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Better City-Making Means Breaking Down Silos—Here's How

How can city hall leaders break down silos between departments and disciplines, and get to a more holistic approach to city-making? It takes more than just organizational restructuring—it takes real culture change. Here's how.
Brent Toderian | August 10, 2015, 9am PDT
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I'm finding these days that as I'm advising cities around the world about better city-making, the conversations invariably turn from content, to culture. Many city halls are struggling with how to improve their skills, capacity and organizational culture—not just what they do, but how they do it.

One of my favourite related subjects is "silo breaking"—tearing down the figurative walls between disciplines and departments, and building better multi-disciplinary partnerships around a common definition of success in city-making. I've started to call it "post-departmental thinking" when working with city halls, but it's really just silo breaking.


Granville Island, Vancouver - photo via Brent Toderian

Does your local city hall have such shared definitions of success? Ask yourself this—if you polled the various departments in your city hall and asked them what their job description was, would they answer something like "I'm helping to build a great city?" Or would they describe the specific detail of their daily task, like it's the most important thing in their world?

We might want the answer to be the former, but if it's the latter, let's not be too quick to judge—after all, that's how we've set up most city halls. To the real people involved, we're asking about their job description, what they specifically get paid for, and maybe even what they get measured on in their performance reviews. Is it surprising that they consider the details really important?

Such is the nature and problem of job fragmentation in a world of silos. Those of us championing more holistic city-making can be quick to judge those who hold jobs with overly specific job descriptions for thinking that their assigned task is more important than anything else—and for the inevitable myopic thinking that can flow from that. But do we really expect them to balance their task against other broader corporate or public interests? That's not what they're paid to do, or likely what they're trained to do. So shouldn't the real judgement focus on how we've set up the silo structures and cultures to begin with?

Many municipal leaders, seeking to fix the problem and create a shared definition of success, like to quote the famous NASA metaphor (full disclosure—I've used it many times): the story of the NASA janitor being asked by President Kennedy what their job was, and the janitor giving the answer "I'm helping to put a man on the moon."

That kind of culture of common success starts at the top and flows down—with the leadership, vision, inspiration, and constant communication connecting every task and role with the big picture goals. It's easy to talk about this kind of leadership, and actually fairly hard to find it. I've observed leaders, for example, who've talked about it almost constantly, and never seemed to realize they were horrible at it.

And yet, breaking down the silos in city halls toward a more multidisciplinary, holistic perspective on city-making is absolutely necessary for better planned, designed, and built cities. So if we're not there yet, we have to keep working at it, every day. It's a perspective and culture that can take significant energy to achieve, great attention to maintain, and as I've sadly seen in cities I've worked with, relative ease to lose.

So how do we get there? It's a complex conversation, but as part of it, I like to share with my clients an example of what I call the "two levels" of city hall silo-breaking. This example particularly relates to how our city halls consider and review development applications, a key process in city-building.

Many cities recognize that the way they review development applications is very fragmented. The application often goes from department to department, office to office, with each separately looking at the proposal only from their silo's perspective. Without understanding, or even necessarily caring about, the trade-offs between different departmental objectives, it can be very easy for this kind of review to generate a long list of department-specific concerns, prohibitions and "must haves." It's also easy for this list to miss the larger corporate opportunities and the potential overlapping aspirations of other departments. While working in city hall's, I came to nickname this kind of silo-based, office-to-office list generation "The Gauntlet of the No's!" Among other things, it's a very effective way of killing new ideas, as few could survive that many departments, each wielding their position & rules like a veto power (whether they actually have such power or not).

For cities that are seeking to break down the silos and fix this situation, my observation is that there are usually two steps or levels to the process.

The first level, that many cities are still working to achieve, involves bringing all the disciplines around the table to consider applications together. Staff from the different departments meet regularly to discuss their perspectives and concerns with development proposals, presumably before "making up their mind."

I've helped set up such systems, such as the CPAG (Corporate Planning Applications Group) system in Calgary, and I've worked within such systems as they've matured. My observation is that it's better than the separate review process it usually replaces, and should be considered progress. But it's not enough.

The truth is that it's an organizational answer to what is more often than not a cultural problem. Staff are walking into the shared room with their departmental silo hats firmly in place. And too often those hats never come off. Despite the value of hearing other department's perspectives on what might be issues of overlapping interest, if the culture is still to defend departmental rules and "turf," that's what people will do. I've even seen these meetings become a competition around which department can stack the room with the most dominating personalities, in order to "win the battles." And if a departmental representative at the meeting does actually agree with a colleague from a different discipline, protocol often dictates that they have to go back to a more senior department head to check in before they can agree.

The key observation from this is that organizational restructuring, without corresponding training and culture change around more holistic thinking, will always have limited success.

So what is the second level?

I came to understand the second level in practice, rather than just in theory, during my time as Vancouver chief planner. The culture I came into (built carefully by my predecessors), and over years worked hard to protect and strengthen, looked at city-making in a holistic way, no matter which department was speaking in meetings (there were always some exceptions, but at the time they were not the rule -- and I can't comment on how Vancouver City Hall operates now). The culture we built meant that I could chair meetings with every department present, and joke that I could play what I called the "blindfold game"—if I were to blindfold myself, I wouldn't know which department was speaking by what was being said. The transportation engineer was talking about daycare. The real estate rep was talking about public realm design or bike-lanes. And they were often championing context-based priorities that were, on paper, other department's turf, over their own departmental needs. They may have had their silo hats on when it came to providing departmental information, but the hats were off when it came to discussing the highest priorities in a given moment in city-making. And very rarely were departmental needs argued for like vetoes —just inputs into a multi-facetted conversation. Our shared goal was to build a great, successful city, not pad our departmental numbers, guard our turf, or "win."

That's the second level of silo breaking. That's what success looks like.

The first level of silo breaking is about structure. It can be drawn on a flow or org chart. And let's be clear—it's an improvement, and it's important. But it's not success by itself. Success in silo-breaking, in most city halls, needs culture change. The good news is that although culture change isn't easy, its completely possible, and can be an extremely inspiring process, once your city hall has its eye on the right ball.

So having read this, where would you say that your local city hall finds itself today? Still struggling to reach level one? Practicing level one, but not even aware that level two is possible?

One thing remains clear to me—when it comes to silo breaking, or most things in city hall, organization matters, but culture trumps organization every time.

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