‘In­de­pen­dent’ re­ports have lost their mojo

Stud­ies meant to guide the city’s de­ci­sion-mak­ing are rou­tinely ig­nored, crit­i­cized and damned

Toronto Star - - GTA - Royson James

City gov­ern­ment would grind to a halt or spi­ral into shout­ing matches be­tween war­ring po­lit­i­cal fac­tions were it not for the in­de­pen­dent staff re­port.

Cou­pled with stud­ies pre­pared by in­de­pen­dent con­sul­tants, these serve as silent ref­er­ees in civic spats.

They are sup­posed to pro­vide facts and fig­ures, of­fer ev­i­dence, show ex­am­ples of best prac­tices and an­swer the es­sen­tial ques­tions raised by a public pol­icy dilemma or op­por­tu­nity.

Why, then, are they so rou­tinely ig­nored, crit­i­cized, and damned as no more than the bi­ased, self-serv­ing, un­trust­wor­thy and politi­cized polemics of the group or fac­tion com­mis­sion­ing the study?

Be­cause they have lost cred­i­bil­ity.

This de­stroyed rep­u­ta­tion is wel­learned.

All par­ties in­volved in public de­bate in the public square have con­trib­uted to the prob­lem. The very doc­u­ment­ing of in­for­ma­tion and ideas that is to as­sist us in mak­ing good de­ci­sions has been cor­rupted.

Blame the bu­reau­crats. Point fin­gers at the self-serv­ing politi­cians. Con­demn the my­opic citizen. Too many of us have nur­tured this de­struc­tion of in­de­pen­dent thought, the ero­sion of the idea that facts should speak for them­selves.

Con­sider the re­port this week that con­cludes it is not pru­dent for the city to pri­va­tize garbage col­lec­tion east of Yonge St. to match pri­vate pickup west of Yonge.

The find­ing runs counter to the elec­tion prom­ise of Mayor John Tory. It flies in the face of sev­eral of his al­lies, in­clud­ing the chair of the public works com­mit­tee and sundry con­ser­va­tive coun­cil­lors. It came un­der im­me­di­ate at­tack. Eto­bi­coke has had pri­vate pickup since 1995. Dis­trict 2 (from Eto­bi­coke to Yonge St.) was con­tracted out in Au­gust 2012. The im­pact is sav­ings of about $11 mil­lion a year. Surely, sim­i­lar sav­ings are to be had by repli­cat­ing the pri­vate pickup east of Yonge.

But the staff re­port ar­gues that pri­va­ti­za­tion in the west end has pushed the gov­ern­ment work­ers in the east to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity. All things con­sid­ered — in­clud­ing costs of find­ing the dis­placed gov­ern­ment work­ers new jobs — “the cur­rent ser­vice de­liv­ery ap­proach pro­vides a com­pet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ment that is ef­fec­tive in terms of costs and per­for­mance.”

Pri­vate firm Ernst & Young LLP in­de­pen­dently ver­i­fied staff’s anal­y­sis. Doesn’t mat­ter. Politi­cians who want the whole city pri­va­tized lined up this week to slam the re­port.

Want to fix up the Gar­diner Ex­press­way? Do a study. Do sev­eral stud­ies. And no mat­ter the find­ings, those who want the Gar­diner re­moved will find holes in the re­port. Those who want it un- touched will point to other prob­lems in staff find­ings that sug­gest it be torn down.

Then, there is the is­land air­port ex­pan­sion pro­posal. Does any­one — other than the pro­po­nents — sup­port con­sul­tant re­ports on the level of noise, dis­rup­tion, en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts and safety con­cerns sur­round­ing the pro­posal? Fat chance.

This week, a re­port com­mis­sioned by Air Canada con­cluded that the said ex­pan­sion could cost as much as $1 bil­lion more than Porter Air­lines is sug­gest­ing. Anti-air­port forces are likely pleased — un­til it’s pointed out that Air Canada (Porter Air­lines’ com­peti­tor) is op­posed to the ex­pan­sion.

Transit plan­ning is par­tic­u­larly cap­tive to the malaise of poor cred­i­bil­ity af­flict­ing staff re­ports.

Early re­ports on the ex­ten­sion of Bloor-Dan­forth sub­way up to the Scar­bor­ough Town Cen­tre put rid­er­ship num­bers at 9,500 per hour in the peak di­rec­tion. Just as the pro­ject seemed to fal­ter, barely meet­ing rid­er­ship fig­ures for an LRT, a staff re­port boosted the num­bers to 14,000 per hour.

The sec­ond re­port was rushed and used dif­fer­ent as­sump­tions. Crit­ics cried foul. A new study is be­ing done. But few be­lieve the find­ings will be un­in­fected by pol­i­tics.

Mean­while, stud­ies re­gard­ing Smart­Track are al­ready sus­pect. Mayor John Tory’s planned transit line, which jumped the queue to be­come a pri­or­ity pro­ject above oth­ers the bu­reau­cracy and politi­cians had ear­lier pro­posed, is sure to find favour with staff.

Ev­ery­one re­mem­bers what hap­pened to TTC boss Gary Web­ster when he spoke against the sub­way planned by Mayor Rob Ford. He lost his job.

And, as one city staffer said Wed­nes­day, “Some coun­cil­lors are out-and-out bul­lies. They in­tim­i­date staff. They put the fear of God into staff and I know staff who’ve said, ‘I’m not go­ing to rec­om­mend against that. I’m afraid of be­ing Web­ster­ized.’ ” Royson James usu­ally ap­pears Tues­day, Thurs­day and Satur­day. Email: rjames@thes­tar.ca

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