Are Canadian mayors equipped to innovate?
Where does municipal innovation come from?
Well, it comes from many places. It can emerge from the community, by residents advocating for a new policy direction or change in service delivery. It can come from municipal staff, in finding new ways to tackle old problems or exploring uncharted frontiers.
It can also come from elected officials. Mayors and councillors have a unique vantage point from which to understand the challenges facing communities and municipalities. They are often the front line for hearing about new ideas, issues, and concerns from community members and administrators alike.
Mayors, in particular, are expected to keep their finger on the pulse of the community and the municipality. Mayors are often the only official elected to represent the entire community, and they occupy the top leadership position within the municipality. Arguably, mayors could be in one of the best positions to spark innovation in local government.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t exactly fit with how mayors in Canada are portrayed. If you were to ask a group of academics about Canadian mayors, you would quickly hear phrases like ‘weak mayors’ and ‘just one vote on Council’. The literal textbook answer is to point to the relative weakness of local government in Canada, and argue that by extension our leaders have limited capacity to be agents of change or innovation in our communities, and in our country.
I’m not so convinced.
There are examples where Canadian mayors – individually and collectively – have exercised extraordinary influence, shifted national dialogues, and provided defining leadership on issues within Canadian communities and beyond. However, as anyone who has worked in local government will tell you, there are also examples where our political leaders find themselves powerless, for a wide variety of reasons, and unable to execute on even a modest agenda. We can point to cause and effect with respect to specific situations, but at a more general level, do we really understand the role and power of mayors in Canada? How much power do Canadian mayors have to be agents of change, to lead our cities, to spark innovation?
The honest answer is that we do not.
Despite the significance of their position, there has been remarkably little study about the role and power of Canadian mayors. There is no ‘job description’ for Canadian mayors; in fact, there are more than 50 pieces of provincial legislation in Canada prescribing duties of mayors, not including municipal bylaws. A surprisingly small volume of literature exists on the topic. Mayors hold unique leadership positions, unlike the roles of leaders in other levels of government in many important respects – and yet the position has rarely been studied in its own right. To date, there has not been a comprehensive study of mayors in Canada, or an exploration of the diversity in the role across Canadian cities.
In April 2016, a new research study was launched to begin to address this important gap by engaging in the first broad study of the role of mayors in Canada. The Mayors Project (see: mayorsproject.ca) investigates how the role of the mayor varies across Canada’s cities.
Importantly, this project is not about the people who are mayors; rather, it focuses on the role itself. The study is based on a sample of 10 Canadian cities, selected by virtue of being the largest in each province, and draws on extensive literature and legislative reviews, an institutional analysis, a survey of 12,000 Canadians, and elite interviews with mayors and the people who work most closely with them.
At its core, The Mayors Project is about building a uniquely Canadian understanding of the role of the mayor, and seeking new insights into the nature of political leadership in Canada’s cities.
Before we can understand the capacity of our mayors to innovate, perhaps we need to step back and first understand their role and the powers they hold. Before we can expect them to be agents of innovation, we should ensure they are adequately equipped to do so.
Almost every big issue facing Canadians is, in one way or another, a local issue. Mayors may be uniquely positioned as innovators who can help address the most significant issues of our time. However, they are also among the least understood leaders in Canadian politics. It’s time for us to build our understanding of our mayors in Canada’s unique context.
Kate Graham is the Director of Community & Economic Innovation at the City of London, and is a PhD student at Western University studying local government and urban politics. Kate’s dissertation, known as ‘The Mayors Project’, examines political leadership in Canada’s cities, specifically focused on the role of the mayor.