There are mega-dollar projects, such as light rail in all of its phases, and there are the petty dollar items that some councillors (mis)use to their political advantage. There are mid-level spending problems, such as the failure to ensure that the asphalt that was being delivered actually met the specification. Is there a common theme? Is there something that we can point to that, if worked on, that could result in the residents of Ottawa getting more value from their money than they have for the last decade or more?
It all starts with attitude. A common saying from back far too many decades ago for me to want to acknowledge that comes to mind — “Good enough for government work”. It would infuriate the survey party chief who I worked for during my university summers, as he rightly believed those who said it didn’t care enough to do the job right. Is that attitude still in vogue? It certainly appears to be within city hall.
Let’s look at a simple example, to illustrate what I mean about attitude. A private contractor is hired to make repairs to the pipes below a roadway. The firm cuts the asphalt on a road and digs down below the surface to repair underground pipes. The contractor then fills the hole, paves it over and issues its invoice. The city signs off on the repair, often without a physical inspection, and authorizes the invoice for payment. Low and behold, within months the repaired area sinks below the adjacent pavement, likely because the contractor failed to properly compact the soil/gravel mix when they refilled the hole. You know the locations – it’s on pretty much every arterial and collector road in Ottawa.
Who pays to repair the repair? The city, using our tax dollars. Why, because no one with the authority to do something about it cares enough. If it sounds blunt, it is meant to. Let’s try a different standard. If a city employee wouldn’t accept the outcome on their private property, why would they sign off on substandard work because it is the city’s?
The LRT is a glowing example of a solution without an objective.
Look high and low, click as many times as you want to on the city’s virtually impenetrable website. Put in any combination or permutation of words in the search bar to see if you can find anything that properly describes the objectives that are to be achieved by the LRT, in anything resembling a measurable manner. Why can’t you find anything about this? Because it doesn’t exist.
You can find words that talk about it being world-class (an undefined term), about the routes, what the colour coding of signs denotes, the names of stations. But you cannot find anything that says for $2.1 billion, and growing, the city will enjoy the following measurable outcomes. If the city doesn’t know what it is trying to achieve, how will it know whether it achieved it? This is Business 101 folks. It is not a concept that is only at available at the post-graduate level of a university education.
There has been a lot of debate about whether the western route for the LRT should be along the Ottawa River, or down Carling Avenue. A route along the Ottawa River implies there will be few stops, as fewer people live along that route. It implies that the objective is to move people from the outer edges of the city to the middle, quickly. A route down Carling Avenue would pick up more people who live inside the Greenbelt but may be slower due to more stops. The residents of Ottawa should not be left to guess what the objective is. Based on the route it appears the objective is the former, but the plan for Phase 1 and Phase 2 certainly doesn’t achieve it.
What can be done about this? At a more granular level, every project needs a lead paragraph or two that defines the problem, describes the solution, sets out how the solution will solve the problem, and how the organization will know that the problem has been resolved and that the solution has worked. If it is too difficult to do that, then someone has to spend more time defining the problem and ensuring that the solution will actually solve it. If they can’t do that, proceed no further. Case in point, Councillor Mark Taylor’s solution for homelessness. The problem can’t be solved, let alone tell us how the solutions will solve it, but he is willing to spend another level of government’s money on it.
At a much higher, organizational level, what needs to happen is a change in culture, from “its good enough for government work” to “I will spend this money as if it were my mother’s retirement savings.” Changing an organization’s culture is a major challenge. All change must start at the top, so it starts with council. There has to be a willingness around the table to effect change, and the capability to actually make change happen. Looking around the council chambers as it is currently constituted does not leave your correspondent with a sense of hope. Council is currently populated by too many people who are satisfied with the status quo, which allows them to bask in the spotlight when something goes well, and to step around the failures when they go splat on the sidewalk.
In order create change, we need to change the leadership of this city, and the responsibility for that change lies with the voters of Ottawa.
Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association executive for the better part of three decades.
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