Taking care of business with a gentle but firm hand. Will Fielding make us the 3rd best managed city in the country?

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON March 14, 2013.     When city manager Jeff Fielding left London, ON, where he was also city manager, they were the sixth best managed city in Canada.  Little did the people in Burlington know that Fielding had every intention of getting Burlington to something better than the sixth best managed city in the country.

He has put together a program with McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business that will have upwards of 200 people from city hall taking courses at McMaster.  Some of that 200 will come from the local boards, which is a great opportunity for people who serve in advisory capacities.

The curriculum for these courses, which are very close to an Executive MBA program, was put together by McMaster and sold to Burlington at a “very, very decent  price”.  One wonders if Fielding didn’t exact a price for the “dirty” McMaster did when they pulled the planned McMaster building program out of the downtown core and plunked it on the South Service Road.

Fielding also arranged for 20% of the curriculum to be under his control.  McMaster might know the fundamentals on executive management – but it is Fielding who really knows the municipal world.

A fifth of the classroom load will be courses directly related to municipal management.  If you have friends who work at city hall, expect to see less of them socially for the next while.  Probably less golf this summer as well.

It is now much clearer why Fielding was given the Award of Excellence from Western University’s Local Government Program Alumni Society.  That event wasn’t given all that much attention at the time other than the reference the Mayor made to it at a city council meeting.  Fielding’s colleagues in London clearly saw something that was worth recognizing that is going to be a significant benefit to this city.

City manager Jeff Fielding ran a tight ship in London, ON and is doing the same thing here. We are all going to be better for his time with us.

For Fielding the task he has undertaken amounts to a cultural shift in the way city hall is run.  Staff are currently putting together an inventory of the services they deliver and attaching a cost to each of those services.

Then staff will be asked to do a business case for each service delivered; what is it costing and what are we doing.  Senior staff tells of a service that was getting a 94% satisfaction rating from citizens yet city hall was still putting fresh money into the service.  “If you are getting 94% why are we spending any more money someone asked: because it was in the budget.   Ouch. .

That number is not his age, closer to the number of years he has been working in the municipal sector. Fielding is one of the better net-workers in the city; he can work a room as well as any of the politicians in the Region.

Fielding realizes that if you change the language you change the way people think.  So instead of talking about spending he wants his staff to think in terms of “investing” and then determining how they are going to measure the return on that investment.

If the return and the need for the service pass the business case test then Fielding wants to see the item included in the base budget.

That’s a different kind of thinking which Fielding thinks is going to require about 18 months to work its way into the minds of staff and onto the work they do.  Staff have, in the past, thought in terms of what has to be spent ever since the structure on Brant street was first opened – that was the way municipal people thought.

Fielding is saying to them; “There is a better way to do this” and he is in the process of showing his staff how to do it and investing significant dollars in the process.

Burlington’s boards, the Library, Performing Arts Centre, the Art Centre, the Economic Development Corporation and the Museums (did I miss any) are separate from city hall but attached to the place by the equivalent of a umbilical cord.  “The Boards are extensions of city council which delegates certain responsibilities and service delivery tasks to them but they are not separate in that they can just go their own way”, explains Fielding.

During the budget delegations this year the chair of the library board had her nose very much out of joint when city finance people began asking a lot of questions about their financial needs before their delegation to the Budget and Corporate Services committee which suggested that perhaps there wasn’t a full appreciation as to just what the relationship between a board and city council is.

City manager Jeff Fielding doesn’t win every time. Joe Lamb, negotiating for the Seniors’ Centre basically took Fielding to the cleaners with the deal he talked the city into.

Fielding who is a friendly, open, accessible but no pushover (except for the time the seniors worked him over)  and capable of coming down with a very firm hand.  He may appear to wear a velvet glove but don’t let that fool you.  There are a number of people at city hall who have learned that lesson.

Expect Fielding to have city hall align more significantly with the boards and work with them to develop connections between each other.  The Art Centre and the Performing Arts Centre should almost be sleeping with each other – they are looking to the same core markets for their revenue and could be looking for ways to share promotional and marketing expenses.

Last weekend there were more than 3,500 people running through the streets of the city; at 3 in the afternoon you could have shot a cannon ball up Brant Street and not hit a soul.  Why wasn’t someone putting together programs that would keep enough of that crowd in town for an event at the Performing Arts Centre.  And by the way it doesn’t have to be the PAC people doing this – no reason why someone couldn’t have rented the place and put on a show geared to the running crowd.  Then maybe put together dinner packages for this crowd as well.

We saw an example of how this works, in a very small way, with the private sector when the Different Drummer put a copy of a PAC promotional poster on his web site and then tied a promotion of a book on The Gruffalo performance to the books of the same name.  The Drummer ran a contest for four tickets to The Gruffalo performance; all you had to do was drop by the bookstore and fill in the forms.  The private sector calls that cross-promotion which Fielding just loves to see; expect him to push for this kind of initiative from the people he works with.

Ian Elliott, proprietor of The Different Drummer does these things or he doesn’t get to eat.

Our Mayor used to tell people that Burlington was the second best city to live in.  Now he says ‘everyone knows Burlington is a great place to live, work and play’ which are nice verbal bromides.  By the time he ends his second term of office he just might be able to say that Burlington is the third best managed city in the country.  THAT is something substantial and worth talking about.

Expect Jeff Fielding to pull it off.

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1 comment to Taking care of business with a gentle but firm hand. Will Fielding make us the 3rd best managed city in the country?

  • Penny Hersh

    I resent the fact that whenever an article appears regarding Jeff Fielding, you always mention that he gave the Senior Centre more than it deserved. In this article you once again use the Senior Centre negotiations with the City as his big failure.

    The monies given to the Burlington Senior Centre is a pittance to what is being given to the Burlington Performing Art Centre, The Burlington Art Centre and I could go on and on. You are well aware that there is a very large population of seniors in Burlington. Close to 3,000 members have only 1 Centre.

    Enough is enough….move on

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