City Hall Needs To Care: Benn

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Does the City of Ottawa get value for our money?  Does it even try to?

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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14 thoughts on “City Hall Needs To Care: Benn

  1. I thought the goal of the LRT was pretty clear — to get buses off the downtown streets hereby making it easier for cars and trucks to get around.

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      1. True enough, Ron:

        I would add that the point of the LRT is to spend as many of our tax dollars as possible so that a bunch of nameless public servants can win awards for a massively over-priced line and Mayor Jim Watson can tell someone: “I built that” except he didn’t.

        I think we should also set up a frostbite fund for all those people who will be waiting for the train at Tunney’s Pasture at -30C because some bonehead at city hall wanted to build monument stations rather than heating the damn things with a little less architecture and a lot more common sense.

        I look forward to riding the line down the Macdonald Parkway where nobody lives and stations are limited and when we get to Lincoln Fields, we get to see people on board. At least that’s what the ridership study I did says and it has to be as good as the one the city did because the tall foreheads there didn’t do one. Nice work, smart guys.

        The only common sense at city hall is the sense of entitlement.

        There … now I feel better.

        cheers

        kgray

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        1. Ouch, Ken. And people ask “where do today’s young adults get this sense of entitlement”? The answer is easy to find. Look in the mirror.

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          1. Sisco:

            Did I forget to say that our representatives on Laurier Avenue and their staff minions tunneled the line down the Macdonald Parkway park?

            These are the same people who said they could not afford to tunnel in places along Carling Avenue and wrote so stupid a report that said the economic uplift along Carling Avenue wouldn’t pay for the line. Well probably not. Tell me how much economic uplift is there in the tunnel on the Macdonald Parkway? Zero.

            The report was so stupid that even Mayor Jim Watson sent it back to city staff to do again.

            Can you imagine? So for some reason staff was absolutely wedded to the tunnel down a park … a tunnel down a park. And wrote a bunch of cock-and-bull about Carling Avenue being economically untenable. Good grief.

            These are the same brains behind spending $3.2 billion too much for a line that doesn’t get to Barrhaven or Kanata and didn’t pay for the horribly expensive Strandherd-Armstrong Bridge.

            These people are wasting our tax money, our children’s tax money and our grandchildren’s money for a gold-encrusted light-rail line.

            There’s more gold on this line than on Donald Trump’s toilet.

            cheers

            kgray

            1+

            1. I never understood tunneling for any of the LRT line. Vancouver has a world class light rail system which they call the Skytrain. I mentioned this to a number of people who said “no, no, we can’t do that”. I never could figure out why. I’m sure engineers from Vancouver would have been happy to help with the design and I bet (without knowing for sure) the cost would have been far less.

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              1. Sisco:

                My pet plan would be put the line on the surface of Slater or Albert and run major bike lanes on either side. Then yank the bike lanes off dangerous Laurier.

                So much for that. Too late and the cost for the tunnel is astronomical.

                As for getting the trains through downtown, limit the number paths across Slater or Albert and create an electronic system of lights for the train.

                If you can create a self-driving car, surely you can find a way to get trains through downtown on a dedicated line. And of course, emergency vehicles would have priority crossing the lines.

                No doubt motorists would find places to park south of the line and walk three blocks or take Wellington in.

                Even better … people could take the $2.1 billion train into downtown.

                Anyway, doesn’t matter now.

                cheers

                kgray

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        2. Great comments. I live backing the parkway and you’re right. Between 8:30ish and 4 the buses are almost empty. Then again after 6 pm. No rocket science here. Too bad Canada Day only comes once a year when the buses are full al day.
          Unfortunately all these comments are too little, too late.

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          1. Too late or not, Marilyn, no one would have listened. Some people have a myopic view when it comes to solving problems.

            You’re absolutely correct, the time to do the thinking was during the planning stage, not when the execution stage is almost complete. As many writers and commenters have noted, this project has been a bust, with delays, overspending, etc. Hopefully, if nothing else, we have learned something from phase 1 of this project from which future phases can benefit.

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  2. Hi Ron. I’d like to offer a small amendment to your article. You state “every project needs a lead paragraph or two that defines the problem, describes the solution,” etc. I believe these lead paragraphs need to define the problem, “state the desired outcome”, describe the solution, etc.
    I like reading your articles because when you identify a problem you offer solutions. Most people just like to complain. I have stated on a number of occasions that Ottawa, as Canada’s capital city, should be playing a role in identifying creative solutions to deal with issues emanating from the evolving socio-economic culture within our country, solutions that can be passed along to other cities. In this respect Ottawa is failing. We are not playing a leadership role.
    With regards to quality decision making, quality infrastructure upgrades, etc, I’d like to see the city set up an independent audit board, comprised of experts who represent the citizens and are in no way associated with city hall (no more Allan Hubley, thank you), an organization comprised of paid individuals, not people with day jobs who sit in groups led by councillors that meet a couple of times a month. This board would ensure rules are followed, appropriate choices are made, everything is done above board, etc, and its findings and recommendations would be available to everyone. (I believe there is an ombudsman who is supposed to do this. If so, he/she should be stepping up their efforts.) I’d be happy to see some of my tax dollars go towards an initiative like this because in the long run we’d all save money.
    Lastly, we need to replace councillors who are more concerned with their self-image than they are with representing their constituents and lobbying on their behalf. We’ll have the opportunity in October to, as one commenter stated, “drain the swamp”. I hope we don’t blow it.

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  3. Ron started by asking whether we get value for our money out of city hall and gave a few pertinent examples of how we don’t. He concluded that, to improve things, a change in culture is needed. So true, and nowhere more than in the planning department.

    On the surface, the city’s planning function costs the taxpayer little because much revenue is derived from the hefty fees anyone who proposes something is required to pay. But this promotes the idea that planners really work for the developers, whereas they are in fact tasked with working in the public interest. Few display that attitude and sense of mission. This costs the residents of Ottawa a lot in bad development, loss of greenspace, etc. Quality of life is worth a lot.

    To Sisco: By any number of measures, Ottawa is a laggard — never mind Mayor Jim Watson’s never-ending spin. Ecology Ottawa’s banner is to “make Ottawa the green capital of Canada.” A similarly lofty, far-away goal.

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    1. EajD:

      I agree with your ideas but you need to be more evidence-based.

      Also do you have anything to do with Ecology Ottawa.

      cheers

      kgray

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  4. EajD makes a good point about planning. On a number of occasions I have seen extended plans for the area in which I live but none of them ever come to fruition. If we’re paying planners to simply develop plans with no intention of executing them, then let’s shut down the department and save taxpayers a ton of money. I’m kidding of course, but this comes full circle to Ron’s original comment – “city hall needs to care”.

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