Archive for September, 2011

FEDERAL LEADERSHIP, PROVINCIAL SOLUTIONS NEEDED FOR URBAN FIX

Thursday, September 29th, 2011

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi used a tour of eastern Canada originally designed to sell his city as a business destination last week to push his second favourite subject: all that ails Canada’s cities.

The mayor used multiple speaking engagements and media interviews to hammer away at the urgency of fixing the growing imbalance between cities’ responsibilities and their capacity to pay.

He said Canada’s cities needed new sources of stable and predictable funding because their principal fiscal tool—the property tax—is outdated and not up to the task.  And he warned of dire consequences for cities and for the country if that fiscal imbalance is not addressed quickly.

This is not a new hobby horse for Nenshi. In fact this is hardly news at all. He’s been talking about mending Canada’s fraying urban fabric since his election last fall.  And Canada’s other big city mayors have been making exactly the same arguments for years, also calling for stable and predictable funding from Ottawa.

They even had some success. Remember the New Deal for Cities?  Paul Martin’s lofty 2002 pledge of a new relationship with Canada’s cities got him fired from his job as minister of Finance.

More to the point, a few years later, that pledge netted cities the gas tax transfer, which now pumps $ 2 billion per year in city coffers across the country for infrastructure improvements.

Not surprisingly, the gas tax transfer has been immensely popular with mayors and councillors in communities of all sizes.  So popular in fact, that the Harper government last year announced it would become a permanent fixture of fiscal federalism—a kind of equalization program for roads and bridges.

Talk about stable. And you can’t get much more predictable than that. So where’s the problem?

Well, it’s not the one that most of the media outlets who interviewed the Calgary mayor last week led with. 

It’sreally not about cities needing more money to fix their crumbling infrastructure; or about modernizing a municipal fiscal regime better suited to a 19th century agrarian society than one in the throes of global competition; or about needing more federal dollars for affordable housing and transit.

Those are the symptoms.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, the real problem is that it’s déjà vu all over again.

For anyone who followed the New Deal debate six or seven years ago, reading or watching an interview with mayor Nenshi today is like stepping into a time capsule.  His talking points are virtually the same as those used by former Winnipeg mayor Glen Murray and former Toronto mayor David Miller, and countless other municipal politicians before and after.

Back then they resonated and gained traction not only in the media, but with civil society and business groups and even within the federal government–now, not so much.

Six years after the gas tax transfer, and four years after the largest infrastructure program in the history of this country municipal pleas for more federal spending are starting to sound hollow.

There’s a sense in many quarters that when it comes to cities the feds already gave at the office and it’s time to move on.

Yet, mayor Nenshi is right–just as his former colleagues were right a decade ago.  Canada’s cities are struggling when they should be achieving. And with 80 percent of Canadians living in urban areas, if our cities struggle our country struggles.

But the real solutions to the problems faced by Canada’s cities are found in provincial capitals not on Parliament Hill.  Only provinces can fix broken and “outdated” municipal finance systems. Only provinces can change the planning regimes that undermine sustainability.

The fundamental problem has never been about money–at least not federal money.  It has always been about provincial politics and power and recognition, and that’s been a tough nut to crack.

Municipal politicians regularly get admonished by provincial governments that their local administrations are creatures of the province. Which is like saying “I put you here, I can take you out”.

But like it or not, they’re right. That’s the constitutional hand our founding fathers dealt us.

And the mayors are also right in pointing out that the government of Canada has a vested interest–if not a constitutional responsibility–in seeing our cities prosper.

So, how do they break the logjam and work toward lasting fixes?

First, they have to stop focusing only on federal spending (particularly in the current fiscal context). Federal infrastructure spending runs the risk of becoming less of a New Deal and more of a kind of permanent Marshal Plan for cities, and it’s not working. As mayor Nenshi pointed out, billions in federal investments have not fixed the problem.

Second, they need to change their song sheet and strategy. What cities need most from Ottawa now is leadership.

Canada’s mayors need to come together and push for a national vision of urban Canada. And while Ottawa can’t impose its blueprint in an area of provincial jurisdiction, it can lead a collaborative intergovernmental process to define what our cities should look like in 25 years.

Third, they need to seize the opportunity that the 2014 expiry of key transfer programs presents and push for the inclusion of cities on the fed/prov agenda.

Ultimately however, all the mayors can do is create political room for their vision. Only Ottawa can lead the way.

NEW NARRATIVE NEEDED TO INSULATE HARPER’S AGENDA FROM ECONOMIC STORM

Monday, September 19th, 2011

As MPs return from their summer recess, a number of storylines—from Nycole Turmel’s political inexperience to Bob Dechert’s flirtations to turmoil at National Defense HQ–are coming into focus and will bear following.  None will be as important for the future of the government however, as how Prime Minister Harper stickhandles his deficit reduction agenda through a fall sitting that will likely be dominated by sour global economic news.

The Prime Minister has a lot going for him at the start of this session. He enjoys a healthy majority in both the House and Senate and is in the enviable position of being the only non-interim leader of a major party in the House.

With the stronger legislative engine the May 2 election gave him, some observers suggest that the road is clear for an ambitious agenda that includes a massive overhaul of Canada’s crime legislation and policy, Senate reform and a markedly slimmer federal government.

That is far from certain.

While rent-a-cops may be pulling traffic duty on the Opposition benches, they are still in a position to slow the government’s legislative plans, particularly if their arguments gain traction in public opinion.

Majority or not, the Prime Minister runs the risk of seeing his agenda of institutional change run aground if Parliament becomes gridlocked because of worsening economic conditions and political opportunism.

After all, who wants to see their government push Senate reform when the economy is tanking?

For the Prime Minister, how well he finesses this will be measured less by the level of short term political pain than by how well he safeguards his ability to implement key planks of his non-economic platform and lay the foundations for a lasting conservative legacy.

The challenge for Prime Minister Harper and his government this fall will be to craft a narrative and a policy approach that balances political and economic imperatives.

As currently crafted, the dominant story—going from funding roads and bridges to cutting government workers and programs–won’t be an easy one to explain or sell to Canadians.

First, the public can be forgiven for not “getting” this coming policy shift as the same conditions that are now creeping into daily newscasts–a stumbling economy and flat jobs growth–were cited as the reasons for the 2009 stimulus-laden Economic Action Plan.

Second, the story coming from the U.S. is all about stimulus, as president Obama is taking one more kick at the Keynesian can. His massive economic package, unveiled last week, aims at recovering jobs and boosting consumer demand.

While Obama’s approach sets his administration apart from many European governments that have opted for austerity measures, the news from Washington has more immediacy and impact for Canadians than stories from Berlin or Paris.

The task for the Prime Minister and his front bench lies less in attacking the Opposition–of whom the public care little about–than in reassuring Canadians that they have a plan and explaining how it will work to safeguard jobs of which the public cares a great deal about.

With the economic news continuing to be gloomy–the Toronto Dominion bank revised its 2011 growth forecast from 2.8 to 2.2 percent and its 2012 forecast from 2.5 to 1.9 percent—in the next few days look for a subtle shift in the government’s narrative away from strict deficit reduction toward a balanced approach that includes protecting jobs.

If there is no marked improvement in the economic outlook by early November, expect the government to take a page out of Jean Chretien’s 1994-95 playbook and push a new government narrative revolving around cutting unnecessary expenditures—getting our house in order–while spending on public infrastructure and jobs.

While we are not likely to see the stimulus spigots opened to the extent they were under the Economic Action Plan, we might see the renewal of elements of the Building Canada Fund, the government’s flagship infrastructure program.

Although the government’s deficit reduction action plan may be temporarily sidelined as a branding narrative, every indication is that all federal departments and agencies will continue to have all of their spending—program and operations—placed under a microscope, and a scalpel.

A subtle shift in tone and policy will provide political cover for the government’s austerity plans, and more importantly, help keep Prime Minister Harper’s transformative legacy agenda on the rails.

SOCIAL MEDIA AND NONPROFITS: THE COMMUNITY MANAGER

Friday, September 2nd, 2011

Many nonprofits looking to  use social media to boost their profile, mobilize their base or raise funds assume that all they have to do is create a Facebook page or a Twitter account and people will automatically converge.  That may be the case for the most visible brands (personal or corporate) but for most nonprofits, building a network and a following requires work and genuine engagement.

That’s where a community manager can help.

While for smaller organizations it may not be necessary to have a  person dedicated full-time to social media engagement, it is absolutely necessary for every organization that hopes to leverage social media to have  someone on staff with primary responsibility for online outreach and engagement.  

The role of an organization’s online community manager is to listen, engage and fuel conversations within the social environment created for the organization.  

Typically, the community manager is expected to interact with the community to help maintain a smooth flow of information as well as coordinate and moderate online discussions; less frequently, they are expected to act as the corporate social evangelist.

Too often the role of corporate evangelist is overlooked because of an exclusively external focus by the organization, and that is a mistake. 

By keeping the entire organization focused, engaged, contributing to the conversations and following policy guidelines and principles, the community manager can help employees, associates and volunteers become brand ambassadors and leverage their own networks in support of the organization’s goals.  

Another way that the community manager can play a key role is by ensuring that content responds to the needs and expectations of both the community and the organization.  

Social content is what brings people to your site; jump starts conversations and amplifies messages. The best content is informative, timely, original and easy-to-share.  Content should always be developed with an organization’s audience and community in mind, and the best way to start is by listening to ongoing conversations and identifying what it is that most resonates or gains traction within the key communities.

The community manager’s role is to listen to these conversations and figure out how they align with the organization’s own narrative and then help develop content that reflects and leverages these linkages.

It’s not everybody that can be a good community manager.  Sure,  it helps if they understand the basic technology and functionalities of the most popular platforms, but it doesn’t mean that they have to be tecchies.  Howvere, they do have to be good communicators and most important, they have to be social.

A good community manager is someone who understands the basic principles of effective communications and who genuinely likes to connect with people and share information, ideas and opinions.  It is also someone who is passionate about social media and who can communicate that passion to colleagues as well as to the organization’s leadership.

For a nonprofit that is struggling to gain traction in the social sphere, creating a commuity manager role within the organization can bring focus, energy and ultimately, success.