City staff give the Shape report a very detailed look and bought into most of what was recommended.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  March 11, 2011  –  It was probably one of the more challenging assignments that has landed on the desk of Kim Phillips, General Manager of Corporate Services for the city of Burlington.  It took her back to her days as a staff member in Cambridge where she learned how vital community and neighbourhood is to the health of a city.

Throughout this piece we use Ms Phillips as the main mention but it has to be pointed out that the work she did was part of a deep and detailed interaction with every department in the city and lengthy dialogue with the city manager and the Executive Budget Committee.  This was a full staff effort.

Ms Phillips was given the task of heading up and writing the response to the Shape Burlington report that has been on the tongues of the political element of the city for more than a year. How was the city to respond?

The report covers all the bases. Ms Phillips consulted widely within the civic administration and with numerous groups in the city as well as people who she felt could advise and counsel her on what is best for the city.  She met with the original Shape Committee as well as the follow up group Shaping Burlington to develop what has the potential to become a turning point for the city and the way it relates to its citizens.

Doing the “digging around” to get a sense of how city hall worked from a citizens perspective was to some degree a painful process for Phillips.  A trained facilitator, Phillips had to move to the other side of the table to fully understand the issues – and it wasn’t always clear that a solution existed until she began to understand on an “at the counter” level what city hall staff do with the public on a day to day basis.

Some of the comments made were hard to hear and Phillips began to understand that there was an information deficit and struggled with “how do you let people know what we are doing?”  There are many on staff who are ‘active instigators’ who care deeply about the city yet their performance was not that evident to the average taxpayer.”

One example of the concern Phillips was trying to convey was a Saturday morning public meeting on the budget.  Some 50 people were in the room at the Arts Centre with about a third representing city staff.  The meeting came to an end and it was staff that was the last to leave as they gathered up their material and discussed how the event had gone.  The “public” had ‘left the building much earlier’.

The response to the Shape Burlington report is fair, balanced and detailed but, not complete because Ms Phillips see this process of engaging citizens as an ongoing process and so she has left a number of doors open.  The process of collaborating seems to have taken root in her office and I suspect within the General Manager class and the Executive Budget Committee as well.

Phillips has certainly made a significant first stab at trying to make it better.

Phillips talked to publishers, talked to people in neighbourhoods and it became evident to her that there was a divide.  Her challenge was to come up with a way to meld the Shape recommendations and her knowledge of what could and what could not be done at the civic administration level, into a document that would be approved by Council.

Everything staff does is at the direction of Council – and if they don’t like what they hear – they don’t approve it.  This council approved the report at the committee level, where it didn’t really get the time and debate it deserved.  The meeting agenda was full and council members are focused on the budget.  But they did accept the Staff report but didn’t buy into much of what Shaping Burlington wanted to see.  It comes back to a full Council meeting where it might get additional debate.

In her report, Phillips hones in on the expectations Shape Burlington raised and described those expectations as a desire for more timely and useful communication and information sharing, interest in early involvement as part of strategic and ongoing decision making.

“…a desire for more timely and useful communication and information sharing…”

“Managing expectations will be important as changes are intended in part to improve feelings of belonging, and the public’s trust and confidence in the City of Burlington’s government.  The City of Burlington makes thousands of decisions every year and has had success in the past with strategic planning, citizen involvement, and strategic communications.”   The Shape Burlington report was clearly seeking change.  “Although Burlington has many communications practices that are on the forefront in the municipal sector,” Phillips points out that “ we recognize that improvement is possible and desirable.”   

“The many ways that allow people to participate and express their view at the municipal level do require constant monitoring for effectiveness. These opportunities can offer ways to improve citizen involvement and confidence in our municipal government. At the same time, the community will benefit from the increased commitment to participate and contribute to the improvement of the city.”

Easier said than done but Phillips has certainly made as significant first stab at trying to make it better.  In her Staff response she pointed out that “…whether you are reading this staff report as a committee member, a participant in the process, a staff person, a member of council, or someone new or without any knowledge of Shape Burlington, there are clear and key messages that are important for all of us.”

She added, in a point that is critical – “…staff will receive direction about council’s commitment to enhance citizen participation in City of Burlington service delivery and decision-making processes.”  The direction and the policy comes from council.  All Phillips has done is set out the options and the potential.

Phillips bought into the idea of an Engagement Charter and the hiring of a person with the specific task of being a resource to staff who would bring about the transformation over time of a new and more open relationship with the residents of the city.

The early draft of the Engagement Charter has a long way to go – and Phillips both acknowledges the amount of work to be done.  For her the process is to involve the community on how best to get significant public input into the content of the charter and the setting out of a path that would be followed to implement whatever gets agreed upon.

Phillips writes: “The Shape Burlington report is also about influence and control.  What is the role of council, staff, citizens and groups?  Facts need to be known about what is unchangeable and what is open for discussion.  What is reasonable in balancing the city’s legislated and professional responsibilities with involvement from others?  Who decides?”

“The Shape Burlington report is about influence and control.”

“We all care,”, Phillips points out and “have expectations, and want to spend our time in ways that have most value.  We all want to be understood.  We also know that we can’t be everything to everyone.  There’s a level of frustration or sense of not being understood in all of us.”

“Any process of change should involve those most impacted.  In the topics of the Shape Burlington report, the citizens involved, the staff, and council now in office are impacted.  It’s time for all of us to ‘reset’ and move forward with a fresh start.  The best outcomes include open dialogue, best value efforts, continuous improvement, trust, and well-informed decision making.” Sounds good doesn’t it ?

“Along the theme of customer-first service, we need to check in about what is important, how to reach out, what the choices are, and why anyone should care.   We need to invite involvement in ways that continue to work for us as they have in the past and in new ways that we may not be as experienced with.  We need to determine appropriate measures that will indicate where progress is being made and guide changes that may be necessary.”  Moving that attitude into the ranks is much more of a challenge.  Has every staff member read the report Phillips wrote ?  Do they know where she wants this city to go in terms of civic engagement ?  Perhaps the city should publish one of those “little red book” that some governments and political parties used to get the message out to the masses.

“How will we know we’ve gotten there” Phillips asks.  “How do we recognizes our successes and how do we measure them”.  Then without quite realizing it, Phillips asks the most trenchant question: “What are you looking for and how will you know you’ve found it?”  That’s a question the citizens of Burlington have to put to themselves and then communicate the answer they come up with to both the staff and their council members,

“What are you looking for and how will you know you have it?”

Kim Phillips General Manager,

Corporate Services

Phillips describes the process we are all about to go into as a stool with a council leg, a staff` leg and a citizen leg.  “If we don’t have all three legs firmly fixed  we’ve got nothing to sit on.  While Phillips didn’t put it quite this way – without three legs we are all flat on the floor.

Given that the city doesn’t employ an Easter Bunny to deliver the goods to us – there has to be a process – and it is the process that matters most.  Phillips writes: “We will work with the community to develop a process that will ‘categorize’ these decisions.  Where issues are appropriate for greater community involvement, we will ensure that the necessary supports are in place to do it well.”

What the Staff report is setting out to do is change the culture at city hall to promote active citizenship and civic engagement.   “The key messages staff take from Shape Burlington’s recommendations” writes Phillips, “are information sharing and working together.  Staff support the development of a document that has been temporarily named ‘Working Paper on Burlington Engagement Charter’.   The Charter will provide a cohesive message of the City’s commitment to citizen involvement. From a priority perspective, we see this as one of the two top priorities arising from the Shape Burlington report. 

Shaping Burlington has suggested that this is a process that could take six to twelve months to complete.  Identifying the team that will work together on the charter should be completed by the end of March.  The team will then discuss their approach, process and meeting plans.  Staff expect that the charter can be completed by the 4th quarter of 2011, allowing time for the strategic planning process to proceed in parallel.

This is a pretty tight time frame within which to transform a culture.  Given this time line, the culture at city hall will have changed before the Brant Street Pier opens.
Targeting completion of the charter for fall 2011 also ensures that the new staff person has an opportunity to be part of the development process before a proposed charter is presented to committee and council for approval. 

That is a pretty tight time frame within which to transform a culture.  Given this time line the culture at city hall will have changed before the Brant Street Pier opens.  While the time line suggested might be somewhat less than realistic,  the intention and the process have more than a chance of making it through the mill.

“Development and implementation of the charter will require ongoing commitment from staff, council, and the community.  At this time, staff do not consider the words ‘engagement charter’ the title of the final document and will work with citizens to present a document using clear, plain language.”  Shaping Burlington representatives have indicated that they prefer the word “civic” to “citizen” related to a charter, but the words will be considered as part of the collaborative process.  We want to ensure that community groups, businesses, and citizens feel included in the charter.  We anticipate that a working group of staff and citizens will develop the document and throughout the process can invite representatives of council to provide input.  As council will make the final decision about approval of the document, the development of it is being suggested to be in the hands of citizens and staff primarily.  Until the new staff person is in place, the General Manager of Corporate Services will coordinate this effort, working with the Assistant to the General Managers.

“…staff do not consider the words ‘engagement charter’ the title of the final document.”  Are we looking at a watering down of the wine before we even get to taste it?


Shaping Burlington representatives have indicated that they prefer the word “civic” to “citizen”.  A citizen votes – not sure if civic isn’t more water in that wine.

So, it is the natives that will work up the document and present that to the appropriate council committee.  Better allow lots of time for that meeting.

“The Shape Burlington report suggested increased citizen involvement in developing a vision statement,  writes Phillips, “so that citizens could be involved in influencing the city’s long term direction and so that the resulting plan is clear and includes measurable action plans that the community can buy into.  Shaping Burlington suggested that the strategic plan process be considered a marketing exercise to reach out to citizens, to create a buzz about the importance of the plan as a priority setting exercise for the community as a whole.”

What we are seeing is a level of pro-activity this city has not seen for some time.  Can it be sustained?  It can, but only if all three legs of that stool are in place.

Communication has been perhaps the biggest public complaint.  Citizens don’t feel they know what is really going on.  Planning department notices that effect a large area are sent out, for the most part to just those homes within a 120 metre radius of a proposed plan,  The city’s web site isn’t has never won any awards for its ease of use and the communications department suffers from a lack of oxygen and sufficient funding.  Phillips announced that a new web site will appear within a couple of weeks. Let’s give them a chance to show us what they have learned.

The Communications department in Burlington isn’t as unified as it could be – and there appears to be a lack of strategy and direction.  The web site comes under the direction of one group with the managing of day to day communications under the direction of another person.  Some re-aligning of responsibilities might improve the performance.  This is one of those instances where structure is impeding process.   There might be just a little “turf protecting” going on here as well.

If communications were what it can be – many of the concerns brought to light by the Shape report would not have existed.  The cry was for greater involvement of all citizens in a shared vision of our city.  We are not there yet.  A large segment of the city see the Performing Arts Centre as a nice to have while another segment is out there raising the millions needed to make the place work and become an integral part of the cultural fabric of the city.

The Shape Burlington report suggested increased citizen involvement in developing a vision statement, so that citizens could be involved in influencing the city’s long term direction with measurable action plans that the community can buy into. 

Phillips writes that: “We agree that this (the development of the 2010-2014 strategic plan) is “the single best time…to influence the city’s long term direction.”  The Executive Director of Corporate Strategic Initiatives will coordinate this process and is committed to a variety of tried and true as well as new citizen engagement methods. 

“Another key point in the Shape Burlington report was the lack of trust and confidence in City government.  From a controllable perspective, the focus of this recommendation is on improving respect for citizens.”

“There are community groups with extensive e mailing lists that may provide opportunities for sharing information and a coordinated approach to the use of this information will be part of the work for the new position recommended.  Since residents have multiple points of contact, these may provide a new way for the city to keep in touch, building on successful relationships that individuals have with trusted groups.”

Those trusted groups might be described by some as those with vested interests.

Another key point in the Shape Burlington report was the lack of trust and confidence in City government.  From a controllable perspective, the focus of this recommendation is on improving respect for citizens.  If councillor Craven’s ripping through a delegation is acceptable – then this council has a long way to go.

A customer service standards review is underway and staff training is being planned

The voters turfed a Mayor that lost their confidence even though he had never lost an election before during in his lengthy career and in one election got more than 70% of the popular vote.  Did the voters have a different expectation or did the Mayor fail to read the expectations of his constituents?  This same Mayor took the initiative that brought into being the group of people who produced the report that is about to be implemented.  There is an irony in there somewhere.

Phillips makes a very significant point when she says: “The biggest challenge in community development is being clear about the limits of support and what can and can’t be done.  As long as staff and council remain focused on the City of Burlington’s services, priorities, and resources, and work collaboratively with the Region of Halton when appropriate to serve community needs, limits will be clearer and consistent approaches will be understood.  Consistency allows for clarity and allows for unique approaches as well.  The keys are up front planning, consultation and information sharing, and ongoing monitoring. 

In order to shift the way the City of Burlington invites community involvement, we need some change.  To implement change, we need a staff resource to: research, develop appropriate policies and practises. This person has to listen to input and receive feedback, write information that will help staff, council, and the community and also be a resource to staff on their projects and processes and provide guidance and advice.  Make civic engagement fun!

As if all that wasn’t enough this new staff person will have to identify strategic issues that merit enhanced citizen involvement and make connections and maintain open communication with representatives that have not been in regular or ongoing contact with the City.

The hope apparently is that Superman or Superwoman is not on an assignment elsewhere and will be available to Burlington for what is clearly a mammoth assignment.

There’s more:  Work with the community directly, in meetings and through social media.  Work with others to provide relevant online learning. Plan and implement training so that everyone can be successful. Support the early adopters and recognize success.

More yet – review efforts that fall short to share the lessons for future use, liaise with the Region of Halton to ensure roles are clear and duplication is avoided,  reach out for community input and feedback, ensure appropriate follow up,  measure, monitor, and report on progress.  That list is endless – is it also unrealistic and creating an expectation that cannot be met ?

The hope, apparently, is that Superman or Superwoman is not on an assignment elsewhere and will be available to Burlington for what is clearly a mammoth assignment.  Can one person actually do al this in one year.  There are people in the Human Resources field who would tell you expecting one person to do all this in a two year time frame is a mistake in the making.

Social media, which few of even the largest brand names in North America fully understand, is going to be added into this mix.  Burlington is in the middle of a pilot project with Twitter and getting ready to do something on Facebook which will be an interesting exercise.  The city has employed three communications advisors since 2006, working in an internal agency model, where each is responsible for assigned departments of which there are now 13 departments.  The recommended staff person will also spend time supporting the city’s implementation of social media.

A reality staff faces in discussing citizen engagement is that people are busy and have multiple interests.  Heck there are hockey games and bridge clubs too you know. Many people, most actually do not get involved in municipal government matters until there is a direct or significant impact on them personally.  Then of course they descend on city hall and expect an immediate response to their grievance and council members, who want to get elected, jump through hoops and look to staff to resolve the problem.

 “…we can encourage and foster civic engagement but we cannot  mandate it.”

Kim Phillips
General Manager Corporate Services

Phillips points out that “we can encourage and foster civic engagement but we cannot mandate it.” Citizens, as Phillips points out, share responsibility for becoming informed and providing input so that they can effectively exercise their democratic rights.  More than 60% of the voters choose not to exercise their option.

Staff held several meetings with Shaping Burlington to discuss the recommendations being presented in this report, the engagement charter, and ways of identifying, measuring and reporting about citizen engagement.  In their delegation to the committee on the Phillips report Shaping asked for a number of changes and for the most part – they didn’t get very much.  However, Phillips writes that: “Chris Walker, John Searles and Ken Edwards have been the key contacts.  Mr. Edwards will continue involvement in the development of the engagement charter, Mr. Searles is assisting with the update of the citizen’s guide, and Mr. Walker is the key contact for the group, and will be sent all information arising from committee and council’s discussions on this report.  Shaping Burlington is also, through Mr. Walker, being invited to budget 2011 consultation workshops and to strategic planning events.  So, Shaping is at the table, just not with the clout they had hoped to have.

This appears to be one of those situations where the city and its citizens are going to get a very significant bang for their buck.  Phillips expects to spend $178,000 for the two year contract position and maybe another $50,000. along the way.  To get all that is proposed for less than a quarter of a million dollars is huge value.  There are those who will carp and write letters to the editor and complain about the waste.  For those people the glass is always half empty when in reality we aren’t even talking about a glass – we are talking about a milk can that is full with rich cream that can serve the city exceptionally well far into the future.

The city and its citizens are going to get a significant bang for their buck – $178,000. to change the culture at city hall is a great deal.  Let’s not blow it.

What one can see coming together is a really bold initiative and quite a big shift on the part of the civic administration that has to serve a council that has members who really aren’t  110% behind this initiative. Members of council may take exception to that comment but let them compare the way they got really excited about the cycling competitions that is to take place on Canada Day and compare that with their feelings for a Charter that will set out what a citizen can expect from the government they elect.  OK, so it isn’t a Magna Carta but it is a big, big step for Burlington.  Let’s not blow it.


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