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  • Benjamin Proulx

The Future of Intermunicipal Relations - Part 1

Relationships held between municipalities have evolved significantly over the past decade or so, partially because intermunicipal collaboration has been mandated by some provincial governments, but more commonly because municipal governments see the benefits of approaching various local issues in numbers.

To date, such efforts have commonly been seen through the lens of regional economic development, with multiple municipalities hosting similar industry or economic goals, working together on large-scale attempts at business or industry attraction, or to promote the region as a whole. At the same time, there are numerous emerging collaborative areas in which intermunicipal relations will have to be leveraged moving forward.

By exploring and buying into new regional approaches, municipalities can take advantage of economies of scale while amplifying service delivery potential by pooling resources (both in traditional and non-traditional ways).

In our experience, these types of discussions aren’t widely held amongst municipalities at this time. Conversely, when they are discussed, there is often some attention given to new approaches through Intermunicipal Collaboration Frameworks, but little movement is made in actually enacting potentially structure-shifting initiatives that will have short- and long-term impacts on how partner municipalities operate. Reasons for resistance cover a wide range of anxieties, from fear of change to the large-scale restructuring efforts some of these initiatives would require. These anxieties shouldn’t be discounted; many, if not all, are valid concerns. However, looking at long-term municipal sustainability — extending to 20 years and beyond — this is precisely the type of innovation that will help local governments thrive.

Regional Departments

Municipalities would be well served to identify potential opportunities to share administrative and departmental resources. This is an area often unexplored, as municipalities work autonomously in structure. Further, there’s an ill-conceived apprehension that staff must be fully dedicated to one municipality, and one municipality alone. However, if municipalities can share resources for internal departments, specifically — not those with public-facing service delivery — such as Human Resources, economy of scale will result in cost savings for all involved. There are, of course, benefits to multiple options of this type, including some that would provide certain public-facing services; but for change management’s sake, exploring internal options may be more palatable.

Under current structures, many small- to mid-sized municipalities see managers carrying multiple duties that larger cities have the luxury of designating as individual departments. Attentions are split as it is. By sharing such responsibilities on a regional basis (whether by two municipalities or more), there will be a balance to ensuring that each municipality’s needs are met, but there will also be a clear benefit in employees holding one specific focus.

There will also be numerous opportunities through which successes or opportunities seen in one municipality can then be shared amongst all partner municipalities (with obvious exceptions that will have to be outlined through confidentiality agreements). While Human Resources was listed as an obvious example of potential administrative sharing, there are numerous areas of similar collaborative efforts that would bear fruit and result in cost savings, including Communications, Emergency Services, Family and Community Services, Fleet Services, IT Services, Procurement Services, Transit and more.

As already noted, many municipalities create intermunicipal committees focusing on economic development, and sometimes mixing tourism into that mix, as well. The idea of shared Economic Development amongst municipalities as a department is still a foreign idea, though, largely due to the dichotomy of local and regional goals. However, the model could result in strengthened economies across the board for small municipalities, as well as many mid-sized municipalities, with shared resources resulting in increased capacity.

There are obviously myriad considerations to make as the possibility of regional departments is explored. Economic development is one area that may be better suited for two or more small municipalities, for example, while the approach could conversely prove ineffective for larger municipalities. Alternatively, shared Human Resources or Communications departments could likely prove beneficial for small- and mid-sized municipalities alike. These considerations must be made on a case-by-case — and therefore a municipality-by-municipality — basis. That said, the idea shouldn’t be discounted due to assumptions; shifts of this magnitude should be seen as opportunities.

Municipalities must embrace risk as part of local and regional growth, and in providing the best value to residents and stakeholders while optimizing budget lines. Shared regional departments meet those thresholds.

Taking the Lead

There’s a surprisingly little amount of time for Canadian municipalities to be leaders in this field, as local governments around the world have been increasing intermunicipal collaboration efforts. Specifically, European municipalities with capacity issues are finding ways to increase their organizational capacity in the way we propose here for Canadian municipalities.

Across the globe, municipalities facing various problems — including organizational capacity, ageing populations, migrant workforces, depopulation, and more — are finding qualified municipal staff in their neighbours’ home. By combining efforts through intermunicipal collaboration in emerging shared areas — such as municipal Administration or through project-based initiatives — municipalities can create long-term sustainability, both in terms of capacity and budge

You can find me at The company’s Twitter profile is @strategic_steps.

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