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There are, in general, two kinds of municipal strategic plans. One is pragmatic and practical. It tells you what you need to build, fix or replace, when you need to do it, how much it will cost, and where the money will come from. This is the stuff a council grounded in reality can use to budget, plan sensibly, and maintain the community’s infrastructure. It’s a roadmap that leads to a well-defined destination.
The other kind of plan is best described by the term woo-hoo. It’s an airy, feel-good exercise that spews forth happy catch phrases, the more nebulous the better. This is the stuff of wet dreams born of vague campaign platforms and fuelled by cliché-ridden dogma meant as a collective group hug without actually doing anything concrete. It’s an entrance to the fairy world where you can freely wander among the flowers.
I’ve seen the latest stage of Collingwood’s nascent strategic plan and in two words I would describe it: woo-hoo.
Over several posts, I’ll look at the “plan” as proposed, and critique it. It starts by asking participants to rank a “vision statement.” A vision statement, it says, is described as,
…inspirational. It brings together the priorities, thoughts and desires of a community to describe the ideal future for a community.”
Actually, what council needs is a mission statement that tells voters what it intends to accomplish in its term not a slice of spongy white bread. A mission statement can include a vision but there’s a goal in it. To boldly go where no one has gone before, is a mission statement, albeit a bit vague for municipalities. To fumble and flail and stumble wildly in the public eye while forgetting procedures and campaign promises… well, I suppose that’s a mission statement of sorts, too.
But let’s look at the five “vision statements” proposed for Collingwood (try not to let your eyes glaze over):
- Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable place for business that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront and natural assets to offer a healthy, affordable, four season lifestyle to its residents.
- The Collingwood of the future is a diverse, affordable and sustainable community that will grow based on its core strengths: waterfront, downtown and natural heritage.
- Collingwood is a responsible and sustainable community that leverages its vibrant downtown, waterfront, and natural assets to offer a healthy, four season lifestyle to its residents, visitors and businesses.
- Collingwood is the place where healthy living, excellence in government and a commitment to each other create a community that takes pride in its waterfront, its stewardship of the natural environment and its historical past.
- Collingwood is a thriving waterfront community that leverages its natural, economic and cultural heritage assets to promote a healthy lifestyle for all.
Don’t they just want you make you sing Kumbaya around the campfire? All those warm and cuddly generic, cookie-cutter statements that strain to avoid identifying Collingwood as a unique community. And all those buzzwords: leverage, excellence, thriving, sustainable, core strengths… sure, they’re all old and tired from overuse, but surely there’s still life in these old chestnuts if we drag them out of retirement and flail them. Why not sprinkle in a few more, like paradigm shift, prioritize, synergy and proactive? Really make it sticky sweet. (and let’s overlook the missing hyphen from four-season for the moment…)
And, of course, meaningless. Where are the action verbs? Where are the concrete, measurable goals?
Simple test: replace Collingwood in the lines above with the name of any other municipality with a waterfront and see if it makes a difference. Barrie.Toronto. Midland. Kingston. Ottawa. Nope, One is easily replaced with the other.
Try these out for size and see how the cookie cutter works. Say Collingwood where the ellipses is indicated:
- … has a growing and diversified economy – together with an attractive business climate that supports entrepreneurship, small business development, business retention and growth, and new business attraction. Opportunity, Alberta
- … is a community that embraces change while respecting the rich heritage of the area. It is a municipality based on strong fiscal government with a durable economy that recognizes the rights of all citizens, respects the environment and the amenities that it affords and offers to citizens a healthy, active lifestyle. Powassan, BC.
- The mission of … is to create and nurture an environment in which people are able to pursue the fulfilment of their values, in harmony with the community. Okotoks, Alberta.
- Waterloo Region will be an inclusive, thriving and sustainable community committed to maintaining harmony between rural and urban areas and fostering opportunities for current and future generations. Waterloo Region.
- … is a Town where history, hospitality and natural beauty come together to form a community that is proud of its past and excited about its future. Edenton, North Carolina.
- … is a thriving fully serviced community, respectful of its history and culture, offering a variety of residential, educational and commercial choices in neighbourhoods developed in harmony with the environment that provides its residents, businesses and visitors with a full range of services while promoting a healthy lifestyle, high community standards, business success and harmonious relationships. Wasaga Beach.
See how easy it is to write a vision statement? Replace any community name with Collingwood and you get another one of the ten-for-a-dollar vision statements proposed above. Fluffy, happy, meaningless. Then look at these:
- Chatham-Kent will be the fastest growing sustainable community in Southwestern Ontario.
- To be recognized as the model for service excellence! – Lee County, Florida
- Marmora and Lake will continue to be a small thriving Municipality in Ontario; a desirable place to work, live, vacation, and retire; by providing a clean natural environment, varied sources of recreation, excellent services and reasonable taxes
You know exactly where Chatham-Kent is headed, although they really need to define the word sustainable. But it’s short and easy to remember and measurable. Lee County: no doubts about their goal. Marmora – some fuzzy and warm stuff unnecessarily pads the start, but reasonable taxes is a goal people can understand and get behind. And you can have solid discussions around a clean environment and recreation. Practical, meaningful stuff.
But Collingwood’s proposed “vision”? Woo-hoo!
Back in 2013, Richard Branson wrote about mission statements in Entrepreneur magazine. He noted what is also true of vision statements:
Most mission statements are full of blah truisms and are anything but inspirational. A company’s employees don’t really need to be told that “The mission of XYZ Widgets is to make the best widgets in the world while providing excellent service.” They must think, “As opposed to what? Making the worst widgets and offering the lousiest service?” Such statements show that management lacks imagination, and perhaps in some cases, direction.
At the opposite end of the scale is the statement that fails through flowery waffling. An example: “Yahoo powers and delights our communities of users, advertisers and publishers – all of us united in creating indispensable experiences, and fueled by trust.” That sounds wonderful, but what does it mean? Whoever wrote it should try listening to the company’s CEO, Marissa Mayer, who said in a recent speech, “Yahoo is about making the world’s daily habits inspiring and entertaining.” It’s not perfect, but it would be a step in the right direction.
Every part of a vision statement should be linked to an achievable goal or purpose. Do they in the proposed statements? Or are they just vapid? And yes, there is, as Branson says, always the opposite lurking in people’s minds. if we’re so eager to become something good, it means we aren’t that now.
Let’s examine a few bits and pieces.
A vibrant downtown: does that mean Collingwood Council will address the increasing problem of sky-high rents that deter new businesses from locating there? Change parking requirements and charges that are simply inappropriate for a vital downtown core? Fix the challenge to local retail created by malls, box stores and online businesses? Reduce business taxes and BIA fees to encourage and support local business? Or just paint the downtown in fluorescent colours? The council that became the first in Ontario not to even appoint a representative to its BIA is hardly concerned about a “vibrant” core.
What’s the opposite? A dull, listless downtown? One which a council ignores and won’t even sit in on its important board? Who would be that crass?
A responsible and sustainable place for business? Given this council’s tax increases, water rate increases, punitive approach to signage and development in its first eight months, that’s simply untrue. A vision statement should not be written to mask political ineptitude or ideology. What, though, is a responsible place for business? Private businesses are responsible for their own operations. Are we going to send bylaw officers to be sure business do so? Are raising taxes and water rates a responsible way to encourage and sustain local business?
The opposite? An irresponsible and unsustainable place for business. One where a councillor wants to impose punitive sign restrictions and prevent beneficial development.
The Collingwood of the future is a diverse, affordable and sustainable community… which suggests that the Collingwood of today is none of those things. Certainly it’s not affordable, especially with this council raising taxes (in order to give themselves a raise). Sustainable? What does that mean? We all have to buy hand-made cotton shirts sourced from some African village? That we will only buy locally-grown vegetables? That we won’t shop in Barrie any more? Without a definition it’s meaningless.
The opposite: unaffordable: housing prices skyrocketing along with property taxes and utility rates.
…a thriving waterfront community: does that mean the waterfront is thriving? Well, most of it is private land and if you walk down the main street, the holes in the ground at the harbour certainly don’t look thriving. Plus, council is still thinking about preparing to discuss possibly examining the opportunity to consider leveraging a waterfront master plan… and until they get around to that, they have clearly stated, NOTHING on our waterfront will thrive, grow or develop. Or do they mean only the waterfront part of our community is thriving? What exactly does “thrive mean”? Blossom? Weeds are certainly thriving in Block Nine!
The opposite: a waterfront community pockmarked with unfinished development, a council determined to kill all waterfront growth for years to come because they don’t have some inkling of a notion of a possibility of a proposal for a plan. Oh, wait…
…leverages its natural, economic and cultural heritage assets to promote a healthy lifestyle for all. What does that mean? How do you leverage a natural asset? Or a cultural one? Put a two-by-four at one end and push down on it? As the Urban Dictionary defines leverage:
A meaningless buzzword forged from the furnaces of Hell by Satan’s wordsmiths. It used to mean ‘use efficiently’ or ‘share’, but today it is inserted into every other sentence in the IT business world to make typical ideas and sentences sound grander.
The opposite: council ignores everything important and concentrates its energies on crafting irrelevant complexities to the code of conduct and blocking growth while it waits for woo-hoo plans and consultants to tell them what to think.
…promote a healthy lifestyle for all: Since when did the town get in the business of running a health business? Will they hand out vitamins at town hall? Make sure we all get our flu shots (we already have people at the table who oppose vaccines)? Remember that most of this council rode into office condemning the last council for building a much-needed arena, covering the pool for year-round use and putting a concrete floor in the Eddie Bush Arena. I suspect this council will simply sell us all out and turn over the management of our facilities to the YMCA (it’s part of their secret agenda).
The opposite: promotes a sedentary and sickly lifestyle. Well, we sell unhealthy, chemical-laden junk food and diabetes-causing sugary drinks in our facilities, so that’s not too far from the truth, either. Or maybe just allow another drive-through bank or coffee shop to open. Nothing like a lineup of SUVs idling for 10-15 minutes because their drivers are too lazy to walk the 50 feet to the counter to define a healthy community!
…excellence in government and a commitment to each other: Well, forget the excellence in government: we have to live with what we’ve got. Maybe another term we can hope for that. But a commitment to each other? This council has a deep commitment to one another, but not to the rest of us. Read the vicious rants from their online remora: vituperative personal attacks by cyberbullies and NINJA bloggers (No Income, No Job or Assets). That’s the level of personal commitment these folks have to anyone outside their ideology.
The opposite: the sort of government we have. the sort that will sell out municipal services and facilities to their friends at the Y.
…takes pride in its waterfront, its stewardship of the natural environment and its historical past. How much stewardship does it take to cut down hundreds of boulevard trees and denude our urban forest without a plan to replant and restore? Pride in our historical past: that’s code for making the heritage district larger (another item on the secret agenda) so they can control the aesthetics of more homeowners in a larger area. Waterfront: how much pride does it take to close down development and growth until some undefined notion of creating a possibility of a proposal for a waterfront plan emerges?
Every municipality, it seems, has a vision statement. That’s the result of woolly-headed MBAs and consultants pushing their own ideas about how municipalities should be run as if they were businesses. That’s fallacious logic but it’s become so ingrained that it’s carved in the stone heads of too many administrators to correct easily. And time after time, new politicians come to the fore on a platform of promises to make government act like a business. So we have to have vision statements just like businesses, even though they are generally meaningless.
A vision statement should be a lens to focus on specific goals that helps everyone understand both what you do and why you are doing things. That’s tough for a municipality because it is expected to be everything for everybody – yet every resident’s expectations and needs will be different. Because this isn’t the monocular business model provided by their MBA course, most consultants can’t adequately express – or even grasp – the multitude of municipal functions, networks and expectations. Thus, their proposed vision statements are reduced to generic drivel. And they promote this sort of dumbing-down through workshops that make people think they’re participating instead of merely cutting and pasting.
In their document, Cities of the Future, Price Waterhouse Coopers notes (emphasis added):
The problem with good ideas and strong vision is that realising them involves a lot of hard work. Leaders have to turn their vision into reality. Actions are critical.
Vision without action is meaningless. The municipality needs to provide the circumstances in which citizens and businesses can fulfill their potential.
Cities need both strong and interesting vision and dreams for the future. These need to be communicated to the citizens in order to inspire people with what cities can achieve, with them, in the future.
Let’s face it: every municipality wants to think of itself in the same, positive terms: responsible, vibrant, sustainable, healthy and so on. No one wants to think of their city as squalid, expensive, anti-business, congested or polluted. So most of them use the same vague, feel-good puffery in their vision statements as each other. And no one challenges it because it’s the Tinkerbell Principle: if people believe it hard enough, it will fly.
Quite frankly we don’t need a vision statement any more than we need a spaceport. The public really doesn’t give a damn about it (quick test: what is Collingwood’s current vision statement? Right, neither could I…). We could use an action plan for the next four years: a set of definite and achievable goals that can be measured. How can you measure whether you have leveraged a cultural asset? But we can sure measure whether taxes have been raised or potholes fixed.
Council could craft itself a measurable action plan that defines its actual, measurable goals for the rest of the term (we did last term) – but that means voters can call them on it next election. And it would require revealing the full secret agenda (some hints of which I’ve given above). So instead we’re being fed the pablum. Woo hoo!
I’ll follow up with more on the ‘plan’ in a subsequent post.
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