The BIG Budget Blog
Focus on Outcomes
The City’s budget has to build for future growth in an upward-trending, but still constrained economy. Tax dollars need to be used effectively to deliver the programs, services and infrastructure that Edmontonians rely on. To do this, we need to have good public conversations to identify what kind of city we want and what it will look like when we get there. We need a measurable ranking system for sorting out which projects will get us the best return on investment and we have to listen to Edmontonians along the way.
Resetting for Sustainability
Some of the plans coming to fruition in this budget were made during boom times when oil revenues and global trade looked much brighter. The situation for many Edmontonians has changed along with business and City revenue projections. Coming out of a recession and developing a budget within a rapidly changing and diversifying economy and population is an opportunity for a major check-in on our priorities. Now is a chance to start seeing where we can reinvent and get creative about a more innovative and data-oriented way of solving problems.
We know for sure that we can’t simply carry on with business as usual. Consulting costs, mega-projects, and increasing demands on social programs have all become very expensive. Our choices for this budget have been to either increase debt and taxes to go ahead with all of the projects on the table or to put some of them on hold. I’ve heard loud and clear that we need to keep tax rates reasonable. When we have to make tough decisions by taking important priorities off the table, we need to be willing to include the ones we feel very strongly about if they don’t measure up. That’s hard to do when there’s so many priorities and no way to rank them against each other.
With city-wide investments in things like climate resiliency it’s obvious we can’t do nothing. Preparing now will save massive amounts in the future (insurance, disaster relief, food security), but we have to make the best impact possible with the money spent. Outcomes aren’t always direct and immediate and we absolutely have to start calculating and talking about diverted and downloaded costs. Prevention takes time to demonstrate, but it’s often far more cost-effective than patchwork efforts later on. Poverty reduction is a great example. Providing support for families to have access to proper housing, education, recreation, employment, and social opportunities early on can mean they don’t encounter the healthcare or justice system later on. That actually saves money.
No More Ward Wars
When we don’t have a mechanism to evaluate comparative value and return on investment, probing questions can be taken as a lack of support, but good public policy has to be able to stand up to challenge and we have to be prepared to change course if necessary. We don’t have project checkpoints just to rubber stamp them. Things change quickly and what made sense 10 or 40 years ago might not make the most sense now. To say we need to have a priority-based budgeting system suggests we’re either spending public money on things that aren’t priorities or we’re not clear on what our priorities really are, but it simply means employing targets and metrics to measure progress.
Funding should be based on whether or not a project is the best way to achieve our city goals, not because it was lobbied for the hardest or because it was a campaign promise. We’re not horse-trading hockey cards to put in our own shoe box; we’re determining how to give Edmontonians the best bang for their buck, while making sure communities are a meaningful part of the process.
Getting Outside the Pyramid
Trapping ourselves in old ways of doing things and isolating ourselves from bold, creative ideas is going to put us at risk of falling behind in a quickly changing world. We have to show leadership and champion the things that achieve our goals both in our plans and in our budget. Affordable housing is a huge stated city goal for example, yet it’s taken ten years to get just a small percentage of the way toward our target. Maybe instead of increasing the communications budget to talk about it, we should get on more aggressively with doing it. It’s the job of politicians to take the pulse of the public and convey the work of their government back to them consistently. Some things need public championing to get done, not just policy.
Integrating Community Voice
Edmontonians should and do speak out, but they often feel like they aren’t listened to until critical feedback becomes a news story. When the result of years of public engagement shows how much citizens value community pools that then get put on the chopping block, it makes City Hall look out of touch. These can be real head-shakers for the public when they see the City saying one thing and doing another or when the logic used for one project isn’t applied to another. Some people won’t see the rationale of asking regional partners to help pay for our $40 million Zoo renovations that almost no one from outside Edmonton will use, but not asking about a major goods movement transportation corridor for over $100 million that a huge number of people living outside Edmonton will use. It needs to be recognized that other municipalities are also facing budget challenges and are trying to keep taxes down to attract investment.
Finding the balance between raising taxes and maintaining public services requires a productive conversation about expectations. Often the current way of doing public engagement feels like it frames questions in a way that boxes feedback into a frame that’s pre-determined and conforms to what the City is already doing. It acts as more of a tool for validation to feel good about what‘s already happening or to make tweaks (usually to the message, not the actions) when the feedback is less than positive. Citizens often see little evidence of a willingness to course correct in a major way when things go sideways. The Metro line is just one example of how the public’s confidence can be shaken if they don’t see their own common sense reflected in the actions of their government.
Get the Trains on the Right Track
Transit is an example of how we’ve been making piecemeal decisions without knowing if they’re working as a whole. Most Edmontonians will tell you that ETS needs to improve, but the aim to make sure we’re moving in the right direction (which we’re not) has frankly been a fight. My Motion in Council was referred back to Administration to come back to Council with a report on what another report would report on. It seems nonsensical. All of this in order to see if the billions of dollars, hundreds of staff, and years of planning hours is culminating in what we actually want.
The current transit agenda is to cut bus service, increase fares, build LRT in a way that compromises speed in favour of development along the route without connecting stops to amenities, and failure to invest in enough transit garages and buses to allow more capacity, which right now is maxed out. And yet we say we want to get cars off the road, we want to reduce greenhouse gasses, and we want to get people moving around the city to jobs and recreational opportunities. It’s saying one thing and doing another.
Smart Savings Come From Creativity, Not Cuts
A rethink on how we prioritize starts with asking the right questions and being open to getting the answers. Good measures to tell us if we’re on track and indicators that are co-developed with the community to steer objectives and outcomes would provide far better direction to Council to make informed decisions. They would reduce the necessity of organizations and citizens having to lobby for funding without standard metrics to categorize where their requests fall on the priority list. They would also help save money by targeting funds toward the highest needs to be more strategic with tax dollars.
Efficiency doesn’t always mean reductions. If we cut the wrong corners we’ll get the wrong results. It means looking at problems in new ways and finding creative solutions through fresh eyes and collaborations with open minds. It means innovating and putting the right resources into the right places to get the right outcomes. It means learning from examples in other jurisdictions and the private sector and being brave enough to break out of the restrictive organizational norms of bureaucracy. There are enormous opportunities for savings if we rethink how we do things like policing and the 311 call centre for example, which are 2 of our biggest expenses. There are answers, we just need to be willing to look for them and be open to getting them.
Stay tuned for BIG Budget Blog #2