Wandering off course – QB’s strategic plan that isn’t

Daniel Sailland, the Town of Qualicum Beach’s Chief Administrative Officer, submitted, for information only, an updated Strategic Plan to Council at its March 17, 2021 meeting. Council then directed staff “to refer the Strategic Plan to the April 21, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting,” ostensibly so Council could discuss its progress and priorities less formally, and with public engagement.

As we discuss in this article, the updated Strategic Plan, coupled with the bizarre conduct of the Committee of the Whole (COW) meeting on April 21, 2021 demonstrates a Council and Town Administration badly out of control. It’s a strategic plan in name only.

The purpose of having a Strategic Plan

We should not be surprised that now, only six months later, CAO Sailland is back with yet another Strategic Plan Update with a list that has continued to grow from 23 to 31 short and medium term priorities.

The Town of Qualicum Beach, like most organizations, has finite financial and human resources and a host of competing demands for those resources. Through dependable revenue streams, primarily property taxes, the Town can comfortably not only operate core mandated services well (think water, sewage, fire, police, parks), but also invest in incremental improvements to its supporting infrastructure — be it soft assets (skills development, process improvements, governance) or hard assets (buildings, equipment), or build cash reserves for the proverbial rainy day.

To provide effective direction to the discretionary (non-core) expenditures of time and money, the Town’s Strategic Plan should communicate a priorized set of goal-driven, needs-based, measurable objectives, periodically reviewed and tweaked, with a major reset once every four years by a newly elected incoming Council. Qualicum Beach’s strategic planning, under CAO Daniel Sailland’s direction, is not coming anywhere close to meeting even a basic standard expectation for strategic planning.

Where are we at?

The original Qualicum Beach Strategic Plan 2019 – 2022 included seven Strategic Initiatives. The Plan document provided little to no rationale for each initiative, i.e. Why is this considered strategic? What is its priority relative to the other initiatives? How will we measure if the desired outcomes have been achieved? Without these features, any Plan is, quite frankly, simply an empty gesture of platitudes, pretense, and propaganda.

In his Strategic Plan status update in July 2020, CAO Sailland reported an escalating number of Council resolutions that “introduced new initiatives not previously identified in the strategic plan”. This is one clear indication of a serious problem.

A second strong signal was the CAO’s request for a Council workshop for the purposes of amending the corporate strategic plan “mid-term”. This is not unwarranted given that:

a) The Town’s Strategic Plan had not set priorities;

b) A majority of Council members have limited to no apparent experience planning or working strategically;

c) The process was allowing ad hoc, discretionary, non-essential commitments to get added to the Strategic Plan.

To his credit, the CAO sounded the alarm in July 2020 and sought Council direction to resolve the problem.

Deferring a bunch of demands on staff time for non-strategic work, as well as priorizing the remainder, appears to have been the focus of the subsequent August workshop. We say ‘appears’ because the public was not even allowed to observe, let alone participate meaningfully, in that significant reset of the Town’s Strategic Plan by three — yes, only three — Council members.

As a result of the 2020 Plan “reset,” staff now had some 23 “strategic” items to work on — including 9 items listed as short-term (to be completed in the following six months) and 14 items listed as medium-term (to be substantially completed by end of this Council’s term in 2022). The updated Plan is included in the September 16, 2020 Council meeting agenda, also available at Strategic Plan 2019-2022 (qualicumbeach.com).

As we reported previously in 3-member Council changes QB’s strategic priorities – Second Opinion QB,  there were significant disconnects between the updated Strategic Plan, the Town’s Official Community Plan and the multi-year Financial Plan, all of which should have been tightly aligned towards congruent goals, but were not. Is this a Strategic Plan or a shell game?

The planning process has not been fixed

While CAO Sailland had managed to get the team focused on a priorized task list last September, he did nothing to eliminate the fundamental “scope creep” problem that necessitated the re-planning intervention in the first place, namely the endless stream of ad hoc new initiatives not previously identified in the strategic plan. That’s Planning 101 — the essence of “strategic” planning — stay on course.

We should not be surprised that now, only six months later, the CAO is back with yet another Strategic Plan Update with a list that has continued to grow from 23 to 31 short and medium term priorities.

What’s new on the list?

  1. Memorial Ave / Hwy 19A Roundabout:  It’s finally been actually put on the list! The CAO had not included it as a priority project in the September 2020 updated Strategic Plan. Oversight? Unlikely. More likely would have been Council and staff’s reluctance to inform the public that the projected cost of the Roundabout had just jumped an additional $1.75 million (unbudgeted overrun). That nasty news did not surface until December 2020 Memorial Roundabout – we’re on the hook for another $1.75 million?! – Second Opinion QB. Merry Christmas taxpayers!
  • Calm traffic on Crescent Road; expand parking and calm traffic at the Waterfront; review parking in Town centre;
  • Ravensong Pool expansion; construction of a turf field. Yes, the multi-million-dollar artificial turf field has crept onto the “strategic” list. For a refresher, refer to our analysis from last year: Time to turf the turf? – Second Opinion QB;
  • “Economic Development” — give money to Chamber of Commerce for Wayfinding, Branding, etc.; create an innovation hub focused on forestry, light industrial, agriculture. Huh? Those are now Qualicum Beach’s strategic economic sector priorities??
  • Lastly, a couple of planning initiatives, including:  Conduct a review of Town service levels (more on that later); and, the long-dormant promise to establish a Tree and Vegetation Management Plan and by-law, a fixture in many BC municipalities.

The planning process is even worse now than in 2020

At the beginning of this article we noted that Council directed staff “to refer the Strategic Plan to the April 21, 2021 Committee of the Whole meeting.”

The public was not even allowed to observe, let alone participate meaningfully, in that significant reset of the Town’s Strategic Plan by three — yes, only three — Council members.

Did that mean that Council and staff were going to meet openly to discuss Sailland’s March 17th Strategic Plan Update, with public observance and engagement? Get blatant disinformation in Sailland’s report corrected? (For example, see Item 7 – Public Discussion and Enforcement of Encroachments. Implied status “Complete.” An absurd mistruth.) Confirm that the current priorities are aligned with the OCP, achievable with existing staff resources, and supported by the current multi-year Financial Plan?

Not. Even. Close.

Attendees at the April 21, 2021 Committee of the Whole (COW) session observed the following:

  • Meeting chair (Mayor Wiese) provided no facilitation of an open discussion by Council about any of the 31 strategic items listed in Sailland’s report (which was included with the Agenda).
  • Sailland did quickly run through a different list of 22 items. Huh? Where did that list come from? It was not included with the agenda.
  • Wiese joked that he had already seen the “22” list about four times. The CAO and the Mayor had obviously already discussed the updated list — privately — and decided it was good to go.
  • Not one Councillor questioned either the re-planning process or any specific item on the list; it appears they too were in on the game.
  • The planning process is now so dysfunctional that the net result of Council’s COW session is the CAO has dictated his Strategic Plan, and has Council’s blessing to conduct a “service review” later this year, the usual code words for a bureaucrat’s intention to expand his empire, thinly veiled in his explanation that “Conducting a service review will provide Council and the Town with an opportunity to review the organization’s effectiveness in delivering services in key areas. Further, it will provide recommendations around how to optimize organizational efforts; identify cost savings and/or opportunities for revenue generation; balance stakeholder expectations in the context of our financial constraints; and identify areas where additional resources are needed to meet the expectations of Council and Qualicum Beach residents.” [emphasis ours]

What does all this mean? The conclusions we draw from the evidence available to the public are the following:

  1. The Town’s government prefers to manage its (our) affairs short term and ad hoc, rather than making a longer-range plan and working to achieve it.
  2. Council’s priority-du-jour becomes whatever pet project someone privately lobbies for loudest into Council’s ear.
  3. Taxpayers have little to no opportunity to influence these expensive run-and-gun projects that appear to get launched on a whim.
  4. The CAO has too much influence on these ad hoc add-ons, and too little accountability for constraining non-essential work and expenditure.
  5. Too little emphasis is being placed on shoring up the infrastructure required to deliver core Town services.
  6. No emphasis is being placed on shoring up the Town’s financial reserves.
  7. The CAO’s and Council’s inability to stick to a plan is not limited to the Strategic Plan. Feeling constrained by the Official Community Plan? No problem, we’ll just arbitrarily change the OCP, ignoring public input. Facing an unplanned $1.75 million cost overrun on the planned Roundabout — a cost that could have been avoided by simply cancelling the non-essential project? No worries, just raise the taxes to cover it and keep going.

When an organization finds itself veering off course into unplanned territory, it is typically a reflection of one of four things:

  • The organization didn’t plan well;
  • The Plan is fine, but the organization lacks authority and is frequently being redirected by external forces, hence is unable to achieve a “willed” future, regardless of its planning abilities;
  • It planned well, but did not follow the Plan because of a lack of assigned responsibility and/or accountability, negligence and/or incompetence; or,
  • The Plan is a con job, a ruse, a pretense, a cover to mask the real intent of the organization to wander off and do whatever the hell it pleases.

Like night follows day, unless current behavioural patterns change, the public’s trust in the governance and administration of our Town will continue to diminish.