City, NCC Use PR Deceit: BENN

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Lies, damned lies and statistics. The city and National Capital Commission know all about this.

More than a century later Benjamin Disraeli’s observation about the use of statistics to support weak arguments resonates here in Ottawa. Loud and clear.

Some time between when I took a university level statistics course and when my youngest son took a similar course, they renamed it data management.

Give one data set to five competent professional accountants and they can produce 10 different conclusions, each reasonably defensible. Why? Because the objective of the analysis matters. What are you trying to prove? The key being that the data sets must be reliable. Unreliable data corrupts the end result.


Oh, that we would be so lucky that it would only be the NCC that is bastardizing study results. City staff has been doing this for years. So why do organizations such as the NCC and the city use what they know to be discredited sources of data? The answer is actually quite simple. Because that is the only way to ensure that the data set will support the pre-determined conclusion. Data manipulation, pure and simple.

Case in point, Capital Councillor Shawn Menard recently presented a damning analysis of city staff’s financial projections for Lansdowne 2.0. Same data set. Just more emphasis here, less emphasis there. Adjusting the factors applied to critical variables. Challenging the choice of market data, with reasonable, supportable occupancy rates and net lease rates. Overall, well done. Using the same data set to produce diametrically opposed conclusions.

It is a sad state of affairs that there are so many cases of data manipulation.

How many OC Transpo financial forecasts have accurately mapped against the results of operations? Dialing up the ridership levels to generate an acceptable budget is not just a work of fantasy fiction. It is an act of misdirection. Of subterfuge. Of willful deceit. And readily accepted as presented, year after year after year by city management and council.

The NCC recently published the results of an online consultation. It claims overwhelming support for closing sections of the Queen Elizabeth Driveway to allow cyclists to move around safely. Yet Nanos, a respected independent polling firm presented results that were diametrically opposite. How is this possible?

Online consultations have been discredited by many objective polling organizations for their lack of statistical rigor. Lack of any meaningful controls over who is responding. Inability to confirm that the respondent is answering questions regarding their qualifications to answer the survey. Limited ability to detect and prevent an individual with a couple of grams of ingenuity from completing the survey more than once. Inability to prevent a self-interest group from overloading the responses. Then there is the abuse of using leading and misleading questions. How about the deliberate limiting of choices to direct the respondent to the preferred answer. Note that concerns about the choice and structure of questions in the poll is not limited to on-line consultations.

Councillors lament that staff has limited tools and expertise available to them when it comes to public consultations. Nothing more than a lame attempt at excusing poor performance.

It is the poor tradesman who blames his tools. It is a skilled craftsman who creates wonders with limited tools. The reality of the matter is that staff and council chose their tools. They decide whether to use those tools even if they don’t know how to use the tools they chose. They choose their own constraints. Constraints that are under their control to remove, replace, reset. Constraints that they hide behind, an excuse as to why their work is of such poor quality.

Mature organizations identify a problem, collect data, scrutinize the data set to ensure that it is reliable, analyze the data set, and then, and only then do they make the decision best suited to solve the problem. After an appropriate time period, management then examines the results of the decision to see if it solved the problem. Why? Because results matter.

At the NCC and the city, councillors, senior managers and staff make a decision, then identify the problem that they think they want to solve. Then they collect the data that supports that decision. No point in scrutinizing the data. That could create an evidence trail of collusion, rather than mere incompetence. Ensure that what passes for analysis is done in a fashion that supports the conclusion. No outlier elements in a report that might be caught by an objective reader. And presto, a report to support a decision to solve a problem that might or might not actually exist. As for the follow up review. Not enough resources. Why? Because their cause is invariably righteous, and when you are on the side of a small ‘g’ god, the end always justifies the means.

Which takes us to the real problem. Integrity. Integrity is missing. Not just at the staff level. Within the senior ranks. Across a broad swath of council and directors. When you know that what staff has presented to you is a skewed analysis. When you know that they are capable of much, much better. Yet you accept those reports anyways. Prime facie example of a lack of integrity.

Here is a clear and blunt piece of advice to city councillors and NCC directors. If you are not ensuring that the reports you receive are free of manipulated data. If you do not actively root out those who willfully manipulate data, you are doing a disservice to the organization you were elected or appointed to oversee. You are enabling deceit. You are the problem.

Next time you take a selfie, take a close look at the person on the screen. Are you a person of integrity, or an enabler of deceit?

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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4 Responses

  1. Peter Karwacki says:

    Wow…this is biting commentary.

    The only thing missing are the specific examples.

    It is well written in my opinion and 80% likely to be accurate nine times out of 10.

  2. Andrew Zenner says:

    It is one thing for different groups to interpret the data differently as pointed out on how one determines financial viability data when changing variables, it is another thing to deliberately manipulate the collection of data to get the results that you want. When reviewing Lansdowne, there were certain things that could vary and couldn’t be predicted with 100% certainty such as occupancy rates, tax rates, income from operations, final cost to built, interest rates, etc. The City took the most optimistic projections (without giving any % of certainty) while opponents took the most pessimistic financial projection. Turns out that the pessimists were right. Other things, however, could not be adjusted such as as rentable square feet. This is standard with any project review. The NCC fixing the data collection to get the results that they and certain loud lobby groups wanted is a much greater transgression. Thank you to the Bulldog and Ron Benn for making this an issue. Hopefully some councillors will actually take note and question things like this, while others unfortunately will just continue to be onboard if the manufactured data supports their position on an issue.

  3. Ron Benn says:

    Peter, the use of on-line consultations by the city are spread across a number of departments. Example: traffic management.

    First question: Are you in favour of traffic calming? A generic question, akin to asking if I am in favour of world peace or feeding starving children. Of course I am. How could I not be. However, my answer to a more appropriately drafted question such as “Are you in favour of this specific plan?” may be no.

    Demographic Qualification: Where to you live?
    > on the street at issue
    > elsewhere in the community
    > elsewhere in the city

    There is no way for the city to verify that the answer is truthful. I recall a discussion with a gentleman named Steve, who was a member of Bike Ottawa (or a similar such name). He stated that they encourage their members to participate in on-line consultations that may include bike lanes. They direct their members to specific on-line consultations. Was he telling me the truth? Perhaps. The point being that a self-interest group can be over represented in the data collection. Thus tainting the quality of the data.

    Does the city know that their methodologies are not statistically valid? Absolutely. Do they care? Not a whit. Why? Because the objective of the data collection is to support the solution to that was crafted to meet the initial already made decision. As the traffic engineer in charge of the traffic management project said to me in an e-mailed response to questions, council has directed staff to include bike lanes in all solutions. No qualifying criteria, such as ‘where it makes sense’. No qualifying criteria of ‘if in your professional judgement’.

    Bluntly put: city council wants more bike lanes. As translated by Traffic Management, every solution MUST include bike lanes. Therefore, ensure that you have a data set that supports the inclusion of bike lanes.

    To be clear, I am generally in favour of bike lanes. Of creating a safer setting for cyclists. Preferably physically separated from motor vehicles. Creating a set of 200ish metre long bike lanes that have one end on a busy major roadway, a roadway without any safe cycling lanes is adding to the inventory of stranded bike lanes that Catherine McKenney, during her unsuccessful mayoral campaign in 2022, identified as needing a quarter of a billion dollars to connect.

    I could go on, Peter, but I need to be mindful of my blood pressure ;).

    As for your 80% accurate, nine times out of ten … a score of 72% is well below the standards I set for myself. But well over municipal standards.

  4. Andrew says:

    I did all four surveys, NCC and Naxos for QEW, and Naxos and City /Menard for Lansdowne. I get the feeling the authors in some comments above did not participate in all or some of them, and only are commenting on the results and interpretation. After doing the surveys, I came to the conclusion that Naxos surveys are clearly focused on the clients needs and not trying to actually get to a “true” result of the peoples opinions. Naxos (Lansdowne) questions made incorrect statements to lead the response, often not allowing true and open options to determine a feeling of the populations opinion. In this survey he included responses that were not even in the same Province, for a city taxpayer funded project, which made the survey invalid in my opinion. In contrast the NCC is a “national” asset manager and has to include input from ALL Canadians. My children live in another province but have concern on National issues, they too added their thoughts to the NCC survey as they should. This absolutely affects results. The Naxos survey was in regards to hotels/business interest and had out of town visitors as a consideration, it was paid for to do a focused impact to business survey and not impact to “us”. This is all to say, by looking at results without participating in the survey can be confusing when looking at the results. The two surveys which captured my thoughts in unbiased and truthfully sourced questions were Menard and NCC. The Naxos Lansdowne survey for OSEG was a joke, and his explanation in the council meetings proved how biased (to OSEG’s needs) a survey could be. I wish a statistician could review the Naxos Lansdowne survey, results, and the city council delegation comments that Mr Naxos made, against professional standard practices in surveying.

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