In some ways 2019 was the year of local government, particularly in an Ontario context: regional government reviews, debate over Toronto City Council composition and the resulting court cases, etc. More attention was on the municipal sector in the past year than in the past decade in a way perhaps not seen since the creation of the Toronto mega-city in 2006.
So, it is timely that a new book for students of Local Government (which is also drawing attention from municipal practitioners – including the author of this blog) was written by Zachary Spicer, Joseph Lyons, and Kate Graham and published by Emond Publishing: Local Government in Practice: Cases in Governance, Planning, and Policy. Zachary Spicer is IPAC National’s newly minted research director. I connected with him to get some background on the writing of the textbook. You will see some some of that background he and his co-authors provided emphasized throughout this entry.
From the text itself: “The aim of the book is to give students opportunities to engage deeply in administrative and policy scenarios designed to test their problem-solving, decision-making, and communication skills…while strengthening their political acuity, ethical purview, and knowledge of best practices.” (xiii)
For students and practitioners alike, continuous learning helps to bridge theory and practice. One always wonders how to apply the theoretical with real world application. How can we do that effectively? There are texts and articles outlining case studies applying to provincial and federal administration. It stands to reason that case studies should also be developed for the order of government closest to the community, particularly as local governments take on added responsibility despite their varying levels of maturity and expertise.
The three of us have been teaching in UWOs [Western University, formerly University of Western Ontario] local government program for several years… we’re always on the look out for new ways to engage our students and find innovative ways to teach local government. From our experience teaching and working with local governments, we know that practitioners often find themselves in in situations where they must navigate competing interests, ambitious objectives, and many constraints. Cases provide an opportunity for students to experience this complexity in a classroom setting
The book begins with a brief but thorough review of local government in Canada in a bit of a municipal 101—style. It covers some of the various approaches that provinces take in structuring municipal governments and it emphasizes the delicate balance between the administration and the politics of municipal affairs.
The book then segues into a section capturing an imaginary Election Day at an imaginary City Hall. It accurately and emotionally transports the reader into the mind of a municipal administrator who must think about the implications of imminent political change and what it will mean for their career and how they do their work. It’s a unique way to position the text; readers will enjoy the experience of imagining local government through the human lens of the municipal civil servant.
We’ve all used cases in our teaching to a certain extent in the past, but we weren’t really satisfied with the state of existing cases. A lot of what was available came from other jurisdictions (mostly the US) or covered fairly high profile incidents or policy areas, where the outcome was widely known. We decided to take a different approach and reach across disciplinary boundaries to use fictional cases to complement real world cases….Creating a fictional case allows the instructor to simulate real world activity, but also embed certain tensions or aspects that real world cases sometimes do not always have. The fictional cases then allowed us to make better connections to key topics and concepts
- introduces a theme;
- provides an overview how that theme affects the landscape of local government;
- presents a deeper dive into the theme; and
- illuminates real issues in local government, using both case studies and fictitious scenarios.
Then the text poses several questions for discussion which could be taken up in a classroom setting.
The case study themes are particularly timely given both legislative emphasis on some of these very topics from the provinces and federal governments, the current municipal fiscal environment and existing issues and concerns being addressed by councils and municipal administrators. Each theme addresses multiple issues within them:
- Council-Staff Relationship: Changing electoral boundaries, creating a code of conduct;
- Financials: balancing budgets, user fees in recreation;
- Planning and Economic Development: condo developments, building sports stadiums;
- Intergovernmental Relations: meetings with the premier, intergovernmental grants; and
- Local Policy Making: crafting an arts and culture strategy; regulating private transportation companies.
In terms of settling on cases and themes, we used a lot of what has emerged in our classes over the years. Some are obvious – taxes, financing, planning, etc., but the specifics came from the classroom. In the book we said a lot of the material came from student discussions and it really did. Our students helped us zero in on important topics and shared stories from their own experiences in the workplace that helped inform the themes and cases.
What is also interesting is that the lens applied to the case studies are not just presented from an administrator’s point of view, but also from of the view of municipal elected officials. Take for instance, a scenario which encourages students to put themselves in the shoes of the municipal decision maker: students must take the view of a ward councillor, and develop talking points on the municipality’s budget for an interview with local media.
What I particularly like about the book is that, in setting out how students could prepare for life as a municipal administrator, the authors emphasize the old, “what is the problem you are trying to solve”, adage the most basic yet important question one asks when developing a policy solution. This is an important lesson for students but one that policy practitioners are familiar with as it is essential to tackling any issue, challenge or policy development. Presenting questions that get to the critical considerations (i.e., options development, risk management and stakeholder impacts) which should inform decision-making is beneficial to learning the public administration craft.
“As the order of government closest to the people, municipalities are vital to the health of our democracy. In Canada, however, municipalities don’t always get the respect they deserve.” (Kristin Good, “Municipalities Deserve More Autonomy and Respect,” Policy Options, November 29, 2019)
These cases and the issues they raise really put into context the importance of municipal administration and the need for engaged, innovative, ethical and dynamic municipal public servants. It’s about time we all paid more attention to the issues within municipal governance and administration. This book helps us do that.
Alana Del Greco, IPAC Toronto Board Member