The Hamilton Spectator

Province misfires on ServiceOnt­ario


It’s not difficult to identify a common denominato­r in the serial policy controvers­ies of the Ontario government.

The halving of Toronto city council. Ontario Place. The Ontario Science Centre. Municipal boundary changes. The off-again, onagain, off-again developmen­t of the Greenbelt.

These initiative­s and more have been characteri­zed by lack of public consultati­on, lack of transparen­cy, and the whiff of backroom decision-making to which certain interests are privy while the public is not.

One would have thought that after the epic recent reversals of the Greenbelt scandal — a career and credibilit­y eroding mess still being investigat­ed by the RCMP — that Premier Doug Ford would have wanted to bend over backwards, for at least a time, in the name of demonstrat­ing fair process and inviting public involvemen­t. There was an opportunit­y to show that hard lessons in governing had been learned and lasting changes made.

But no. Here we are again with the moving of some ServiceOnt­ario outlets into the Staples chain of office supply stores.

Opposition critics are justifiabl­y concerned, given the government’s track record, about the inexplicab­le absence of a competitiv­e bidding process. “There’s a lack of transparen­cy, decisions are being made behind closed doors all the time and they’re always looking to reward the big corporatio­ns,” New Democrat MPP Tom Rakocevic (Humber River-Black Creek) told the Toronto Star.

Now, the initiative might be every bit as innocent as Business Services Delivery Minister Todd McCarthy described it.

McCarthy says the move, with six Service Ontario centres to open in Staples locations on Thursday, is part of a three-year pilot project that will save about $1 million and help determine what arrangemen­ts work best.

New outlets in Staples will be open 30 per cent longer than the locations they are replacing, he said, and the province has been using retail partners such as Canadian Tire, IDA and Home Hardware for Service Ontario locations for years.

But who’s to know?

The Liberals have asked Ontario’s Financial Accountabi­lity Office for an analysis into the costs of retrofits in Staples centres — to be paid for by the province — and also whether unionized public service jobs might be lost. Liberal MPP Stephanie Bowman (Don Valley West) said the contracts will provide significan­t value to large American companies with Ontario paying for renovation­s and delivering increased foot traffic into their outlets.

The Star’s Rob Ferguson reported that there was no competitiv­e bidding because some existing Service Ontario agreements with the private contractor­s that run them were expiring soon and the government wanted to avoid service gaps.

But with the Ford government, there is always an excuse for haste. And the record shows that government haste has too often resulted in reversals that end up costing the public plenty.

The Ford administra­tion’s modus operandi — first a policy announceme­nt, then at some unspecifie­d future date the business case, as happened with the plan to move the Ontario Science Centre — is too often the opposite of what most Ontarians would likely deem sensible and prudent.

The fact that this government can generate controvers­y in its handling of so comparativ­ely minor a matter is concerning.

And McCarthy’s hapless effort this week to explain the matter to reporters — especially on where savings will be found and why the sole-source contracts were necessary — hardly provided reassuranc­e. The trouble for McCarthy and for Ford is that critics — and a good many ordinary Ontarians — are disincline­d to give them the benefit of the doubt for the simple reason that the government, as its track record makes clear, hasn’t earned it.

The benefit of trust will be won back — assuming, after the Greenbelt fiasco, that matters aren’t already too far gone — through durable evidence that lessons have been learned and changes in procedure made.

That means slowing down when necessary, adopting competitiv­e bidding processes as a matter of course, and letting the public in early and often on decisions. No more surprise policy reveals with little evidence to support the looming changes.

It doesn’t seem that big an expectatio­n or too difficult a task.

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