Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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December 15th, 2013

First, Look in the Mirror Madame Secretary

Government, Living Digitally

I’ve been following the stories about healthcare.gov. The managerial aspect of the discussion has focused on what was wrong with the site when it went live on Oct. 1 and what caused these problems. The political aspect has dwelt on the question of oversight, who at the political level should have been monitoring the development of the site before October 1, and whether these who were asleep at the switch merit dismissal.

I’m reading these stories through the lens of my own experiences as a board member for the Ontario Transportation Capital Corporation (OTCC), which was responsible for putting in place a major IT project, the electronic tolling system for Ontario’s Highway 407. At the time of its creation in the mid-Nineties Highway 407 was the world’s most advanced electronic toll road, intended to seamlessly integrate recognition of vehicles with transponders with videoimaging of the license plates of vehicles without them.

As the system was being built, there were numerous software glitches, especially at the back end, which involved matching trip records with license plate data and sending bills for the use of the highway. In the months leading up to the highway’s planned opening date of March 31, 1997 the OTCC’s professional staff as well as the deputy minister of transportation (the permanent head of the department) were monitoring the situation daily and were in frequent contact with the project’s four contractors. OTCC was also making contingency plans in the event the tolling technology could not be made to work as intended. The highway itself opened in June 1997 because it was impossible to keep people off the completed roadway. The tolling system software was not ready, however, so Highway 407 became a freeway until the tolling system became operational the following October.

The period from June to October was acutely embarrassing for OTCC and the government because it was obvious to the capital market and to the general public that they were not delivering an operational toll road. Running it as a freeway, however, had the marketing benefit of introducing drivers to the road. In addition, it allowed the software developers unobtrusively to test the system by videoimaging and producing dummy bills for the owners of a far higher volume of license plates than would be the case when Highway 407 became a toll road. This also meant intentionally installing excess computer capacity. These circumstances were far more favorable than those faced by the healthcare.gov team. The Highway 407 experience nevertheless has some implications for the health care website.

The stories that have been published about healthcare.gov cite a number of similar managerial challenges that were handled inadequately. These include the selection of providers for different parts of the system (CGI Federal, the US subsidiary of Montreal-based CGI; Quality Software Services Inc., Oracle) whose products were, if not incompatible, then certainly difficult to interface; the decision by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (part of the Department of Health and Human Services) not to hire a systems integrator; lack of testing, particularly at the back end of the site; and the lack of computer capacity for the system. These were all managerial failings, rather than the result of a project of intrinsically unmanageable complexity. As President Obama said in a meeting at the White House on Oct. 15 (reported by Stolberg and Shear in their comprehensive background analysis published in the New York Times on Nov. 30), “we created this problem we didn’t need to create.”

Managerial problems are ultimately leadership problems, or, put differently, problems created by the lack of leadership. While the political leadership, including President Obama and HHS Secretary Sebelius, were furious after Oct. 1 at the managerial problems, I think it is important to ask what the political leadership was doing before Oct. 1 to prevent these problems from occurring. It seems that the answer is very little.

When President Obama and his advisers woke up the morning after his re-election on Nov. 5, 2012, they should have begun thinking about what would be necessary to make his second term a success. Very high on that list should have been the smooth implementation of the Affordable Care Act, which required a smooth rollout of healthcare.gov. Someone at the political level, for example HHS Secretary Sebelius or the president’s chief technology officer Todd Park, should have been monitoring the development of the website on a day-to-day basis, making sure the necessary leadership (a systems integrator) was provided and sufficient resources (computer capacity) were put in place.

Secretary Sebelius has now asked her department’s Inspector General to review the development of healthcare.gov. He will likely identify the sins of commission at the technical level. He is far less likely to identify the sins of omission at the political level. But I am quite certain that had the sins of omission not occurred, the sins of commission could have been rectified before October 1.

The Republicans are calling for Ms. Sebelius’s resignation. In a parliamentary democracy it would be expected that a minister would monitor her department’s key initiative and be held accountable to parliament for a failure to deliver it. But the US is not a parliamentary democracy, in which a prime minister can readily appoint a new minister from his party’s caucus. Even if the Senate has recently changed its rules to prevent filibusters in confirmation hearings for presidential appointments, the Republicans would use the confirmation hearings for Ms. Sebelius’s successor as an opportunity for blaming and shaming. Regardless of her responsibility for sins of omission, it is unlikely that President Obama will fire her.

This sorry episode speaks to an ongoing failing of political leadership in the age of Government 2.0. Many politicians, President Obama included, are now IT-savvy when it comes to using a personal device (remember the presidential BlackBerry) and participating in social media. They are far less savvy about understanding IT’s back room and making sure that the mundane electronic plumbing that supports bold new initiatives like healthcare.gov works effectively. This political failure on the part of President Obama, his advisers, his cabinet secretary, and his cabinet secretary’s senior politically-appointed staff has damaged the implementation of  President Obama’s intended legacy initiative.

The fact that the site is now working well makes clear that the problems experienced before October 1 were not insuperable. But the ongoing and critical legacy of these problems may be lower than hoped-for enrolment in health care plans by the IT-savvy young adults who are essential to the overall success of the Affordable Care Act.

I’ll conclude with a story told to me by former Saskatchewan Premier Allan Blakeney. Soon after the social democratic CCF party was first elected in 1944, it passed legislation to create a universal hospital insurance plan, the first of its kind in North America. Premier Tommy Douglas wanted the plan in operation on January 1, 1947, so that it would be working reasonably well before the 1948 election. The implementation team, feeling they could not achieve the deadline, met with Premier Douglas. Premier Douglas thanked them for their efforts, told them he enjoyed working with them, and regretted that he would be losing them. The team got the message, redoubled their efforts, and met the deadline.

If President Obama and his political appointees had had equally frank, if not brutal, discussions with the healthcare.gov team well in advance of October 1, 2013, perhaps its implementation would have been less troubled.

 

December 5th, 2013

Assessing Rob Ford’s Political Leadership (This is Not a Joke)

Politics

Though Toronto Mayor Rob Ford has become the butt of jokes the world over, we who live in Toronto have had to suffer through his mayoralty. It seems reasonable, therefore, to evaluate his political leadership to understand both why he was elected and why his administration has collapsed under its (his?) own weight.

In my 2011 book Governing Fables, based on a reading of a wide range of political memoirs and authored political narratives, I developed a three factor model of political leadership. Successful political leadership depends on having a vision, a set of policies to introduce; having the ability to govern, in particular the conceptual and emotional intelligence for making decisions; and having control over one’s personal life. Vision is what appeals to the electorate. Capacity for governing doesn’t mean that a politician must be her own policy analyst, but rather that she is able to critically reflect on the often conflicting advice given by policy analysts. Self-control means an ability to avoid the personal temptations resulting from fame and power as well as cope with the stress created by the burdens of exercising power. The need for self-control is magnified by the capacity of online and social media to turn every aspect of a politician’s personal life into public information.

Rob Ford has done well in terms of having and articulating a vision. It involves cutting municipal government spending by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse (“ending the gravy train” as he put it) and consequently reducing taxes – the Tea Party vision in a Canadian context. He promised to “end the war on the automobile” by cutting taxes on automobiles, in particular Toronto’s $60 annual registration fee, and eliminating impediments, such as bicycle lanes, to vehicular flow. The preference for drivers was aimed at suburban constituents, who are heavier users of their cars than downtown constituents, who are more likely to choose public transit. Whether or not his vision is anachronistic – which I think it is – is beside the point: what matters is that it is a clear vision.

Ford has shown absolutely no capacity for governing. His focus as a municipal councilor was on taking constituent calls and fixing service problems, a necessary activity, but the work of a mayor’s staff, hardly that of the mayor himself. When it came to the discussion of serious policy issues, his response has only been slogans and generalization from his own experience. Thus, his transportation policy is the bald statement that “the people want subways” and his advocacy of a downtown casino was based on the revelation that “it’s where I’d like to spend an evening.”

Finally, nothing more need be said of his absence of self-control than that it has been the cause of his global notoriety.

So, clearly Ford scores one out of three.

In retrospect, why was Ford elected? The man has a genius for simplicity, in the sense of communicating a vision through compelling slogans that appealed to a large enough slice of the Toronto electorate. (For those not resident here, we have a first-past-the-post electoral system without political parties.) During the campaign, there were mutterings from other city councilors that Ford had problems with anger management and self-control, but the media didn’t dig as deeply into his background as it might have, and his constituents (Ford Nation, as he calls it) didn’t care.

It was also difficult to make an issue out of his lack of competence in governing. So what if Ford is a college dropout? His predecessor, David Miller, a Harvard summa in economics and a lawyer, wasn’t able to resolve a summertime civic workers strike, a.k.a. the garbage strike, and decided not to run rather than accept an inevitable defeat. Perhaps the association, however tenuous, of Rob Ford with a successful family business gave him the appearance of managerial competence.

In general, I’d say that it is more difficult to communicate managerial competence and policy-making capacity to the electorate than either vision or personal integrity. Academic honours and professional experience in other areas (business, law, academe) are imperfect indicators of the capacity to govern. As politics, in both the US and Canada, has become more ideological, decisions are less frequently driven by cool assessment of the evidence, so capacity to govern matters less than in the past. The rise of ideological politics has rendered all our politicians less intelligent. Stephen Harper, a powerful intellect who ignores evidence when it conflicts with the beliefs of what he calls “our base,” typifies that approach.

Toronto Council, by reducing Rob Ford’s powers to that of a figurehead has let Ford be Ford and, paradoxically, strengthened his position for the mayoral election in 2014. Ford was never interested in governing, and he now no longer has that responsibility. He can spend his time doing photo-ops and constituency service, his two passions in politics. The ovations he received during appearances at two recent professional football games attest that elements of Ford Nation are still in existence. In the coming election campaign, if he retains the support of much of Ford Nation and his competitors split the anti-Ford vote, re-election is a real possibility.

The best chance of defeating Ford would appear to be if the ongoing police investigation produces ever more evidence of drug use and association with criminal elements. Even if Ford is not indicted, this might lead a growing number of his own nation – people who think of themselves as hard-working and law-abiding – to desert him. This would be even more likely if candidates emerge who offer a similar vision combined with greater capacity for governing and more personal integrity.

Rob Ford is the extreme case of political imbalance, someone who combines both strengths and huge personal deficits. His best unintended legacy could be to stimulate thinking, and then action, on the part of Toronto voters, and global observers, about what we really need in our political leaders.

 

November 17th, 2013

Two Perspectives on Alice Munro

Narrative

My curiosity stimulated by Alice Munro’s receiving this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature and having previously read only one of her short stories, I bought her most recent collection “Dear Life.” My intellectual and emotional reactions were quite at odds. Intellectually, I found the stories well-constructed, subtle, and occasionally surprising in their resolutions. Emotionally, I found them depressing in their depiction of the repressive social structures and customs of the Canada of my parents’ generation, especially in small-town southwest Ontario.

I’ll expand a bit on both reactions. My recent research on managerial narratives has involved structural analysis. From reading just 14 of Munro’s stories, I could see recurring patterns of plot structures, themes, characters, settings, and choice of narrator. It struck me that Munro’s entire corpus of work – some 150 stories – would be great material for structural analysis. This brought to mind the one Munro story I had read some 20 years ago. It was for a course on psychoanalysis and literature, and the instructor chose it because it so clearly illustrated some of the basic themes of Freudian analysis. I don’t remember which story it was, though I’m sure I would if I re-read it, and I don’t remember all of the Freudian themes. One I do remember, however, was what is referred to as “the primal scene,” and I encountered that theme three or four times in Dear Life.

I could imagine applying to SSHRC for a research grant to undertake structural analysis of Alice Munro’s corpus of stories. The coding and analysis would readily occupy a small team of graduate students for a considerable length of time – something SSHRC encourages. The problem is that I’m a management professor, and the English literature professors who populate the review committee would never permit an invasion of their turf by a management professor, even if he has compiled a strong record for the structural analysis of stories concerning management, organization, and politics. They would say that the politics of the family is so different that my qualifications are irrelevant.

The second perspective on Munro is more personal. My late father’s family grew up in rural southwestern Ontario, specifically the town of Markdale. My grandfather was a successful businessman who owned three creameries and became reeve of Markdale. My grandmother, however, was a difficult person, who erected barriers between herself and the world, and reinforced the barriers by drinking. My grandfather began a long-standing affair with his single book-keeper. News of the affair became public and the family left for Toronto. But the book-keeper came too, and the affair continued. This long-standing dishonoring of my grandmother insprired rage on my father’s part, and anger he felt toward my grand-father darkened the rest of their lives. As a child, I was aware of the anger, but not of its origins. That understanding came later, as I became an adult, and after the passing of my grandparents and of my father.

Reading Alice Munro’s stories, many of which have as their theme family dysfunction and illicit sexuality, and their setting a repressive neo-Victorian society, brought back to mind my grandparents’ and my father’s story, and my own feelings of sadness about it. In a way, Munro was telling their story. Had she known their story, she could have embellished it and turned it into an exemplar of her art.

I’ve resolved to read more Munro. And, who knows, maybe in my retirement, after having completed the structural analysis of more managerial fables, I’ll shift my perspective to analyzing her disquieting vision of the politics of the family.

 

November 10th, 2013

Remembering Philip Gray

Narrative

How likely is it that the funeral of a ninety-one year old man who died without family in a land to which he immigrated in his late sixties would be attended by two hundred people? The unlikeliness of this outcome shows the esteem to which Philip Gray was held in the community he had adopted as his own.

Gray was a Scot who served as the pilot of a Lancaster bomber in World War Two, flying sixteen missions with his entire crew emerging unscathed. He subsequently married and moved to New Zealand where he worked as a public servant. After the death of his wife and his retirement, he moved to Canada. Gray was a great story-teller and published a superb book about his wartime experiences in the RAF, titled Ghosts of Targets Past. (I discussed its “gritty realism” and thick description in my blog post of November 8, 2010.)

The Canadian Air and Space Museum, based in Toronto, inherited a dilapidated Lancaster that for decades had stood on a plinth at the Canadian National Exhibition. A group of devoted machinists were restoring the Lancaster. Gray came to the museum every weekend to sell his book and to serve as a link between the shell of a machine and the events decades ago in which it, and the men who operated it, played such an important role.

The point repeatedly made in the eulogies at Philip’s funeral yesterday was that service was an essential aspect of his life. Bearing witness at the Museum was an act of service. Volunteering at Traveller’s Aid at Pearson Airport was an act of service. Attending his church every Sunday and writing for the church newspaper were acts of service.

Philip had a great story to tell, and he told it. But he did so with precision and modesty. People were drawn to him. I met him when I began taking my young sons to the museum. He was the guest of honour when we had a birthday party there for Alexander, our older son.

The most moving speaker at the funeral was Wayne Short, another person who met Philip at the Air and Space Museum, and then invited him over for one Sunday dinner. Philip became a close friend of his family, and the Shorts ultimately became Philip’s surrogate family at the end of his life.

Thus, it was in recognition of his service and his friendship that so many of us came to Philip’s funeral. Occurring just before Remembrance Day, it reminded us that that, while Remembrance Day marks a collective national experience, that experience itself is the sum of hundreds of thousands of individuals’ stories. And Philip Gray’s was a truly inspiring one.

 

November 1st, 2013

I Confronted Rob Ford. Will City Council?

Politics

In my way, I confronted Rob Ford. On a mid-March Sunday, my nine year-old son and I were leaving the ROM while the Mayor was grand marshal for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. From the sidewalk I shouted “crook,” “idiot,” and “fat pig.” My son was astounded at his dad’s unruliness. The few other bystanders all laughed.

If I were to accost the mayor today under similar circumstances, I would shout “liar,” “crackhead” and “drunk.” The emerging consensus of public opinion and civil society is that he must resign. The problem is that Ontario municipal politics has no recall mechanism and, without political parties, Toronto council has no procedure for a vote of confidence or leadership review, as would happen within a political party.

The question that arises is whether council can improvise. Councilors could propose, and then debate, a motion of censure. Councilors could also act as if the office of mayor were vacant by refusing to engage with Ford, refusing to communicate with him, or to attend meetings he calls or chairs. Doing either or both would take a measure of political courage. The councilors whose collaboration would be essential for such actions to succeed would be Ford’s traditional allies and supporters. Are they, at last, ready to desert him?

Two analogies come to mind. Oliver Cromwell’s words dismissing the Rump Parliament were used three centuries later with devastating effect in the 1940 confidence vote on Neville Chamberlain’s government: “Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

There is a scene in the movie Twelve Angry Men where the most bigoted juror makes a long speech revealing the extent of his race hatred. The other jurors physically separate themselves from him and one of those who originally stood with him declares “We’ve heard enough. Sit down. And don’t open your mouth again.”

Do Toronto’s civic politicians have the moral courage to confront Rob Ford and, one way or another, force his resignation?