P3, or not P3? That’s the question as we try to fund Edmonton’s future LRT

In October of last year, Council approved the use of a public-private partnership (P3) to fund the Southeast to West LRT project. The decision came just days after the new LRT Governance Board was established, but it was largely overshadowed by the downtown arena news that week. Today Mayor Mandel announced, along with Minister of Finance Ted Menzies and Minister of Public Works and Government Services Rona Ambrose, that PPP Canada will invest up to $250 million to support the construction of the new LRT extension. While the funding is welcome, it is $150 million less than the City was hoping to receive from the federal government (the rest may come from a future Federal Infrastructure Plan).

“The City of Edmonton welcomes this important funding announcement by the federal government,” said Mayor Stephen Mandel. “The Southeast to West LRT is a key part of our transportation infrastructure. It will connect communities in Mill Woods and southeast Edmonton to the central core and is essential to our plans for building a better, more accessible city.”

The decision to apply for funding through PPP Canada was not an easy one, but Council did not have much of a choice. The City simply cannot afford to build the LRT on its own – the provincial and federal governments must come to the table. Though it hasn’t been explicitly stated as such by those involved, it seems the only way the Government of Canada would provide funding was through the P3 Canada fund. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been vocal about his concern around being cornered into a P3, saying “the real problem is that the only dedicated federal funding at this moment is through P3 Canada.”

Let’s set aside for a moment the very big issue that the federal government is essentially dictating how municipalities should build and maintain their infrastructure. If given a choice, would we pick a P3 to build our LRT network?

What is a P3?

A public-private partnership is basically an approach to delivering and optionally operating and/or maintaining a project. Here’s how PPP Canada defines a P3:

“P3s are a long-term performance-based approach for procuring public infrastructure where the private sector assumes a major share of the responsibility in terms of risk and financing for the delivery and the performance of the infrastructure, from design and structural planning, to long-term maintenance.”

In theory, a P3 can help to ensure projects are delivered on-time and on-budget. The idea is that having the expertise of the private sector can lead to better, more innovative solutions. Another benefit of a P3 is that the private sector takes on a share of the risk, which means that there is a profit motive to ensure the project is done well (at least in theory). This is often referred to as “pay for performance”.

The other thing that is important to know about the P3 approach is that there are a variety of different delivery models. With traditional procurement, the public sector is responsible for the design of an asset like a bridge or school, with construction being contracted out to the private sector through a competitive bidding process. After construction, the asset is handed back to the public sector for operation and maintenance. This model is known as Design-Build (DB).

Using a P3 for the procurement of new assets, there are three delivery models to consider:

  • Design-Build-Finance (DBF)
  • Design-Build-Finance-Maintain (DBFM)
  • Design-Build-Finance-Operate-Maintain (DBFOM)

The level of private sector involvement goes up which each model. Under the DBF model, the private partner assumes the risk of financing the project until construction is complete and the asset is handed over to the public sector. With the DBFM model, the private sector also assumes the maintenance of the asset in exchange for payments throughout the operating period. And finally, the DBFOM model is used for projects that have long-term operation and maintenance handled by the private sector, such as roads.

The P3 model is relatively new (becoming popular in the 1980s) but is already used all around the world on a variety of different projects. PPP Canada was established in 2009 to oversee the $1.2 billion P3 Canada Fund, but that was certainly not the start of P3s here in Canada. From 1990 to 2001 more than 150 P3s were concluded throughout the country.

Can a P3 really work?

Here in Alberta, we’ve used P3s to build ring roads and schools in both Edmonton and Calgary, as well as a water treatment and wastewater treatment facility in Kananaskis (a project that EPCOR is the private partner on). It hasn’t been all smooth sailing however, as Godfrey Budd explains:

Although 18 Alberta elementary and elementary-junior high schools, built on the P3 model, opened in September, and another 10 such schools are going ahead as a P3, four high schools were dropped from what was to have been a 14-school package. In May 2009, the province, citing "the economic climate," announced that the four schools would instead go ahead on a design-build basis. Also, six months after a September 2008 provincial news release announcing the go-ahead for the 18-school package, one of the partners in the P3, Babcock and Brown, the project’s banker, collapsed under the weight of $3.8 billion of debt, and in August 2009 Deloitte was appointed liquidator.

Another issue has been the lack of transparency that seems to come with P3s – it’s not always clear whether the approach saves money or not. Some, such as Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan, are convinced that P3s rarely work:

“P3s almost never work out in the public interest. Governments around the world have had experience with P3s, and in almost all cases they end up costing taxpayers more and creating enormous headaches down the line. It may look cheaper up front, but the experience with P3s is clear. The private developers are never satisfied with the amount of money the governments put on the table in the beginning, and come back asking for more.”

For its part, PPP Canada says that a P3 can work for larger public infrastructure projects, but notes that governments can borrow money at far lower rates than the private sector can. It says that “a detailed value for money analysis is required to assess whether the costs exceed the benefits.”

The case for a P3 to build the Southeast to West LRT

A couple of weeks after Council decided to pursue funding through the P3 Canada Fund, I sat down with Nat Alampi, the Program Manager for the Southeast to West LRT project. Nat has had experience on LRT projects in the past – he managed the preliminary engineering designs for the South LRT extension and the Northeast LRT extension to Gorman. I wanted to know why the City thought using a P3 was a good idea, given the risks that seem to go along with that decision. “Every project has its challenges, regardless of whether you use a P3 or not,” he rightly stated.

Nat explained that it was EXPO 2017 that initially caused the City of Edmonton to start exploring the use of a P3. That investigation led to the adoption of the City’s policy on P3s (C555) and an assessment of the entire LRT network. “We determined there would be a net savings to using a P3,” Nat said. In its presentation to Council last October, City Administration suggested that savings could be between 3% and 10% using the DBFOM model.

A private partner operating the LRT?! “Operating the train and maintaining the infrastructure so closely intertwined,” Nat explained, “that separating them carries significant risk.” While the City did assess the feasibility of retaining the operating portion of the project, it ultimately felt it would be better served by pursuing the DBFOM model. “Typically with a P3 just for build, you get a two-year warranty,” Nat told me. “In this case, we’re getting 30-year warranty.” Of course, any contract would have provisions to allow for an extension of the operations and maintenance period, further expansion of the line itself, and there would likely also be a handback condition. For transit users, the new line will still look and feel like an ETS line (though it will use low-floor technology). “We will still set the fares, the look, and deliver security,” Nat said. The City would also be able to prescribe the level of service required, to ensure it matches the rest of the system.

Nat suggested that procuring a P3 like this could take 12-14 months and would generally require having the necessary funding secured. If all goes well, a P3 contract could be in place by the end of the year, with utility relocation and other preliminary work taking place in 2014.

The case against P3s for Public Transit

When I first learned that Council was considering a P3 for the Southeast to West LRT, I immediately thought of Taras Grescoe’s latest book Straphanger. It’s a fantastic read for anyone interested in public transportation and the impact the automobile has had on our cities. Near the end of the book, Taras addresses the notion that the private sector can successfully build and operate public transit projects:

For transit to remain sustainable, we’re going to have to ignore the zealots who call for its complete privatization, which has proven such a disaster in Britain and Australia. There is a reason that the transit network of almost every major city in the developed world was municipalized at some point in its history: while private companies can do a creditable job of operating the busiest lines, time and again they have filed to manage complex transportation networks in the public interest. The lessons of history show that public agencies with regional scope and unified planning oversight do the best job of running public transport.

Taras graciously agreed to speak with me in October, and I asked him to elaborate on this point. “I’ve seen how private lines can be fantastic in a place like Toyko where they have the revenue and density,” he told me. “But I’m skeptical that private companies can get the return in a low-density place like Edmonton.”

In the book Taras talks about the Canada Line in Vancouver, built for the 2010 Winter Olympics:

The Canada Line to the airport…was the first major piece of transit infrastructure in North America to be built with a public-private partnership, an initiative many commentators say was plagued by corner-cutting. Three stations had to be eliminated from the planned route, and the station platforms that were built were too short to allow future expansion. Thanks to cost overruns, the provincial government will be compensating the private company that operates the line with payments up to $21 million a year until 2025.

While many now point to the project as an example of a successful P3, Taras disagrees. “You’re essentially entering another system when you get on the Canada line,” he told me. The line uses the same fare system as the rest of TransLink, but there are some exceptions (such as the $5 YVR AddFare).

Another well-known P3 transit project in Canada is in Waterloo, where officials are also looking at a 30-year DBFOM contract. Much has been written about the potential issues with that project, but this post does an excellent job of summarizing everything. A few highlights:

  • “Probably the biggest problem with a P3 arrangement for Waterloo Region’s LRT is that it would result in higher barriers to expansion of the system in various ways.”
  • “On the one hand, using private companies to build and operate the line ostensibly means that expertise can be brought in when needed, and only when needed. On the other hand, this means that expertise in LRT construction, operation, and efficiencies thereof will never be gained by Waterloo Region.”
  • “Private operation as a 30-year contract is problematic because it locks us into one operator who can make extension difficult, and a contract which may become uncompetitive ten years down the line.”

Those concerns align nicely with the final thought that Taras left me with: “Transit is not about one line, it’s about a network and making it work for everybody.”

Final Thoughts

The first thing Taras said to me when we chatted was that “any transit construction of this kind is better than none.” While I’m definitely excited to see our LRT network expand, I’m not convinced that a P3 is the way to go. History suggests we should tread very carefully indeed. The City has not yet built anything using a P3, and that lack of experience could be an issue. In theory we should be able to take advantage of the lessons learned in other places, but we all know that’s easier said than done.

So long as we can secure the balance of funding required, It would seem there’s no turning back now for the Southeast to West LRT line – Edmonton will soon embark on its first P3 project. Let’s hope that doesn’t turn out to be a costly mistake.

The City of Edmonton’s transformation continues with latest reorganization

The City of Edmonton’s internal transformation efforts continued this month with a reorganization taking effect on June 1. City administration has now realigned into six departments, plus the Office of the City Manager, in a bid to improve communications and to better align with strategic direction.

While I wouldn’t call the reorganization a “major” one – it’s certainly not like City ‘97 which streamlined 14 departments to just 8 and saved millions of dollars – it nevertheless is a significant step for the current City administration. Under the leadership of City Manager Simon Farbrother, the City of Edmonton has embarked on a major cultural shift known as Transforming Edmonton and Me.

Here are the details on the latest reorganization.

Old departments:

  • Asset Management & Public Works
  • Capital Construction
  • Community Services
  • Corporate Services
  • Finance & Treasury
  • Office of the City Manager
  • Planning & Development
  • Transportation

New departments:

Here’s the new organizational chart (PDF):

Community Services now includes the Parks and Community Standards branches in addition to Fire Rescue Services, Neighbourhood & Community Development, Community Facility Services, and Community Strategies.

Corporate Services remains largely unchanged, consisting of the Human Resources, Information Technology, Law, Materials Management, Fleet Services, and City Clerk branches. There’s also a new Customer Information Services branch, which is responsible for 311 and the website.

Finance & Treasury is now Financial Services, and consists of the Strategic Management, Client Financial Services, Corporate Accounting, and Assessment & Taxation branches. The former Transformation Management branch appears to no longer exist as a separate entity.

Asset Management & Public Works has become Infrastructure Services, and includes all above and below ground infrastructure. It now consists of three branches (Buildings & Landscape Services, Drainage Services, Waste Management Services) instead of four (Corporate Properties, Drainage Services, Parks, Waste Management). It will also contain the Project Management Office.

The Office of the City Manager has not changed since it adopted pieces of the old Deputy City Manager’s Office (DCMO) last year. Corporate Communications and Intergovernmental & External Affairs both report to the City Manager.

Planning & Development has become Sustainable Development, and now consists of four branches (Current Planning, Housing & Economic Sustainability, Urban Planning & Environment, Corporate Properties) instead of five (Assessment & Taxation, Community Standards, Current Planning, Housing, Planning & Policy). There’s also a new area called Transformational Projects, which will be responsible for projects like the proposed downtown arena and the City Centre Redevelopment. Urban Planning & Environment is now responsible for Parks Planning.

Transportation Services has gone from three branches (Transportation Planning, Transportation Operations, ETS) to at least five (Transportation Planning, Transportation Operations, ETS, LRT Design & Construction, Road Design & Construction). This is basically the adoption of the old Capital Construction department. The web page for the department also lists a new LRT Expansion branch, though it doesn’t appear on the org chart. The changes in this department are intended to put The Way We Move into a single area.

Final Thoughts

I think the changes, while mostly cosmetic, are important. Most of the departments now contain “services” right in the name, which better reflects their purpose and mission. The changes also reflect a desire by administration to better align with The Way Ahead, the strategic direction set by City Council. It’s not clear whether any jobs will be lost as a result of the reorganization, but I don’t think so. I also don’t believe it is in any way connected to the projected $31 million deficit the City is facing. The wheels were in motion for this reorganization some time ago.

First look at Canada’s new Open Data portal: data.gc.ca

Yesterday the Government of Canada launched its open data portal at data.gc.ca. Open Data is one of three Open Government Initiatives, the other two being Open Information and Open Dialogue. Stockwell Day, President of the Treasury Board and Minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, issued a statement today on the launch:

“Today, I am pleased to announce the next step in our government’s commitment to enhancing transparency and accountability to Canadians. The expansion of open government will give Canadians the opportunity to access public information in more useful and readable formats, enable greater insight into the inner workings of the Government and empower citizens to participate more directly in the decision-making process.”

He goes on in the statement to say that Canada has historically led the way in providing information to citizens. Lately though, we’ve definitely fallen behind. I’m glad to see us moving forward once again. This development is no doubt the result of lots of work by many passionate Canadians, such as David Eaves. Here’s what he posted yesterday:

The launch of data.gc.ca is an important first step. It gives those of us interested in open data and open government a vehicle by which to get more data open and improve the accountability, transparency as well as business and social innovation.

David does a good job in that post of highlighting some of the issues the site currently faces, such as some problematic wording in the licensing, so I won’t repeat that here. Instead, I figured I’d do what I always do when I get new datasets to play with – make some charts!

The open data portal says there are 261,077 datasets currently available. Just 781 of those are “general” datasets, the rest are geospatial. That’s an impressive number of geospatial datasets, but they are somewhat less accessible (and perhaps less interesting) to the average Canadian than the general datasets. It looks like you need to be able to work with an ESRI Shape File to use most of them.

There are lots of general datasets you might find interesting, however. For example, here’s the Consumer Price Index by city:

Here’s another dataset I thought was interesting – the number of foreign workers that have entered Canada, by region:

Have you ever wondered how much of each type of milk Albertans consume? You can find that out:

There’s actually a fairly broad range of datasets available, such as weather, agriculture, economics, and much more. As David said, it’s a good first step.

I’m excited to see more ministries get involved, and I hope to see the number of datasets available increase over time. I’d also love to see the licensing change, perhaps by adopting the UK Open Government License as David suggested. Exciting times ahead!

Roundtable with Edmonton Members of Parliament

Like Dave, I was invited to a roundtable discussion with Edmonton’s MPs earlier this week. Edmonton-Mill Woods-Beaumont MP Mike Lake has been holding constituent roundtables for a while now, and as the new chair of the Edmonton CPC Caucus Mike wanted to try the approach with his colleagues and a wider group of constituents. Here’s how Mike describes the roundtable approach:

Generally attended by ten to fifteen constituents, each meeting is designed to facilitate discussion about issues specifically raised by those at the table. In contrast to a typical town hall meeting, the roundtable, with its smaller group format, allows for greater interaction among the participants.

Mike made sure to invite a broad group for this first roundtable – there were lots of different viewpoints represented at the table! The MPs introduced themselves first (Tim Uppal, Peter Goldring, Brent Rathgeber and Mike were present for the whole meeting, Laurie Hawn had to step out shortly after we began), and then we went around the table. Each constituent provided a brief introduction and was asked to raise up to three issues that they wanted to discuss. I decided to mention two issues, one of local importance and one more applicable to Canada as a whole:

  1. LRT. As I have said many times before, LRT is perhaps the most important thing we need here in Edmonton to become the city we want to be. A strong, effective, and healthy public transit system is at the heart of becoming a more vibrant, sustainable city. So far, I don’t think Edmonton has received the support we require from the federal government.
  2. Internet. The usage based billing debate will rage on, though the federal government has said it will overturn any decision by the CRTC to move ahead with the plan. I think we need to shift the discussion, however. Canada’s competitiveness when it comes to telecommunications is abysmal at best. The cost of Internet and mobile service in Canada is far higher than most of the rest of the world, and that is negatively impacting our ability to compete globally.

It turns out that Mayor Mandel and City Council met with the MPs right before we did, and they talked a lot about LRT. We didn’t discuss it much in our roundtable, so I hope Council got the message across.

As the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Industry, Mike has had a lot of exposure to the usage based billing issue (he’s also on the Industry, Science and Technology committee). Dave and I shared our thoughts (he raised the same issue I did) and Mike did a nice job of explaining the issues to some of the other people in attendance. We did get into a brief side discussion on the CRTC that was rather interesting. I made some notes to do some additional research.

Some of the other topics that our group of nine constituents talked about included:

  • Our lack of a national homelessness strategy.
  • The size of government, and government debt.
  • The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Laurie Hawn aggressively took on the issue, stating that the information in the media is wrong).
  • The federal impact on health care.
  • Immigration, foreign trained professionals, and temporary foreign workers.
  • The justice system and the continual problem of criminals getting back onto the streets.
  • Western alienation.
  • Student finance and the cost of tuition.

I thought Mike did an excellent job of keeping us on track and on topic. We went just five minutes over our scheduled time, after everyone agreed to extend the discussion slightly. Initially I felt that Mike was being somewhat defensive, talking about what the government is doing as he went down the list of issues, but that feeling soon passed as it became clear he was providing some context to the discussions. As much as it was an opportunity for us to talk about our issues, it was also an opportunity for the MPs to tell us about the work they are doing, and I appreciated hearing it from them directly. I just wish the other MPs spoke up a little more often (Mike did a lot of the talking).

I enjoyed the discussion, and the two hours flew by as a result. I hope Mike and his fellow Edmonton MPs found the session useful and that they do it again in the future! Thanks to Mike for the invite!

Taking the City of Edmonton to another level with City Manager Simon Farbrother

Last week, on the one year anniversary of his first official day as the City of Edmonton’s new City Manager, Simon Farbrother sat down with me to reflect on the past twelve months. In addition to settling into the role and continually learning about the organization, Simon is leading the City through a major cultural shift that is fundamentally changing the way it does business.

Simon Farbrother
Coffee with Simon

Simon came to the City of Edmonton from Waterloo, where he was that city’s Chief Administrative Officer. He’s not new to the capital region however, having worked at the City of Leduc from 1988 until 1997, and at the City of Spruce Grove from 1997 until 2005. I wondered if he had thought about working in “the big city” but he said that was never the game plan, though he did admit the thought crossed his mind once or twice. “I think it’s important to stretch yourself, “ Simon told me, “when opportunities come up you grab them and away you go.” That’s how he ended up in Waterloo, and in January 2010, how he found himself here in Edmonton taking over for retiring City Manager Al Maurer.

Simon said his first year has gone by really quickly, but described it as “challenging, fun, and stimulating.” Noting the number of projects the City has on the go, Simon said “Edmonton is at a very interesting point in time.” He lives in the southwest and uses the LRT quite a bit and depending on his schedule. “The south LRT has changed the way people think about transit in our city.” Though he felt Edmonton had matured politically while he was out east, Simon said that he has “always thought Edmonton’s strength was its people, and I still do.” He thinks it’s because we have a unique sense of connection here. “We’re the big city on the prairie, we’re multicultural; the people who choose to live here are really carving out their lives.”

For the first few weeks of last year, Simon spent his time getting to know people at the City while Al continued on as Manager (though Simon actually knew quite a few people already from his previous positions). On January 18th 2010, he took over and hit the ground running. “You have to get up-to-speed quickly and bring your skills to the table.” Simon told me the ladies in the Manager’s office were “tremendously helpful” and made the transition a smooth one. “When you join, naturally there’s a lot of questions about you,” he said, recalling that it wasn’t just him that had to adjust to the new role. “Fundamentally I am about building – I always have a strong belief in a person’s abilities and general willingness to do the right thing.”

Simon Farbrother
Conversation with Simon & Extended Leadership Team

One of the first things Simon did was have an open conversation with the general managers. “Leadership is about framing,” he said. Simon made it clear that the City would be moving in a new direction, and told them, “your primary role is to lead the City, not your department.” He called it a “fundamental shift” and said there has been a lot of positive engagement from the general managers on the new approach. Discussions since have focused on how the City leads, rather than on each individual project that comes up. “We also opened the door to branch managers and directors around leadership,” Simon confirmed. The City of Edmonton currently has 6 general managers and 35 branch managers, but the number is not important. “It’s about what makes sense at the time to lead.” To reinforce the shift, the Senior Management Team (SMT) was renamed to the Corporate Leadership Team (CLT). Demonstrating leadership is more important than having worked at the organization for most of your career. “We’re trying to engage people to be leaders, everyone can do that.”

Simon’s focus for 2011 is this internal cultural conversation. He shared that the City has formed a group called Transforming Edmonton and Me (TEAM) that has been challenged to explore the question, “what do we want our culture to be?” An early activity involved the creation of a word cloud, and ‘communication’ emerged as the biggest word. There’s a desire to be more transparent, and to have meaningful conversations (no more going to the meeting then having the real conversation in the hallway). “It’s about how we agree to work as an organization,” Simon said. “If you don’t see me acting in the way I say I am going to act, you have every right to tell me.”

Most of Simon’s communication has been focused internally so far (he’s going to look into updating his pagearchived here – on the public website). “Having various ways to communicate is really valuable.” To that end, Simon has published videos every few weeks for employees, focusing not on what the City got approved but on leadership within the organization. “For example, a video might talk about our approach to the budget, rather than giving details on what was approved.” The effort has given him the opportunity to meet people across the organization. “I’ve learned to cut trees, drive a bus, I’ve been in the sewers, it has been great.” He hopes the videos reinforce the notion that all employees at the City are important. He is thinking about an internal blog too, and said the intranet is a really important tool for giving context.

Simon Farbrother
Simon getting some hands-on experience felling trees in Delwood Park

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Simon was a BlackBerry user while in Waterloo. Now he’s got an iPhone and an iPad, but doesn’t consider himself to be an early adopter. “I really like the iPad in a meeting environment,” he said, because there’s less paper to carry and the device is great for graphics. “I do lots of email and text messaging,” he told me, and while he is familiar with Twitter, he has no plans to use the service. “A lot of my emails would look like tweets though!” Simon’s day consists largely of meetings, so it’s important to communicate efficiently. He uses text messaging to stay in touch with his family throughout the day.

Turning to external communication, Simon said the City “should talk about what we’re doing and what we’re trying to achieve.” It’s the philosophy that is important, not the list of projects. “We’re part of a bigger picture, we work for the full community.” Simon thinks it is important for employees to be mindful of that broader perspective too. “You can’t disconnect being a transit driver or an accountant or even a manager from being an ambassador and a representative of the City.” In other words, employees need to be accountable not just to their boss, but to all Edmontonians.

The word accountability was mentioned alongside transparency in his introductory letter last year. When I asked for his assessment of the City’s performance on those issues, Simon replied: “I think we’re getting better.” Being accountable and transparent to the public is a challenge given the size of the organization. “We’re in the A to Z business,” Simon remarked, “and we’re the only the organization that does all of our business in the public eye.” I suggested that the City could do more on the transparency side, especially as it relates to making information available and accessible. “I don’t think we consciously hoard,” he told me. “There are legitimate reasons for some information to be confidential.” He agreed that getting information into people’s hands is important though.

Simon Farbrother
Simon with Councillor Amarjeet Sohi

I asked Simon how he has found working with Mayor Mandel and the rest of City Council over the last year. Due to the nature of the position in large cities, Simon has worked more closely with Mayor Mandel, and described him as “very committed and very driven.” He said they get along well. Though he hasn’t had as many opportunities to work with the Councillors, he said “they’re all trying to build a better City, which is a positive environment to work in.”

Looking ahead to 2011, I asked if Simon had made any personal new years resolutions – he didn’t. “For me it’s about lifelong learning,” he said. “In whatever you do, you need to be relevant and adding value.” He’s excited for the year ahead, and talked about some of the big projects that have made headlines recently. “EXPO wasn’t just a three month event, it was positioning Edmonton as an important city in North America.” Similarly he thinks we need to look at the bigger picture when it comes to topics like the downtown arena or the city centre redevelopment. “We need to be strategic and aligned as a city.”

Simon said the City of Edmonton has always had aspirations, but has never embedded that into the culture. “Being aspirational has to be a fundamental part of what we do.” When it was discovered that some material was being created internally that talked about Edmonton being successful as a “tier 2 city”, Simon and his team put a stop to it. “What would a tier 1 city do? There’s nothing stopping us from being tier 1.” It’s about having vision and not being afraid to go after it. “We shouldn’t be shy about opportunities.” For Simon, it’s about taking Edmonton to another level. “We need to up our game and galvanize around being a city.”

“It’s going to be a good year.”

Chris Moore on 2010 and the year ahead for IT at the City of Edmonton

A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the City of Edmonton’s Chief Information Officer, Chris Moore, to chat about 2010 and to get his outlook on the year ahead. I first interviewed Chris back in July 2009, when we talked about the ongoing transformation of the City’s IT branch.

Open City Workshop

The IT transformation has progressed nicely, Chris told me. Recently his department ordered coffee mugs with the “ten ways of being” printed on them, something Chris resisted initially because he wanted the words to mean something. He gave a mug with the word “open” on it to City Manager Simon Farbrother as encouragement to continue the work he has been doing.

The IT transformation is ongoing, of course. The department has approval and funding to add 35 people this year, which can be an advantage because many firms are not hiring at the moment. “We want to create a place where employees want to be,” Chris said. “We need to use technology in a unique, dynamic, future way, so that they choose the City over other opportunities.” Chris is looking for the best tech people, but they also have to be a cultural fit, something that hasn’t always been a priority. The push to hire more employees should help the IT department reduce the number of contractors it has. That number currently stands at 64, but it has been as high as 99 and as low as 45, depending on the work required. “Contractors can create a knowledge void over time,” Chris told me, because they do the work but others have to support and maintain it. Furthermore, Chris wants to find a way to get employees closer to the business users. “The best place to be is embedded with the customer.”

It’s interesting that the IT department is growing given the question Chris posed near the beginning of our conversation: “Does IT, in any organization, have a future?” It’s something Chris has been thinking about both privately and out in the open on his blog. “There are a lot of folks blind to the fact that consumerization is impacting their systems.” Users are increasingly demanding more, and the technologies they use and learn about at home are making their way into the workplace as well. “Today’s consumer electronics are tomorrow’s corporate electronics,” he said. “The future of organized IT in enterprise is going to change dramatically, and I’m intrigued by that.” As a result, he is also thinking about his own position. “The role of the CIO has to change in government,” Chris told me. He said it needs to be much more strategic, but that it’s up to the people currently in the role to make that happen through their actions.

Looking back at 2010, I asked Chris about the City’s work on open data, something I’m particularly passionate about. Chris said that he was “pleased with the fact that we listened to the community” and noted that the open data initiative has benefited from three key elements: political sponsorship, administrative leadership, and community engagement. He agreed there is more work to be done, but said that “we showed up on the map in Canada” and definitely sees momentum building. Chris told me there has been “serious interest” from planning, transportation, and traffic safety, but that all the businesses at the City have questions about how to make it sustainable. “You need leadership and resources from IT to drive it forward, but you also need businesses with the data to want to play ball.” I’m hopeful that much more progress can be made in 2011 on the open data initiative.

Chris was also busy showcasing Edmonton on the world stage last year. In fact, he travelled more than any other City employee in 2010, visiting a variety of different places (PDF, page 11). He was able to speak at conferences about the work Edmonton is doing related to open government and social media (here’s a presentation he gave in Manila at FutureGov Asia), and also had the opportunity to learn from others around the world. Edmonton is now a part of the new World e-Governments Organization of Cities (WeGO) for instance. Chris was also instrumental in bringing the world to Edmonton, with events like Beyond 2010. “Lots of people asked why we were involved in that,” he recalled. “Because we can, because it is possible.” The event was another opportunity to showcase the work that IT has been doing. “A year ago we didn’t have a goal for it, but we did know we could be leading.”

I think Chris has definitely approached his role as CIO in that way as well. He has been really active on Twitter, something he is quite proud of. “I set an example for others, and articulated that you can use Twitter safely!” Recently Chris has started using Tumblr as well, and told me he’d like to spend more time blogging in 2011. “It’s a combination of what I have encountered with my work, telling the stories of what we’re doing, but also being disruptive and challenging people.” He likes the term “government futurist” as a way to describe the position he writes from.

open city workshop planning session
Chris Moore, Edmonton’s CIO, at the planning session for the upcoming Open City Workshop (March 6th, 2010) to discuss the City’s initiatives in open data and open government.

Though IT accomplished a lot in 2010, there is always more to do. In 2009 the corporate IT audit determined that governance needed to change. “I would have liked to have had more traction in 2010 with governance, but I am not disappointed.” Chris and his team had identified culture as a risk, and they have made progress on aligning IT governance with the shifting culture of the corporation as a whole. “We will absolutely crack the nut on it in 2011.” It’s one of many projects the department is working on, and Chris said to stay tuned for some exiting announcements.

This year is the 60th year of IT at the City of Edmonton (the first project was a payroll system for Edmonton Light & Power). While they didn’t celebrate ten years ago for the big five-oh, Chris assured me they are going to do something this year. With a new vision to be western Canada’s municipal IT leader and some exciting projects on the go, 2011 looks like it’ll be a great year for the City’s IT department. “Let’s return to world class,” Chris said. It won’t be easy, but Chris is looking forward to the challenge. “If you want to lead, you need continuous outcomes.”

Be sure to check out Chris’ post for additional thoughts: Technology in Government in 2011 and Beyond.

Economics and more with John Rose, the City of Edmonton’s Chief Economist

John Rose moved to Edmonton last May to become the City of Edmonton’s Chief Economist. It’s an important role at the City, though it is one that most people know very little about. I sat down with John last week to chat about his new job and to get his thoughts on Edmonton.

John loved geography when he was younger, and wanted to work in a field where he could apply that passion. He settled on urban planning, but while studying at the University of Toronto, switched to economics. He has been in the field ever since, working for the federal Foreign Affairs department in the 1980s in West Germany and South Korea before returning to Toronto to tackle the consulting business. He most recently worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The move to Edmonton was a unique opportunity for John to combine his interests in urban planning and economics. “I’m interested in what drives the economics of municipalities forward.” He brings an outsider’s perspective to the City of Edmonton, something that initially made him wary. “I thought people would just say ‘here’s another Easterner showing up, telling us what to do’, but people have been very welcoming.”

As the City’s Chief Economist, John is responsible for publishing the reports that the City relies on for budget planning and strategy, among other things. Twice a year he publishes a long-range forecast, using a statistical model of Edmonton’s economy that looks both 3 and 10 years into the future. On a quarterly basis, he publishes City Trends, which provides current information on social, economic, demographic, land development, and transportation trends (here’s the PDF for Q3 2010, the latest to be posted to the website).

The City of Edmonton uses economic models developed by The Centre for Spatial Economics (C4SE). Somewhat surprisingly, Calgary and the Province of Alberta also use models from C4SE. The models can be complex, but John said recent technology improvements are making a difference. “In the 80s, you needed a mainframe to drive even the most simplistic models,” he told me. “Now the tech required is ubiquitous.” While acknowledging that economics is abstract – “you can’t touch the economy” – John said technology is increasingly getting rid of the mystique and mystery.

If you look at the Economic & Demographic section of the City’s website, you’ll find that most of the information is out-of-date. John explained that the transition from his predecessor is the cause, but he said to expect changes. “There’s a lot of value in the information and we want to get it out there, we want it in the public realm.” John noted there currently isn’t a way to notify people when new information is posted, but said an internal effort currently underway should change that. Getting everyone on the same page is a major push for his office this year.

John would also like to see a shift toward more regional forecasting. He works with a variety of organizations outside the City of course, including EEDC, the Chamber of Commerce, and the Finance department at the Province, but sees room for improvement. “We already do regional forecasting to a degree, because we do the CMA and extract a forecast for the City from that.” John noted that most statistics are available at the Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) level, and so it makes sense to look regionally when setting up models. “With a larger economic entity, the trends smooth out a little.” John suggested the Capital Region Board might be the logical place to host a regional forecasting effort.

Speaking of the capital region, John said that while 2011 will be a strong year for Edmonton, “most of the growth will take place outside the City of Edmonton proper.” This is partly because the City itself didn’t suffer as large a setback as a result of the recent downturn. “The manufacturing sector took a big hit in Alberta and Edmonton,” a sector largely concentrated outside the city, such as in the northeast. In a recent interview with the Edmonton Journal, John said we should see an annual growth rate of nearly 4% here in Edmonton.

He was also bullish on the province. “Alberta will be ahead of the national economy as a whole in 2011,” John told me. Again, this is due in part to the way the economic slump affected the province. “The impression is that Canada came through it very well, but the truth is the province didn’t.” In 2011, John expects Alberta to post the first or second best provincial growth rate in the country, depending on how Saskatchewan does.

Turning to individual sectors in the City, John told me that construction will show growth, but mostly due to commercial projects. The residential construction sector will be somewhat sluggish because “there’s just not a big demand for a lot of new housing.” FIRE will do well, but John cautions that increased regulation will have an impact. The retail sector will also grow more slowly this year, because people are reluctant to take on more debt and as as a result savings rates are going up. “The consumer-oriented durable component in particular” will grow slowly according to John, because as people buy fewer houses, the need for new vehicles, furniture, appliances, etc. also diminishes.

John talks about trends and forecasts all the time – he has made it part of his job to do interviews, meet people, and spread the word on Edmonton’s economy. He can rattle the numbers off with ease, and is obviously very knowledgeable. As our discussion shifted toward the city more generally, John became more thoughtful. We talked about the common refrain that Edmonton’s head office situation is dismal at best, and John pointed out that the larger question is how to “attract and retain investment, and talent.” He said we should do “exit interviews” with organizations that leave the City, to try to highlight any cross-cutting themes.

I asked John about the push to revitalize downtown, and in particular, about the City Centre Airport and the proposed arena. He called the ECCA redevelopment a “good move” by the City, because making such a large piece of land adjacent to the core largely residential will have a positive impact on our downtown. “The key to developing a vibrant downtown, is to have people living, working, being entertained, doing all those things, in the core.” He doesn’t think a blanket policy on financial incentives (such as the Railtown subsidy) to attract more residents to downtown makes sense, however. “If there’s an area that we want developed in a particular way, then the City could be come active, but otherwise there’s enough opportunity already.” John didn’t take a side on the arena, but said “it depends on how the development takes place” and said his main concern is that “we don’t want to be in a situation of two competing facilities.” He cited the Air Canada Centre in Toronto and the positive changes and increased activity it brought to the area south of Front Street. “It is very nicely integrated into the city.”

I asked John what he missed about Toronto, and he quickly replied “jazz clubs.” He said while the Yardbird Suite is great, there was more variety with regard to venues back in Toronto. John joked that by moving away from Toronto when he did, he avoided the current political drama that is taking place with new mayor Rob Ford. That led us into a discussion about transit, and LRT in particular, something John considers “the urban equivalent of an enabling technology – if you have it, you can do a lot of great things.” Projects such as the LRT expansion “are a big benefit to the local economy” in the short-term and are “vital for the City’s future,” John told me. The real value to the economy is what the LRT enables, rather than the jobs it directly creates. “If you don’t have mass transit downtown, you’re going to have a hard time developing nightlife, for instance.”

I really enjoyed talking with John (and not just because when I asked him if he was now an Oilers fan he replied, “that implies I was a Maple Leafs fan before!”). Stay tuned to his section of the City’s website for future economic updates.

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!

Government of Canada denies Edmonton EXPO 2017

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, the federal government has announced that it will not support Edmonton’s bid to host EXPO 2017. A short note on the Edmonton EXPO 2017 website announced the news:

In a meeting with Mayor Stephen Mandel earlier today, Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore announced that the Government of Canada will not support Edmonton’s bid to host EXPO 2017. The key reason given was the unknown future costs of security. This decision comes in light of November survey results that showed 79 per cent of Albertans supported the bid for EXPO 2017 with 46 per cent indicating strong support. Almost 1800 Canadians were surveyed. On behalf of the EXPO 2017 Bid Committee thank you to all Albertans and Canadians for their interest, effort and support of EXPO 2017.

Here’s the letter from James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage & Official Languages, courtesy of the Edmonton Journal:

This afternoon, Mayor Stephen Mandel held a press conference at City Hall to discuss the news. Here are some notes, including the ones I live-tweeted:

  • Mandel started by talking about the 2010 Grey Cup Festival, saying he was confident it would be a big success and that Edmonton would shine.
  • Flanked by members of City Council and members of the EXPO 2017 bid committee, Mandel confirmed that the Government of Canada will not support Edmonton EXPO 2017. Mandel was quick to praise the solid work of the bid committee and all EXPO 2017 volunteers.
  • Mandel said a recent survey of Albertans showed that 79% supported the project.
  • Mandel singled out MP Rona Ambrose as the specific reason that Edmonton failed to gain federal support. When pressed for a reason, he said others in the federal government looked to Ambrose for direction, and she just failed to commit.
  • MPs Laurie Hawn and James Rajotte were cited as supporters of the bid.
  • Mandel: “This [federal] government has far too easily ignored the needs of this province.”
  • The only immediate ask of the federal government was $10 million, to continue with the bid process.
  • Mandel said the federal government’s “apparent sincerity in exploring” EXPO 2017 was completely false.
  • Mandel: “When it comes to Edmonton’s growth and ambition, our federal government simply isn’t interested.”
  • Randy Ferguson, member of the bid committee, said “Albertans took a kick in the teeth today from the federal government.” In the media scrum afterward, Ferguson, a card-carrying Conservative, said “the prime minister is no longer my prime minister.”
  • Ruth Kelly, another bid committee member, was just as angry but said we’ll find other ways to showcase Edmonton.
  • Mandel made it clear that he feels the federal government decided not to support Edmonton because we’re in the west.
  • Ferguson was more to the point, saying that Edmonton is paying for the security budget overruns that happened at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, and the G8/G20 summits.
  • Mandel: “The proof is in the pudding, when it comes to delivering the goods in our city, [the federal government] failed.”
  • Mandel: “I’ve never been as mad at anything, I’m so disappointed in the lack of vision from this government.”
  • Asked about what this means for LRT, Mandel said “we’ll continue to push forward” and said “we have a strong partner in the province.”
  • Ferguson said that because of the way the due diligence worked, the federal government had already signed off on the budget and security plan for the Edmonton bid.

I’ve never seen Mandel so upset, his voice shaky as the passion and anger poured out. Afterward, when asked what was next, Ferguson said “cooler heads must prevail” and said the team will digest the news more fully before any other action is taken.

Mandel on EXPO 2017Mandel on EXPO 2017

Technically, all Edmonton needs to move ahead with the bid is the federal government’s consent. If Edmonton could come up with another way to fund the project, there’s a chance that they could go back to the federal government to ask for just consent and no funding. That, obviously, is very unlikely to happen.

For some reason, there’s a big disconnect between the amount of money Edmonton is asking for, and the amount of money the federal government thinks they will have to spend. Moore specifically cited the cost of security in his letter, a point on which Ferguson was very blunt: “The cost of security ballooned for the Olympics and for the G8/G20 and Edmonton is paying the price.”

When pressed, Mandel said he didn’t think the lack of federal support was about money. It was clear that he feels slighted by the government. There are indications that the announcement was related to a decision to deny money for a Quebec arena. I’m sure it will all come out in the wash.

Edmonton needs to focus right now on making sure the 2010 Grey Cup Festival is a big success. Let’s remind everyone that we excel at hosting big events. We’ll find another way to showcase our great city. We’ll make it happen.

What’s less clear is how we’ll acquire the infrastructure funding that EXPO 2017 would have brought to this city. Mandel talked about this during the press conference as well, noting that Edmonton (and indeed Alberta) often gets the short end of the stick. I’m not sure what it’ll take, but we need to make a solid ask for funding. As disappointing as it is to lose EXPO 2017, it would be much, much worse to lose the ability to make our City Vision a reality.

You can follow the news with #expo2017 on Twitter.

UPDATE: Here is Mayor Mandel’s full statement.

Save English Express

Yesterday I received the sad news that Alberta Advanced Education and Technology has decided to stop funding English Express, a newspaper for adults wanting to improve their English reading skills. English Express was established in 1982 and is now distributed to 60,000 Albertans. It is published eight times per year (from September to May) and is the result of the hard work of many dedicated volunteers.

For a few years now I’ve been a board member at The Learning Centre Literacy Association, a local organization that offers reading, writing, math and other learning programs for adults. The Learning Centre has supported English Express with both volunteers and space for the last 15 years. Over 30 people work together and have fun preparing each issue of English Express for mailing. LCLA Coordinator Denis Lapierre said of the news:

“Many many adult learners in this province will now be without a critical and important resource necessary for their social, learning and intellectual development. As well, the English Express was a vibrant participatory vehicle that allowed learners to feel validated as respected citizens in our Alberta society.”

A campaign to save the newspaper has been launched. Swift action is being requested. If you’d like to help Save English Express, here’s what you need to do:

  1. Send an email to Honourable Doug Horner and cc Honourable Dave Hancock, Premier Ed Stelmach, and your own MLA. Explain why you think English Express should continue.
  2. Mail a physical letter to the constituency offices of all of the above.
  3. Phone Honourable Doug Horner’s office at 780-962-6606 and explain the importance of English Express.

It would be a shame to see the English Express disappear.