Why do local governments matter now more than ever?

Joining CUI host Mary Rowe for our next session “Cities in the time of COVID-19: Why do local governments matter now more than ever?” are Mayor of Calgary Naheed Nenshi; Nigel Jacob, co-founder of New Urban Mechanics; and Andrea Reimer, Adjunct Professor of Practice and Practitioner Lead, Global Policy Project, UBC School of Public Policy & Global Affairs.

5 Key

A roundup of the most compelling ideas, themes and quotes from this candid conversation

1. Urban issues are human issues

With the majority of people living in cities worldwide, urban issues are human issues. Nigel Jacob, Co-Founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics in the City of Boston, emphasizes the importance of starting conversations about municipal service innovation with a resident-first mindset. Bureaucratic considerations should come after: “When you go [first] to the impact on someone’s life, you’re required to re-order the machinery.”

2. 21st century problems require 21st century powers

The pandemic has thrown into sharp relief the challenges facing local governments in the Canadian federation. As “creatures of the province”, they are not recognized constitutionally and derive all of their powers from the will of the provinces. As a result, Canadian municipalities lack the powers, financial tools, and autonomy to meet the needs of their residents. Andrea Reimer, Practitioner Lead at the Global Policy Project, warns that cities face 21st century problems and need 21st century tools to solve them. Mayor Naheed Nenshi agrees, but also adds that constitutional conversations must not distract from immediate, on-the-ground priorities of getting money into the hands of municipalities.

3. Creating room for experimentation

All of the speakers agree that fostering a culture of innovation in local government is critical. Transformative agile governance requires the flexibility to try, succeed, fail, and iterate. Says Mayor Nenshi, “If we want government to innovate, we have to be prepared to celebrate the failures [of public servants] in addition to their successes.” While there are real consequences to public sector decisions, adds an attendee in the chat, “we can’t treat every decision like faulty steel on a bridge.” Reimer identifies three kinds of actors that need to buy into a project or decision: the public, the staff, and elected officials. When one of these players wants to do something, it is an idea. When two agree to do something, it becomes a pilot. And when all three are on board, that’s when transformative change happens. Often, she argues, pilots are designed to secure the buy-in of a reluctant third player.

4. Livability and legibility must be front and centre

Citizens often do not know which level of government is in charge of providing a particular service. According to Jacob, city staff and processes must make themselves and their decisions radically accessible and legible to everyday people. When it comes to public engagement, bringing our whole selves to conversations with the public means setting aside departmental responsibilities and listening to residents’ concerns, even if they are the responsibility of a different division or order of government.

5. An opportunity to redesign the city

COVID and the greater public awareness of anti-black racism have been important and disruptive forces through the last eight months—with windows for change that we must not squander. For example, whereas questions about defunding the police are thought of in binary terms—you either do it or you do not—Jacob warns that this is a false binary. This is a design question—how do we redesign policing so that we have a new set of criteria that better serve the needs of the public?