Thursday, 21 July 2011

Lizard Brain Planning

Over on Twitter, City Hall All-Star (or Mongoose, according to Torontoist) Jonathan Goldsbie points out an interesting observation in Toronto Star article, “Road to Privatize TTC Would be Bumpy”. In the article CD Howe Institute analyst Ben Dachis asserts that making the TTC an essential service makes it more difficult to contract out as arbitrators are sympathetic to the group’s status when making decisions.

Of course, this is contrary to inclination of the Ford administration to contract out whatever possible. Isolated as an ideological principle, contracting out city services is fine. You may not agree with it or its underlying vision for the role that government plays in building communities, but it’s an intellectually grounded position that can be discussed. It’s the contradictions, lack of intellectual planning and grounding that make the Ford administration’s logic (or what there is of it) so tough to follow.
Photo by Flickr user chewie2008

The decision to make the TTC an essential service was a curious one in the first place. Mark Towhey, Ford’s top strategy and policy adviser, had argued on his personal blog (link to Steve Munro's commentary, blog post has been deleted) during the campaign that the city should not run the TTC at all. Not that funding arrangements should be different or the province should run it, but that the city could save a lot of money by not offering the service. Plus, it would encourage neighbours to share taxis! Seriously, that was a reason he offered in a since-deleted blog post. Granted, Towhey doesn’t share all of the views of Ford, so the mayor shouldn’t be held to that silliness (although he did hire Towhey).

But to go in completely the opposite direction is something else. The logic behind the TTC being made an essential service went something like this: TTC strikes are disliked and the union is disliked so let’s stop strikes and disempower the union by making it an essential service.

There are problems with this. Dachis published a 2008 study for the CD Howe Institute- considered a conservative leaning organization- that argued making the TTC an essential service is not a definitive way to stop strikes, will lead to higher wage increases ($25M over 3 years) and makes it more difficult to win union concessions in the future despite limits in union negotiation. In other words, none of the aims would be achieved. But those warnings were ignored. Planning was thrown out the window in favour of sticking it to unlikeable TTC Union boss Bob Kinnear right away.

What’s troubling about this- policy considerations aside- is the fact that the Ford administration set their sights on a small short-term goal in making the TTC an essential service that they lost sight of their own team’s goal of making the TTC smaller organization with fewer employees and outsourced services. In other words, they even failed to plan for their own ideological goals.

The lack of planning extends to other important areas of governance. In the 2011 budget deliberations Speaker Frances Nunziata, presumably acting on orders of Ford, forbade councillors from referring to the 2012 budget. Knowing that there would be a 2012 shortfall but wanting to focus on the immediately gratifying Ford tax cuts, the ruling against prudence and planning forced left-leaning councillors to refer to the 2012 budget as the Voldemortesque budget-that-must-not-be-named.

Now that the 2012 budget is topical with the KPMG core service reviews, the planning is equally poor and short-sighted. Even the normally vanilla-opinioned Josh Matlow criticized the framework on his website:

"While I believe it was necessary to review how, and what, services our municipal government delivers, it is clear to me that the review process announced by the mayor's office was done hastily and did not properly take into account the feasibility of the proposals in the consultant's report nor the needs of most Torontonians."   
Lizard Brain Instincts

By conducting a piecemeal review that separates city services from the value they create, the service review fails to provide a wholesale look at how the city can operate better. Instead, it is a knee-jerk reaction to the most immediate desired outcome, in this case to cut off as much government as possible, sort the consequences later. While the policy effect may be different that the TTC essential service argument (reducing vs. preserving city paid employees) the same flawed process and management underlies the decision making. 

It’s a kind of decisions making and governance style that is visceral, where the rhetoric and discourse appeals to our lizard-brain. The underlying philosophy doesn’t even have to be consistent so long as the emotional resonance is. By focusing on emotional, short-term and immediately gratifying outcomes, Team Ford abandons planning, leading everyone to wonder just what could happen next. And it’s that emotional effect, the fear and uncertainty of what might happen, that is one of the few consistent things coming from the administration.    

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