City Smarts

Offering a unique mix of research, consulting and software, PSD is helping municipalities small and large understand the big picture

Photo: PSD vice-president, Matt Dawe

THEY ARRIVE WITHOUT warning, often at night. They are equally harsh on cars, buses and bicycles. They are ­synonymous with winter and they’ll be back around the time you hear someone say, “lake-effect snow.”

They are potholes, a blight on cold-weather cities and towns around the world.

But they are more than just an annual nuisance. They are, in many cases, an indicator of how a given municipality ­operates: a signal of its priorities and competence.

Does the city fix potholes immediately or at a more relaxed pace? Is the fix designed to last years or weeks?

We all want potholes fixed as quickly as possible. But would we still want that if the resources to do so came from the bridge inspection and maintenance budget? From water treatment funds?

From left: PSD’s Matt Dawe, Tyler Sutton, Amanda Sawyer-Noel and Peter Scott

Every city and town prioritizes its expenditures, putting off projects longer so others can be delivered sooner.

Or, in the words of someone who spends her time ­considering these very priorities, “Roads and sidewalks are linear assets and easier to track and maintain. But you also have to consider softer assets like parks and recreational facilities. Are there enough of them? Are they in the right location? Those are more difficult to assess.”

Jill Bellchamber-Glazier is the chief administrative officer (CAO) and clerk for the Municipality of Southwest Middlesex. And part of her job is to recommend how and why the county west of London should spend money maintaining its assets.

Like about 450 municipalities across Canada, including 180 in Ontario, Southwest Middlesex relies on a London company for help not just in managing its current assets, but also in planning and budgeting for new assets and the associated costs.

PSD began life as a specialty publication. Public Service Digest offered research together with specialized articles and advice for municipal administrators and politicians. That was in 2003. Since then, it has grown and shifted its focus dramatically. Today, it provides a combination of research, consulting and software that help municipalities manage their day-to-day assets and budgets while setting priorities and making choices about an expanding collection of assets.

Matt Dawe is vice-president; his father Tom is president and CEO. They founded the company together. Matt runs things day-to-day. Tom is still active, but less involved than he once was.

HR manager, Amanda Sawyer-Noel

The company has more than 50 employees in London, nearly 15 in Burlington where it expanded three years ago by purchasing RAC Software, and a handful in Victoria where it recently expanded again by purchasing the accounting firm Corvee.

The acquisitions have bolstered PSD’s expertise in software development and accounting, giving it a full quiver of services to offer municipalities across Canada and eventually in the U.S.

In the last two or three years, PSD has doubled its client count and expanded its technical development department five-fold. It now employs 30 developers, some of whom have tired of programming for video game companies and have taken their skills to a slightly more grown-up workplace.

“We’re always looking for tech-based developers. We have 10 openings right now,” says HR manager Amanda Sawyer-Noel. “It’s a competitive market in London, and we have to reach out beyond the city sometimes to find people. We certainly work to create a culture where people enjoy working together and also have the opportunity to give back to the community.”

After he had graduated with an economics degree from Western, Matt Dawe landed a job doing an economic development study in Tillsonburg, funded by a 10-month grant from Industry Canada.

“Back then, it was mostly about investments in technology and trying to get broadband Internet service,” Dawe recalls. Being an observant lad, he quickly noted the daunting amount of data even a town the size of Tillsonburg had to manage every day.

Manager of research and marketing, Tyler Sutton

It wasn’t a straight line to the birth of PSD, but it played a role. Indeed, Tillsonburg was one of PSD’s first clients. It remains one today. London is not, much to Dawe’s disappointment. “We keep trying,” he says with a wry smile.

The software side of PSD is CityWide Software Solutions. It provides a series of modules that help municipalities manage their assets, something they have been pushed to do by regulations from Queen’s Park and financial incentives from Ottawa.

“Beginning in 2015, we were required to have an official asset management plan,” says Bellchamber-Glazier. With a population of 6,000, Southwest Middlesex was not overwhelmed by the requirements. “We were able to produce a plan, but it’s the integration of CityWide software that has made a big difference. It tracks and updates our assets and helps us set priorities and determine service levels.”

Municipalities large and small now rely on the ever-evolving CityWide programs to guide and justify funding and scheduling decisions. Like smartphone apps, CityWide programs are updated weekly, incorporating client requests sometimes within days.

The modules track every municipal asset, from roads and bridges to green spaces and industrial services. If a new council wants to speed up the delivery of city services to a new industrial park, the program spells out clearly what other priorities will have to change. If a city wants to be known for its beautiful waterfront and spends heavily to make it happen, the system identifies trade-offs that will be required. Maybe taxes go up. Maybe potholes don’t get fixed until spring. The decisions are still those of council and staff, but they are making them with more information than ever before.

“One of our goals is the creation of more homes in our community over the next four years,” Bellchamber-Glazier says. “We can work toward that goal, understanding what we need in the big picture to achieve it.”

CTO Peter Scott

Similarly, on the consulting side, PSD is helping municipalities plan for climate change realities. “It’s important to assess the resiliency of your infrastructure, to assess how it will react to climate change,” says Tyler Sutton, PSD’s manager of research and marketing. “If we’re having 100-year storms every five years, that will affect spending decisions on infrastructure.”

“It’s about assessing the resiliency of assets,” Dawe adds. The company is working with the University of Oxford’s renowned UK Climate Impacts Programme to help its clients assess climate change challenges.

Having acquired Corvee, PSD will expand its financial analysis options as well. Clients can pick and choose what services they require. But many are all-in for the whole package, relying on the company’s expertise and technology to guide them through the difficult task of managing assets and trying to predict the future for the next generation of residents in their community. Christopher Clark

To read more about PSD, visit Christopher Clark’s blog at www.christopherclarkwriter.com/blog

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