AI teams up with local government - Zoran Postic, City of Vaughan
March 29, 2021
Artificial intelligence is going local. The City of Vaughan is working smarter to bring cutting edge, innovative solutions to their municipality. Deputy City Manager of Public Works Zoran Postic joins us to discuss what technologies and systems Vaughan is using to energize their service delivery for the future. Is this the beginning of the AI revolution?
MW Presents: Thank you for joining us for this special episode of MW Presents, sponsored by the City of Vaughan. I’m Sean Meyer from Municipal World and our guest today is Zoran Postic from the City of Vaughan. Zoran has dedicated his career to improving people’s lives through municipal service. Currently, Zoran brings his high energy forward-thinking leadership to the role of Deputy City Manager of Public Works, where he inspires the operations focused portfolio to continually strive for better performance, higher efficiency, and unparalleled response to citizens. Welcome Zoran.
Zoran Postic: Thank you very much Sean, thanks for having me.
MW Presents: Absolutely, my pleasure. Right off the top, Vaughan is an industry leader in working smarter. How do you apply this concept to better serve your citizens?
Zoran Postic: Well, that’s a great question Sean. I want to come back to better serving our citizens and working smarter. I want to talk quickly about our council strategic plan and our Public Works playbook that completely aligns to that strategic plan. But before I do that, we wouldn’t be successful in working smarter and being innovative in the City of Vaughan, if it didn’t start from the top. And having the support of our mayor, Mayor Bevilacqua, who is very innovative. I’m pretty sure you guys have heard next week, the first smart hospital in all of Canada will be open with smart technology. But we’re very innovative in Vaughan, so not only is Mayor Bevilacqua completely supportive, looking for different ways to do things and innovate, every member of council is pretty much the same way. In my six plus years here, they have never shied away from us doing things different and better, so it starts there.
I talked a little bit about the term of council’s Strategic Plan between 2018 and 2022. Better serving our citizens is part of our mission. Our mission statement here is: citizens first through Service Excellence. And what Service Excellence means to us is: staff are really important and they need to be engaged. We also need to be thinking about different ways to deliver our service -- so operational performance. We’re all being strapped with minimal tax increases and going further with the dollars that we’re entrusted with. And of course, ultimately, we want to provide a great citizen experience for the communities that we serve.
Those three things -- staff engagement, operational performance, and citizen experience -- are really what Service Excellence is about. And these things are interdependent; you can’t not invest in your staff and think they’re going to care about your citizens or that they’re going to think about delivering the service a little bit different.
We developed a Public Works playbook, and we have two key objectives around staff engagement. One of them is to make our people a priority through health, safety, and wellness. What this means is we have people that are coming into work -- and we have arborists that have chainsaws, we have people that are in big pieces of equipment. We want to make sure that the way they arrived is the same way they go home or even better.
The other one is to make sure that we constantly are investing and engaging our staff in creating a great culture. This isn’t just something that we measure every two years through a staff engagement instrument. We want to do this every single day by making sure that our people are important, making sure that we’re doing things differently and better, and people are bringing forward innovative ideas.
And we ended up winning an award -- a professional development award for the Vaughan Innovators Program, which was all about bringing our staff forward so that they would look for different ways to deliver the service and make sure that we’re hitting on our citizen experience.
The last piece really is about our citizens, and we have this thing that we want to make sure we create “wow moments” by making sure that we provide our citizens with services that are safe. So whether it’s drinking water, whether it’s clearing snow and ice off of our roads -- that they have a clean community, meaning that our parks are well-manicured and groomed, the litter’s picked up, and that our community is beautiful. We have all kinds of horticulture programs here and shrub beds and that kind of stuff. These things are vitally important. And without the support of our Mayor and Members of Council, and without the support of all of our staff -- understanding what we get paid to do -- it wouldn’t be possible.
MW Presents: A big part of what you do involves technology. How is Vaughan using things such as QR codes to improve your service delivery?
Zoran Postic: Yeah, before I get into the burning platform or the opportunity with respect to QR codes and how we’re leveraging technology, I want to go back to that delivery of wow. Back to making our people a priority through health, safety, and wellness. Every single month, my office goes out and we meet with staff all across the city. We go and we listen to their safety talks and we go out and we do crew site inspection, so I want to go into our parks area.
When I meet some of the staff in the parks area, they may think that they’re just cutting the grass or they’re weed whacking, or inspecting a playground, or whatever they’re doing in that park. But to me, it really is a break in their day, because when people bring their kid to the park, that’s a break in their day I think. It’s an experience that we’re providing for them where they can take a bit of a break in their day. And Sean, I don’t know what you think about when you think about, wow, what’s a great experience for you?
MW Presents: Great experience for me is usually whenever I’m dealing with any of our clients across the municipal sector. We talk to people about what they’re doing to get through this pandemic on a daily basis. And I never cease to be amazed by what they come up with.
Zoran Postic: Well that’s great, I appreciate that. When I ask our team, “Tell me about a wow moment for you?” That’s what we want to be able to create for our citizens. So it’s going the extra mile and it’s not just about cutting the grass, it’s about the grass looks amazing, so when someone’s in our park, they’re having a great experience in our park. Or if they’re picking up litter, it may not be the most exciting thing in the world, but when someone sees a clean park, they have a great experience. That brings me to the opportunity, or I’d say the burning platform for change. Everyone was experiencing going through COVID-19, and we saw increases in the number of people that were visiting our parks, which naturally created more garbage at some of our parks. That garbage, with the way that we have our receptacles in our parks, led to garbage overflowing over the top and we ended up getting some issues with coyotes.
We worked with our frontline staff and across portfolio team to come up with an idea on how are we going to manage the situation. We piloted new garbage receptacles where you couldn’t pile garbage on top anymore. You basically had, it was a smaller hole for you to put your garbage in, and once they got full, you’d probably take your garbage home, you wouldn’t put it on top. But we came up with new bins. We also put on those bins QR codes, so basically when you were in the park, you could use your smartphone, go up to the QR code and it would send an automatic email to our supervisor of that parks area, our manager, and our director and we would go out and we would change the garbage in that bin. So far, it’s proven to be really good.
Now we’re going to continue to leverage that technology to continue to imagine that entire parks experience. There are two things that we’re looking at. One of them is installing beacons at our park entrances. This will provide citizens, again with the use of their smart devices, information as they enter our parks. For example, they’ll be able to understand when was the last time we cut the grass and when will we be back next time. Once we get out of COVID, we do have concerts in our park, we’ll be able to provide you with that information so it will be a really good experience. The second thing is the evolution of the QR codes; it’s going to be looking at more of the internet of things and putting in sensors in our bins to automatically tell us proactively when bins are getting close to being full. Then we can redeploy our staff and limited resources to those areas to go and replace that bin.
MW Presents: That’s impressive. Very forward-thinking, which leads into our next point. I know that you use artificial intelligence for your salt usage come winter, very important for any municipality. That resulted in a $400,000 savings for you. How did this idea come about?
Zoran Postic: Yeah, we have some people here that are rather proud. They call themselves snow fighters and they most certainly want to be the benchmark of excellence when it comes to winter maintenance. But before I get into how they did this, I just want to say that this whole program, we really were sustaining momentum that we gained a number of years ago when we totally re-imagined our whole winter program. We have a long-term performance-based winter maintenance contract that has yielded two things. Number one, over the last four years, the performance has improved so much that we’ve seen complaints reduced by 60 percent, and we’re seeing a savings over the 10-year life of this contract by upward of $3 million, so that’s not insignificant. All the while we’ve increased the service, we’ve got 18 different customer service reps and trucks that are out there doing things in real time to make sure that the citizens get a great experience.
Back to this artificial intelligence for salt usage that you just referred to; our snow fighters reached out to service providers who had an interesting technology. Basically, the technology took into consideration things like weather forecasts and road weather conditions. We aligned that with our maintenance practices, or our snow fighter playbook, which provided us with optimized recommendations in the different micro-climates that we have across the city of Vaughan, so that we weren’t just generally going out and salting the entire city. We were salting where we needed to. We were a lot more focused. What they would tell me is, “We went from using a hammer, being more precise like a surgical precision.”
We leveraged all these tools and like you mentioned, we’re getting about $400,000 in savings. We were pretty proud of that. The other thing is citizens are still getting a safe road network and we’re reducing the amount of money that we need to provide this service. It’s most certainly been a great example of artificial intelligence. The last thing that I’ll say is we were the first municipality to use this technology. Calgary was the next one most notably, and now the Province of Ontario has moved to this.
MW Presents: Wow. You’ve mentioned your staff repeatedly throughout this conversation so far, and I want to come back to them again. How did Vaughan staff come up with the idea of providing a virtual counter, an online portal where citizens can get their blue and green bins exchanged, delivered straight to their homes?
Zoran Postic: Yeah, this one here, I would say we were talking for a long time about how could we go to a virtual counter? But people like to come in over here at the Joint Operations Center and exchange their blue bin and green bin, and of course we had a counter here with a number of staff that were there. COVID-19 created the world’s largest work from home experiment so I’m really going to say the driver for change on this one is the actual pandemic. We still needed to provide services, people still needed their green bins and their blue bins, so we moved towards what I’m going to call a trial and working with a small contractor to see how could we get blue bins and green bins delivered to someone’s curbside? The other option we explored was maybe they could come back to the Joint Operations Center, and although not being able to come into the building, we could have offered them curbside pickup of blue bins and green bins.
But we decided to try this contract out with a contractor. That whole trial of getting your blue bin and green bin delivered to your home, we’d gone to adoption now, because we just put out a two-year contract that we’ve just awarded. And the amount of money that it’s costing us for you to get your blue bin and green bin delivered to your home, is significantly less than it was for you to pick it up here from the Joint Operations Center. The staff that were doing that work, we took the time to explain why we were moving towards a virtual counter, what was in it for them. And they’re doing other types of work, actually more meaningful types of work, like data analytics and that sort of stuff.
We’ve adopted a new process. Citizens can now either, A, call our Access Vaughan, which is our 311 call center, to let us know that they need a blue bin or green bin replaced. Or they can go right off of their smartphone and use our Service Vaughan app. And they no longer have to take time off work to come over here, fight traffic. It’s a win from a citizen perspective and it’s also saving us money and we’ve redeployed staff. It’s been a great initiative.
MW Presents: That’s amazing. Vaughan has been able to deliver a zero percent tax rate. How has working smarter, being more innovative while always increasing, improving your service level, how do you pull that off during a pandemic? It’s remarkable.
Zoran Postic: Yeah, I think a lot of us are in this same situation where the community is hurting, and I’d like to focus, I mean zero percent was this year, but whether it’s zero percent or last year it was 2.75 percent, I want to go back to that where I started with. When staff are highly engaged and they understand that we need to be doing things different and better and you’re rewarding them for that, and they understand that we need to wow citizens. When people understand that that’s what service excellence is, they’re going to constantly bring ideas to you and you’re going to start to see those ideas. I’m very happy to say that we have 25 people within our portfolio that are lean-trained and they have a mindset in looking at doing things different. If we’d grown by three percent on our road network, we typically aren’t going to say, “Well, we’re going to need a three percent increase in taxes,” we’re always repurposing things, rethinking things. That’s been our mindset.
But I really want to say this, and you just mentioned this a second ago, Sean, it’s having highly engaged staff. The one thing I will tell you, the last staff engagement survey that we did, we went up by 24 points from the last one. Now that’s a huge jump. We’re having another staff engagement survey quarter three of this year. To me it doesn’t matter if we go up one percent or two percent, as long as we continue to trend in the right direction. It’s those highly engaged staff that are always learning, they’re always developing, we’re giving them the space to experiment. Their perceptions of us as management is positive, which, I go back to that award that we won from CAMA. It’s about building trust with them, that, you know what? They’ll bring forward ideas and that we’ll implement them when we can.
The other thing that I’ll say is, it’s a great positive relationship with the union leadership. We have our union president who works within our roads area here in Public Works, so highly engaged staff that are results driven, positive relationships is important. I continue to say this, it’s a culture really focused on enhancing that citizen experience, that continuous improvement, service innovation, making people feel important about what they do. We’ve set up a structure here where we give out what’s called a golden pylon to people that create the best wow moments. And staff vote on which staff members should get that. The same thing with whose work the safest, because we want to make sure that safety isn’t just something we talk about, that it’s something that we live and breathe every day and we’re looking out for one another. The people that are coming up with the most innovative ideas, how are we rewarding them?
I would say that’s how we’ve been able to make sure that we’re managing the dollars we’re entrusted with to the best of our ability, by constantly reinforcing and talking about that our citizens are first through service excellence. What service excellence is. Minding that visibility gap from what we’re talking about at that strategic level down to what does that translate for someone that works in a park? Making sure that they can see themselves in what we’re doing and rewarding them. Staff are the most important element of this, whether they’re dealing with our citizens directly or indirectly through our contractors or a consultant. I would say that is the biggest reason that we’ve been able to keep taxes very low here in Vaughan. And of course, obviously the support from our members of council.
MW Presents: Through all these troubled times, it can’t be easy for your Public Works team in Vaughan to be dealing with all the impacts of the pandemic. How are you managing in these stressful times?
Zoran Postic: That’s a great question. I’ll tell you what, why don’t we turn it over to our mayor to explain this one?
Mayor Bevilacqua: During these unprecedented times, Vaughan dedicated public work professionals are working tirelessly to ensure our city runs smoothly and citizens stay safe. This team continuously strives to implement new and innovative technologies that provide critical services while maximizing the value of our taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars. From clearing snow off the roads to ensuring our drinking water is of the highest quality, and making sure our public spaces are clean, their ongoing efforts continue to make a positive impact in our community. As we continue to respond to the global COVID-19 pandemic, I want to extend my gratitude and appreciation to the Public Works team for their efforts to ensure essential services continue without disruption.
MW Presents: This has been great information Zoran; I really appreciate your time. And thanks for coming to talk with us.
Zoran Postic: Thank you very much Sean, I really appreciate it. Have a great day and stay safe.