Your municipality needs a service model. No, you don’t already have one.

Most municipal governments have well crafted organizational structures though which they manage their resources, staff and outputs.  New City Managers or CAO’s often work with the org chart as a way of putting their stamp on the organization or trying to better align departments with the kinds of outputs, resources or staff they use to achieve their strategic goals.  Each reorganization creates some new efficiencies as well as new inefficiencies, eliminates some shadow activities and encourages new ones.  Consultants brought in to advise on specific issues also often focus on the organizational chart as a proxy for the services delivered, reinforcing it as the primary tool of strategy management.   But efforts to create action on the municipal strategy by rearranging the seating plan will only ever result in an approximation of the strategy because the departments, resources and budgets should be responsive to not directive of strategy.  Who has not heard the old saw:  “don’t tell me what you care about, show me your budget and I will tell you what you care about.”

A service model for the municipality is not defined by the resources, staff and budgets of the organization, but by recognizing the needs of residents, taxpayers and visitors,  and crafting valued services and products to meet them.  The model’s purpose is to map the work of the organization onto the results it generates. Aligning organization structure and  individual department activities is a separate task.  As a colleague of mine puts it, it clears the cloud of uncertainty between the organizational chart (stewardship) and the strategic goals (vision).

cloud of uncertainty

Courtesy of Alan Mitchell (KPMG)

This blog post is devoted to discussing a Canadian service model for municipal governments; however, any service model that decouples organizational structure from strategy can have similar benefits.  A quick note, though, citizens and senior executives are interested in the stories models tell, the analysts are interested in the models themselves.  A tool for municipal service modelling enables citizens and executives to tell the story of their city or town.

The Municipal Reference Model [MRM], a product of the Municipal Information Services Association is a service model designed by, for and about municipal government.  While it was created initially by a group of talented consultants, it has evolved and matured through its use within municipalities into an easy to apply and understand way to map the services and outcomes of a government to the activities and resources it stewards.  It has its value, not only in its design, but by its real life experience of implementation in municipalities in Canada and elsewhere.

How does it work?  By defining services in terms of the client’s experience (service output) rather than by the resources and activities that produce that experience.  No one experiences an ”output” of Parks and Recreation, yet we often refer to Parks and Rec as a service.  What does a “unit” of Parks and Rec look like?  What does it cost to produce?  Applying a service model, we see that the citizen, resident or visitor experiences a “nature walk in a hectare of parkland” or a “recreation class” or a “rental space in a community centre”.  These experiences are outputs of the three respective services of Parks and Natural Areas, Recreation Programming and Recreational Space Rental/Lease.  Each service has a different output, value proposition and strategic value.

Along with those insights, we immediately see a dilemma:  two of the services actually compete with each other.  Every hour the community centre is programmed for recreation classes is an hour it can’t be rented.  Yet providing low cost community based rental space is also a valued activity of a municipal government. The Parks and Recreation Department is merely the delivery agent of our three services and may or may not be the right organizational model to effectively and efficiently provide those services.  Imagine the benefits of aligning some of the management of the Parks and Natural Areas service with other services connected to green infrastructure like Roads or Sidewalks.  Rather than have two horticulture teams (one for roadside trees and gardens and another for parks trees and gardens) the work of greening the community can be coordinated for better strategic alignment and possibly less money.  

Citizens and councillors while trained to view their municipal government as a collection of departments also quickly experience the benefit of seeing the relationship of services, clients, budgets and resources, particularly when trying to prioritize spending.  Understanding the true impact of the loss, alteration or addition of a service is much easier than trying to understand the impact of adding another department, staff person or building.  When the services are mapped to the resources, the discussion loses the “fog of uncertainty”.

The chart below illustrates one municipality’s evaluation of the impact of services on the community strategic plan where red services are mandatory and green are discretionary.  Notice how much impact the discretionary services have relative to those that are mandated by other levels of government.  

Strategic tornado chart


A service model, like the MRM sharpens the focus on outcomes and improves the ability to do strategic planning.  Knowing the services of the organization whether mandatory or discretionary allows management to understand impact that policy changes, downloading, competition, disruptions or innovations can have on service delivery.  It supports better quality benchmarking to peers (private or public) and implementation of best or leading practices.   The MRM can tie performance data to services and outcomes from a whole city perspective, enabling better clarity of what inputs, resources and staff have the greatest benefit and it can link services that participate in larger outcomes without the automatic necessity of a structural reorganization.

Last but not least, a service model like the MRM, can act as a form of internal control that ensures that the corporate organizational structure, budgets and resources are truly directed towards the strategic goals of the municipality.  A service based budget or financial statement must reconcile to the organizational view.  No resource or activity should be unaccounted for in the delivery of a valued service.  Like a good business process map, a service reference model quickly identifies bottlenecks, duplication or unexpected use of resources.  When service budgets are mapped to strategic outcomes, it is often a surprise to municipal managers that the heaviest hitters on outcomes are often the cheapest and most discretionary services.  So cries to “cut the discretionary services” can have dramatic impact on service delivery while delivering little or nothing in cost cutting. 

For additional information on the Municipal Reference Model or other service models for government the following resources are very helpful.

Munro Strategic Perspective Resources

 Municipal Information Services Association – Municipal Reference Model

Institute for Citizen Centred Service – Canadian Government Reference Model