Background. As providers of essential services such as water, sewer, transit, waste management, housing, long-term care and policing, municipalities have more influence on the day-to-day lives of Canadians than any other level of government.

The same issues that are making headlines on the news and social media, including climate change, COVID-19, homelessness, privacy, and racism, impact these services. At the same time, municipalities are vulnerable to unproven and sometimes inflammatory criticism that circulates on social media, where everyone has a voice regardless of credibility and algorithms create the impression that problems are larger and more common than they actually are.

Impact.  A collapse in trust in government services appears to be fuelling an increase in often-tenuous claims against municipalities, including from self-represented and class action litigants. This includes an uptick in defamation and reputational claims against municipal politicians and staff. At the same time, insurance companies are finding it challenging to price the unpredictable impacts of forces such as climate change and civil unrest. As a result, municipalities are having a hard time placing insurance in the market at a reasonable price and more communities are considering self-insurance.

Top tip. While it may feel like a thankless distraction from the actual work of local government, municipalities would do well to maintain proactive communication with citizens, working hard to establish themselves as trusted sources of information. To remain credible over the long term, communities will require meaningful civic engagement opportunities, comprehensive risk mitigation and risk management plans, and effective crisis management when the unexpected inevitably occurs.

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