Whose Job is it Anyway?

Okay, my blog has taken a bit of abuse lately; I’ll be the first to admit it. It’s been ignored, disregarded, undervalued, neglected, tossed aside, and all manner of synonyms meaning “I haven’t written anything for a while.” Naturally, I’m choosing to shirk blame for this to the greatest extent possible, excusing myself on the grounds that I’ve been very busy. And, truth be told, I have! It’s been a fast-paced, (often) mentally demanding couple of months, and I’ve been involved in a wealth of projects spanning a wide range of municipal procurement  activities (in other words,  “buying stuff”), from working on the purchasing policy to preparing purchasing solicitations. After reading that, I’m sure you’ve become immediately enthralled, and are now breathlessly waiting to hear about the intricacies of the procurement world :p (okay, I’ve done some other stuff as well, helping out with community events, going to meetings, doing training, and preparing a range of documents). Don’t worry, I will get to that eventually, but first I’m going to post some thoughts that I recorded earlier but never properly aggregated into the refined works of demonstrated blogging prowess that I’m sure you’re expecting.  That said, (*warning, impending plug*) if you don’t want to wait, you can always check out the open tenders/RFPs on the Town website which I helped to prepare, to get some sense of what I’ve been up to lately.

This entry, however, is about….jurisdiction and responsibility of public bodies….

Okay, okay, maybe it’s not the most gripping topic for you, but I think that as a public servant (which is what this blog is about) being aware of your role relative to other agencies and levels of government is essential. Also, there’s a bit of self-indulgence at play here; as a fledgling “political scientist” in university, I was asked to think about topics like the division of powers on a daily basis. It was really drilled into me that jurisdiction was perhaps the essential concern to keep in mind when studying Canadian politics, and when I came into this position I was therefore always on the lookout for how I could apply this perspective in a practical sense. I guess I was just happy to have a use for what I learned in school; so happy that I chose to blog about it!

I guess before getting into the confused thicket of issues surrounding division of jurisdiction across governments, I should talk a bit about the division of responsibility within them. I remember being about a week and a half into the internship and wondering whether I would ever truly understand the administrative structure in Edson. Indeed, I was stricken by how even a relatively small organization is quite complex and diverse in terms of its departments, its staff, the issues it deals with, etc. I can only imagine what bureaucratic behemoths cities like Vancouver, Calgary, or Edmonton must be!  Tentative attempts to answer the phones in the latter half of Week 1 served to remind me of how little I really understood the Town organization as a whole, who was involved, and what roles they played. The operative point here is that the Town handles a lot of business, from planning community events to setting tax rates (a process which in and of itself isn’t all that simple) to repairing water breaks to dealing with unleashed dogs. Consequently, the Town Office receives phone calls on all manner of highly specific, and potentially very technical, issues, and as a befuddled newcomer I was hard pressed to accurately field, or even redirect (my go-to approach), such inquiries. Technicalities such as when a utilities concern should be dealt with by Finance (i.e. setting up an account), Public Works (emergency response and general maintenance), or Planning and Engineering (i.e. connecting new buildings or structures to the system) confused me. To cap it off, no sooner did I become almost-but-still-not-quite comfortable with answering phones before I was whisked away to other projects and priorities.

Of course, sorting out the responsibilities of the various departments within the organization is only part of the battle; obviously, our Town does not exist in its own governmental vacuum (“no Town is an island”), but rather is enmeshed in the layered and overlapping institutional structure of the Canadian state.

How does this affect, for the sake of remaining consistent with my examples, answering the phones at the Town? Well, firstly, I have to be mindful that residents’ inquiries may not be “jurisdictionally appropriate”; indeed, questions and concerns put to municipal governments are often provincial issues (here I’m choosing to set aside the technicality that municipalities are “just” creations of the provinces and treat them instead as separate levels of government), and as such the Town has no capacity to address them. However, the division is hardly clear-cut. For instance, development permits are a local responsibility, but building permits are issued by the province. Both are related, and both are generally needed when building a new structure on a property. As part of Highway 16, 2nd and 4th Ave are regulated provincially despite being key roads within the Town itself, and the Town thus does not have an unrestricted ability to develop these roads as it sees fit. Education is the job of the province, yet municipalities are responsible for levying a substantial portion of the taxes for it (as you have likely seen on your tax notices this year). (As an aside, I’m not sure that I’m overly fond of this arrangement; part of me thinks that funding for education should just be derived from provincial income taxes. As long as we’re in the business of choosing our favorite taxes, which do you think is better; income or property?).

The jurisdictional “mess” does not end at the government buildings in Edmonton; the RCMP presence in the Town, for example, is federally managed, albeit coordinated and funded (in part) locally. Meanwhile, the airport occupies an entirely unique regulatory niche, as aviation is subject to all-encompassing federal regulations.

To cap it off, we should also keep in mind that the relations between governments affect how jurisdictional questions get resolved, as well as how issues of shared or overlapping jurisdiction are dealt with. Governments which don’t get along will prove fairly ineffectual when it comes to shared program administration, coordination of similar activities, etc. To me, the field of intergovernmental relations is both fascinating and crucial; indeed, I was incredibly excited to meet someone (working for another municipality) whose primary job was to coordinate relations with other towns, cities, etc., as well as with the provincial government.  Lately, I’ve dwelt frequently on how much positive outcomes in this area depend on the specific personalities involved, rather than on anything in the institutional landscape per se which promotes (or prevents) harmonious intergovernmental relations; indeed, this “human face” of politics is something that I want to examine more throughout the internship, as in all honesty it wasn’t something I considered in my academic studies (I guess I was studying everything about politics except the actual politicians….).

Anyways, it’s safe to say that this entry has gone on quite long enough (if you’ve read this far, I applaud your persistence), so I’ll close with some thematically relevant questions: what level of government do you think is most important, and why? Do you tend to favour centralized government (i.e. a stronger provincial/federal role) or decentralized (i.e. more autonomous municipalities)? What programs and services do you think lend themselves particularly well to collaboration between government bodies?