Letting sunshine in at City Hall improves Calgary

Post Date: Saturday, April 13, 2013
Naheed Nenshi - formalI write a regular column in the Calgary Herald. Here is the full text of my April story: 

Since becoming your mayor, I have been working on increasing openness and transparency at the City.

This is important — openness is an essential element of trust. In Louis Brandeis’ famous dictum, “sunlight is the best disinfectant” (he was only speaking rhetorically — please don’t rely on sunlight on any open wounds. It doesn’t work).

In addition, I believe that openness helps us make better decisions.

I’d like to share three things we've done to improve openness at the City. We've made openness one of the core values in our Transforming Government initiative, we're instituting new guidelines for elected officials, and we've strengthened the role of the city auditor’s office.

Since 2010, we've been engaging in a massive process of organizational change among all 20,000 of my colleagues at the City of Calgary. Transforming Government includes such initiatives as Cut Red Tape ($1 million, the equivalent of 35,000 hours of citizen time, saved so far), Cultural Transformation (working at the grassroots to encourage innovation among City workers), and zero-based reviews of all department budgets (parks and roads are up next).

All of these are based on the key principle of putting the citizen at the centre of all we do, and sharing all information we can.

Three simple examples:

The most-visited page on the calgary.ca website is the one that shows snow plows and road conditions in real-time, and, with changes to how we plow, compliments now outweigh complaints.

When a water main break closed Crowchild Trail last year, we brought the public into every stage of the repair process (including videos of the actual break), allowing people to plan their lives. Traffic disruption, as a result, was merely bad, not the utter chaos expected.

Finally, we have transferred staff in transit to a new customer service function, and one of their core goals is to share more information about reliability statistics and performance targets — when we meet them and when we don't (we usually do and strive for continual improvement).

In terms of the work we have done as elected officials, I have tried to be as open as possible. For example, I bring issues to council without preordained conclusions and let the debate flow (this sometimes leads to incredibly long council meetings, but such is the price of democracy), and I have, since being elected, voluntarily posted online my detailed office expenses and lists of everyone I meet in my office.

In the absence of established rules, I did this disclosure voluntarily. But I realized that it would be helpful to have mandatory policy. I am very pleased that two city committees have overwhelmingly endorsed my proposals on new ethical guidelines for elected officials. Council has already passed new policy on what members of council may do in election years — rightly fettering our ability to use our offices for campaign purposes and moving toward a more level playing field for challengers.

Council will soon consider two of my other proposals — one for overall ethical guidelines, including disclosure of our expenses and people with whom we meet and one governing disclosure of gifts. Both passed unanimously at committee.

Finally, we need to make sure we are always staying honest, and that’s why we've invested in a more effective auditor's office. You may recall that in 2010, there were a number of problems with the function of the city auditor, and an external review found many areas where significant improvement was required and ruled that we “did not conform” with international standards.

A new review was required in five years, but our new auditor, Todd Horbasenko, and his colleagues felt they were ready after two, and I am very pleased to announce that an independent third-party has given our audit office a stellar assessment. This is significant.

There is, however, one more major issue on which I need help from the provincial government: ensuring fair and clean elections through campaign finance reform.

In the absence of legislation, I call upon all candidates to voluntarily abide by stricter rules. I did so in 2010, and will do so again in 2014: I will disclose the names of all donors throughout the campaign, I will cap my spending, and I will not keep any surplus — win or lose — for future campaigns. (I also refrained from any fundraising in the first two years of my mandate).

Changes like this mean we may not see as many attention-grabbing headlines as in the past. It’s the right thing to do. We will continue to let that disinfecting sunlight in and work at creating a more open and transparent government.

- Mayor Naheed K. Nenshi