Toronto the Corporation

Why eliminating citizen advisory committees is an executive order for failure

With this week’s announcement by Mayor Rob Ford’s Executive Committee to eliminate Toronto’s twenty-plus citizen advisory committees, I have to wonder whether the Brothers Ford have worked a day of retail that wasn’t related to Deco Labels, the family business. I’ll explain the connection.

Rob Ford ran on a platform of “respecting taxpayers” — which was his simplistic way of saying that he would eliminate taxes wherever he could, irrespective of what those collected revenues were paying for, and bring taxpayer value to the City of Toronto. Actually, he hasn’t said this part outright, but it’s reasonable to guess that this is his motivation. It is either that, or else he’s setting the stage for executing the philosophy of governance milked by the American conservative theorist Grover Norquist. Norquist contends that starving a government to such a withered size that it can be drowned in the bathtub is the only way to run a government.

What I find simple-minded and almost oblivious about Rob Ford’s dual mantras of “respect for taxpayers” (that is, to pay as close to nothing for the privilege/right/whatever to live within an incorporated city) and “stopping the gravy train” (that is, to weed out any ancillary expenses within the internal workings of that government) is that each resolutely fails to reflect what Toronto actually is.

Toronto is not only a city with a citizen-elected council, but it’s also a corporation — quite literally, a not-for-profit company. Our ward councillors serve as our voting proxies at council — the board of directors, if you will — for citizens and taxpayers alike (each viewed as discrete groups by the Ford caucus, despite how all citizens are taxpayers even as some taxpayers are not citizens). This is the case whether they voted, did not vote, or could not vote. At the end of the day, however, these people ultimately expect a good value from their stake in the company — or city, even if the means to arrive to those good ends might vary politically.

Shareholders elect their proxies to generally support their strategic or ideological position, but there’s no way that a proxy will vote their way every single time. This is why an election’s results are not germane for decision making at the board of directors/city council once the election is over and why unofficial approval ratings are neither reflective nor prescriptive for how individual governance decisions at Council are meted (yes, I’m speaking to you, Councillor Ainslie).

But a good corporation knows that its rate of return on providing services and delivering customer satisfaction is predicated on being able and willing to hear directly from its shareholders. Enter the shareholder meeting. For the corporation of Toronto, the shareholder meeting comes in the form of the citizen advisory committees which the Ford government now wants to eradicate. This is poor business acumen.

These shareholder meetings — Toronto’s citizen advisory committees — are really the only certain way for corporate bigwigs (that’d be CEO Rob’s caucus of his COO brother Doug, deputy CEO Doug [Holyday], Paul Ainslie, Frances Nunziata, and Michael Del Grande for starters) to hear out Toronto’s shareholders and to adjust their strategy for appeasing, pleasing, and ultimately winning over those shareholders.

Unhappy shareholders, as we see come election time, can and do throw out leaders and board members when they feel they’re not getting good value from the board’s behaviour. This is the case irrespective of whether genuinely poor results were yielded or the ability to tangibly show shareholders the good results was totally weaksauce — which is what, I’d argue, did in the Miller government/board of directors. In the meantime, though, shareholders can wreak a lot of public relations havoc on the corporate image of the company — havoc that can take years to ameliorate. Just look at how long it took Toronto to recover from the bungling of Mel Lastman’s decisions during the early days of amalgamation and why people the nation over still laugh when they associate blizzards with the military. The impression of incompetence is hard to shake. In customer service, the rule to building one’s image is that it requires ten compliments to counter one complaint.

But what of delivering customer service, such as that touted by the city’s new public relations mantra? Our 311 customer service line (launched, incidentally, during the previous CEO’s watch — that CEO of course being David Miller — was designed to do just that. The 311 service line, along with the hundreds of counter people at Toronto’s many customer service outlets — from librarians to DineSafe inspectors to parking enforcement officers — is free for anyone geographically situated inside the corporation of Toronto to phone. This is the case whether or not they’re actually a shareholder. Let’s also not forget that these customer service agents are also Toronto shareholders.

As with a customer service line for a profit-driven corporation, individual problems are addressed by customer service agents on the 311 hotline, at wickets, and in the field. Their service, however, cannot be a substitute for holding regular shareholder meetings, and yet this is what the Ford government is now advancing.

And this brings us to the retail counter where the most important transactions for the corporation are handled. By cutting city services, the Ford government is literally removing the people who meet one on one with the corporation’s customers for the everyday and ordinary. By making it harder for those customers to receive a good value for services rendered, it makes for unhappy shareholders.

CEO Ford believes that he can hear out the corporation’s shareholders solely through their proxies at council, what trickles in from 311-related feedback, and from phone calls to the mayor’s office. A for-profit company, were it to try this, would drive itself into a financial dire straits by charging ahead with this shareholder-hostile tack.

In the short term, rebates and small refunds will sate the restlessness of some shareholders, but this is only a remedial pacifier. Receiving cash back for the shareholders is fine for the wallet’s one-time spending money, but money in its raw form is wholly unable to deliver good customer service. This is why issuing a $60 rebate on vehicle registration means very little if the quality of a multi-modal transportation programme cannot be funded well enough to deliver good service to both shareholders and customers.

This is also why undoing Transit City with the stroke of a pen, despite the intensive and extensive attention to prepare it for providing good service to shareholders and customers (coming in from outside the city limits), was very bad business sense. Likewise, Transportation City makes for bad business sense for its reactive, piecemeal approach to strategizing what Transit City already had. That’s a bit like buying a custom-built machine to produce widgets, whose return on investment will pay off the design and construction of the machine once enough widgets are sold, only to dismantle the machine that will be of no use to anyone else so as to commission building another custom machine to produce the widgets less efficiently. It’s insane. Golden parachute or not, it will land the CEO without a job or a good reputation.

I feel I must explain this Toronto-is-corporation analogy tediously and exhaustively because I want anyone to understand the plain relationship between our city and a for-profit corporation which the Ford government affirms in word, but not in action. Ford must recognize that his miserly approach to running a company — to governance over a city — cannot net good results or good governance. It also won’t yield the kind of revenue needed to deliver a good civic experience to its customers and shareholders, much less to smoothly run this corporation we call our home.

Even if it sounds oxymoronic to some, there remains a case to be made that the “good corporate citizen” is just as relevant to Toronto in the way our city is managed. Eliminating citizen advisory committees, cutting ABCC (agency, board, commission, corporation) services, and behaving as if the shareholder proxies are to vote lock-in-step with the CEO is a wanton act of corporate irresponsibility by those serving on the board — our City Council.

If only Rob and Doug knew how important the front service counter is — drawing from those teenage and twenty-something experiences of working retail which neither in their adulthood seems to possess — then they might be able to see the whole picture of Toronto’s corporate health and not the Hudsucker isolation of a closed executive which autocratically calls out shots for the putative good of the customer. That’s no way to treat a shareholder.

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About Astrid Idlewild: Astrid (@accozzaglia) is an urban design candidate from the School of Urban Planning at McGill University. She completed her HBA in Canadian and urban studies at the University of Toronto in 2009. She is a film photographer, bike courier, creator of the TTC subway shirts, and researcher for the Kodachrome Toronto: 1935–2010 project.