Backroom Briefing Q: Why Does It Seem Like Decisions Are Made So Slowly At City Council?

GOYETTE'S BACKROOM BRIEFINGQ: Why does it seem that decisions are made so slowly at City Council? –Bill, Peterborough

Goyette:  The question is fairly general in nature, so I am going to respond in kind.

First, the conventional wisdom. Government is slow. In a race with a turtle, it would strike a subcommittee to review the risks associated with winning. The file is under active review. It will be determined in the fullness of time. The perception of lethargic government is so fully ingrained in the broader culture that we presume it to be self evident. And it is undeniably rich territory for the jester: “If it was forced to proceed through City Hall, the aging process itself would be slowed down.”

Because speed is relative, we see the measured march of the public sector in relation to the hustle and headway of the private sector, and the comparison is not flattering. Neither is it fair, and here’s why.

Unlike the private sector, the public sector is not driven by revenues, margins or profit. Its shareholders have expectations that go well beyond financials to include every aspect of public life, the breadth and complexity of which cannot be denied. As a result, government becomes a pleaser and a purveyor of inclusiveness, generating practices that necessarily chew up time.  Government operates in a fishbowl, and that means it has to present favourable processes as well as favourable services. Those processes are extensive and often imposed by other governments. Government leaders understand that the most meaningful and grounded decisions—the ones that are likely to come back and bite you—are those that result from genuine community consultation and input, which takes time.  

I am not an apologist for slow government. Neither are most people I have met who work in government, the vast majority of whom want to be part of a prideful organization. The issue has to do with the manner in which the above noted public sector characteristics are perceived by public sector workers. Unfortunately, some will use those characteristics as a rationalization for inefficiency, creating a culture of acquiescence and resignation.

To my mind, the answer lies in accepting the reality that government proceeds at a pace designed to serve its uniquely public purposes. The trick lies in creating a workplace culture that resists the temptation to let constraints become crutches, and pays permanent homage to the idea of doing things better. And faster.


David Goyette is the Executive Assistant to Peterborough Mayor Daryl Bennett. Email your burning questions for David about City Hall to

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