City staff's choice: the blue pill or the red pill?
I've asked myself several times, if Vision Vancouver were methodically dismantling that which makes our City's public service great, would the voters care? Does the broader public even appreciate that it has been our system of governance coupled with the traditional non-partisan public service which supports it which has made Vancouver one of the world's most successful juridictions?
We've heard through other City Hall reporters that Penny Ballem considers that the real struggle within City Hall is resistance to "change". Those I speak to, however, disagree with the City Manager's conclusion that City staff are either: 1) not nimble enough to work differently, or 2) beholden to their past political masters, or 3) simply too lazy or stubborn to adapt to new challenges. Great city-making simply doesn't happen if you have that much deadwood in your ranks.
Statements from pro-Vision blog commenters – such as on this post on Frances Bula's blog – saying "the party's over" for non-complying bureaucrats only pours salt in the wounds during these challenging times. It wasn't hard to predict that there would be friction between Vancouver's rank and file public servants when the top bureaucrat's public comment on their concerns is, "Tough, eh."
If I was a City Hall staffer I think my choice would be simple: do I take the blue pill, or the red pill? Those who know the analogy from the sci-fi classic The Matrix understand that the blue pill stood for acceptance and submission. The red pill symbolized doubt and questioning. Either path has its risks and benefits, and it would be a very difficult choice indeed.
The atmosphere within the public service caused by Vision Vancouver and their hand-picked city manager is having long-term consequences that some think it will be hard for the City to recover from. For example, to work in upper management at the City of Vancouver was once considered the culmination of your professional public service career. Now we hear that headhunters struggle to find the best candidates who actually want one of Vancouver's top jobs.
Naturally, others think it's just a-okay. Commentators such as Allen Garr approve of Vision's reshaping of the public service in their own image.
There was a time when staff felt comfortable enough to challenge council's direction, but no longer. It's said that a decision like the Hornby separated bike lane would have never come about the way it has if not for the Mayor's decree overpowering staff's professional advice.
The environment is reportedly so toxic now at Vancouver city hall that Ballem has contracted its first-ever "change manager" to, as Bula writes:
[make] less-visible but significant changes internally to create an organization more like a provincial ministry – attentive to what the political leaders want, centralized and more top down, quick to react and focused on efficient communication
[and Ballem] has frequently reminded staff that it’s their job as civil servants to carry out the agenda of their political bosses
It was the internal memo leaked to CityCaucus.com that brought this discussion out into the open, and by doing so it created front page news. The survey of hundreds of City staff was a very representative sampling of the discontent we continually hear about from both non-union and unionized staff. Bringing in an outside consultant – the blue pill, as it were – to cajole those who are uneasy with Dr. Ballem's prescription for change, may or may not address the scale of the matter.
Other than the best and brightest taking a pass at the chance to work for Vancouver, what are the other possible consequences of making civil servants choose politics over policy? Certainly, those who are politically connected to the party in power will eventually get the most favours – quicker response from staff on permits over competitors, and other obvious favortism. Developers, noting the new groundrules, will likely respond by one-upping each other for the biggest political donations.
Could this could become an issue in the 2011 election? It's said that Vancouver's civil service, thanks to its sheer size compared to how many actually vote, has considerable influence on the outcomes of elections. So could promising to restore the independence of the traditional non-partisan public service be a winning election strategy for the NPA? Could making a shambles of staff morale wreak havoc on Vision's re-election chances?
We've heard the NPA's Coun. Anton raise concerns about politicization of City staff, and we've even heard that veteran COPE politico Tim Louis is getting support for his party from unhappy staff. It will be very interesting to see if this issue resonates with the broader voting public to the advantage of Vision's opponents.
- post by Mike