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Traceability – Municipal Government Oversight

When is Enough, ENOUGH?

Imagine running your business like some municipal governments run their communities. Project management is not new. In business, if your project runs way over budget, there are generally consequences that happen. The project manager and those responsible for approving the spending are held accountable for any overages incurred. This may result in a loss of employment, demotion, or the forfeiture to oversee future projects. What’s not appropriate is leaving them to go continuously unchecked – resulting in massive project cost overruns. An incompetent project manager can cost companies millions. When a project is planned and executed, you should be confident that it has been thoroughly researched and budgeted for. These plans should account for environmental occurrences, materials inflation, labour and equipment costs. If the research is outdated even by just six months, the budget needs to be updated to reflect the start date costs. This also, is not a new concept in business.  

Prince George, BC as a Case Study

It’s not always easy to find who is to blame for poor management of a project(s)…. unless it is. Prince George, BC’s municipal government project operations for the past 4 years, is a great example.

The former city manager, Kathleen Soltis, failed at her duties to competently manage several projects and senior staff under her charge. With what can only be described as underhanded tactics and intentional deception through the mishandling of a major city project, Kathleen managed to cost the taxpayers of Prince George millions in cost overruns.

 

City council is not without fault. They made the mistake of giving Kathleen more autonomy allowing for 5% of the overall operational budget per year to be used on projects at her discretion. It seems she interpreted this to mean she could approve that 5% overage on every project that came across her desk and has grossly overspent taxpayer’s dollars without any accountability.

 

The latest of these project cost overruns includes a downtown parkade budgeted at $12.9 million. Before this project was approved by the city council, Kathleen and the Mayor (it has been revealed) were aware that the costs were much higher than the original budget. The deception that followed has become the centre of an investigation within the city of Prince George. Kathleen got project approval based on false information, intentionally leaving out that her new quote for the project was an additional $8 million. The project was approved to move forward based on the initial budget she presented of $12.9 million. 


If this was the first of her blunders, it could be chalked up to a mistake, but it was at the tail end of many questionable decisions she made while wielding her city manager power. Kathleen parted ways with the city in September 2020 before the details of her intentional deception were revealed.


The citizens of Prince George have many questions. Why did the Mayor accept the original budget when Kathleen presented to council, fully aware that the project cost was much higher? Who knew what, and when? How was this able to happen? Why was Kathleen given so much authority when clearly she was abusing it?

This article is not meant to attack Kathleen’s mismanagement but rather point out the significant lack of transparency and accountability of the city’s operations as a whole. Kathleen is not the only one at fault, but by default, she is the one ultimately responsible for the approval and mishandling of city projects while she was in charge. If she was the CEO of a major company, she would have been fired with no severance at the very least.

Questions we would like to know for this project in particular are:

 
  • What methods of communication were used to manage this project?
  • Who was involved in the project? What information did they have access to?
  • How was the budget for this project managed? Why did it take so long to uncover the gross mishandling of the project?
  • Why didn’t the cost overruns trigger an audit long before it was revealed?

 

Other Questions:

 
  • What is the council going to do about project management and transparency in the future to prevent this from ever happening again?
  • Should the city handle project contracts differently?
  • Should municipal governments change the way they award contracts to contractors?
  • What technology could be put in place to create transparency, accountability and ultimately trust?

How Could the Municipal Government Change The Way They Do Business?

TRANSPARENCY

In business, the more data you have access to, in real-time (not 6 months down the road), the more you can course-correct and change the trajectory of cost overruns. Cost overruns are the result of a poorly planned and organized project. Budgets have been completely blown up by things like soil erosion, supply chain issues, and other unknowns. Most of these problems could be avoided if you have an effective system in place to manage them. 

 

Having a system that connects each cog in the wheel (every person connected to that project), all it’s known data (including quotes, studies, environmental factors, all communications, live reporting, etc.) would allow for continuous course correction along the way. All communications for a project would be connected to the project management system and an email could never be ‘missed’ or sent to junk mail. 

 

No wool could be pulled over anyone’s eyes. Real-time information on a project would be available at any time for the city council and others attached to the project. There would be no, “he said – she said’s.” All information for every project, is packaged in an immutable system, complete with communications between contractors, administration, city council, and the mayor. No one attached to that project could claim they did not know, or they were not informed.

 

The council could make informed decisions based on ALL the facts, not just the information that was chosen to be shared. 

ACCOUNTABILITY

Forget the “big brother is watching” nonsense for a moment. Because let’s be perfectly clear, in this case, we are big brother. Taxpayers have the right to know where our money is being spent. The city council was elected to make decisions on our behalf, and to be responsible for keeping our city fiscally responsible. How can they do that if they do not have all the information required to make these decisions effectively?

 

In our experience, when you give employees (based on their role) the most up-to-date information needed to perform their duties and make informed decisions, it allows for accountability and course correction at every level.

 

If the ball is dropped, it would be quickly discovered and it wouldn’t cost 22 million dollars before any course correction is attempted! But as we have witnessed with the City of Prince George, there was no transparency and no accountability for the city manager. Emails on multiple occasions went unanswered when city council members inquired about specific projects. Kathleen should not have had the ability to wield that much power to start with, let alone go unchallenged on the decisions she was making behind the council’s back. 

It's Time for the City to be Run Like a Business!

The city doesn’t have the option of “going out of business”. Their cost overruns would have sunk many businesses. Businesses don’t have the luxury to “raise taxes” as they see fit to cover their mismanagement. The city can’t just claim bankruptcy and start again under a new banner. 

 

At Business2Mobile, we could assist the city in operating like a well-oiled machine. We can provide a solution that manages a project from its conception to completion. It includes immutable two-way communications, full budget analysis, contractor management, continuous course correction, and full accountability for all involved. There would be no misgivings, no miscommunications, and not ONE person with the ability to hide or deceive the facts or information. It would all be readily available to be scrutinized and course-corrected, no matter what stage the project was in. 

 

Is the city ready for that much transparency and accountability?