Toronto must become Strategy-led, not Budget-driven

Toronto budget website screen capture
Toronto's 2014 Budget will be debated and adopted by City Council this week

It’s budget time in Toronto.  Then again, it’s always budget time in Toronto.  It starts in January and it ends the next January, and that is one of the key problems with our city’s government.  Instead of being strategy-led, it’s budget-driven.

Whether this is the root of all evil, or the inevitable consequence of what’s wrong with our city, depends on your point of view I guess.  Either way, it has to change if Toronto has any hope of growing into the dynamic, sustainable, exciting and affordable 21st Century metropolis we all want it to become.

The world’s best organizations – whether they’re small businesses, not for profits, large multi-national corporations – or, even governments – share some common traits.  Among these are the following.

Best practices organizations are mission-focused – and strategy-led.

They spend some time – more than you may think – boiling down their raison d’etre and articulating their mission.  Why do they exist?  What is their purpose?

Ask any employee of a best-in-class organization – from the Board Chair to the CEO, to the newest front line hire — and they’ll be able to tell you what the mission of their organization is – and how their own job contributes to achieving it.  Ask 100 of them, and you’ll get one consistent – often, word-for-word identical – explanation of the organization’s mission.

Toronto doesn’t have a Mission.  It doesn’t have a strategy.  It has a budget.  That must change.

What is Toronto’s Mission?  Ask the City Manager.  Ask a city staffer.  Ask a councillor.  Ask the Mayor.  Ask a political staffer.  Ask a resident or a business owner.  Ask 100 people – and you’ll get 100 answers.  At least.  And, all of them different.

If there’s no agreement on where we’re going – how realistic do you think it is, to expect us to work together to get there – even if we wanted to?

Once they’ve articulated their mission, best in class organizations spend considerable time developing a strategy.  Not multiple strategies.  A strategy.

The strategy is not infinitely prescriptive – it’s not “if X happens before Y, then we’ll do Z.”  Because, what happens if Y happens first – or, God forbid, P, Q or S?

The strategy is as simple as it can be.  It provides a measuring stick that every member of the organization can use to make day-to-day decisions.  Given multiple options to choose from, employees in strategy-led organizations can ask themselves: “which option is on-strategy and gets us closer to the mission?”  Then, they pursue that option.  They don’t need to be told what to do every day, for every decision.

Toronto – doesn’t have a strategy.

Toronto should have a clear mission.  And it should have a strategy on how to consistently, over time, move closer and closer to achieving that mission.

If Toronto had a strategy, Council could assess new opportunities & risks – then quickly decide which options available to them are consistent with the strategy and bring the city closer to achieving its mission.  City staff could do the same.

When there is a clear strategy, decision-making becomes much easier.

It’s also faster and cheaper – because you spend less time, and less money, chasing rabbits down holes that don’t further your strategy.  Progress becomes more consistent.  Goals are more frequently and reliably achieved.  Stakeholders grow more confident that they know, and like, where the city is going and become much more willing to help it succeed.

With a clear strategy, budgeting is a much easier process.  You fund activities that most efficiently advance your strategy.  Period.

The strategy becomes the plan that determines how many staff are required for activities A, B and C.  The strategy sets priorities.  And, the strategy is long term, mission-focused – so things don’t change radically from year to year, as they do in Toronto.

But that’s not what Toronto does.  Toronto doesn’t have a Mission.  It doesn’t have a strategy.  It has a budget.  And the budget becomes a battleground for vested interests and pet projects.  It steers Toronto one direction this year, and another direction – often radically different – the next year.  Progress is minimal.  Costs keep going up.

When I was in the Mayor’s Office, we tried to move the city in a more strategic direction.  We had only limited success.  We introduced an Economic Development Plan that should become the foundation for a city-wide strategy going forward.

But, City Staff and Council pushed back on this concept.  It’s alien to them.  Few of them have experience in best in class organizations.  A strategy would also reduce opportunities to fund pet projects, or build empires.

This, then, becomes a key challenge for our next mayor – whoever that may be.  A key objective for Council’s next term should be migrating from a budget-driven City Hall – to a mission-focused, strategy-led government.

It won’t be easy.  But it’s essential to Toronto’s future success.

Towhey’s Take is a regular 5 minute editorial segment at the end of my Sunday radio program on CFRB Newstalk1010 in Toronto.  It normally airs at 2:46 pm.  This editorial was originally broadcast on Jan. 26, 2014.