New Brunswick Municipal Reform
The Iron Triangle of project management says: “Good, fast, cheap – pick two”. Of course, that’s overly simplistic and not strictly true, but it goes a long way to explaining the flux in New Brunswick’s municipal sector right now.
From a public policy perspective, we can certainly say the New Brunswick municipal reform was quick and decisive. In just 18 months, the provincial government:
released a What We Heard report
held more consultations
released a white paper on municipal reform
established a whole new system of local government in law
created the new municipalities themselves
held municipal elections
Further to this, New Brunswick went from 340 entities to 90 in about a year - Municipal governments were merged with each other as well as with communities that had never had local government before.
In short, almost everything that could change was changed.
It was a strategic roll of the dice for New Brunswick. Seven months after the elections, can we say whether ripping the bandage off quickly worked?
Not yet, not really. This kind of transformation takes time – even if it’s jump-started. But there are a few points that are worth considering as the process continues to unfold:
It is clear not everyone understood what was happening. The provincial government took a calculated risk in moving quickly on this reform. Voltaire did caution that “Perfection is the enemy of good”. However, that haste meant understanding suffered. Reform is complicated. Compressing the messages has real-world consequences for residents who are nervous (at best) about the impact on their lives. New councils and staff are now facing down the mistrust the approach created.
Speaking of complicated, many councils and senior administration are still finding out specific issues for which they are responsible. Combined with the fact that many of them are also new to local government, these surprises aren’t helping confidence.
The uncertainty is also causing issues between councils and senior administration. Anecdotal reports are coming in of CAOs leaving – voluntarily or otherwise – and new councils struggling to build a solid administrative and regulatory foundation. This is exacerbated by the fact that councils are still operating with budgets and CAOs assigned by the provincial government as part of the transition process.
Many residents are getting used to being in a municipality for the very first time! The speed with which the reform happened caught some of these folks by surprise and they are understandably concerned about what it means for how they have lived their lives for generations.
No doubt there was need for change in New Brunswick, and a lot of what the reform process is delivering is necessary. Starting over isn’t an option. Patience and planning are key. That planning must consider how local government leaders and residents – people – are impacted by the reform.
Local government reform in New Brunswick has followed a clear and rigorous road map. Councils and CAOs – especially those new to the sector – need their own road map to help them navigate the next few years. That may be a strategic plan or an organizational review. Or it may not. Like a lot of start-ups, the best thing they can do is take a step back, prioritize their pain points, and deal with them.
Triage is critical right now. The last thing a council wants to do is spend time and money fixing the wrong problem.
If you’re an elected official, an administrator, or just someone who believes in their community, what is your impression of the rapid change that continues to occur in New Brunswick? Do you see it as a harbinger of things to come elsewhere in Canada? Please reach out and let me know what you think.
As always, you can reach me at email@example.com.