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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March 29th, 2014

Who Will Rally the Anti-Ford Nation?

Politics

Watching the first Toronto mayoral debate, I was impressed by the ability of Mayor Ford to stay on message, and I was disappointed by the inability of the other candidates, especially during the discussion of leadership, to hold him accountable for his behavior. What we heard were euphemistic criticisms of the “circus at City Hall” or of Ford being a “poor role model.” With softball criticisms like this from the other candidates, it wasn’t hard for Ford to stay on message. The polls after each segment of the debate clearly indicated that Ford still has strong support from the members of Ford Nation who were texting their approval.

If the Toronto mayoralty election was a race involving a small number of well-financed candidates, we would likely see Ford’s opponent running attack ads to keep reminding the public of Ford’s behavior, making it harder for him to keep claiming that it was simply yesterday’s news (“rewind, rewind, rewind,” as he put it). The candidate herself could then take the high road and not attack Ford personally.

This is not the way the campaign is currently constituted. The four challengers (Chow, Tory, Stintz, and Soknacki) in the debate were all taking the proverbial high road, likely hoping that one of the others would launch a sustained attack on Ford. None did.

While I don’t have public opinion polls to prove it, I’m convinced that there is an Anti-Ford Nation in Toronto, a large group of people who are fed up with Ford’s antics and drama and who want to see any candidate other than Ford elected. Hence they are more concerned about the leadership issue than about other issues such as transit or taxes, and they are waiting to vote for whichever candidate is most likely to defeat Ford.

The question for the four major challengers is how to win the support of the Anti-Ford Nation. It seems logical to me that the best way to do this would be to launch the most aggressive attack on Ford’s leadership, as a way of drawing the sharpest possible contrast with his or her own integrity.

At the second debate, held the following night at Ryerson University, John Tory came closest to realizing this, and dialed up the tone of his attack on Ford. Quoting from the Globe and Mail, he said “it is not acceptable to have a mayor who shows up late and sometimes doesn’t show up at all … and most troubling and unacceptable of all, a mayor who has admitted multiple and continuing relationships with convicted criminals and gang-types.”

The two major candidates who are now furthest behind and therefore have the least to lose by attacking Ford are David Soknacki and Karen Stintz. Soknacki has a very comprehensive and thoughtful position on mayoral transparency and ethics on his website (see my post of Jan. 21, 2014) and should have summarized and referred to it in the debate. Stintz, regrettably has decided that the election is “not a referendum on Rob Ford” and has urged voters to focus on the other policy issues. My analysis is that she’s absolutely wrong. (Personal disclosure: I had one encounter with Ms. Stintz when she was running for councilor that convinced me she tends to operate on transmit more than on receive.)

A sustained attack on Ford would make reference to his absenteeism, alcoholism, drug use, relationships with criminals, homophobia, racism, and sexism. A sustained attack on Ford would ask why he is even running for mayor rather than entering rehab. And such an attack would raise the considerable possibility that Ford’s future would be radically transformed if he were indicted for a criminal offense.

This recitation of Ford’s failings would establish a contrast with a challenger’s discussion of how he or she would do the work of mayor with focus, honour, and integrity.

As much as Ford attempts to deal with his drunkenness, drug-taking, and consorting with criminals as “rewind, rewind, rewind” it is highly likely that there will be more such incidents happening during the campaign. A challenger who continues to attack that behavior will find that these incidents will powerfully underscore the validity of those attacks.

My conclusion: there is an Anti-Ford Nation waiting to be led, and it is not yet clear which of the major challengers has the boldness to take up the leadership of that nation.

 

March 22nd, 2014

Big Data for Budget Discussions

Government

I notice it has been over a month since my last post. I’ve been very busy with my teaching – in particular the budget simulation I’ll discuss in this post – and with my research. I’ve been reviewing the copy-editing and page proofs for my next book (The Persistence of Innovation in Government) and its accompanying monograph (The Persistence of Innovation in Government: A Guide for Innovative Public Servants). Both will be published in the next month or two.

The budget simulation involved students representing twelve major Ontario program ministries which were required to submit proposals for new programs or enhancements to existing programs to be funded from a hypothetical $3 billion policy reserve. The proposals were discussed in a cabinet meeting and the final decisions made by the premier and finance minister.

I’ve run simulations that involve allocating either a policy reserve for new programs or a global budget cut for many years. The availability of spending data (estimates, public accounts, results based plans) for the federal and Ontario governments has led me to attempt to make these exercises as realistic as possible. However, the students have always had to confront the problem of inadequate data. The estimates and public accounts present government spending at a very high level of aggregation. Results-based plans provide some detail about a variety of programs, but are not comprehensive. It is therefore difficult for students to determine what existing programs actually cost, which makes it hard for them to determine what either scaling up or scaling down a program would cost.

In this era of big data, there is no longer any excuse for inadequate data about public spending. Open government websites make available a variety of data bases collected by government. Government websites make available various politically salient aspects of government spending, such as travel and entertainment expenses for senior executives (federal) and salaries over $100,000 for the public service and broader public sector (Ontario).

It is time to apply to apply this approach to public spending. This would involve providing comprehensive data about, for example, government program contributions to organizations (such as grants to hospitals, firms, or cultural organizations) or entitlement spending by region or overhead spending by program. There are numerous ways the data could be organized while still protecting the privacy of individuals.

This data could be used by citizens, including students in public management course, to debate budget cuts or spending increases. What would it cost if the Ontario government wanted to decrease class size in elementary school? What would the federal government save if it wanted to close down a number of consulates? Better data would enable citizens to debate these questions. Discussions of government spending tend to be conducted secretly because detailed data are not made available to the public. Making the data available, which is well within the technological and organizational capability of government, would expand the discussion to include the public.

Governments run consultations in the run-up to releasing a budget. The consultations are of limited value because the dialogue is one way (the federal government asking for ideas to be emailed to the Finance Department) or because simulations are conducted at far too high a level of aggregation (Ontario’s recent consultations). Providing big data on government spending could change this.

Returning to the budget exercise, here are some proposals made by the students representing program departments, and accepted by the students representing the premier and finance minister of Ontario, for new or enhanced programs.

• Increase the Department of Education’s going green program from a pilot program to eventually encompass all Ontario schools (25 percent in the first year)

• Increase funding for research in curricular design for science, technology, and math

• Increase funding for the RIDE program

• Train 50,000 more health care workers and increase funding for community based specialty clinics, to reduce hospital use

• Provide larger subsidies to encourage drivers to trade in older cars for newer more energy efficient cars in particular hybrids

• Begin building access roads to the Ring of Fire

• Increase support for the Second Career program, especially for apprenticeships and skilled trades

• Increase support for entrepreneurs in “green” businesses and tourism

Eventually, a new Ontario budget will be released. Perhaps some of these proposals – or something like them – will be included in it.

 

February 13th, 2014

A Clash of Grumpy Old Men or a Multi-faceted Teachable Moment?

Government, Politics

Occasionally an event occurs that has so many aspects that it can be used to represent most of the issues raised in a university course. The conflict that surfaced between Veterans Affairs Minister Fantino and Canadian war veterans brings out many of the issues that I discuss in the public management course I am teaching this term. (I showed Terry Milewski’s story that ran on the CBC, which is available on YouTube under “Fantino meeting disrespects veterans.)

The confrontation came about over a decision by the Harper Government to shut Veterans Affairs offices in eight locations (Kelowna, Saskatoon, Brandon, Thunder Bay, Windsor, Sydney, Charlottetown, and Cornerbrook) where demand apparently has declined, and consolidate the department’s activities with Service Canada. The issue is whether integrated service delivery actually improves service. In some cases it does; for example, Service Ontario offices allow users to renew their health card, driver’s license, and license plate in one visit, rather than two or three visits to different government offices (see my post of April 7, 2011). But aren’t the needs of veterans so complex (case management involving physical infirmities, psychological disabilities, and various transfer payments) that they continue to merit dedicated service?

At his meeting with the veterans, Minister Fantino steadfastly defended the government’s decision, as cabinet solidarity would dictate. Pressure in favor of the decision undoubtedly came from the Department of Finance and Treasury Board Subcommittee on Government Administration, both charged with a cost-saving agenda. One wonders how Fantino and his department responded to the proposals to close their offices when they were still in the discussion stage. Did they have counter-proposals that might have been more acceptable to their constituency, such as collocating Veterans’ Affairs offices with Service Canada offices and ensuring that veterans, at least initially, would have a designated service queue, rather than having to be served in a common queue with all other clients? Developing a counter-proposal would have been the work of the department.

Perhaps Fantino might have taken a more aggressive stance personally, and threatened to resign from cabinet if the offices were closed. I think his threat would have been very credible. At age 71, Fantino is already receiving a generous pension from his service as top cop in Toronto and Ontario. He won the heavily Italian constituency Vaughan from the Liberals for the first time in recent memory. The Conservative Party of Canada probably needs Julian Fantino more than he needs the Conservative Party.

Fantino was late for his meeting with the veterans because he was at a cabinet committee meeting. Why didn’t he simply leave the cabinet committee meeting? Fantino’s handling of the meeting with veterans wasn’t very effective. Of course they informed the media in advance and were looking for a confrontation. And Fantino, by adopting a posture of standing rather than sitting and cutting off a spokesman for the sin of finger-pointing, provided it. Despite the bad hand cabinet had dealt him, a minister with better social skills and a less confrontational demeanor could have handled the situation more effectively.

Another thing I mentioned to the students was the veterans’ media strategy. Elderly men with lapels covered in decorations for bravery and distinguished service getting emotional at a press conference will always win public sympathy.

Prime Minister Harper defended the government’s cost-cutting policy in the House of Commons, as would be expected given the government’s over-riding objective of reducing expenditures to balance the budget, as well as his own uncompromising personality. This doesn’t mean Harper will indefinitely stand by this minister.

What will Julian Fantino’s political fate be? He demonstrated himself to be a clumsy, inept, arrogant, and unappealing defender of government policy. Perhaps in a few months Harper will have a don-like discussion with Fantino, telling him not to expect to remain in cabinet if the Conservatives are re-elected. The sub-text of that message would be that it is time for Fantino to take one for the team, and announce his retirement, so the party can find a more presentable candidate to contest Vaughan.

The Veterans’ Affairs story is now off the front pages, but I expect it will continue to simmer in the months ahead. Inserting in the budget initiatives to improve online services for veterans, to give them hiring preference for public service jobs, and to increase funeral and burial payments are all efforts to mollify what had been one of the government’s steadfastly supportive constituencies. We’ll see how this story plays out on both the service delivery and the political levels as the Conservatives prepare for the next election.

 

January 21st, 2014

Memo to David Soknacki: Get Personal With Rob Ford. Today.

Politics

Some years ago, I saw David Soknacki in action, when he was a member of Scarborough City Council before the 1999 amalgamation. He impressed me as both forthright and intelligent. After some years on Toronto City Council, including a stint as chair of the budget committee, and a career in small business, he is now running for mayor.

While he is a serious candidate, he has less political profile than other certain (Karen Stintz) or possible (Olivia Chow, John Tory) contenders. He has therefore begun his campaign early to get more media and public attention before the others enter the race.

I am attracted by his promise to cancel the expensive extension of the Bloor-Danforth subway into Scarborough, and replace it with the LRT system that was originally proposed. Soknacki recognizes that the latter would be more cost efficient and that, even though the federal and provincial governments have promised to pay for part of the cost of a subway extension, that doesn’t make it a good transportation policy choice.

Soknacki also included a statement on mayoral transparency and ethics, which promised real-time disclosure of donors to his campaign, disclosure of meetings with lobby groups during his campaign, posting of his public schedule and reporting of any days absent from public business, maintaining an arms-length relationship with his business, and not serving on the board of any for-profit companies. Some elements of this statement represent a critique of Mayor Ford’s questionable practices (short workdays, frequent absences, retaining links with his family business) and it, too, is a welcome development.

When he recently declared his candidacy Mayor Ford warned that he would retaliate if anyone “got personal” with him. This is a classic instance of rhetorical reframing. Ford is trying to make the case that criticism of any aspect of his personal conduct goes beyond the limits of appropriate public debate and constitutes invasion of his privacy. Candidates, including David Soknacki, should not be taken in by Ford’s rhetoric and should feel free to criticize Ford’s conduct.

I think Soknacki’s statement on mayoral transparency and ethics is far too oblique and muted in its criticism of Rob Ford. Given Ford’s personal behaviour in office, I think it is completely reasonable for his opponents to discuss how they would behave while in office. They should commit to discharge the office of mayor with exemplary dignity, integrity, and thoughtfulness. So it would be appropriate for a candidate to say that he will not purchase and use illicit drugs, fall into, and attend public events while in, drunken stupors, and consort with criminals and persons of interest to the police. He would not spend a considerable portion of his time on voluntary activities such as coaching a football team, not because these activities are not intrinsically worthwhile, but because they are a diversion from the serious business of governing. He would not treat the office as a type of celebrity involving the handing out of bobble-head dolls for hours on end. One could go on at length because Ford has set such a low standard of behaviour. An American friend, a former municipal politician has put it well: “Ford is an embarrassment to any individual who has ever held public office.”

Unfortunately, Rob Ford has so debased public life that it is important for his opponents to talk, very specifically, about how they would behave while in office. Such a discussion is not, as Ford would have us believe, inappropriately “getting personal,” but rather the presentation of a different, and better vision, for public life and public service.

David Soknacki’s statement on mayoral transparency and ethics is a good start, but he should go farther, delivering both a critique of Ford’s failings and an alternative vision.

 

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.