Faced with a back-end loaded Building Canada infrastructure program that will see significant funding available to municipalities only in the program’s twilight years, more and more local governments are looking at how to best position themselves in what promises to be a highly competitive environment.
For some—mostly larger and mid-sized municipalities—this means turning to their intergovernmental affairs (IGA) departments for answers. But ironically, it may be the smaller municipalities–for which the IGA department is the mayor and council–that may be best positioned.
Let’s look at why.
Canada’s Constitution makes intergovernmental relations in the municipal context more complex than those at the interprovincial or federal-provincial level.
While the federal and provincial/territorial orders of government enjoy – legally, if not politically — relative equality and operate within well-established institutional arrangements that facilitate and even require formal relations, municipalities’ subsidiary status often forces them to create political and administrative space for their agendas to be considered.
In this context, classic models of intergovernmental relations that rely on formal channels and methods of communications are not well adapted to effective (as measured by the ability to influence positive outcomes) municipal intergovernmental relations. This is particularly true when it comes to municipal relations with the federal government.
Because of the political and administrative firewalls created by our Constitution, municipal relations with Ottawa tend to be more idiosyncratic and follow less formal patterns and approaches to institutional communications than do relations between the federal government and provincial/territorial governments.
The absence of formal institutional linkages between cities and the federal government mean that favourable outcomes, on the whole, tend to be driven by political, more than policy considerations. Effective municipal intergovernmental relations therefore tend to have more in common with traditional advocacy than traditional intergovernmental relations.
Being successful in this environment require strategic and tactical flexibility—the ability to turn on a dime to seize opportunities—as well as the capacity to build networks, partnerships and alliances and to identify opportunities and seize them. And this is true whether you’re a municipality looking at supporting the Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ (FCM) push for better housing policies, or one hoping to get to the front of the funding queue for a major infrastructure project. This is why– even though they may not have the staff horsepower of larger cities–smaller municipalities may have an advantage, provided they are poised to act on it.
This has practical implications for the structure and operations of every municipal intergovernmental function, be it formal or not. It means shedding many of the trappings of formal intergovernmental relations and embracing a more dynamic approach built on sound, timely intelligence and analysis, and the capacity to mobilize networks quickly and efficiently.
For larger municipalities with formal IGA functions it will mean assessing how well roles, responsibilities and decision-making within their IGA team align with a core advocacy function built to be nimble and responsive. It will mean assessing how well equipped they are to tell their core story in a compelling and timely way to all of their key networks—government, media, potential allies—and to using this narrative to create room for favourable political action.
In the campaign for scarce federal infrastructure dollars, the ability to engage a network, mobilize a community, and tell a compelling story in a timely fashion will matter more than the number of official meetings one has been able to secure.