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!

Who or what is to blame for Edmonton’s Metro Line LRT delays?

Why was the Metro Line LRT delayed and when will it become fully operational as designed and intended? We still don’t know the answer to the latter question, but the reasons for the delay have become more clear thanks to the latest report from the City Auditor.

Metro Line LRT
A train! On the Metro Line!

The Auditor’s report found that project management roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined or understood, opening dates targeted were unrealistic, status reports were not written down or communicated effectively, contract management practices were inadequate, and Council was not sufficiently kept informed. Incredibly, “Council did not receive formal updates on project progress until December 2013 when construction was supposed to be complete.” The report makes three recommendations, all of which Administration has accepted.

The Metro Line is a hot topic in Edmonton right now, and Edmontonians are not happy about it. Lots of folks are looking for someone to blame, and for good reason – the project is more than year behind schedule and we still don’t know when it’ll be “done done” as opposed to “done but”. And while I think holding Administration accountable is going to be a critical part of restoring public confidence in the City’s ability to manage large projects, what’s less clear is who that blame should fall upon.

Dorian Wandzura
Dorian Wandzura

Dorian Wandzura started as the GM of Transportation Services on September 3, 2013. He took over from Bob Boutilier, who retired from the role on July 31, 2013. Formerly a deputy GM with the Toronto Transit Commission, Boutilier was credited with getting “80% of Edmonton’s long term Light Rail Transit network has been designed, planned or constructed” during his tenure. He may now also be credited with leaving the Metro Line project in a state of disarray. While Wandzura has made some mistakes along the way, it’s pretty clear now that he inherited a mess. And not just one actually, as he’s also having to deal with the Walterdale Bridge and 102 Avenue Bridge delays, among other projects.

Bob Boutilier
Bob Boutilier

What about Charles Stolte, the former GM of ETS who was fired in June? It’s not clear exactly why Wandzura let him go, but there’s some suggestion it was because of philosophical differences rather than as a result of delays to the Metro Line. He would no doubt have been involved in the signalling work, but it’s unlikely that he was primarily responsible for the debacle.

ETS Execs
Charles Stolte, right

Then there’s Wayne Mandryk, who has been in charge of LRT Design and Construction since 2008. Until the last major city reorganization in June 2011, his branch was part of a separate department known was Capital Construction. Since then it has been part of Transportation Services. The branch “manages contracts for design and construction, identifies and evaluates project delivery strategies, and coordinates construction with other city departments and utilities.” Until the spring, it was most often Mandryk that handled public communications about the Metro Line. Now Wandzura has been handling that himself. But it doesn’t appear that switch has anything to do with confidence in Mandryk as he’s currently filling Stolte’s role as well until a replacement is found.

Wayne Mandryk
Wayne Mandryk

The Auditor’s report seems to place quite a bit of blame on both Boutilier and Mandryk:

“Schedule risks emerged as planning and procurement activities progressed. However, we found no formal documentation from LRT Design and Construction to the Transportation Services General Manager advising him of emerging issues and potential delays. We were advised by LRT Design and Construction that the culture at the time was to provide verbal rather than written reports.”

Mandryk’s department didn’t provide written reports when they should have but Boutilier would have been most responsible for allowing a culture of verbal updates to flourish.

Simon Farbrother
City Manager Simon Farbrother with Councillor Amarjeet Sohi

So up we go, to the top. City Manager Simon Farbrother started at the City of Edmonton in January 2010. That’s after the Concept Plan for the Metro Line was approved, but before the contracts were awarded and long before work began. Certainly he’s going to have to answer some difficult questions from Council next week, and I expect he’ll be ready to make some changes, but it’s hard to find fault with Farbrother in this case. Throughout his first five years with the City, a key initiative of Farbrother’s has been changing the culture. He’s led a transformation that has made the City more open, creative, and aspirational. Additionally, Boutilier had already been in charge of Transportation for three years by the time Farbrother joined, and so far hiring Wandzura seems to have been a smart move.

Still, the comment Councillor Andrew Knack made this week suggests Farbrother could have done more:

“For such a major city project, there should be a desire for those in the highest (positions), especially if they haven’t heard anything, to get a status update. That’s the discouraging part.”

He’s right. It seems perfectly reasonable to expect the folks in charge to ask for updates. Except that Council doesn’t seem to have asked for updates either, at least not in an official, there’s-a-paper-trail capacity. There were about ten agenda items from mid-2011 through until mid 2013 related to the NAIT LRT, and none of them were about project status.

Mayor Iveson wrote on Monday:

“Not only were the city’s senior managers seemingly out of the loop when contractor performance started to slip in 2011, but City Council was left totally in the dark until late 2013 – which made it all the more difficult for us to hold staff accountable and explain to the public what was going on.”

All of this begs the question, what the heck happened between 2011 and 2013? Why were senior managers and Council so out of the loop on the Metro Line LRT?

Well, there was one thing that pretty much consumed Council and CLT’s attention during that same period of time: the downtown arena.

New Edmonton Arena Construction
Rogers Place rises next to MacEwan LRT Station on the Metro Line

Think about it. The arena debate dominated attention across the city throughout 2011 and 2012. It also included a lot of secret, private meetings between Administration, the Katz Group, and City Council, which plenty of people picked up on and criticized, myself included. That could have contributed to the culture of verbal reporting.

Here’s the timeline:

Most other attention-hogging projects were done by the time problems with Metro Line project started. The Quesnell Bridge expansion was completed in September 2011 and the 23 Avenue Interchange opened the following month. The winter of 2012/2013 was a particularly bad one for potholes and that did attract a lot of attention and criticism, but we have potholes every year.

I’m not saying the downtown arena project is to blame for the Metro Line delays. Correlation does not imply causation, of course. And that project is currently on time and budget because of solid project management, and I don’t want to take anything away from that. But the timeline above fits together just a little too well, doesn’t it?

As Paula Simons wrote in her column on the auditor’s report, “there’s no smoking gun in this audit – just smoke and murk.” There are also a lot of assumptions being made in trying to explain the delays – the splitting of the contracts, the inadequate project management practices, Thales missing deadlines. Maybe the simplest answer is the right one: the City and Council were distracted.

My slightly more complicated take? The arena distraction didn’t help but the biggest issue was that the culture of Transportation Services needed to change, which is happening now that Boutilier is gone and Wandzura is in.

We’ll find out more on Monday afternoon as Council discusses the auditor’s report.

Transforming Edmonton: Shifting our focus from plans to implementation

Toward the end of 2006, the City of Edmonton started to look at refreshing its visioning and planning efforts. A number of major City plans were about to be renewed, including the Municipal Development Plan, the Capital City Downtown Plan, and the Transportation Master Plan. Administration explained the importance of these reports in an update to Council:

Major plans are plans of city-wide or corporate-wide significance.  Major plans act as foundation blocks for Administration decisions and recommendations to City Council.  They are also a fundamental building block for future Council decisions.  These plans are meant to be in place for multiple years, and the review of these plans takes significant time and resources by both Administration and Council.

A report published in early 2007 provided a more detailed update and proposed a method for developing a “Vision for the City of Edmonton” that would kick off a full planning cycle. The report also included a Strategic Planning Brief. Here’s a look at the proposed strategic development cycle:

And here’s a look at the proposed framework process:

Writing in the Edmonton Journal about public information sessions held by the City in October 2008, Todd Babiak noted:

This process, which also includes the City Vision for 2040, the 10-year strategic plan, the Ecovision, and the plan for downtown, is broadly called "Transforming Edmonton." We’re admitting, as a people, that we have made expensive and dangerous mistakes for a generation or so.

Mary Ann McConnell-Boehm, who managed the Municipal Development Plan at the time, said:

"This is what we heard from our stakeholders in 2006, about the direction they wanted our city to take. A different approach, more integrated, a little braver."

That more integrated process ultimately led to the creation of the City Vision, the City’s Strategic Plan for 2009-2018 known as The Way Ahead, and the associated “Ways” plans:

Many Edmontonians have noted that the last plan to be approved, The Way We Finance, is the one that’s supposed to help us pay for the rest! Still, when its approval finally happens later this year, it’ll bring the most ambitious planning cycle in the City of Edmonton’s history to a close.

There were previous efforts at establishing a city-wide vision of course, such as the “Smart City” initiative of the late 90s, but none stuck. Why did Transforming Edmonton succeed at getting off the ground when other initiatives had failed? I think a big reason was Mayor Mandel. After winning re-election in October 2007, Mayor Mandel told the Edmonton Journal:

“The vision we have is of Edmonton being a city of the world. A city that is vibrant, environmentally sensitive and attractive. And a city that cares about people and opens its arms to them, wherever they came from.”

The importance of Mandel’s victory did not go unnoticed by the Edmonton Journal’s Scott McKeen, who wrote:

Mandel’s win, though hardly a surprise, was much more than a ho- hum victory over the fringers, fanatics and languid Koziaks who ran against him.

His approval rating on Monday narrates a turning point in Edmonton’s history. If Mandel’s first term stood for anything, it was a shift away from historic nickel-and-dime civic politics.

Edmontonians, it seems, embrace Mandel’s big-city vision.

The success or failure of an effort as broad and ambitious as Transforming Edmonton cannot be attributed to one person of course, but under Mayor Mandel’s watch, the City became a bit more integrated and much more strategic.

Edmonton’s efforts at improving the visioning and planning process are not unique. Vancouver’s CityPlan was adopted in 1995 and is slated to come to a close in 2015 (to be replaced with Green Vancouver, I think). Toronto’s Strategic Plan was approved in three stages from 1999-2001. Ottawa adopted its Official Plan in 2003 to guide the city through 2021. Montreal’s Master Plan was adopted in 2004. Calgary adopted imagineCALGARY in 2006, which sets out a 100 year vision with targets every 30 years. Winnipeg replaced its previous Plan Winnipeg 2020 initiative with OurWinnipeg in 2011, presenting a 25-year vision for the city. Long-term planning seems to be the norm for Canada’s major cities.

Today nearly every aspect of the City of Edmonton’s operations have been affected by Transforming Edmonton. For example, every budget item references one of “The Ways” and/or the strategic goals, and internal structures have changed to match the new approach. We’ve also seen efforts to describe progress, such as the new Citizen Dashboard.

While some implementation has occurred, the focus of the last five years has unquestionably been on the creation of Transforming Edmonton’s plans and associated documents. The approval of the final major plan, not to mention the expected retirement of Mayor Mandel next week and April’s unofficial kickoff of campaigning for the October municipal election, should signal a shift toward more concerted implementation efforts.

A shift in focus from planning to implementation won’t just happen, however. Edmontonians need to demand it. We as citizens need to do a better job of asking how things are going, not just how things are going to be.

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.

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.

Looking back at the Transforming Edmonton blog’s first year

A little over a year ago, the City of Edmonton launched its official blog, called Transforming Edmonton. Though it launched as a pilot project, the blog was meant to be another vehicle for the City to “share stories about how the City is working on transforming itself.” It remains focused on the City’s Vision and Strategic Plan, with sections on Economic Diversity, Environment, Financial Sustainability, Livability, Transportation, and Urban Form. How successful has the City of Edmonton’s foray into the world of blogging been? Let’s look back at the blog’s first year.

Let me start by saying that any blog that has made it past three months and is still updated somewhat regularly can probably be described as a success! Blogging takes commitment, so I applaud the City for sticking with it. Jas Darrah, Communications Business Partner at the City of Edmonton, was nice enough to answer my questions about the blog’s first year.

Over the last year, a total of 87 entries were posted to the blog. That’s not far off from the original goal of two new posts per category per month (which would have resulted in 144 posts). Though there are approximately 40 registered authors in the system, Jas clarified that in reality up to 100 people have collaborated on the resulting posts, as Public Information Officers and subject matter experts have worked together to craft the content. Initially, a lot of effort went into recruiting City employees to contribute to the blog, but that has become less necessary according to Jas. “The desire to participate from business units across the organization grows weekly, while in the first months we were beating the bushes to get participation.”

The blog has averaged 2400 page views per month over the year, which is respectable but quite a bit less than I expected. Of course, page views are just one piece of the puzzle. There’s also RSS feed readers (that’s how I read the blog), people who read the entries on Facebook, or who see the entries on YouTube, etc. And keeping in mind the City’s goals for the blog, engagement is a better metric than traffic statistics anyway. Slowly but surely, they’re having some success in that area. The blog has received 157 comments over the year, primarily on the two most successful posts: Bob Boutilier’s Q&A post on The Way We Move, and Phil Sande’s Q&A post on the City Centre Redevelopment Project. Jas says we’ll see more of those kinds of posts in the future.

Jas told me the blog is still being classified as a pilot, because the City is still gathering information to help evaluate it. I don’t think the public perceives it as a pilot however, and it sounds like City employees are happy for the blog to continue as well. Jas said the City’s “communications teams now see this as another vehicle to offer the City business units to reach out to the community, while offering ways to experiment with multimedia.” Many posts recently have included video and photos, such as the series on the Heads Up! campaign. While it may be just another tool in the communications arsenal, Jas confirmed the blog is “one of the most cost-effective tools in our toolkit.”

I’m a big fan of the Transforming Edmonton blog, and I’ve mentioned it numerous times in social media presentations over the last year. The design is clean, and I particularly like the simple Comment & Trackback Policy, accessible on every page. Jas said he’d regard the project as a success, even though there is still a lot of work to be done.

Raffaella Loro (the blog’s primary instigator) told me before the launch last November that she saw the blog as “encouraging a cultural shift” in the way the City operates. A year later, I think that is happening. Jas noted that “our City leadership saw that any negative comments that this project may facilitate would be outweighed by the positive reputation for facilitating those comments.” City employees like the blog as a way to share information, and according to Jas, many thought the blog was only internal when it launched! He told me the City will be launching its first internal blog in January.

I’d say the Transforming Edmonton blog has had a successful first year. There’s lots of room to grow and improve, but there’s now a strong foundation in place. I look forward to seeing it evolve.

A follow-up thought: I think the blog can become an important archive of the City’s perspectives over time. In the spirit of digital archiving, here’s what the blog looked like as of December 6.

The Way We Green Workshops

The Way We Green WorkshopA few weeks ago I was invited to check out a workshop for stakeholders of The Way We Green, part of the public consultation process for the project. It took place on a Thursday evening in a conference room on the top floor of the Holiday Inn Express downtown (great view). I arrived roughly halfway through the session, and found two tables of about ten people deep in discussion.

The workshop I attended was the last of four in the second phase. In the four workshops of phase one, which took place during the first week of June, participants identified what sustainability means for Edmonton and what key environmental challenges we face. In the second phase, participants discussed the policy options for eight broad categories: energy, water supply, food, ambient air, biodiversity, water quality, extreme weather, and waste management.

The table I sat with was just finishing up a discussion on energy when I arrived. Each participant had a sheet of paper with three or four sections to drive the conversation. There was also a moderator and a designated note-taker. Very shortly after I sat down, the group started talking about food. Everyone around the table had the opportunity to talk about why they thought protecting Edmonton’s local food system is important. They also completed the exercises on the sheet, which asked for a proposed goal, for their thoughts on what the City of Edmonton has done thus far, for a recommendation that the City of Edmonton should do more, less, or retain the status quo, and to identify any barriers to achieving the goal. Everyone in the group agreed that we need to do more to protect and strengthen Edmonton’s local food system (which I agree with), and highlighted public awareness as a major barrier (which I disagree with).

The Way We Green Workshop

I’m really interested in how the City’s public consultations work (and how they might be changing), so it was a great opportunity to see one aspect first hand. Even with all of the technology available to us, there remains a place for face-to-face discussions. I felt there could have been more discussion between participants at the workshop I attended, however, instead of just answering the questions provided. Another thing I noticed was that while there was diversity in the ages of the participants, there wasn’t much ethnic diversity. It’s important that immigrants and newcomers have a say in the strategic direction we take as a city (something that City staff acknowledged is a challenge when I mentioned it after the workshop).

More workshops are being scheduled for September, including some that will be open to the public. Forums and other information sessions are also scheduled to take place, after which the draft plan will be written and presented to City Council (sometime before February 2011). You can learn more about the project timeline here. You might also want to read the EcoVision Annual Report, which was published last month.

You can read my recap of last month’s expert panel here. Don’t forget you have until August 20th to complete the online survey. Stay tuned to for updates!

City of Edmonton launches Apps4Edmonton Competition

On Wednesday the City of Edmonton officially launched its Apps4Edmonton competition, which challenges residents to submit ideas for apps and developers to actually build them. There is more than $50,000 in prizes available, and everyone has a chance to win an Apple iPad. Here’s what the competition is all about:

Every Edmontonian can be an active participant in reshaping our city. Together with community partners the City of Edmonton is proud to launch Apps4Edmonton – a contest which encourages residents to develop applications that will benefit Edmontonians.

Using data sets from the Edmonton Open Data Catalogue, we’re challenging you to develop an app for either a smart phone, mobile device, or PC web browser. Mash up a map, create a visualization, or analyze data in a new way, the choice is yours.

To support the competition, the City has also released an update to the Data Catalogue. There are now 25 datasets available, including Ward boundaries and a list of City facilities. Even more datasets should be available soon, and if there’s something specific you’d like to have, request it from

If you have an idea for an app, submit it here. It can be anything, so be creative! Even if your idea isn’t possible or a developer doesn’t want to take it on, it might serve as inspiration for other apps, so don’t be shy. If you’re building or have already built an app, submit it here. You have until August 27 to do so. The FAQ has some good info, and be sure to familiarize yourself with the rules too.

Applications will be judged on four criteria: Accessibility, Usability, Creativity, and the number of community votes received (voting runs online from August 27 to September 10). In addition to three overall prizes (Gold, Silver, Bronze) there are six categories:

  • The Way We Live
  • The Way We Grow
  • The Way We Green
  • The Way We Move
  • The Way We Plan
  • The Way We Prosper

I’m very happy to see that IT has aligned itself with Transforming Edmonton for this competition! I am hopeful that Apps4Edmonton can help introduce more Edmontonians to those important documents that help guide us toward becoming a more innovative, inclusive, and creative city.

To learn more about Apps4Edmonton, visit the contest site. There should be lots of chatter about the competition at Startup Weekend too, and tonight at the Emerging Business Leaders’ Patio Party.

I can’t wait to see what everyone comes up with!

Recap: The Way We Green Panel Discussion

Today the City of Edmonton hosted a panel discussion with environmental experts at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Part of The Way We Green, the panel featured five local subject matter experts and was attended by more than 150 people. The event was also streamed live online (an archive is available here). For those of you new to The Way We Green, here’s what Councillor Iveson wrote about it when he helped launch the project last month:

It’s picking up after the 2006 Environmental Strategic Plan, which was good but more internally focused on the city and not very high-profile. The project is building on the widespread consultations in 2008 that led to the city’s 30 year vision and 10 year overall strategic plan, The Way Ahead. Now it’s time to drill down and focus specifically on the environment – the services we get from it, the impacts we have on it, and the value we place on it.

As part of the project, the City commissioned a collection of discussion papers to help stimulate thinking and dialogue, and those papers formed the basis of today’s panel. The five panelists were: Debra Davidson, Pong Leung, David Schindler, Daniel Smith, and Guy Swinnerton. The panel was moderated by Ed Struzik.

The Way We Green

The panelists covered quite a range of topics, and I thought Ed did a great job of keeping the discussion moving. Here are a few things that stood out for me:

  • Most of the panelists used the word “comprehensive”. They generally agreed that a comprehensive approach is required to tackle the environmental issues we face. I’m not convinced. I think you need to break the problem down and work in parallel from a variety of angles.
  • I found myself disagreeing with David quite a lot. Near the start of the panel he said something like “A sustainable Edmonton, in an unsustainable province, in an unsustainable country, doesn’t work.” I think Edmonton should lead by example, rather than relying on other orders of government to agree on policy and regulations. If we can make Edmonton the model sustainable city, why wouldn’t other communities in Alberta want to follow suit? And if they did, guess what, we’d be on the road to a sustainable province. Start local, and bubble up.
  • Pong, who I thought was the best of the panelists, said in response to David, “We can’t be paralyzed waiting for the perfect political environment to show up.”
  • Guy talked at length about density, pointing out how vital it is for us to address sustainability. He also mentioned some of the negative impacts our continual sprawl has had on the environment.
  • David then talked about population growth, noting that Edmonton is roughly doubling every 30 years. He basically said that we can’t keep growing and be sustainable. Again, I disagree. The issue isn’t how many people we have, it’s where and how those people live. Population density is far more important than population growth, at least here in Edmonton. Debra said as much in response to David.
  • The one thing David said that I did agree with was that we need some economic diversification. Everyone laughed and applauded when he said that Alberta “relies on one very oily teat.”
  • Ed asked the panel about taxes, everyone’s favorite topic. Debra said that affordable housing in the core would help reduce urban sprawl. I would talk about it more generally. Incentives are what drive behaviour, especially financial incentives. Right now, it’s too easy a decision to live on the edge of the city than to pay more and live near the core. The incentives are not aligned with the vision. Tax breaks for sustainable decisions and tax increases for unsustainable decisions might be one tool we can use to address that.

I thought the panel had some interesting thoughts and discussion points, though I’d have preferred if there was more opportunity for the audience to ask questions. You can read more about today’s event here.

“City Council gave us a 10-year goal to become a national leader in setting and achieving the highest standards of environmental preservation and sustainability,” said Jim Andrais, project manager for the Way We Green plan. “Now we have to find out from Edmontonians and environmental experts which environmental challenges are most important and areas where we can make the greatest difference. This panel debate, discussion papers, workshops and the online consultation are all part of that process.”

The second public survey for The Way We Green is now online – you have until August 20 to fill it out. The two questions being asked are about the challenges we face and the major changes we may have to make to address them.

You can learn more about The Way We Green here. On Twitter, follow the #yegeco hashtag.

The Story Behind the Transforming Edmonton Blog

Today the City of Edmonton is launching its first official blog, called Transforming Edmonton. In some respects, it might be fair to say that a City of Edmonton blog was inevitable. After all, the City has a growing social media presence and is using its experience to experiment further. The reality is that the existence of the Transforming Edmonton blog was anything but a matter of time!

Though many City employees are involved, Raffaella Loro has been the driving force behind the new blog since March of this year. In fact, she has been working to get the City blogging since at least 2006. As an early NextGen volunteer, Raffaella suggested the group start a blog to engage with volunteers. The City seemed ready to support the project, but the idea just didn’t pan out at the time. While she was disappointed, Raffaella didn’t give up. When the opportunity arose early this year during her tenure in the environment department at the City, she pitched the idea of starting a blog again. This time, the idea was met with enthusiasm.

The original goal was to start the blog in time for the ICLEI Conference in June, but that was a busy time for everyone involved, followed by the summer, and it just didn’t materialize. Raffaella used the delay to refine the concept, and realized that an environmental focus was too limited. I like the way she described it to me:

Just as individuals have a perspective when writing their blogs, the City has a perspective too. The Vision and Strategic Plan represent the City’s perspective, and that will come through on the blog.

The Transforming Edmonton blog will consist of human interest stories and other content that illustrate the City’s progress on realizing the Vision and delivering on the Strategic Plan. Or put another way, the blog will “share stories about how the City is working on transforming itself.” This is reflected in the blog’s sections: Economic Diversity, Environment, Financial Sustainability, Livability, Transportation, and Urban Form.

It’s important to note that the blog is a pilot at this point. It’s an experiment. Raffaella won’t be the only author – she has been busy over the last month recruiting other City employees to contribute content. A large number are on board already, but that support will have to continue to grow for the blog to be successful. The initial goal is to have two new posts about each category per month. Comments are encouraged, though they will be moderated in accordance with the blog’s Comment & Trackback Policy. Where appropriate, posts will link to non-City of Edmonton websites.

In our conversation, Raffaella suggested that the blog is about encouraging a cultural shift in the way the City of Edmonton operates. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but so far I think the project is on track. It makes use of the City of Edmonton’s existing social media profiles, rather than creating new ones. Transparency is a key focus of the blog, demonstrated by the fact that it will serve both external and internal audiences (there is no separate internal-only blog). And though it is quite different from some of the City’s other online initiatives, the Transforming Edmonton blog was relatively inexpensive to create – essentially just staff time.

Raffaella had lots of praise for the many individuals at the City of Edmonton who have played a role in getting the Transforming Edmonton blog up and running, in particular Jason Darrah and the other members of the Social Media Advisory Committee. She said “it’s the right time for the City to be doing this” and I completely agree. Kudos to Raffaella for persevering and making the blog a reality. It might take a while, but I think the blog is going to have an incredibly positive impact on the City and its residents.

Check out the Hello World post and welcome Transforming Edmonton to the blogosphere!