Jul 11

No recommendations in KPMG reports

We’re nearly two weeks into the slow roll-out of the KPMG-produced Core Service Review reports. All in all, it’s been a process both maddening and mundane. Each report contains something that very clearly should be considered pretty damn sacred — Heritage Grants, Community Investment Programs, childcare spaces, libraries — but, at the same time, neither the mayor nor council has actually endorsed any of these prospective cuts, so getting all worked up about loss of service seems premature. Nothing’s been recommended yet.

Let’s repeat that last bit: nothing has been recommended yet.

For real, despite some media outlets who have continued to report that the KPMG reports lay out a series of recommendations that will save the city cash off its bottom line, what they actually do is far less sexy. The consultants make no recommendations, no suggestions, point out no defined ‘waste’ or specific opportunities for significant efficiencies. Instead, all they do is list and categorize city services, identifying those that are mandatory (ie. bound to exist through provincial/federal legislation), those that are essential (ie. those that without which the city would catch on fire or sink into the lake) and those that are traditional (ie. those that are commonly-accepted municipal responsibilities). The consultants also “grade” the quality of service provided by each function, and identify places where service could be scaled back to be more in line with comparable cities across the globe.

That’s it and that’s all.  The introduction to the reports lays it out pretty clearly. Here’s what they say they’re going to do: “review and analyze all City of Toronto services, activities and service levels provided by divisions and agencies and to apply a core service filter to assist Council’s decision-making. The filter identifies services that are not core, or that are provided at higher than standard service levels.”

Even more telling is what they say  they say they aren’t going to do:  there will be no “detailed analysis of services to identify efficiency and effectiveness opportunities.” Also no “detailed articulation of cost savings potential to be achieved through service changes.” And, lastly, they’re not going to make “management decisions on what actions to pursue with respect to City services.” Or, in other words, this is just a list of items filtered through a framework. These are not recommendations.

And that only makes sense, because they don’t read like recommendations. Why else would things like the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, City-owned parking lots or the Pet Licensing program appear on the list? These programs have a good track record of actually generating revenues for the city. Yes, they’re activities that go beyond the “core” services the City of Toronto should provide, but they’re relative success stories — there’s no business case to recommend cutting them.

The mayor may not understand this

The Toronto Sun really doesn’t seem to grasp this. They’ve used the words “recommend” or “recommended” across most of their stories relating this process. But that’s forgivable: long-winded explanations like the one above don’t just take up valuable column space, they also bore the hell out of people.

More troubling are comments from Mayor Rob Ford, who told the Toronto Sun on Wednesday that, “The report shows there are millions of dollars to be saved by getting rid of waste and duplication.” Well, not really. The report mostly shows that there’s some money to be saved if the City stops doing some of the things it has been doing.

Real efficiency — the kind that doesn’t result in massive service cuts — requires a long-term, measured approach. The KPMG report does vaguely point to some potential avenues that might result in real efficiencies: things like combining HR functions, contracting out cleaning services or outsourcing printing and design work. But those kinds of rejiggerings-of-bureaucracy are slow-movers. They’re not going to provide the same kind of immediate budget-saving impact as would, for example, selling Exhibition Place, shutting down all-night bus service or immediately eliminating all funding for community events like Pride or Caribana.

No focus on improving customer service

One of the things that so endeared then-Councillor Rob Ford to his constituents was his focus on customer service. He was known for visiting residents with city staff in tow, making sure that complaints were dealt with in a timely manner. It’s one of those things that marks the Mayor — despite the political rhetoric and divisiveness — as an ultimately decent and compassionate guy.

That’s why it’s so sad that this Core Service Review process has essentially turned its back on the notion of improving customer service for residents. In fact, it’s been outright hostile to customer service, identifying places where the city ranks too highly and placing them into consideration for potential cutbacks. KPMG’s report introduction states outright that “Services that appeared to have elevated service levels were considered for opportunities for service level reductions, alternate service delivery, or reengineering.”

A few months into this council term, Ford described customer service as his “number one priority.” That priority seems to have been lost in this process.

May 11

Ford Nation, Assemble!

Shortly after the city launched its new website dedicated to the comprehensive service review taking place this summer, Rob Ford put out the call to Ford Nation.

The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale explains:

Mayor Rob Ford has asked campaign supporters to help him by attending the public consultation meetings the city is holding to learn which services residents believe should be preserved and which should be cut.

The message comes after the vast majority of people who attended consultation meetings on the 2011 budget were opposed to Ford’s plans.

The email sent to people who signed up for Ford’s campaign updates is titled “Mayor Ford needs your help!”

via Ford summons ‘nation’ to public meetings – thestar.com.

This feels like a divisive move, essentially pitting the ‘Ford Nation’ of voters against an other — call them downtown elites or lefty pinkos or whatever. One of the moves you’d expect a politician to make after winning such a heated election is to “reach across the aisle” and attempt to find common ground with opponents. Ford has made almost zero effort to do that.

I find it hard to condemn the message whole-heartedly, though, as it feels like this kind of thing happens a lot. Recall the recent attempt to pack council chambers with pro-housing types during the TCHC debate, for example. It led to jazz hands.

If you’re a regular reader of this site, I urge you to take a look at the Service Review website, and fill out the questionnaire. The questions are obviously geared toward facilitating service cuts, but it’s fairly even-handed overall. If you’re like me, you’ll find that there are very few city-delivered services that have the potential to be contracted out. My major criticisms: I’d like there to have been a distinction made between contracting out to a private, for-profit agency and contracting to a not-for-profit or other community agency, and also it would have been useful for there to be more questions about the role of other levels of government in providing city services.

Mar 11

Finding waste: Hurry up please it’s time

David Rider:

The City of Toronto is preparing to unleash pricey management consultants on all departments and agencies, with orders to uncover waste and identify city services ripe for “potential reductions and discontinuation.”

Executive committee is expected to authorize the reviews Monday, kicking off months of painful deliberations to find $775 million in savings and revenue to balance the 2012 operating budget.

via Team Ford set to give go-ahead to gravy-sniffing consultants – thestar.com.

Tomorrow the Executive Committee will consider EX4.10, a report on the 2012 budget process. This represents basically everything you’ve been hearing about when people mention “2012” and all the terrible things that come with it. In brief: the city will spend three million dollars on consultants, who will identify areas where the city can save money. Presumably they will find enough in cuts to shave 774 million dollars off the city’s operating budget, as that’s the  amount of pressure the city faces next year. The City of Toronto must balance its operating budget and cannot carry a defecit.

Why this is harder than anyone will admit: read this.

Here are the things that the city spends a significant amount of its revenues on: Police Services, TTC, Debt Charges, Fire Services, Shelter & Housing, Parks & Rec. Those would be your “first tier” — the big-ticket items. Then you have Employment & Social Services, Transportation Services, and the Toronto Library. Beyond that, you get into small-ticket items like community partnerships (ie. grants) — these will be cut, but it will be for ideological reasons more than anything else. People will claim that governments simply shouldn’t be supporting, for example, an arts program, when “it can’t afford it.”

Yes, there is a lot of room for efficiencies in the programs offered by the City. Finding such efficiencies should be an ongoing project. But you’re not going to find enough efficiencies to dig your way out of this hole. This will be about taking a long, hard look at everything the city offers and deciding if something can be eliminated or drastically cut.

This will be amount making city services fit into the budget, as opposed to making a budget that fits city services.

David Nickle talked to Shelley Carroll, and she put it like this:

Don Valley East Councillor Shelley Carroll was budget chief under Mayor David Miller. She said she supports the planned review, but was skeptical that council would have the stomach to actually implement the service cuts and realignments that would be necessary to find the quarter-billion dollars in savings.

“Councillors defend – we’re great at defending,” she said. “And if we’re going to do this on the council chamber floor on Channel 10, we’re just going to defend the heck out of everything.”

Carroll said councillors need to meet and focus in on areas where they’re all willing to make cuts.

“We need to do this so we know what the councillors’ no-go sacred cows are,” she said.

“If we find one, then we need to know where else you want to look to find efficiencies.”

via InsideToronto Article: Former budget chief skeptical of mayor’s savings plan

She knows, of course, that most of the operating budget is made up of either mandated programs or “no-go sacred cows.” It’s very challenging to fill this hole without killing a sacred cow. (I won’t rule out, though, that they may pull a rabbit out of their hat that will balance 2012 and shift pressure to 2013. It’s happened before.)

Keeping to the same pace as the 2011 budget process, this stuff will happen very very quickly over the summer. From the report, here’s the schedule we’re looking at:

At least it won’t be boring.

Mar 11

Ford enjoys a 60% approval rating, says terribly misleading poll

Kelly Grant with the Globe & Mail:

Rob Ford enjoys a 60-per-cent approval rating, according to the first public poll released since he took office Dec. 1.

However, Toronto-based Forum Research, Inc. found that urban and suburban Torontonians remain deeply divided about Mr. Ford: His approval rating was highest in Scarborough (71 per cent) and North York (65 per cent) and lowest in the old cities of Toronto and East York (46 per cent.)

“That puts him higher than his vote, so somehow he’s got the approval of some of his opponents’ supporters, which I think is quite a task, especially given how polarizing the election was,” said Lorne Bozinoff, the president of Forum Research. “My gut feel is that’s a good rating.”

via Rob Ford more popular now than at election – The Globe and Mail.

Always fun to see pollsters going by their “gut feel.”

Grant points out that while a 60% approval rating isn’t bad by any means, David Miller’s approval rating was 82% six months into his first term. Quick googling reveals that Miller’s approval ratings stayed very high until the garbage strike in 2009. In 2005, well into his first term, Miller sat at 69%.

More troubling is the nature of the poll questions. Forum Research asked respondents 11 questions about various policies. Of those, several of the questions are incredibly misleading, generally skewed toward pushing support for the mayor’s initiatives.

Here’s a quick breakdown, I’m assuming all questions began with “Do you agree with…” or “Do you support…” but that’s been omitted in the report.

  • “The privatization of garbage collection for parts of the city” – A fine question. Notable that only 54% of people agree with this. I’d have pegged popular support at a higher level.
  • “The mandatory 5 cent plastic shopping bag fee” – Another appropriate question. It’s hilarious how much older people hate this fee.
  • “Declaring the TTC an essential service that would ban strikes and lockouts” – I don’t have a huge problem with this question, but I’d guess that rephrasing it as “Declaring the TTC an essential service, increasing labour costs related to transit” would see very different results.
  • “Tearing down the eastern end of the Gardiner expressway” – Why even ask this? Has it come up at all? Was there more context given? A weird question.
  • “Providing jobs for life for city employees” – This is where these questions go off the rails completely. They might as well have phrased as this “Do you support fatcat union members?”
  • “Using private sector financing to pay for the Sheppard subway so it can be built sooner” – What the hell is this one? No one is proposing that private sector funds will get transit built on Sheppard faster than originally planned. The Sheppard East LRT would have been open in less than three years.
  • “Spending $3 million to hire an outside consultant to look at ways to make the City more efficient?” – If there’s bad news for Ford in this poll, it’s this question. Only 38% of people support the move to hire an outside consultant. A fair question. (Interesting, too, that the $3 million dollars only become public knowledge at council on Thursday, February 24  – this poll went into the wild on Friday, February 25.)
  • “Relaxing liquor regulations so that you can walk around with a drink at licensed events instead of having to stay in a beer tent?” – This is a provincial issue that doesn’t have anything to do with the City’s government.
  • Licensing bicyclists so that traffic laws can be enforced with them?”Oh, screw off. I love the implication that traffic laws can’t be enforced with cyclists currently because of the lack of some kind of licensing program. Cyclists already are subject to the rules of the road. A municipal licensing program wouldn’t do anything to change that and would cost a ton of money.
  • “In order to improve public transit, do you think more below ground subways or more above ground light rail streetcars should be built?” – No one is proposing more streetcar lines as Toronto knows them. A ridiculous question in the sense that even diehard Transit City supporters would probably be forced to answer for below ground subways. In an ideal world we’d have below ground subways everywhere.
  • “Should the City build more City owned social housing units or should the City provide rent subsidies so those needing social housing can rent privately owned units instead?” – Not as egregious as some of the other questions but, again, there’s a clear skew here. The subtext is “Should the city keep spending YOUR TAX DOLLARS on public housing or should we just let the awesome private sector deal with it?” As I noted yesterday, Section Eight housing subsidies exist across the United States and still lead to the same issues we see with our public housing system — slumlords eagerly accept the subsidies while “nicer” market rental buildings refuse them.

In summary, this poll reveals primarily that Ford is currently a semi-popular mayor and little else. Anyone who can read some of the questions contained within this poll and feel like they’re an accurate representation of anything is kidding themselves.