‘Independent’ reports have lost their mojo
Studies meant to guide the city’s decision-making are routinely ignored, criticized and damned
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: email@example.com