Best Practice
August 14, 2013

Research unit provides city with secret weapon

Quote of the week

“Councils have a key role in shaping the policies and facilities that define … quality of life through the services they deliver.”

Editor’s Corner

City councils are important. They not only represent citizens at the most local level, but they also shape the future of cities. In Ottawa’s case, council is helped (or hindered, depending on your point of view) by the National Capital Commission. The NCC alternately positions itself as representing the real voice of the people (no above ground LRT along the Sir John A MacDonald Parkway) or everything that’s bad about urban growth (the Kettle Island bridge).

But this is not about the NCC or Ottawa, at least directly. It’s about a city government that took control of its future by investing in evidence-based analysis.

A report out from the Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government explores how the City of Melbourne has used what it calls a “secret weapon,” an internal City Research unit of about a dozen people, to help ensure the sensible growth that’s critical to its future.

Melbourne is Australia’s fastest growing city and is “widely acknowledged as (having) one of the most forward-thinking and progressive councils in Australia.”

The City Research unit was set up over 15 years ago. It does the obvious, such as providing data on issues like growth. But it also has a mandate to explore the more “esoteric” areas of change. The two examples given were street charity raising and busking. From this work, the unit assesses their impact on the city, its life and its expansion.

The idea is that the unit provides a holistic view of what is happening, cross-cutting city departments, to give council the big picture of where the city is going and what might be done about it. The view of the authors is that the City Research unit has contributed to making Melbourne one of the world’s most liveable cities, and has given it innovative approaches to ensuring its ongoing competitive advantage.

Such a unit might valuable to Ottawa, giving it much-needed strategic data to respond to the NCC and provincial monoliths.

Its role and value-added may even be of interest to federal policymakers, who worry about the outsourcing of policy advice gathering. Here is an example of a government research (policy?) shop that has provided evidence since 1995 that public servants can work inside an organization and still provide timely and relevant value.

You can find the report at http://www.acelg.org.au/upload/documents/1366353374_ACELG_Knowledge_City_final_v2.pdf

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