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How should cities and municipalities act in the post-COVID-19 phase?

Jacques-Cartier Bridge
Written by
Daniel Hansen

Daniel Hansen

It’s already been three months since we were hit hard by an unprecedented situation that plunged us into a crisis whose effects in the medium and long term are still uncertain. The shock wave created by the COVID-19 pandemic spared no one: Governments, businesses, institutions, community groups, citizens, cities and municipalities have been directly affected and must now live with the consequences of this crisis.

As in any crisis, cities and municipalities were among the first organizations to be challenged and to be forced to adjust. Local governments quickly set in motion their various intervention plans in order to secure their populations, while maintaining the various essential services for the continuity of civic life. They dealt with the most pressing issues first. They had to be agile in reviewing their processes and their ways of doing things, in particular by having many of their employees work remotely, which was not in the culture of municipal organizations.

While applying Quebec’s public health directives, cities and municipalities had to maintain civil security, fire safety and public works services, to name but a few. At the same time, their incomes fell drastically. The drop in the number of tickets issued by the various police services, the deferral of payment of taxes and the anticipated deficits of transport commissions are but a few examples. In short, the COVID-19 pandemic has applied, and is still applying, enormous pressure on the municipal world—pressure that is not without consequence.

What to do now?

So, what can cities and municipalities do now? How should they act? What role should they play? What should their priorities be and what approaches should they take? Where should they start?

Barely “out” of the crisis, now that the famous curve is flattened, municipal governments and their elected officials are looking even more vigorously for answers to these questions; answers they don't necessarily have at the moment. However, some possible solutions are already emerging.

Avenues to explore

We are currently experiencing an unprecedented period of economic uncertainty, both nationally and locally. One of the first things that municipal administrations and local elected officials should do is to reassure their populations and the various actors in municipal life, such as community groups, shops and businesses, without forgetting, first and foremost, municipal employees. Municipal governments should reach out to their employees and residents to inform them of plans to return to “normal” and restore services. They should also actively involve them in defining the post-crisis.

A second thing for cities and municipalities to do is help boost their local economies. Some of them might even take this opportunity to help reposition part of their local economy to make it more efficient and more attractive. A recovery plan should be developed and communicated.

Finally, municipal governments must try to avoid excessive tax increases through all means. However, this could imply the postponement of certain municipal infrastructure projects. Such changes must be explained to the population.

Means of communication

In Quebec, under the Civil Protection Act, the major cities of the province, as well as regional county municipalities, must establish a civil protection plan in which they present the organization of their prevention, preparation and intervention in the event of a crisis, and restoration of services. Smaller municipalities must also have a recovery plan. Recommendations were made to this effect following the major spring floods in Quebec in 2019.

An important step in the plan to restore services concerns communication with those involved in civic life. Providing fair and relevant information to municipal employees and residents is crucial. However, for communication to be successful, it is important not only to communicate transparently, but also to understand the needs and expectations of these different clienteles. This will help adjust the plan and thereby strengthen social acceptance and buy-in.

There are several ways to get there. One of the first communication activities to set up is an information and discussion session with managers and employees (whether virtual or face-to-face). It is on such occasion that the recovery plan can be reviewed and discussed. This session is the starting point for the city personnel who will oversee implementation of the plan.

Once the city managers and employees have been informed, the next step is to organize a consultation activity with economic and community partners. As drivers of the local economy and community life, these groups are essential to the success of the recovery plan and the return to a more “normal” civic life.

Finally, information and discussion sessions with residents will help educate the public in a context where the ways of doing things will necessarily be different in the near term.

Restoring confidence, reviving the local economy, maintaining an acceptable tax rate and dialoguing with citizens, and with economic and community partners, will promote a harmonious return to normal and an orderly restoration of services.

The public sector experts at NATIONAL can assist you in this process. Contact us to find out more about our services.

——— Daniel Hansen is a former Vice-President and Sector Lead, Public Administration at NATIONAL Public Relations