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Mayor irked by fallibility of human corporate memory

Some past practices lack documentation for current city staff

By: Victoria Paterson

  |  Posted: Saturday, Apr 26, 2014 06:00 am

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Is it possible that St. Albert has a corporate memory problem?

At the most recent standing committee on finance meeting, staff noted in a report on the capital envelope the practice was “believed to have been introduced sometime around 2004” and noted there was no formal documentation around the practice from the time.

“As such, there is not a great deal of documentation to support its origins and some of the specifics related to it. Interviews with current and previous personnel have helped to fill in some of the gaps,” reads the report given to council’s committee.

Instances of disconnect between past and present show up other times during council meetings, like when Coun. Cam MacKay suggests the information he has is that the school site allocation agreement was intended to be interpreted differently than staff currently do.

While the city does have an official records management policy, city manager Patrick Draper said, the files that are kept have to do with the official record, so it keeps council reports, special studies, contracts and other “official record documents.”

Institutional memory to provide context for past practice is occasionally tapped via staff who have been with the city for years and their contracts with former city employees.

“That happens a lot,” he said. “We definitely try and connect with that knowledge and memory.”

Draper said the city now ensures any documents around a special project will be deposited in one place on the city’s network, instead of only filed by department.

He said an area where the city could improve is policy review.

“The policy needs to be looked at in terms of when it is going to be renewed and refreshed,” he said. “We need to have greater standardization around when policies are going to be reviewed.”

As for why the practices around the capital envelope concept are hazy – a formula that’s used to provide money from municipal operating revenues to the city’s capital funds – Draper said it never was a formal policy.

“The capital envelope in particular, there was not very much documented through the years so that is a challenge and they haven’t been able to find that many people who remember exactly why certain things were done,” Draper said.

Mayor Nolan Crouse has been on a quest for enshrining more council motions in policy, noticeably kicking that commentary up since he was re-elected in October.

“It is the essence of why stuff has to be put into policies and procedures and it cannot be expected to be maintained in the corporate memories of humans,” Crouse said.

He said the capital envelope practice is a good example – a significant use of public funds with little to no accompanying documentation.

While Crouse doesn’t advocate having a policy for everything – he said there’s an obligation to give people some flexibility – he said there is a need for documentation.

Context for why the policy is developed isn’t as important.

“It doesn’t matter as much as documentation or the principles and the application of it,” he said.

Crouse does frequently speak to one of his predecessors, while others he talks to occasionally.

Certainly in the case of former city manager Bill Holtby, he’s willing to provide information to senior management and has made himself available to do so, though he understands why current city employees might use that route only sparingly.

“Organizations are more forward-looking,” he said, noting while he was city manager, he’d consult his predecessors “from time to time” but not for everything.


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