The City as Consultant
Most cities already freely share ideas with others, but some are starting to sell their best practices to other local governments.
Some cities are better at certain things than other cities. Buffalo might be better at snow removal than, say, Nashville. Maybe a city has developed an approach to fleet management that others want to emulate. Perhaps one town has a personnel department that could serve as a national model.
Cities typically are willing to share their best practices with others. For the most part, though, municipalities haven’t tried to capitalize on their expertise.
But that’s exactly what the Canadian city of Edmonton is now exploring. It has been recognized for its highly efficient approach to waste management. Now it’s marketing that knowledge to other local governments -- for a fee.
Edmonton diverts about 60 percent of its refuse away from the landfill, through a combination of recycling, composting and converting household waste into biofuel. Its waste management center receives more than 15,000 visitors a year, many hailing from other governments that want to study the Edmonton way. In 2013, the city decided to see if it could generate revenue by creating Waste RE-Solutions, an independent for-profit company with the city as its sole shareholder.
To help the company get started, the city council approved $1.9 million in seed money for two years. Day-to-day affairs are run by Roy Neehall, who previously managed the city’s waste management utility. Still in its nascent stage, the company is in talks with potential clients in both China and the United States.
If the experiment is successful, it won’t be the first time that Edmonton has spun off a commercial enterprise based on experience in the public sector. In 1996, the municipally owned water utility incorporated as a private business with an independent board of directors, but only one shareholder, the city. Today it provides water and wastewater services to more than 85 communities in western Canada and parts of Arizona and New Mexico, generating about $150 million in annual revenue for the city, or about 8 percent of Edmonton’s revenues.
Could Edmonton’s success spark a wave of consultant-cities in the U.S.? Perhaps. Right now it’s hard to find an American equivalent. But Denver comes close: A couple of years ago, the city launched its Peak Academy, a program that trains city workers to be in-house consultants, helping their agencies deliver services more quickly and at a lower cost. Denver has since opened the program to other cities, and interest has been high. So high, in fact, that the academy now charges other governments when they send more than one employee at a time. “We have too much demand,” says Brian Elms, who runs the Peak Academy. The city prices a full week’s training at $2,000 per participant, which Elms notes is less than a private company would charge. “They’re still getting the training,” Elms says, “and not paying out the nose.” The academy is already booked for outside participants through September.
For Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, the approach is a no-brainer. “If there’s an opportunity for a city to share and create some return on the investments in innovation,” he says, “why shouldn’t cities capitalize on the solutions that they’ve developed?”
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story incorrectly stated the percentage of refuse that Edmonton diverts away from its landfill. It is 60 percent.