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  • Ian McCormack

Adapting Best Practice in Local Government

Whenever we have an opportunity to work with a local government, or any organization for that matter, there’s a very good chance that someone brings up the topic of best practice. This often comes as an affirmation that the organization is doing things to a standard that puts them at or above that of their comparators, or it could comprise a query to suggest that they need to improve.


Best practice is a term that’s often invoked to mean the absolute, top-notch, indisputable way of doing something – like service levels or safe workplace policies. The practice could be mandated by other orders of government or it could be a cultural thing; like being known as an employer of choice, where the organization wants to attract and retain people by differentiating itself from other municipalities.


The issue that I run into is twofold. The first is that best practice is often looked for by reflecting inwards. Councils will look at what they do in a vacuum and determine whether that meets their cultural standard of a ‘best’ practice. Usually the Council does in fact exhibit – or may even have created – a best practice in one or more areas; however, I would think it is very uncommon for any organization to be in a position where they can’t improve what they do and how they do it.


The second issue we find is one that is more nuanced. It suggests that best practices are not universal. This is something with which I agree. What may comprise a best practice in a major metropolitan area like Vancouver may not translate directly into a best practice for Langham, Saskatchewan. There is a requirement with this concept that requires the practice to retain its core principles but that it also be modified for a specific local situation.

A long-time friend of mine, Dr. Kim Speers who instructs at UVic, spoke to me once about the idea of ‘wise practice’, which is best practice modified for local circumstance. That has resonated with me ever since and it’s a concept I promote regularly when I work with Councils, especially when they ask me about what I’ve encountered elsewhere.


We see this idea of wise practice in topics like how Councils receive information. The best practice would be to follow the Procedure Bylaw and run that information through various layers of municipal management until the CAO signs off on a Request for Decision that goes to Council. Sure, that review process distills information down to what’s necessary and perhaps gets legal and human resource management eyes on it before Council sees it, but that’s not always practical in small communities. In those communities, maybe only one person creates and reviews an RFD.


The point to the principle is that Council often doesn’t have all the information, especially in a fluid environment like that which we are experiencing with COVID-19 at the moment. That said, Council does needs to have enough factual information to make the best decision they can.


Strategic Steps introduces this wise practice concept whenever we are asked to work with Councils, whether that is a governance orientation, a strategic plan workshop, or an organizational review of some sort.


If you’re interested in some of what Strategic Steps does, including how we provide the concepts that support ‘best’ or ‘wise’ practice, check out our website.


As always, I’m interested in your thoughts about this topic. What do you see as a wise practice in the application of good governance brought to life? You can find me at ian@strategicsteps.ca or on Twitter @strategic_steps.

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