Friday, 14 October 2011

The Customer Service of Governance

In addition to John Lorinc’s excellent Walrus article, there’s another piece of good city writing this week, this time from The Grid’s EdwardKeenan. Keenan’s article offers suggestions for how Team Ford can right their ship, from focusing on customer service to having meaningful dialogue with critical councillors and the general public.

The advice is really good; it plays into ways that Ford has branded himself in the past, fulfills campaign promises and appeals to individuals who want to give the mayor the benefit of the doubt. Above all, it’s just good governance.

Yesterday morning TTC chair Karen Stintz took up Keenan’s advice by coincidence. She and some of the TTC brass (Gary Webster, Chris Upfold) held a press conference at Bathurst Station to make an announcement on improving customer service, including engaging the public through town halls, a customer service liaison panel and extending service centre hours (see more details at Torontoist here). 

As much as I bristle at the term ‘customer service’ when it comes to government (as it reduces citizens to a one-sided business-style relationship), this is the good stuff. The TTC operates very efficiently from a technical standpoint but could stand improvement in how transit riders use it on a day-to-day basis. It’s also a cheap means for the agency to improve; costs (labour, infrastructure support) are rising faster than fare increases can feasibly be passed, and without changes to the operating subsidy any improvements will have to come from within.

This would have been a good platform to frame the next step for Ford to sell his ideas to the public, where he could say things like, ‘one thing that’s not gravy is treating people with respect.’ He could say that good customer service involves going beyond the minimum requirements and seeking ways to make sure everyone is involved in an open and transparent process that reasonably considers their opinions, needs and wants and he's a man of his word out to meet his mandate.

Here’s how his campaign literature spoke of these issues in his Taxpayer Protection Plan Backgrounder:

These three promises are important as they speak to the values of Ford as a candidate and the values he heard Toronto wanted for its governance. Clearly, transparency, access and real consideration were priorities for both.

But then Giorgio Mammoliti spoke last night. In an incident later related by Kristyn Wong-Tam and Janet Davis’ Twitter streams, the two councillors tried to attend a child care task force meeting chaired by Giorgio Mammoliti. Although they are on the Community Development and Recreation committee, they were refused entry. They were not notified of the meeting (although a sign was posted outside of committee room three), and were told by Mammoliti that he didn’t want the meeting to be ‘political’.

Wong-Tam responded with an open letter on Twitter criticizing the lack of inclusion and going so far as to say that the process contravened the City of Toronto Act. It doesn’t, as Goldsbie pointed out in early morning tweets, as the task force is not bound by the rules of committees since it has less than half of its membership from councillors (there was Mammoliti and six child care operators).
Mammoliti and Wong-Tam at July Executive Meeting. Photo by

So Mammoliti was technically able to restrict Davis and Wong-Tam from participating, but that doesn’t mean 1) he did it in the best, most respectful way possible 2) he should have done it at all.

Maybe he could have recognized there was a strong desire for Davis and Wong-Tam to contribute, and, as per Keenan’s suggestion, given them a meaningful role in future sessions or aspects. Or maybe he could have asked the meeting attendees if they would like to have them come in the room for some or all of the meeting. Or maybe he could have said that he would be happy to brief them afterwards.

Just like customer service has to go beyond the bare essentials to be effective and valued, openness and transparency go beyond checking the City of Toronto Act to see if any laws have been broken.

This isn’t an isolated incident either. It’s a hostile attitude that’s been represented at all night executive committee meetings and in how various motions have been passed or brought up from the Jarvis bike lanes to the Fort York Bridge to the Dundas pedestrian scramble to the port lands fiasco or the citizen advisory committees that were supposed to be brought back to council for a vote (twice!) but have been forgotten or deemed unimportant. It’s this track record that sows distrust into the discourse.

Ultimately, this marks a failure of Team Ford. Sure, they haven’t kept their promises to have openness and transparency (real transparency isn’t voting on every speaking extension) but there’s a larger implication.

Good governance involves connecting people- opposition councillors, regular citizens- to the institutions that represent them. It’s not always easy to be respectful, transparent and open, but if there’s any ‘customer service’ that government should provide, it’s that.

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