Linda Cochrane is Edmonton’s new City Manager

Mayor Don Iveson announced this morning that City Council has hired Linda Cochrane as Edmonton’s new City Manager. A long-time City employee, Linda has been the Acting City Manager since September when Council decided to fire Simon Farbrother.

Linda Cochrane

Here’s what the mayor had to say on why Linda was selected:

“As you know, Linda had been Acting City Manager since the fall of 2015. In that time she has earned the complete trust of City Council through her continuing work to transform the structure of the corporation and lead a more open and effective local government.

It is important to note that this was an international search with applications from candidates far and wide. The interest of so many talented applicants is a wonderful compliment to our community, our vision, and the work of our administration – things we should all be immensely proud of. More to the point, it is a reflection of the quality of Linda’s tremendous service and inspiring leadership that she was considered best amongst this class of impressive candidates.”

Council has signed Linda to a three year term, with options to renew. Linda was very clear back in January that she wanted to be considered for the role. Today she was elated to have been selected, telling the Journal: “I’m just over the moon. It’s a realization of a lifetime dream. I couldn’t be happier.”

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Linda started her career in aquatics programs, first in Edmonton as a swim instructor and then with Spruce Grove. She returned to the City in 1982 and started climbing the management ladder. She was director of the Kinsmen Sports Centre and in 1990 was asked to take on the role of director at the Valley Zoo. It wasn’t long until she was in charge of the City’s parks and recreation centres. Linda was most recently the general manager of Community Services (now Citizen Services after the reorg she announced in January), a position she took on in 2006.

Linda has worked on a number of high profile projects throughout her career. She defended the Valley Zoo’s care of Lucy the Elephant and refused to bow to pressure from Bob Barker and others who wanted Lucy moved. Linda was one of only four women on the eighteen-person bid committee for the 2001 World Championships in Athletics. She led the charge to build the Terwillegar Rec Centre and led a review of all the City’s facilities. Most recently of course she earned the nickname “cabbie whisperer” for her quick action to restore order during contentious Council discussions on Uber.

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Linda is Edmonton’s first female City Manager. That’s particularly interesting given that she is the only woman on the Corporate Leadership Team (CLT). “Between 2012 and 2015, the percentage of general and branch managers who were woman held steady at 22 per cent. It’s now 16 per cent,” reported the Journal. Of course there’s just one woman – Bev Esslinger – on City Council as well.

I wrote back in November that I didn’t think Linda was likely to get the job. That comment was based not on her abilities, but on what Council had publicly stated they were looking for. Mayor Iveson’s statement back in September said “the scale and complexity of the challenges ahead demand a fresh perspective” and that Council’s goal was to “hire someone who can meet the aspirations of this city head-on and help build the kind of city we can all be proud of.” It seemed as though Council wanted someone from the outside.

I do think Linda is a great choice for City Manager. She is well-known and widely respected at the City has earned a reputation as someone who gets things done. Linda will tell it like it is, and that’s certainly important to Council. She has been supportive of the ongoing culture shift at the City and has talked often of leading through service. Linda is ideally suited to guiding the City through turbulent times.

In just a few short months as Acting City Manager, Linda has really put her stamp on the organization, earning Council’s trust, the public’s admiration, and leading a key reorganization. I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes in her new role.

The City of Edmonton is reorganizing in support of functional integration

The City of Edmonton is being reorganized effective March 1, 2016 around a new mandate of integration based on function. Acting City Manager Linda Cochrane announced the changes yesterday in an email sent to all City of Edmonton staff. She wrote:

“This new structure bundles work in departments based on function: all operations work, all infrastructure work, all planning work, all financial and corporate services work, all citizen services and all communications/public engagement work will each be grouped in the same department.”

The City’s last reorganization took place back in 2011, roughly a year and a half after Simon Farbrother was hired as City Manager. That restructuring was largely cosmetic though in that it didn’t dramatically alter the silos that had existed since the late 1990s (though the Financial Services and Infrastructure Services departments were later merged). This reorganization is all about getting rid of silos and breaking down barriers to more integrated service delivery. And the most notorious silo of all, Transportation, is now gone. More dominoes are indeed falling.

Here is the new organizational structure:

New Org Structure
Click for a larger version with the branches & managers

So previously there were five departments, plus the Office of the City Manager (you can see the old org chart here):

  • Community Services
  • Corporate Services
  • Financial Services & Utilities
  • Sustainable Development
  • Transportation Services

And now we have six, plus the Office of the City Manager:

  • Citizen Services
  • City Operations
  • Communications & Public Engagement
  • Financial & Corporate Services
  • Integrated Infrastructure Services
  • Sustainable Development

The new structure “bundles work in departments based on function.” This is perhaps most evident in the dissolution of Transportation Services. Here’s what happened to each of that department’s branches:

  • Edmonton Transit is now in the City Operations department
  • LRT Design & Construction is now LRT Projects in the Integrated Infrastructure Services department
  • Roads Design & Construction is now Transportation Infrastructure in the Integrated Infrastructure Services department
  • Transportation Operations is now in the City Operations department
  • Transportation Planning is now in the Sustainable Development department

Mayor Iveson spoke to the Journal about the changes yesterday, saying: “we’ve been talking about this for years; the transportation department, quite frankly, was very siloed and off on its own.” Well, no more.

Why now?

I had the opportunity to speak with Acting City Manager Linda Cochrane about the changes today. I wondered about the timing, given that a new City Manager could be coming on board in a few months and may want to make his or her own changes. “That’s true, some things could change with a new City Manager,” she acknowledged, but said that “Council endorses the bundling of services in a functional way.” She feels there is “strong support” for the new structure. On top of that, Linda is very interested in the role herself and will be applying to become the new City Manager.

During last year’s budget deliberations, Council asked for a full service review of everything the City is doing. Couldn’t that have an impact on the structure, I wondered? “A structure based on function will facilitate the service review,” Linda said. “It will let staff and stakeholders speak in functional ways and that will further the 2% initiative too.” She noted that this structure provides a different lens through which Administration can work to find efficiencies.

A number of City staff I spoke with about the change referenced the importance that Linda places on servant leadership. That’s reflected in her message to staff as well, where she wrote: “as always, service to citizens is our priority.” I asked if she had any other key messages for City employees. “Keep doing the good work you’re doing,” she replied. “That work is important on its own, but it’s also part of the context of service delivery.”

And that speaks to what I think is the big factor driving this restructuring: integration. “There is some phenomenal work taking place in the organization,” Linda said. “But we need to get better at integrating the good work that is happening.”

It’s about integration

There are four principles that “underpin the development and implementation of The Way Ahead,” which is the City’s strategic plan.

  • Innovation: A planning approach and operational culture within a municipality that encourages and enables continuous improvement and the exploration and adoption of new techniques, technologies, products and ways of operating in order to improve results and lead progressive change.
  • Integration: A holistic view of strategic planning that acknowledges the interrelated and interdependent reality of complex urban environments.
  • Livability: A set of interrelated factors that influence people in choosing where they live and reinforce their sense of well-being.
  • Sustainability: A way of living that meets the needs of the present and does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

The reality of the last eight years or so is that the City has been tackling these things relatively independently from one another. On some, there has been good progress. Livability is central to the City’s existence and much of the work of “The Ways” has addressed this. Council’s 2% and the changes in culture really address innovation. And with The Way We Finance, there’s been a good start on addressing the City’s sustainability. That leaves integration.

I think the one tangible attempt at addressing the integration principle was the creation of the Great Neighbourhoods Initiative. It falls under the Neighbourhoods branch of Citizen Services, but it is really a cross-department effort to more efficiently deliver services of all kinds, to conduct comprehensive neighbourhood planning, and to improve communication with residents. And it has worked well as a way to revitalize our mature and high-needs neighbourhoods. In fact, one City report said it exemplified a “One City-One Voice” approach to “leading City efforts to deliver services in a coordinated, effective and efficient manner.”

This reorganization builds on that success and is all about addressing integration. Here’s another excerpt from Linda Cochrane’s email to employees:

“The goal is to help open doors for work groups to integrate their work and share expertise. It is based on the One City principle and we believe it will further stimulate our cultural effort.”

Most citizens don’t think about the City in terms of the silos that have long-existed. But thinking about planning things vs. operating them is a pretty easy distinction to make. By bringing that citizen-oriented perspective to the City’s internal structure, there’s a good opportunity to integrate the work of the City to really have a positive impact.

This won’t be easy. Just because a bunch of branches have moved into a new department that has the word “integrated” in its title doesn’t mean that magically everyone is going to start working together effectively. The leadership there has a difficult task ahead to break down barriers and really encourage that integration to happen.

A cultural fit

The City has been undergoing a cultural transformation since at least 2007. Over the years this effort has taken on different names, including “Transforming Edmonton Through Organizational Excellence”, and “Transforming Edmonton and Me” (TEAM). Currently known as “Building a Great City”, the City’s internal cultural strategy focuses on five outcomes:

  • Our Employees are Engaged
  • We Have Effective Leadership
  • We are a High Performance Organization
  • Our Workplaces are Collaborative
  • Our Work Focuses on Citizens

It’s the last two that this reorganization seems most aligned with. The strategy notes that “there are many excellent examples of collaborative success in our organization” and that building upon those will be critical for achieving business objectives “in a rapidly changing and increasingly complex world.” It also highlights the public sector trend toward “citizen-centered services redesigned around the needs of the end user.”

Communications & Public Engagement

I think the other big takeaway is that Communications & Public Engagement has been elevated to its own department. It’s a major change for the organization. I think it makes a lot of sense for Customer Information Services (which contains 311) to be part of the same department as Communications and the Office of Public Engagement (formerly part of the Office of the City Manager). It’s about listening to citizens and talking with them just as much as it is about telling them what the City is up to.

Some of CLT
Gary Klassen, Adam Laughlin, Rob Smyth, Linda Cochrane, Dorian Wandzura (some of the members of CLT)

The Office of Public Engagement is quite small at the moment, with only a handful of staff, so resourcing it effectively will be a challenge. The good news is that improving public engagement has the full support of both City Council and Administration. The Council Initiative on Public Engagement has been underway since 2014 and just began Phase 2 a few months ago. Over the next year and a half, citizens will come together with Council, Administration, and other partners to improve public engagement in Edmonton.

And the timing for this could not be better, with the full service review later this year, a municipal election coming in 2017, and a more complete review of the City’s vision and strategic plan commencing in the next couple of years as well. Effectively engaging the public will be important for all of these initiatives and more.

Dominoes are falling at the City of Edmonton

There’s a lot change taking place at the City of Edmonton right now and you should expect it to continue until well into next year. You might say the dominoes have started falling and no one knows when the final one will land. There are both internal and external causes for this change. Before we get into the changes, let’s consider some context.

Where It All Began
Photo by mckinney75402

Certainly the new Provincial and Federal governments have had an impact, both directly and indirectly. By directly I mean that the City has lost some key individuals. For instance, former City Clerk Alayne Sinclair left earlier this year to work in Premier Notley’s office, and of course former Councillor Amarjeet Sohi was just named to Prime Minister Trudeau’s cabinet. And by indirectly, there’s the uncertainty about funding and working relationships that always comes with new faces. At the Provincial level, the review of the Municipal Government Act and the ongoing discussions about the Big City Charter will also have an impact depending on the outcome.

As a result of the last municipal election, both Council and Administration identified public engagement as a key challenge area of focus. Council launched the Public Engagement Initiative while Administration launched the Open City Initiative. Now with the release of the Phase 1 report back in September, work is underway to establish an Advisory Committee and working groups organized around the five strategic areas of focus. That work is expected to last through the remainder of the current Council term.

I think another big factor to consider is The Way Ahead, the City’s strategic plan. That document, which was approved in 2009, was just reviewed and updated last year, but planning will soon be underway for a more thorough overhaul leading up to 2018 (though we need to ensure we do and not just plan). How public engagement and the municipal election in 2017 factor into that work is still an open question. And at some point, the new City of Edmonton office tower will be completed allowing staff to consolidate at a single location, which could have big cultural impacts.

Top of mind at the moment is the Operating Budget. Instead of an annual budget as in years past, the City has switched to a multi-year budget, and that’s having all kinds of knock-on effects. It should mean less effort is required each year to prepare the budget, but it also means that Council can be more strategic about spending.

And of course the City’s missteps have been well-documented this year. Major projects like the 102 Avenue Bridge over Groat Road and the new Walterdale Bridge have been significantly delayed, and the Metro Line LRT was perhaps the key catalyst for much of the change that has taken place.

Simon Farbrother
Simon Farbrother, photo by City of Edmonton

The most obvious change was Council’s decision to fire City Manager Simon Farbrother back in September. I must admit I was caught off-guard by the news, mainly because although Councillor Nickel called for Farbrother’s head during the Metro Line LRT discussions, he was the only one really doing so. Mayor Iveson and other Councillors suggested Nickel was grandstanding and said Farbrother had their full confidence. So the about face just a couple of weeks later was a surprise.

Linda Cochrane has been the Acting City Manager since late September. I think she’s a fantastic choice, certainly to maintain some stability throughout this uncertain time. But I don’t think it’s likely she’ll get the job. Here’s what Councillor Anderson said after she was made the Acting City Manager:

“She’s certainly been a part of everything that’s happened here for a long, long time and has a way with people,” he said. “I think an excellent choice.”

Being “a part of everything that’s happened here for a long, long time” is certainly a good thing for stability, institutional knowledge, and efficiency. But it’s not necessarily what you look for when you want to change things up. And that’s what Council seems to be interested in.

As Paula Simons noted, Al Maurer was widely considered a micro-manager and perhaps had too much control over the operations of the City. In contrast, Simon Farbrother brought more hands-off approach and focused on communication and culture. The assumption now is that the right person for the job can straddle the fence, able to get into the details and also able to articulate and connect the work to the big picture.

It’s clear that Council, led by Mayor Iveson, wants to go in a different direction:

“The scale and complexity of the challenges ahead demand a fresh perspective,” Iveson said. “This is about setting our administration on a new path to manage the next chapter in the city’s growth.”

Whoever the successful candidate is, it’s very likely they’ll want to make some big changes. That could mean even more turnover in senior staff than we have already begun to see.

Scott Mackie, who was in charge of Current Planning under Sustainable Development, tendered his resignation a couple weeks ago and will leave the City on November 13. I understand that Peter Ohm has been tapped to take his place. That’s a big branch, responsible for some of the most contentious issues that the City has dealt with this year.

Changes in transportation continue, with Eddie Robar joining the City from Halifax to lead ETS, filling the role that has been vacant since Charles Stolte was let go earlier this year. Robar will start on January 4. He’s very likely to shake things up upon arrival, bringing his experience overhauling Halifax’s transit system to the ongoing debate about our own.

And the biggest change could still be coming. Yesterday, Council voted to have Administration outline steps for a full program review. Mayor Iveson repeated a phrase he has used many times before, saying that setting targets for cuts is “the old ‘pin the tail on the budget'” and that the review should be focused on efficiency instead.

“Of the give or take 87 different things that we do at the city of Edmonton, there may be some that we should either stop doing or do less of versus other priorities,” said Iveson in support of the review. “Budget is not the best way to make those decisions and yet it is the default by which we make those decisions.”

The full program review is likely welcome news for some, like the Canadian Federation for Independent Business, which called current spending “unreasonable” and said property taxes have “ballooned”.

The last major review took place in 1997. Bruce Thom, who joined the City of Edmonton as City Manager in 1996, wasted no time in making changes. One of the first things he did was spend $500,000 to have Ernst & Young evaluate the City’s operations. That resulted in City ’97 (subtitled “Preparing for the Future”), a plan to save $52 million per year by the year 2000, principally by eliminating roughly 750 of the City’s 8,700 jobs. In the end about 400 positions were eliminated and the City reorganized from thirteen departments to just eight, resulting in a savings of roughly $22.5 million annually between 1997 and 2000.

It was a stressful time for City bureaucrats, and Council raised that as a concern with conducting another review now. They cited the importance of a clear communications plan and downplayed the idea that the review is being undertaken solely to find opportunities for job cuts.

full time positions

Though Simon Farbrother led a relatively minor reorganization in 2011, the City’s workforce has generally been growing in recent years. Prior to City ’97, the last major round of layoffs took place in 1983. At the time the City had about 11,000 employees, a number the City surpassed once again in 2012.

I think a review of the City’s operations makes sense, and perhaps the timing is right. With a new City Manager coming in, the possibility of a new relationship with the Provincial and Federal governments (especially with the City Charter), and a new round of strategic planning coming up, it’s entirely appropriate for Council and Administration to get aligned on priorities.

Expect much more change to come!