for?

Woodstock, Ontario, Canada. Best known for being the former Dairy Capital of Canada. (And for having a giant statue of a famous Holstein cow in the middle of town.)

(Complete these phrases) Best thing about the….

  • 80’s was…….  I was born! (Right? … Right?! …. Bueller?)
  • 90’s was…… Lego. And the TGIF line-up on on ABC.
  • 00’s was….. Getting outta high school and achieving two degrees.
  • Last year was….. “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” Last year was a year that answered.
  • Today is…. Twitter. Always Twitter – for so many reasons.

Which bands would play at your retirement party?

Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, Tim McGraw & the Dancehall Doctors, Fleetwood Mac, and Vince Gill. (I am well aware of just how weird I am. Don’t worry.)

Alternatively: I will gladly take a really good local cover band that can play anything and everything by those guys. (PS: Not sure I can assume retirement will actually happen…)

Best holiday gift  that you’ve received? Given?

The best gifts I’ve ever given were to custom boxes full of cards, letters, mix CDs, and small gifts that I hand-made for some very close friends. Everything was put together specifically for the person receiving it and represented all the very best aspects of our friendship.

The best gift I’ve  ever received, although not technically a holiday gift, was graduating with two degrees entirely debt free. Thanks Mum & Dad.


The Evaluation

smash-o

Best part of working in the local government arena. Most frustrating?

Best: Local governments take care of the whole spectrum of Maslow’s hierarchy for communities – the things that are absolutely necessary to maintain foundational aspects of life: public safety, water, electricity, emergency services, infrastructure); all the way through the things that make life a little less ugly, brutish and short: arts and culture, recreational facilities, libraries, museums and community events. There are lots of opportunities to make a big difference in the day-to-day lives of my friends and neighbours – and that is such a beautiful thing. That’s a lot to feel good about.

Most frustrating: General misconceptions about what local governments actually do – a lot of people seem to think that municipalities only fill potholes. There’s also a general malaise in the current zeitgeist that feels dangerously anti-public-service/anti-government, which is sad and frightening. And, for some reason, internal risk management seems to have become “total risk elimination,” which makes it hard to move the yardstick with new ideas.

Describe the current state of local government.

Local government is at a tipping point: we have an incredible opportunity to take advantage of the confluence of technology, reinvigorated public consultation and an uptick in collaborative processes to really rethink the way we work. Questions of what *exactly* government should be doing, how we can best serve our communities, and how we can work with other partners in the policy and public service space are receiving more attention. Governments and senior leaders are starting to embrace stronger program evaluation, people-first and people-friendly communications and a greater willingness to improve transparency and efficacy.

That said: the flip side of this tipping point is the threat of overwhelm and burn-out. We may be relying too much on specific technological solutions, forgetting that rural extension and community outreach are not new ideas (but come from a long history of previous generations), and perhaps leaning too heavily on the notion that our best and brightest will “save the day” – without considering at what expense? (… and do we really need saving? Or do we really just need to spend some time asking the right questions and making difficult choices?)

Give us three areas in which local government is succeeding.

  • Citizen-centred service is starting to become a common thread – especially in planning, transportation, and budgeting processes.
  • Social media uptake is strong – and some of the best public sector social media users are cities and local governments.
  • “Open” mandates are becoming increasingly common – open data, open government, open, open, open!

Give us three areas in which local government needs improvement.

  • Recruitment and retention/Succession planning – How are we finding, hiring, and keeping talent? What kinds of skills are we looking for? Are we relying too heavily on credentialism? What happens to the talent we already have when someone retires? How do we groom internal leaders so they are ready to take the next step?
  • Closing the feedback loop – We ask for a lot of public input, but rarely share what we did with that input once we’ve finished the consultation.
  • Analysis paralysis – studies, white papers, commissions, working groups, advisory panels, boards, committees, staff reports, consultant analysis – all fine things in and of themselves… but are we making sure that every analytical undertaking is committed to producing a concrete result or action? Or are we just killing trees for the sake of new binders full of information?

Evaluate local government’s willingness to embrace new technologies.

This is largely individual to specific communities – and size, geography, broader demographics and internal interest all play a factor in technology uptake. In general, I think that local government is actually positioned to be a leader in using new technology. We tend to be smaller (in terms of staff numbers and overall operations) than other levels of government – which makes us more agile (sometimes) and also means greater advantages to successfully leveraging new tech. We also tend to be more in the business of “doing” than other levels of government – so whatever technological tools we can use to help us in that act, the easier our day-to-day life becomes.

For local government, was there any good that came from the Great Recession?

I think the recession emphasized how important strong, effective public institutions are for maintaining quality of life for our communities during times of great uncertainty. If nothing else, I think a large number of people woke up to the fact that the private sector doesn’t always know best and that strong governments with good regulations and supportive programs are incredibly important to maintaining the fabric of society.

Evaluate whether local government is prepared for the ongoing wave of retirements.

In a word? No. In terms of sheer numbers, there just aren’t enough people to occupy positions once held by Boomers in every field and local government is no different. As I mentioned above, succession planning/recruitment and retention are weak-points for local government and without those essential building blocks, we risk losing the transfer for institutional knowledge when retirements happen.

On the flip side, and not to be too cynical or opportunistic, I have also observed something of the “we have to wait until they retire” mentality to pursuing big change initiatives – there is some sense that it will take that wave of retirements in order to really disrupt long-held assumptions about how local governments do business.

Wave a magic wand – what three wishes would you grant local government?

  • Risk Management becomes actually about managing risk instead of the futile and paranoid attempt to eliminate risk. We’ve let the lawyers take over a bit too much and have ended up our own worst enemies.
  • Mandatory civic education throughout all years of public education – starting at kindergarten and continuing until graduation. The best gift we could give all governments is a civically literate society.
  • A modern reform of legislation governing municipalities. Right now, in Ontario and in Canada, the laws that grant local governments their powers are largely based on 18th and 19th century understandings of society. We can change and grow and progress to our hearts content, but until the laws that tell us what we can and can’t do are changed to reflect the way the world works now, we’re pretty much land-locked on Loser Island.

Give a brief evaluation of your state government and the Federal government.

Forgive me for Canadian-izing this for you: up here, we have provinces, not states.

I’m pleased to see that the current provincial government in Ontario has committed to re-evaluating the Municipal Act and to an Open Government initiative. I’m also excited to see that the federal government has been working on their own Open Government Action Plan.

I’m lucky to be connected to some amazing, progressive public servants both at the provincial and federal levels. To a certain extent, we are all facing similar challenges in terms of managing increasingly complex mandates with fewer resources, greater demands and a desire to find a better way of serving citizens.

That said, we need to continue strengthening the ties between different levels of government – both formally and informally. The average citizen doesn’t care which level of government performs a given service – they just want whatever they need when they need it. Seamless, fully integrated public services may be a bit of a pipe-dream, but it’s a nice dream, right?

Supplemental Reading

 360 Review — Archives

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