Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Explaining the Use of Planning Consultants in Ontario Cities

Academic journal article Canadian Public Administration

Explaining the Use of Planning Consultants in Ontario Cities

Article excerpt

Why do municipalities employ urban planning consultants? Is it due to insufficient internal capacity, perceptions of deeper external knowledge or competence, a check on public service advice or a need for aligned expertise? This study reports on findings from nineteen Ontario municipalities.

Pourquoi les municipalites ont-elles recours a des experts-conseils en planification urbaine? Est-ce en raison du manque de competence interne, du fait que les consultants sont percus comine ayant des connaissances et une expertise plus poussees, en raison du controle sur les conseils des fonctionnaires ou du besoin d'une expertise alignee? Cette etude donne un compte rendu de sondages menes aupres de dix-neuf municipalites en Ontario.

The consulting industry in Canada is growing at an incredible pace. Canadian consulting firms in 2010 earned approximately $9.2 billion and profits continue to grow (Canadian Association of Management Consultants [CMC] 2012). While we often think of consulting firms as advisors to private corporafions, the public sector share of contracts for consultants has grown rapidly over the past ten years--a phenomenon that is prevalent worldwide (Kennedy Research 2012). In 2010, the Canadian public sector represented 49 per cent of consulting firms' clients in comparison to the Canadian private sector, which stood at 45 per cent, while the not-for-profit sector constituted only 5 per cent of their clientele (CMC 2012). Provincial governments accounted for the largest share of the use of consultants within the public sector (66 per cent in 2010) and most notably in advising on health care reforms. Nevertheless, the federal government and municipal governments are also key clients. To extrapolate generalized arguments about why consulting firms are used by the public service, this article pursues a micro-level of analysis by testing its hypotheses at the city level. (1) It examines one area where consultants are frequently utilized by municipal governments: urban planning and design.

The urban planning and design consulting industry has steadily expanded its presence into municipalities. Urban planning and design consulting firms boast of their expert knowledge and creativity in finding solutions to growth and development issues facing municipalities all across Canada. (2) Working with municipal staff, the public, architects and engineers, these firms are shaping the urban development process by offering a full range of planning services associated with preparing official plan amendments, zoning bylaw amendments, draft plans of subdivision, site plan approvals, minor variances and severances for their municipal government clients. The central research question of this article is why do municipalities employ urban planning consultant firms to advise on public sector projects? Despite the increasing involvement of urban consulting firms in municipal infrastructure projects, no systematic study has investigated why municipalities hire external consulting firms. What is lacking is an empirical assessment of the underlying factors that contribute to the increasing use of urban planning consulting firms. We selected 19 medium-sized municipal governments in Ontario to partake in an online survey assessing their views on the use of urban planning and design consulting firms. This research project offers the first evidence-based study of municipal staff perceptions of why Canadian municipalities contract urban planning firms to provide them with advice.

Understanding why municipalities retain urban planning consultancy firms for local projects should help academics and practitioners to better understand the larger implications of hiring external consultants to give policy advice. Stewart and Smith (2007) remind us that, in an era when senior orders of government are devolving responsibilities to municipalities, the policy capacity of municipalities is of vital concern (also see International Labour Organization 2001). …

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