Looking back on 35 years at the City of Edmonton with Joyce Tustian

In November, Joyce Tustian celebrated her 35th year as a City of Edmonton employee. She currently holds the position of Deputy City Manager (archive), an office that was created around her in April 2008. Last month, it was announced that Joyce would be retiring at the end of January, with most of the DCMO’s responsibilities folding back into the City Manager’s office. I sat down with Joyce just before Christmas to reflect on her time at the City of Edmonton.

When Joyce started at the City of Edmonton, she planned to work for just two years. “I had a big misconception about what the City would be like.” Like most people, she figured it would be dry and very rule-bound, but actually found that the City offered tons of opportunity. “You can do many things with the same employer,” she told me. I wonder if anyone at the City has done as many things as Joyce has! When I asked her what areas of the City she had worked in, she replied “everything but transportation and buildings.” Joyce told me she has always been interested in transit, though she has never really worked with the department. She noted that transit really impacts families and is “so integral to the kind of city you want to build.”

Joyce Tustian

Joyce started her career at the City of Edmonton in 1975, working as a public information officer in the Parks & Recreation department. On her first day, thousands of Edmontonians were streaming through City Hall to pay their respects to former Mayor William Hawrelak, who had recently died of a heart attack. Over the years she worked her way into management, and in May 1995, Joyce took over as the general manager of Community & Family Services. Just a couple of years later, it was decided that Joyce would take over as general manager of the newly formed Community Services department (her main rival for the position was another longtime City employee, Maria David-Evans, who left after the restructuring). During her time in that role, Joyce was also responsible for the Emergency Response department. After a nationwide search in 2003 to find a new general manager for Corporate Services, Joyce was selected. While in that role, Joyce led the department through the “Shared Services Business Model” review. She held the position for five years, until the Deputy City Manager’s Office was formed in 2008 (two other roles were created at the same time – Chief Financial Officer, and General Manager of Capital Construction).

Joyce has had the opportunity to lead some really interesting projects at the City of Edmonton. In 1999, when she was acting general manager of the Emergency Response department, Joyce was tasked with making sure the City survived Y2K. It was her responsibility to outline the City’s plans in case things went south. “We believe that we are ready,” she assured everyone.

Another project she spearheaded was Racism Free Edmonton. As Deputy City Manager, Joyce is responsible for the implementation of the City’s Diversity and Inclusion Policy. “I take great pride in championing the Racism Free Edmonton initiative,” she declares on the website.

Perhaps the project Joyce is best known for was the merger of Community & Family Services and Parks & Recreation to create the Community Services department in 1997. It was part of then-city manager Bruce Thom’s reorganization plan that trimmed the number of City departments from thirteen to eight. When she was interviewed about leading the new department, Joyce told the Edmonton Journal, “my bottom line is I want to make it easier for citizens to access city services without having to know the city as well as I do.” Looking back on the merger, Joyce told me it was “a really rare opportunity,” to get to set things up the way you want to. She considers it a big success, noting that many other cities have since followed Edmonton’s model.

More recently, Joyce led the web renewal and was the project sponsor for the 311 initiative. Both projects “were about transparency and ease of accessibility.” When I mentioned some of the criticism that 311 has received, Joyce acknowledged that “more needs to move to 311 and then to the web” but is confident the initiative is “past the struggles.” For Joyce, 311 is the first major citizen-facing outcome of the investment the City has made in automation (ERP systems, etc).

The behind-the-scenes automation is just one part of a larger journey the City has embarked on. Joyce described it as “moving from an organizational structure that works well for us to one that works well for citizens.” The ability to have standardization, and to break down hierarchies, will help the City make it easier for citizens to access services and information. We touched on open data, and noting that automation should help make it possible, Joyce said there’s “very little that we do that shouldn’t be accessible to the public.”

Another big, related change has been the shift away from independent units and into one organization (something that increased automation has helped make possible). Joyce said Edmonton has been considered a “municipal leader in shared services.” Though the shift had already started, a major reorganization in 1987 “really paved the way.” Subsequent reorganizations have pushed the City further toward the “one organization” vision, though Joyce made it clear that the City is “still very much on the path”.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the focus on strategy (a word that many City of Edmonton employees have come to associate with Joyce). As soon as we started talking about strategy, Joyce said “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.” I suspect she’s fond of that statement. Joyce told me her recent work on the City’s strategic vision has been one of the most rewarding things she has done. “We have always been good operationally, but now we spend lots of time and energy on strategy.” She talked about the City’s six “Way Ahead” plans, and praised the most recent City Council for having “a willingness to commit.” Joyce also said Mayor Mandel deserves credit for aligning everyone around what kind of City we want to be.

Joyce deserves a lot of credit too. One of the biggest challenges Joyce faced was during her time with the Emergency Response department. She was only supposed to work with the department for a short time, but was “never afraid to work on the fundamental issues.” And so she did. The department was losing a lot of people to retirement, and was having difficulty recruiting. Joyce recognized that the problems had been predictable, and set about implementing a plan focused on data, intelligence, and strategy. She has been able to make this work throughout her career.

Public involvement is something that the City needs to work on, Joyce told me. She recognizes that there are lots of Edmontonians with great ideas, and agreed that “we need to get better at engaging those people.” Looking at the City Centre Airport and the public hearings that took place, Joyce noted there were at least three conversations taking place, “at the mic, in the room, and outside,” but that the City hasn’t traditionally done a good job of recognizing the latter. There’s lots of room to improve.

I asked Joyce about the people she’s worked with during her time at the City. She thought about it for a minute, and realized that there have been so many people that she’s interacted with over the years. The one who had the biggest impact, however, was Cy Armstrong. “If I had any doubt about something, I’d talk to Cy.” He was city manager in the mid-1980s, actually the first city manager we had after then Mayor Laurence Decore dismantled the council-commission government. According to the book Alberta’s Local Governments: Politics and Democracy, Armstrong was for a time the most highly paid city manager in Canada, earning an annual salary of $120,000. “Much of what I am as a manager was shaped by Cy,” Joyce told me.

Joyce told me it’s an exciting time to be a civil servant (she has enjoyed being part of the iPad pilot project). “You can see the impact you have, you’re doing real work.” She described the City as an organization where you’re very close to decision makers, and obviously one that is “never dull.” Joyce also noted the strong sense of community at the City. For example, Joyce and many other employees have made it a tradition to start the day by singing carols for the five days leading up to Christmas! “Working for the City has been the making of many people – it has certainly been the making of me.”

Joyce will continue in her role until the end of the month, and though she’ll move onto other things, she’s staying here in Edmonton. “I won’t miss budget time,” she told me, but will miss “feeling connected and always having something new” come across her desk (she recalled opening the letter from Telus that said how much they’d pay for Ed Tel).

Joyce has definitely left her mark on the City of Edmonton, and I want to both thank her for her service, and wish her all the best in her future endeavors!

5 thoughts on “Looking back on 35 years at the City of Edmonton with Joyce Tustian

  1. That is who “Your” Joyce Tustian is all about. I have been close to Joyce ever since before she was brought from the hospital “Way back When”. All members of her family and extended family have always been so very proud of this Lady.I am very proud of My Cousin.

  2. Thank you for this very impressive retrospective on Joyce’s career with the City of Edmonton. As her ‘slightly older’ cousin, I welcome her to the joys of semi retirement but have no doubt she will continue to organize and strategize to the benefit of a larger community of Albertans. Joyce’s 97 year old mom, who has been my beloved mentor through the years, kept us all in the ‘know’ yesterday about the special events to honor Joyce in her retirement.

    We’re very proud of you, Joyce, for all your accomplishments completed with such a sense of service to the City of Edmonton.

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