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I once asked a panel of technology CEOs if they had role models outside of the sector, leaders they looked to for inspiration beyond the lean/agile/raise/pivot model they know so well. To my surprise, one of them referenced a hospital CEO in Toronto. “His customers don’t want to be there, his staff is entirely unionized and he gets paid by the government,” he said. “The public sector is doing stuff way harder than we are.”

This is an important acknowledgement, and one that many in the private sector are loath to make or even consider. Cities are difficult, demanding, diverse in their populations and their service requirements. The City of Toronto has a $13 billion+ annual operating budget, 11,000+ employees and almost 3 million stakeholders to not just consider but to serve – think about that in terms of a company and you can imagine the ongoing difficulty of operational management.

A candidate for the Toronto city manager job who had worked at a Fortune 500 before running a city bureaucracy said in his interview that the complexity of municipal government is beyond what anyone can imagine. This is not to excuse areas of failure or ignore myriad opportunities for improvement, but to offer some context to the realities of service delivery improvement in the municipal setting.

Just as there is a tech debt within government – a lack of those in the political or public service realm who are well versed in the functionalities, opportunities or risks of technology – there is also a broad civics deficit within the larger tech and vendor community.

I have heard a CEO explain to a visitor from San Francisco that we elected Rob Ford because people from Oshawa and Burlington can vote in Toronto elections. I have talked to groups who launched homelessness apps without any understanding of how vulnerable people are currently referred into or within the system. They didn’t even know where to look to find this information. Even those who have been city builders for years are often unaware of realities that affect their projects, or how to navigate and respond to them.

This divide is limiting our ability to develop and adopt meaningful new tools and new approaches. In order to fully utilize the potential of outside partners, cities must do better in telling their stories, showing their work, and shedding light on what they are trying to do, why it is hard, and where they need help. From vendors to community groups to advocates, improved understanding of municipal realities at an early stage would lead to better outcomes.

Issues Briefing

Any company, vendor or consultant looking to move forward with a proof of concept or contract with the municipal government should be required to understand the complexities and realities of the division or issue they are dealing with. Newly elected representatives and newly hired staff are briefed on issues but also systems, governance and compliance – and new vendors and their teams should be too.

These briefings should go beyond simply covering the scope of the project they’ve been asked to participate in or build. It should not come in the form of a document that you can skim and set aside. Partners should engage with front line staff and policy makers face to face, working together to understand how projects must be brought to council, the interplay of policy, governance, operations. The realities of funding. Of neighbourhood opposition. The consideration of having millions of end users whose needs vary profoundly depending on income, access, geography, language barriers and lived experience.

At a time when we must stand up for the institutions and systems that form the fragile foundation of society, and resist the pull of those who would replace them with substandard alternatives, we must all truly consider what’s at stake and acknowledge that progress is more difficult when you are mandated to try and solve for everyone.

As Geoffrey West, the biologist and author of Scale, wrote, cities, like living things, are beautiful and resilient because “the system feeds every cell.”

Training sessions do not need to be onerous, but they should be honest, illuminating the realities of our city and its every cell in the interest of forging better partnerships based on a shared understanding of the facts and a shared commitment to truly nourish the whole.