City spends $80,000 for training course from Disney

Documents obtained by the CBC show the City of Calgary spent nearly $80,000 for a one day Disney Institute training course last year for its top managers. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation questions the expense.

Top city managers take training from entertainment behemoth, raising hackles of taxpayers' group

Former city manager Jeff Fielding thinks it’s unfortunate that municipal politicians are no longer allowed to meet informally like they used to. (Scott Dippel/CBC)

It was literally a Mickey Mouse course.

CBC News has learned the City of Calgary spent almost $80,000 on a one-day training course for its top managers last year. 

Documents were obtained by the CBC using Alberta's freedom of information law.

They reveal that 58 city managers spent the day at a northeast Calgary hotel with facilitators providing a Disney Institute course called "Disney's Approach to Business Excellence."

The event happened in January 2015.

City manager's decision

The decision to bring in Disney was made solely by city manager Jeff Fielding. He took over as the city's top bureaucrat in 2014 with a promise to change its corporate culture.

He tells CBC that he was exposed to Disney at his last job in Burlington, Ontario and feels it has "a tremendous business model."

Prior to signing a deal with McMaster University, which provides Disney Institute training in Canada through its DeGroote School of Business, two city employees took in a similar course in Burlington in September 2014 to assess its value.

McMaster assisted the city with the employees' costs for attending that session.

On its website, Disney promises the course offered to the city would:

  • develop a leadership vision that inspires dedication among employees
  • strengthen your corporate culture
  • develop an organization that support consistent delivery of exceptional quality service
  • incorporate time-tested principles for building and fortifying brand loyalty

When asked how Disney's methods in entertainment or theme parks might apply to a municipal government, Fielding said there's plenty of transferability.

Governments pushed to be more business-like

"You'll hear this lots of times: you've got to act more like a business but at the same time, you need to have a public sector philosophy," said Fielding.

"So what we're trying to impart in our organization is on customers: what does it mean to have customers? That's a big change in public service."

Fielding said Disney's methods — which it calls over-management — have a place at the city.

The city manager says he's modified that model to something called intentional management.

One example of it is creating a culture that values saving money.

"That's a new concept. It is basically saying: if you don't need to spend the money, don't."

Fielding points out that since he's arrived, the city has found ways to save $60 million in its operating budget and over $100 million on capital projects.

No competing bids allowed

The Disney course itself cost just under $70,000 and was sole-sourced.

Coming in under a threshold of $75,000 means the city didn't have to put the contract out for competitive bids under the terms of the New West Partnership Trade Agreement.

In addition to the usual coffee and refreshments, the public servants were treated to breakfast and lunch which were paid for by the city.

They dined on salads and roast beef for lunch, with chocolate brownies and vanilla creme brulee for desserts.

In all, the city paid the hotel more than $8,300 for hotel rooms for the facilitators, renting a meeting room, providing catering and renting the audio-visual equipment needed for the course.

Fielding says some might view this as frivolous, but he defends the spending.

"What I'm trying to say is Disney has one of the strongest business models out there and so we went to the best. And in my estimation, it was money well spent."

Part of the city's strategy was to bring in trainers and give the course to its top managers who can then spread the intelligence down through their departments.

Fielding said the costs could have been higher if the city had instead sent a select number of its supervisors elsewhere on training trips.

Disney has a solid reputation

An assistant professor of marketing at the University of Calgary agrees that Disney is a leader in its field.

Debi Andrus said outside perspectives — particularly from the private sector — can be valuable in improving the corporate culture inside government.

She points out Disney offers a non-profit or government rate so the city likely got a good deal versus a private company of similar size.

Andrus doesn't see it as an extravagance.

"Do we want some of the best ideas in our city? Do we want to have really well-trained professionals in our city, and I think that that's important."

She points out there's often a negative view of public servants. But in this case, Andrus said Fielding appears to be leading the city towards creating a new culture.

"Are they trying to change that by bringing in new ideas? So we can't really criticize them if we want them to be the best that they can be through training."

Spending looks questionable to taxpayers' group

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation sees it differently.

Paige McPherson with the group doesn't mince words upon hearing about the $80,000 training day.

She said the city probably could have gotten similar training for less and shown more respect for public money.

"Under what circumstances, would a fun-filled day of Disney professional development, Mickey Mouse balloons and all, ever be considered a necessary spending item of government?" said McPherson. "I just don't think this can be justified as necessary."

When asked about the city's attempts to better manage money and improve customer service, McPherson said "I don't think any Calgarians would complain about the city wanting to offer better customer service. That's great, but at what cost? Do you have to bring in the best of the best to train you on professional development? Do you have to blow $80,000 in one day?"

Feedback seems favourable

Documents provided to CBC show city employees thought the course was a good experience.

Of 21 managers who provided feedback through an online survey about the training, 20 agreed or strongly agreed it was a good use of their time.

Sixteen respondents said what they learned during the course will improve their group's business results.


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