Why 2022 is the year for municipal leaders to boldly lead social infrastructure planning in their own backyard
Elections are underway in several jurisdictions, including Ontario. That makes it the perfect time for you, as a municipal leader, to advocate for your community’s social and economic needs to provincial and territorial governments. But, with resources in constant strain, how can municipalities leverage novel datasets and ideas to make the case for their community’s fair share of resources and greater say over their delivery locally?
Let’s dig in – with a caveat that we are in new territory, and the playbook is yet to be written on advocacy on community social issues in the current political climate.
Because of COVID, Demands for Change Aren’t Just at Election Time
Homelessness, community safety and well-being, affordable housing, mental health and addictions support are all placing more pressure than ever on municipal budgets, especially after more than two years of COVID. At the same time, there are increased demands for transparency and accountability.
A labour shortage across key sectors, including social services, means reduced advocacy for the community’s most vulnerable residents. Meanwhile, a shifting housing market, combined with mental health strains caused by the pandemic, puts more households at risk of joining those vulnerable groups.
Elected municipal leaders, particularly those seeking re-election, are facing more calls than ever to justify social services spending with positive outcomes. But that may not be possible. What if dollars spent on homelessness didn’t match up with housing space goals and needs? What if mental health support allocations didn’t get to those who most needed them?
And what will the media do with these insights?
Calls for increased funding to better meet the need – or even equivalent funding to try to maintain current service levels – are likely to be dismissed by political opponents and some others as money fruitlessly “poured into” social services supports that are described at best as “ineffective” and at worst as “a misuse” of funding.
Municipalities Have an Opportunity to Lead Social Infrastructure
This challenge is an opportunity for municipalities. Better coordination of support through local and provincial social safety nets has been a key recommendation – often the key recommendation – of most consultants, task forces, and research reports about how to address social issues. Phrases like “enhance service coordination,” and “reduce duplication,” and “increase access” are phrases we’ve all seen over and over again.
These recommendations are almost inevitably accompanied by recommendations about taking action to improve data sharing and increase evidence-led policy making.
This is all good news.
COVID proved that local communities best understand local issues. And the demands COVID placed on communities for nimble responses reinforced the need for a modernized and streamlined infrastructure. Without that, efficient coordination at the community, provincial and federal levels can be seriously hampered.
Municipalities now control an average of just 2% of the $380 billion invested annually in Canada on social infrastructure. The provinces control around 80% of this amount, with the remainder being under federal control. Calls for greater accountability and transparency are inspiring provincial governments to be open to local leadership of social funding coordination more than ever before.
It’s the perfect time for municipal leaders to pursue an enhanced role in coordinating funding coming to their own community.
Supply-Demand Principles Apply to Social Issues
This is the right time to make the case – using data – that provincial funds coming to municipalities can provide better outcomes when coordinated locally.
The supply map accessible via HelpSeeker’s Karto platform compares funding coming to cities across the country. The map allows us to see large variations in provincial allocations within the same jurisdiction between municipalities that are virtually the same size, with very similar demographics.
Census 2021 recently released data that allows cities to run these comparisons by any social issue, to see which community has more or less of a particular resource. This data can support an evidence-based case for change. Not only can this support discussions about increasing equity of services, it can go a step further, providing evidence for how communities should be able to tailor their allocations according to local priorities and needs. For example, if food security is the top priority locally, but provincial allocations are putting this need last on the funding list, it’s beneficial for that municipality to have some power to make the case for adjustments.
Going to the Next Level as a Coordinated Lobby
What if we take this a step further? Consider New Brunswick.
Having identified a key provincial priority to be addressing its infrastructure and sustainability challenges, the province and municipalities are moving toward consolidation, while factoring in population changes driven by urbanization. The New Brunswick government outlines its new direction in “Working together for vibrant and sustainable communities,” legislated in the Local Governance Reform Bill passed in December 2021.
Regional service commissions, made up of mayors and councillors in designated regions, become the mechanism to meet the needs of diverse local communities in a coordinated way, balancing economic, social, transportation, and other infrastructure needs. These commissions will drive strategy development, set standards, define performance indicators, and establish revenue models.
Recognizing the growing social challenges in urban centres, the commissions will have an expanded focus on issues such as homelessness, mental health challenges, and poverty. This transition from current planning to the commission model is set to begin in January 2023. A public safety committee is to be added, through the commission model, to regionally coordinate emergency responses through policing, fire, and emergency services.
More discussion is needed to determine how commissions will work alongside existing provincial mandates to address social challenges specific to homelessness and housing affordability, mental health, addictions, poverty, and community safety. The next several months will be an important time to learn from other jurisdictions and other models, to set the restructuring up for success.
The last two years have created a new set of challenges, but they have also inspired consideration for a new response.
“Going local” can increase a municipality’s capacity through data-driven resource allocations to address social issues effectively and support its vulnerable community members.