Friday, 11 November 2011

Analogy Day: City Hall as a Business

National Geographic

So today is analogy day here at the Clamshell, something Cityslikr has addressed recently. 

Analogies are powerful and useful rhetorical tools as they can transfer the properties of an argument into a parallel that is more relatable and understandable. Unfortunately, analogies can be used to misrepresent or hide the flaws in poor arguments.

But today we’ll go through some Fordian analogies and see how they hold up.

First up:

We need to run government like a business
Recently Team Ford has also trotted out the ‘we need to budget like families do,’ a canard that has been debunked. So too has this ‘government like a business’ nonsense; government exists to take care of things that the private sector and its profit-seeking motive is ill-equipped to.
But just for a minute, let’s play this game. Let’s grant the analogy that government should be run like a business in order to look at the quality of the management.

It’s really hard to quantify what makes a great executive, but let’s use the definition that they deliver value through measured risk and meeting target deliverables, set a positive tone for the company with their leadership and sell others on why their particular company is a worthwhile enterprise.

Delivering Value and Meeting Targets
Delivering value as an executive requires a blend of skills, from using analytical thinking to measuring the tradeoffs in various choices to meeting the targets you set out to achieve. Let’s look at the biggest projects of the mayor’s team to evaluate progress in this area.

Recently there’s been a lot of talk about the mayor’s “Transportation City” plan, which involved cancelling Transit City, building a Sheppard extension and burying the Eglinton LRT line.
I’ve previously written about the lack of value on theSheppard line, and it seems the invisible hand of the free market is giving a thumbs down to it as well. Initially Ford promised $4 billion of the $4.6 billion would be funded by the private sector, but it turns out unicorns do not exist.  

He also asked the province for an advance on completing the Eglinton LRT line on-budget even though his plan has lacked the analytical foresight  common sense to deal with the Don Valley.  The Sheppard line was promised to be completed for the Pan Am games, but now that promise has been reduced to completing one station.  These are not the project management planning characteristics of a skilled executive.

Likewise, Team Ford’s Quixotic gravy crusade is going poorly. Thus far, around $30 million worth of ‘waste’ has been cut, but these include things like the Christmas Bureau for needy children and the Hardship Fund for low-income seniors—hardly what voters had in mind. Despite these cuts, the Ford Team will fall dramatically short of their promise to find $525 million inwaste for 2011

Transportation City and the KPMG project failed to measure real value and tradeoffs, analyze problems in implementation or get anywhere close to achieving what the Ford Team promised. If these results were announced at an annual shareholder meeting, the stock would immediately plummet and the demands for management’s resignations would be instantaneous.

Setting a Positive Tone
The CEO is seen as the leader of the organization, the person that sets the tone and direction of the workplace.

In the past week I’ve spoken with a number of City Hall bureaucrats for various reasons, and have added the question to each of them to characterize staff morale. Universally, they say that it is either terrible or the worst it is ever been. One staffer thought it was just her department for a while but then when she asked around discovered that was not the case. Many staffers offered unprompted comparisons to the Mel Lastman years, saying that times were tough then but no one doubted his passion for the city.

This was the common theme of comments from city staff, that they are led by an administration opposed to the very idea of government, and thus them.

This is a problem. You want to change how the city works? Great. That involves motivating a great team- 45,000 employees, in fact- to buy into and implement your ideas. Sometimes workplace culture needs changing, but you don’t go about demonizing people and then hope they adopt your ideas.

A winning CEO has a winning personality to motivate those around him or her, and that is not the case here.

Promoting the City
Lastman, for all of his shortcomings, also had no problem promoting Toronto. He understood that a mayor or CEO is chiefly a cheerleader for their organization and they can grow through more recognition and investment.

Rob Ford, for his purported business acumen, has not used this approach. Instead, he has said whenever he can that Toronto is close to broke and doesn’t have any choice but to cut beloved programs, including libraries and childcare.

This is not a culture that attracts investment or respect. Granted, pointed and realistic conversations about the city’s finances are important and should be encouraged. But that’s not what we have here. Instead, we have an administration that’s focused solely on one ideological angle- cutting- at the expense of growing what they have.

It’s short-sighted management. To continue the business analogy, I didn’t buy an iPad Wednesday because Apple has a good balance sheet. I bought an iPad because Apple provides a good product. Their balance sheet is due to the products and services they provide, just like a city prospers based on its liveability.

Executive Summary
So if we really are treating the city like a business, our management sucks. It hasn’t delivered the value they promised, it hasn’t treated its employees or investors (citizens!) with respect and it hasn’t improved the city’s image.

Since it’s Analogy Day, there is a certain kind of executive that the Ford management style is reminiscent of.  It’s a corporate raider style. It’s an outsider coming in, not caring about respecting other stakeholders or underlying value and stripping assets for short-term gain before bailing. It’s not a great growth strategy and it’s not something one should want to be compared to.

NEXT UP: Re-thinking the gravy analogy

1 comment:

  1. Excellent read. The only point that I'd add is that 'corporate raiding' isn't not a great growth strategy, it's NOT (sorry to cap, I can't italicize) a growth strategy at all!