Impact of City of Ottawa cuts isn't clear for residents

For those with no personal connection to anyone out of a job at the city this week, they might wonder what the cuts mean for them. The short answer: it's far too soon to know. But here is what is being promised, and cautioned.

Planning and communications were two of the departments affected by layoffs

Mayor Jim Watson (left) and city manager Steve Kanellakos (right) have both vowed that letting go 177 city workers this week will not affect front-line services. (Kate Porter/CBC)

Shortly before council's transportation committee meeting started Wednesday morning, a long-time media relations manager at the city looked up from his Blackberry, rose from his usual perch at a side table and told councillors, "It's been nice working with you."

He was let go, as was a city solicitor who was sitting at a table on the other side of the room at that same committee meeting.

Planning, treasurer's office, communications — it seems no department was untouched by the so-called corporate restructuring.

If those 177 folks were assembled in a room, they'd make a dishearteningly large crowd of suddenly jobless former city workers.

But for people in the city at large — with no personal connection to anyone who's been reorganized out of a job — they might wonder what the cuts mean for them.

The short answer: it's far too soon to know. But here is what is being promised, and cautioned.

The money

Last things first: the bottom line. The job cuts announced this week will save $14 million annually, said city manager Steve Kanellakos. That's a chunk of change, even for an organization with an operating budget that tops $3 billion.

But it's still far short of the $35 million deficit forecast for 2017. So where's the rest of the money coming from?

Last year, every department was asked to look for savings. We've already heard about some of the cost-savings measures, such as reducing how much inventory of parts OC Transpo keeps on hand, lengthening the time the city hangs onto its vehicles to changing the way snow clearing is done.

Then there's the guaranteed dividend that Hydro Ottawa has to pay the city, which was hiked earlier this year to $20 million from $14 million (or 60 per cent of net income, whichever is higher).

The details of how the $35 million shortfall will be permanently bridged will be laid out in the draft budget, to be tabled Nov. 9.

Faster decisions, better processes, clearer communication

The last time there was a major overhaul at the city was 2004, when 200 people were laid off. Over the last decade, departments have grown, not in a planned way, but incrementally as various projects and initiatives were added, said Kanellakos.

There were too many layers of management — "In one case, we had a manager overseeing two people," he told CBC — and Kanellakos heard from employees and councillors that there was too much "internal red tape," that too many people had to touch a file before a decision could be made.

"We counted over 105 working committees of staff to deal with co-ordination issues between the departments," said Kanellakos.

The promise of the "flatter" city bureaucracy, with administrative support teams that have the same function in each department, is faster decision making.

Kanellakos also plans to question whether everything city staff have been directed to do over the years needs to continue. For example, the city tracks 1,240 performance measures which are tabled at council, that are carried without discussion or questions for the most past.

"They don't mean anything, and we have an army of people producing them," said the city manager. "Let's start from scratch and come up with meaningful performance indicators that makes sense to the public and to our council, and we can have a discussion about them."

More nimble communication

Speaking of discussions, there's a plan afoot to make city's communications more nimble in responding to media requests, and hence getting information to the public in a speedier fashion.

Mayor Jim Watson said Thursday he's in favour of a more open City of Ottawa, telling reporters that he "cringes" whenever he hears a report that no one from the city was able to comment on a story.

The city has even changed the name of the department from "corporate communications" to "public information."

It remains to be seen whether that's just marketing or a real attempt at changing the corporate culture.

Effects to front-line services?

The mayor, the city manager, council — they've all promised no changes to front-line services.

It will take months to see whether that's the case.

Certainly in the short term, a certain amount of internal chaos is to be expected. The reorganization of departments will affect 1,400 positions, in addition to 177 people losing their jobs. Sorting that out will take some time.

It will also take time to figure out whether everything's working as it should.

There's no expectation that "front-line" services such as calling 3-1-1 or signing up your kids for swimming lessons will be any better or worse than it is right now as a result of this week's cuts. The folks who deal directly with the public aren't the ones who were laid off.

Instead, it was mostly professionals to plan and evaluate programs that are delivered to residents, said Jamie Dunn, the executive director of the union that represents the professionals working at the city.

Of the 102 unionized employees let go, 60 were represented by the Civic Institute of Professional Personnel. Also, 75 non-unionized managers left the city.

"To ensure front-line services are effective and offer value-for-money, you need people planning and evaluating those services, following provincial and federal guidelines," said Dunn.

In other words, you need people behind those front-line service workers making sure that the programs are working properly, doing what they are supposed to do.

And some city workers privately expressed concerns that the reorganization will mean a heavier workload for those remaining.

One bright spot: Kanellekos said there are no further cuts on the horizon and the hiring freeze, at least for essential positions, is over.

About the Author

Joanne Chianello

City affairs analyst

Joanne Chianello is an award-winning journalist and CBC Ottawa's city affairs analyst. You can email her at or tweet her at @jchianello.