LETTER: Challenging conventional thinking in Kelowna election campaign | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Kelowna News

LETTER: Challenging conventional thinking in Kelowna election campaign



To the Editor:

This is an open, unpaid, unbiased letter to voters and candidates that is meant to challenge conventional thinking behind the simplistic words being used in this election. It is not meant to endorse one candidate or another, but it will likely lead you to where this old, semi-retired strategy consultant and business owner lands.

Change: it is the word that is being bandied about by many new candidates.

Experience: it is the word being hugged by several incumbent candidates.

The former assumes that making a change in the cohort of existing political leadership  many changes will cascade throughout the community. The latter assumes that experience is the steady hand that makes for best outcomes and decisions. Citizens need to challenge the assumptions behind both these over used words.

Making the experience argument assumes that the highly touted experience is working in a mostly static environment where situational  experience will guide people and those they work with as they look to and venture into the future. In this world decisions are routine; falling into an easily understandable rules based frameworks that repetitive decisions typically fall into.  An example of this type of decision would be ruling on zoning variances (although staff and council don’t seem to follow their own rules lately).

Where the experience argument falls short is when new/ better or completely different information is available that challenges the norms of the shared experiences of those in the organization. When new paradigms appear; when world and local events result in seismic shifts and situations and when decisions are not bound by typical or traditional contexts the experience argument falls down. Or worse, it festers in the fallacy of sunk costs (or its political equivalent). Other situations where experience is a non sequitur is when a new marketplace or technology can offer better solutions and better information (doing away with the asymmetrical information dilemma) or when the bureaucracy that has positioned itself as the best arbiter of fair and reasonable can no longer adjust to a rapidly changing environment where the old reasonable measures don’t make sense. 

Based on a recent sample of files that could be called atypical or non-routine, council and staff have shown a lack of ability to deal with the complexity and nuance of the files. In one very controversial file only one councillor had the courage to callout the blatant error being made. The rest of council acquiesced to staff. In that file all norms of process were ignored and staff fell back on a legal opinion that the process was transparent; which sidestepped the germane question that council should have asked - was the correct process in place or should the process have been revised.  In the same sample staff offered council poorly supported recommendations –both in data and logic behind the recommendations. In several files the information given to council was completely outdated and in one file the report to council contradicted itself in in three instances over three paragraphs. Granted, these files did not materially change the city (except maybe the controversial one) but these smaller examples beg the question what other, larger recommendations and decisions is the city getting wrong based on the experience fallacy.

Turning to the issue of change and its magical cascading powers. The idea of change at the political table resulting in change at the community level is bounded by a number of factors; the largest is the limited power municipalities have in BC as laid out in the Community Charter. The Community Charter limits the flexibility of what cities can do. For example the 2040 Community Plan is something the city has to generate and will govern how it can operate to 2040. Depending on how you measure the outcome; the plan it has been between a 75% to 100% waste of resources. Most strategic plans lose their efficacy and offer exponentially diminishing returns at a junction of every 100 pages and 5 year periods covered – the OCP is about 400 pages long and looks forward 20 years. As an aside, many of the best strategic planning processes bring in thought leaders to challenge the thinking in the organization; its assumptions, the data being collected and used and usually facilitate the organization through the process. 

Based on how staff and council have operated recently (40 something stories anyone?) the plan holds minimal to zero guidance, except only when dealing in small or marginal decisions wherein the city holds all the power. As an aside; there is no doubt that staff spent quite a lot time and effort on the plan (or trying to manage those that wrote it on their behalf) - but to what end.

The second boundary that limits the change that municipal politicians can make is the staff that supports them. Senior staff, no matter what the organization does; whether for profit or not for profit, are the gate keepers to information and resources available to the group that represents ownership. We, the constituents are ownership and the mayor and council is our BOD.

If you have read this far you will likely know where this is going so rehashing the obvious makes little sense. Suffice it to say based on the evidence sampled and interactions with both groups, the talent in the current council and staff is very underwhelming. 

If a new council really wants to marshal change it should:

1) Commission a 3rd party benchmarking of the credentials; skills; experience and remuneration of middle to senior city staff versus similar cities across BC and Canada with a focus on those cities that have similar growth trajectories and similar populations. That 3rd party would not report to staff (obvious conflict of interest) but to council. It will likely highlight deficiencies in pay, skills and credentials/ experience and ongoing professional development opportunities. It may also point out cultural issues and questionable norms within the organization. It would also recommend changes; changes that a new council could get behind that may include some strategic retirements and some constructive dismissals.

And 2) a new council needs have the courage to not be acquiescent. To challenge any incomplete or weak work produced by staff. To say; “No, a good decision cannot be made based on what you have brought to us today.”  This is a hard action to undertake. It is hard because many form relationships with senior staff and feel pressured to make a decision based on the argument of limited budget or resources and trust the experience of staff. But to do is intellectual laziness and not a fulfillment of the oath of office taken and recited.

Paul  G. Davies, Kelowna

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