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Facilitating Collaboration Across Boundaries

Elected Officials Education Program building capacity for municipalities in Alberta

In 2010, an intriguing project came across Pam Robertson‘s desk that didn’t quite fit within the usual scope of Urban Systems’ purview, but presented an opportunity to think outside of our usual boundaries. The Elected Officials Education Program (EOEP) in Alberta was looking for consultants and subject matter experts who could help assess and refresh their current course offerings. Established in 2007 as a joint venture between the Regional Municipalities of Alberta (RMA – formerly AAMDC) and the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA), the EOEP provides elected officials in Alberta tools and programming to help them serve their respective communities effectively.

Pam, a communications and learning specialist and a certified adult educator, remembers putting together the proposal thinking it was unlikely it would be accepted, but saw it as an excellent opportunity to communicate what Urban Systems’ team would be capable of. She was pleasantly surprised when she got the call, and confident that it was thanks to what sets Urban Systems’ apart. “One of our best selling features is our people. We have so many consultants in Alberta who serve local government and really understand the courses that we were looking at,” she explains.

Teaming up with subject matter experts within Urban Systems, Pam started the work of reviewing 20 of the 21 courses EOEP offered. Using a set template for evaluation, the team, which included Chris Ulmer, Mike Coldwell and Erin Welk, consultants familiar with Alberta municipal policy and governance, looked at the course materials to make sure that they were relevant and could achieve the learning outcomes set out. Equally important for Pam was ensuring they applied adult learning principles, a crucial element to ensure the value of knowledge transferred to the participant.

Quality over Quantity

“We performed a thorough evaluation and assessment for the EOEP, but we told them that they really needed to look at the whole program,” Pam reveals. “We felt they were offering too many courses and couldn’t really do all of them well.” Their suggestion: develop one municipal governance course, a Municipal Governance 101 orientation program, that would combine all the information a councilor would need to know within days of being elected, and reduce the number of additional courses to five.

In 2015, the EOEP hired Urban again, and Pam began working on a strategy to implement the recommendations. At the same time, Municipal Affairs in Alberta stated that with the revised Municipal Government Act, it would be mandatory for all elected officials to be offered orientation training within 90 days of taking office, and specified what topics must be covered. “We talked with the EOEP and said why don’t we help you to develop a course that would specifically address what the MGA is requiring,” says Pam, “which they were very open to.”

Pam and Chris spoke with AUMA, AAMDC and EOEP to determine how best to approach the course materials. Through workshops at the AAMDC and AUMA conventions, they held focus groups asking elected officials what newly elected officials need to learn to be successful in their roles, but more importantly, how they like to learn. “We were initially thinking it would be mostly online,” Pam reveals, “but when we heard from councilors, they said that is not how they like to learn. They like to learn face-to-face because they like the networking ability with other councilors.”

You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know

Using the knowledge gained through the focus groups and working closely with EOEP and Alberta Municipal Affairs, Munis 101: The Essentials of Municipal Governance was developed – a completely face-to-face, two-day program that brings in elected officials from across Alberta to help set them up for success in their roles.

“It’s really designed to give them what they need to have when they start their role,” explains Pam. “When officials are elected for the first time, they often don’t come with much other background in that role than you or I would.” They are entrusted with a high level of accountability and responsibility in different areas, so the course sets out to help them understand what their role is, what it is not, and give them the knowledge, skills and tools they need to start out on better footing than if they had to acquire this knowledge on their own. In turn, providing this resource has made the EOEP the pre-eminent training providers for elected officials in Alberta, and significantly boosted participation numbers.

It has also presented opportunities to our consultants to facilitate the program. Chris Ulmer, a Planner, has been one such facilitator, and sees the whole development and delivery of the program as an edge for Urban Systems’ to really emphasize the interdisciplinary nature of our work. “Here’s a way to bring our knowledge of the Alberta government, technical or otherwise, to bear with our knowledge of how to effectively train adults, into raising the bar for everyone.” By combining Pam’s knowledge of successful adult education and consultants experienced with working with municipalities like Chris, the outcome is a program that not only educates elected officials, but also provides and immense opportunity for learning across disciplines.

Thinking Beyond Our Own Biases

“A key principle in adult education is that adults want to share what they know,” emphasizes Pam. “It’s different from children, who are happy to have a teacher at the front of the room and absorb what they know. Adults come with a lot of life experience, a lot of knowledge in certain areas, so when you can harness that within an adult learning environment, people start sharing their own knowledge and experience, and you create such a rich learning environment.” And that is a key element to Munis 101 – that opportunity for officials to learn from one another, despite the context of the cities they serve, and not just a facilitator at the front of the room presenting.

As Chris explains, Alberta has a different government structure than some other provinces, where you have rural municipalities covered under AAMDC and then towns and cities under AUMA, and they don’t always welcome communication across borders. “When you get this mix of various elected officials in one room, however, they begin to see this broad understanding of each other’s perspectives, and that’s probably one of the most valuable things about the course.” He elaborates that a large aspect of the MGA is for local governments to start collaborating, meaning they can no longer operate in silos where municipalities can fall into traps of duplicating efforts by focusing solely on municipal boundaries.

“The learning activities are a way to force them outside of their own biases of how it impacts their specific region and think through a challenge differently,” Chris says. Participants are applying similar thought processes onto a challenge that may be foreign to them, which they can then apply to a more familiar challenge. “I think that was a pretty unique educational thread.” Because the challenges are so

broad, they can take the knowledge they gain from the program and apply it to their own local context, using more adaptive thinking instead of being so linear in their focus.

Presenting Opportunities Beyond Local Governance

The success of the Munis 101 program and the entire process of developing it has presented new opportunities for many of our subject matter experts to begin sharing their expertise. “In the area of training and development, the fact that we have subject matter experts plus a certified adult educator that can develop curriculum is an advantage,” Pam points out. Prior to the EOEP courses, Pam helped Transportation Planner Brian Patterson develop a Bicycle Facilities Design Course, as well as several training programs for First Nations clients. Recently she helped create Asset Management Training courses for the EOEP with Jody Rechenmacher and Marina Jozipovic, consultants with engineering and planning backgrounds respectively.

Providing these types of learning opportunities for our clients is all part of a greater mission to build capacity within our clients. Pam acknowledges how important it is to build the knowledge foundations in communities to create the lasting resiliency needed to tackle the many of the challenges they may face on a given day, and to be able to do so confidently and independently. “Rather than just coming in and doing the work for clients, we teach them and facilitate that learning environment where they’re building their own knowledge and skills and teaching each others as well.”

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