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Age-friendly communities involve more than courtesy

As I start creeping closer and closer to being able to qualify for seniors’ discounts, discussions about creating age-friendly communities attract my attention and interest in what it means to me and where I live. Like many people, I also have friends and family members who are struggling with dementia and looking for ways to stay at home with their families. With this in mind, it’s reassuring to hear that there is a growing awareness of the need to create age-friendly communities and a wide range of programs and services that are already in place to help support older citizens.

I first became aware of the need for better planning and programs to help enable aging residents who want to stay in their homes a few years ago when my cousin, Yvonne Poulin, co-authored a book – Aging Safely in Your Home – that provides a simple yet comprehensive guide for seniors and the people who care about them. My cousin told me how there are ways to assess what personal and housing adaptations may be required to age safely in your home, and when it might be a better choice to relocate. Up until then, I hadn’t given a lot of thought to what it must be like to find it difficult to complete simple household tasks or even move safely around your home.

What I learned as I did the interviews and research for this edition of Exchange is that there are programs and planning underway that take the same approach on a community basis – creating an environment that is safe and welcoming for all ages and abilities. I was also surprised to learn that local governments don’t need to be the leader in these initiatives – they just need to be part of a partnership that also involves the provincial government, community-based seniors’ services and other province-wide organizations like BC Healthy Communities and the United Way.

In Creating Age-Friendly Communities from the Ground Up, it was amazing to see the work that has been done in recent years to take a fragmented sector of community service providers and pull them together into a more cohesive network that collaborates and shares resources and expertise to benefit communities across the province. There is a stunning amount of work being done to support these community-based services as well as local governments who are pursuing age-friendly policies, plans and initiatives. As someone who is edging closer to some of those demographic markers for seniors, I’m happy to see this trend to improve everything from the built environment to social programs to make it easier to live in and enjoy the community as we age.

It was also helpful to hear from two local governments who have been recognized for their work in creating age-friendly communities. In Becoming Age Friendly: Case Studieswe learn how they have connected with their local seniors and community organizations to create programs and plans for seniors in their community. Because seniors are involved at the earlier stages and are consulted not just on the barriers or other concerns but also on viable solutions to address their needs, the resulting plans and recommendations have added weight when presented to Councils. It’s also nice to see a recognition that seniors have a lot of value to bring to the table, and we need to find ways to help them become more integrated into decisions that affect them.

 

Mother Nature delivers services?

Have you heard of natural asset management? I’m embarrassed to admit that I didn’t really know what it was all about. Then, as I spoke to some of the key people involved in the Municipal Natural Asset Initiative (MNAI), I was more in a state of shock that something so obvious has been missed for so long. I know how easy it is to take the things we enjoy every day for granted – beautiful forests, amazing mountains, gorgeous lakes and rivers, and stunning oceanfront landscapes. When it comes to nature in B.C., we seem to have it all. But I had never thought about all this amazing nature in the context of services being delivered in a community.

Essentially, it became clear as I worked on both feature stories in Exchange that local governments are relying on nature for a number of services, but they may not fully understand the scope of the services or the implications if those natural areas are degraded. I’m also really impressed that the Town of Gibsons is the pioneer leading this important insight into the value of preserving nature to secure sustainable, resilient services. It all started with the Gibsons aquifer, and now the world is watching and learning from work being done in our province.

It seems like these are just early days in the study of natural assets in the context of the services they provide, but it’s also likely that we may only be skimming the surface right now. I found it interesting that researchers who examined tree cover in 10 large cities found that tree canopy provides those communities with an average of $500 million annually in benefits like reducing air pollution, improving water management and lowering the “heat island” effect. Those are significant impacts that in the past may have appeared to be too intangible to measure but are now being quantified in terms that are relatable and can support decision-making, such as when planning neighbourhoods or establishing tree protection bylaws.

I suppose it’s not surprising to anyone that Mother Nature is a lot better at handling weather impacts than what we can design and build. But what is more surprising is that the evidence from Gibsons and other MNAI pilot communities shows that it consistently costs less to expand and maintain natural assets than to build and maintain engineered options. So nature is proving to be more resilient and more cost-effective. This is particularly critical as communities across Canada face the challenge of their aging infrastructure, budget constraints to maintain or expand engineered assets, and continued pressure from more severe weather events and related impacts such as the wildfires and floods experienced this summer. Now local and regional governments just need to find out how to leverage these natural advantages in their local communities.

With work being done by Gibsons, MNAI and other researchers, there is a growing set of tools, expanded research, new policy direction and increased awareness about natural assets as part of core service delivery. With more communities joining MNAI pilot projects, there will continue to be more studies, more evidence and more tools to assess and quantify natural assets so that they can be embedded in local and regional asset management planning.

The next time I get asked about natural asset management, I’m glad I’ll know a lot more about what it’s all about and the tremendous potential it offers our communities.

 

Practical Performance Management

Performance management – measuring success by tracking progress and reporting outcomes – makes sense for most organizations. In local government, it is becoming more of an imperative as communities demand increased accountability for spending, elected officials want a means to show they are delivering on promises, and other levels of government look for data and other tangible reports for grant applications. At the same time, like always, resources are limited and there need to be practical, realistic options in place to make it a reality.

When I was working with the City of Coquitlam (many years ago), we first started pushing for more measurement of our goals as part of our financial reporting in the City’s Annual Report. The Government Finance Officers Association of British Columbia (GFOA) included measurement on its checklist of requirements for excellence in annual reporting. We wanted to improve our Annual Report (and win their award!), and we began integrating questions in our annual public survey to track and report on our progress in some of our goal areas. (I’m happy to report we won the GFOA award and others.) Our next foray into performance measurement was less successful. We had developed a Corporate Strategic Plan and a Corporate Business Plan, and our goal was to apply a balanced scorecard approach to track and report on our progress. We had a very challenging time identifying viable – and sustainable – indicators that could be used to measure our goals and an even more challenging time implementing the measurement tactics.

As I worked on some articles for Exchange, I developed a better understanding of why we hit a wall and stumbled at the measurement stage. We were trying to apply tangible measurement to intangible goals. As well, while the management team was engaged throughout the process, from Strategic Plan to Business Plan to measurement planning, it wasn’t clear how this would benefit them in their work or bring value to the organization. In The Art of Performance Management, our missteps became clear. But at the same time, we were early through the gate in terms of local governments applying measurement to their Strategic Plan.

Today, about 15 years after this early work in Coquitlam, it’s evident that local governments across the province are implementing performance management programs tailored to the needs of their Board/Council and aligned with the operational requirements in their organization. When writing Practical Measurement. Tangible Benefits, it was interesting to hear from three different communities to learn about the approach they have applied, ranging from technical solutions to tactics integrated into existing processes. As always, we hope that the case studies shared through Exchange generate ideas for how local governments can create similar programs in their communities.

Ideally, we will continue to see performance management programs implemented in local governments across the province to improve the way we track progress, expand the ability of organizations to support sustainable services and communicate success stories to our communities and other key stakeholders.