City Hall Needs Change, Won’t Get It: BENN




Why does it take the City of Ottawa so long to accomplish so little, so poorly?

Is a major contributing factor the labyrinth of institutionalized processes? The life blood of a bureaucracy that is more intent on protecting turf and job maintenance than being effective? The creation of committees to discuss creating a plan to develop a plan?

It is not that processes aren’t important. Every organization needs internal controls. Checks and balances to ensure that projects or programs are planned and executed in a manner that ensures that they are effective, and that the resources allocated to the project or program are not misused. The key is to tailor the internal controls to the project. To ensure that the right set of checks and balances are in place, based on the project. One size fits all is a policy created by the lazy. A recipe for failure. Mature organizations understand this. They adapt their checklists to reflect the risks and rewards of the project. The art of good management is to know what processes and controls are relevant, and to focus on those.

Then there is the City of Ottawa.  Where the processes are about ensuring that checklists are completed. That is first and foremost. Thinking about how best to accomplish the task? Not so high on the list.

How many versions of a Sparks Street re-animation have we heard about? And the result is … pending. Same comment for the ByWard Market. Lots of talk about thinking about planning to create a plan. Meanwhile the decades just slip by.

What about when the city does decide to bypass some of its controls to appear to be making decisions faster? Not to fast track a solution that solves an actual problem. No, just faster decisions that lead to the same poor outcomes.

Consider Lansdowne. More than a decade ago, a for-profit group prepared an unsolicited proposal to redevelop the moribund Lansdowne. Ottawa City Hall acknowledged the obvious. It had already demolished the lower part of the south stands. It couldn’t be bothered to take down the top section at the same time. No, they had to leave the visible reminder of a job half-done.

Did council take the time to contemplate the art of the possible? They briefly considered holding a competition to see what architects and big-picture planners could develop. But they quickly discarded that, because who needs plans when there is an unsolicited proposal from with an artificial deadline from a for-profit group. I know I already said that, but it bears repeating. Noting that Lansdowne 1.0 was not as successful as the city’s wishful thinking contemplated, the city decided to repeat the same process. And now we are headed in the direction of what will cumulatively be about a three-quarters-of-a-billion dollar sole-sourced, underwhelming outcome.

Another failure arising from not following established processes was the launch of the LRT in 2019. Time was of the essence because then-mayor Jim Watson had a plane to catch. Literally.

Have we talked enough about the billion dollar decision to proceed with e-buses before the due diligence was complete? Or determining whether Hydro Ottawa could deliver the power to the St. Laurent depot? Oh, and what it will cost, assuming it is possible?

A mature management team knows which steps to bypass, and which ones to follow. And then there is the City of Ottawa. If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.

So, why so long to accomplish so little? Because this is how the city has always done things. It is a mantra used by staff to explain why it failed to think of something different. To consider something “outside the box”. The box being on a checklist. Staff dare not challenge the status quo even when they know that this will result in a poor outcome. They “go along to get along” because it is easier. That the status quo has produced so many disappointing outcomes? That is for someone else to fix.

As for the poor quality outcomes? Let me examine some terminology used by a city engineer. He was explaining that the project needed to be “cost-effective”. Sounds prudent. Except the emphasis was on the first word – cost. That the project will not accomplish the desired outcomes – i.e. be effective? Well, that is a trade-off the city is prepared to accept because of the cost constraint. To put it bluntly, the city is prepared to do something, anything, to close the file. Closing the file being the primary objective. That the project actually accomplishes its stated goal? Well, that would be bonus points. Not bonus points on getting your bonus. That cannot be subject to quality of outcomes. Because then no one would get their bonus. No, just bonus points to tally on a barely used white board in a conference room.

As for the city’s culture of accepting poor-quality outcomes, over and over and over again, first and foremost, it is because the culture at city hall does not consider poor quality as unacceptable. They prefer to call it cost-effective. How can I say this with confidence? Look around you.

The quality of road repairs. Do pothole repairs even last one season? One season, not one year. I mean, let’s not be unrealistic in our expectations. Repairs to road cuts, to access water or sewer lines. They are deforming within weeks of completion. Anyone ever hold the contractor to account?

The lowering of standards of snow-clearing? Counting on an unseasonably warm winter is not a plan. Blaming climate change is not a plan. It is just a deflection from the obvious, which is that no standard is so low that it cannot be reduced even more.

Adding to the ever-growing inventory of bike lanes that start and end nowhere. You know, the ones that mayoral candidate Catherine McKenney said would take at least a quarter-of-a-billion dollars to link. Not even a consideration point. After all, council has endorsed the concept of bike lanes, so bike lanes are on the checklist. That they don’t go anywhere? After all, the resolution from council didn’t tell us that the bike lanes had to connect to other bike lanes.

All of which takes us back to the need for significant changes at city hall. Changes that start at the top. The probability of that occurring are south of slim. After all, many of the examples I have cited have been affirmed by the current council.

Ron Benn, a finance executive, has been a member of the Centrepointe Community Association for the better part of three decades.


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5 Responses

  1. John Langstone says:

    About charging electric buses at one location, is there any evidence that the City might have considered decentralized charging locations that might have workable capacity to deal with the possible power supply issue?

  2. Andrew says:

    I understand it was encouraged by EVCO years ago. The low maintenance fact of these Ev’s would be maximized by decentralized charging sheds, in the outlying areas. This would also save on “deadhead trips” (out of service trips to the start point or back to the yard) and staff commuting to a central point. I was surprised when the indicators are this is not being done. Why?

  3. Peter Karwacki says:

    “The project was a failure ….but our processes were good”

    I have personally heard that more times than I care to recall.

    Frustration because ultimately this has to do with people who are in the groove si to speak. They are happy with their processes, however ineffective.

    Who could blame them, they work in a goldfish bowl and failure is not an option.

  4. sisco farraro says:

    One thing missing at city hall is effective leadership, both at the council table and in the staff offices. There’s just too much politics going on in both locations and very few real leaders. Unfortunately, politics is the name of the game at 110 Laurier Ave West. So, the question is “since politics, not leadership, is the driving force within politics, can we ever expect things to get better?”

  5. Kosmo says:

    The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

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