Everyone agrees that cities matter. No, they’re crucial. The Federation of Canadian Municipalities notes on its website, “urban economies are where people live, where jobs are created and where most goods and services are produced and consumed.” The Conference Board of Canada calls them “drivers of national prosperity.” Economists such as Richard Florida have celebrated their vital role in fostering creativity, innovation and trade.
At the same time, there is widespread agreement that city governments lack the funding they need to fulfill their responsibilities. Federal political parties have sought to outbid each other in their commitment to Canada’s cities. Billions of dollars in federal infrastructure funding has been promised, with billions more on the way in the form of a share of the federal gas tax.
Yet for an institution that is, by common consent, so critical, cities face remarkably little scrutiny. Voter turnout in municipal elections is commonly under 40 per cent. Candidates are often elected by acclamation. In the absence of party labels, in most cities voters have little information on what the various candidates stand for, if they even know their names.
And for governments that so aggressively advertise how short of funds they are, Canada’s cities are notably averse to providing data on just how well they are using existing funds. At other levels of government, and in other public sector institutions, there has been some progress of late in pursuit of what is often called, as if to emphasize its radicalism, “evidence-based decision-making.” Cities stand apart, defiant outposts of opacity.
This survey, the first of its kind in Canada, is an attempt to change all that. It provides citizens in 31 cities across the country with comparative data on how well—or poorly—their city is run, measured by the cost and quality of the public services it delivers. (Why 31? We took the 30 largest cities in Canada, added whatever provincial capitals were not on the list, then subtracted a few cities from the Greater Toronto Area for better regional balance. Somehow that left 31.)
Though the overall results—Burnaby, Saskatoon and Surrey, B.C. lead the pack; Charlottetown, Kingston, Ont., and Fredericton trail—will be of particular interest, they are less important than the process this is intended to kick off. We aim not merely to start some good barroom arguments, but to help voters to hold their representatives to better account, and indeed to help city governments themselves. For without some sort of yardstick to measure their performance, either against other cities or against their own past record, how can they hope to know whether they are succeeding?
To compile the survey, Maclean’s commissioned the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, expanding on the institute’s earlier work measuring the performance of municipalities in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Unlike other studies, this does not try to measure quality of life, or which city is the “best place to live.” Rather, it focuses on the contribution of local governments to this end.
And while other studies, for example the Frontier Centre Local Government Performance Index, have attempted to measure how efﬁcient Canada’s cities are, this survey attempts for the first time to measure how effective they are, that is in terms of the results obtained. It measures not just how much they have spent, but how well they have spent it—the bang for the buck.