Monthly Archives: December 2010

Healthy Skepticism

Ontario’s rookie municipal politicians have a new sandbox to play in.

Its size?

Four years long by whatever latitude municipal staff and re-elected incumbents will allow them. New councillors and mayors will receive orientation and training, and will be schooled in the reasoning and dictates of policies and procedures: in short, why things are the way they are.

A few new faces will have attained election victory because incumbents have either bowed out or chased larger ambitions (as mayors, as regional councillors, or as regional chairs).

Fresh in from the campaign trail, they may feel that they have arrived at City Hall with a mandate for change. Never fear. They will be joining very, very stable organizations that have successfully assimilated newcomers before.

Make no mistake. No re-elected incumbent or upwardly mobile city staffer believes that past decisions adopted around the municipal horseshoe, or the methods used to attain them, are in need of change. Their loyalty to the status quo is quite natural and logical, unless they have been living the last four years as outsiders, shunned by the organization they are elected to lead.

Returning incumbents rightly see their election as endorsement of past behaviour, equally as valid as any newcomer’s mandate for change.

We need only look south of the border to see how difficult change in government actions can be, even where leadership at the very top is backed by massive initial support.

Jane Jacobs attempts to explain why this is so, in her 1992 book Systems of Survival. It’s subtitled “A dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics”, and the work is an exploration of the two very different systems of these worlds (or “syndromes” as she calls them). She concludes that within the realm of government, military, religious and large corporate organizations, with their necessary “guardian” syndrome, there are a number of effective moral precepts that contrast with their equivalents in commerce and trade. Jacobs does not judge these precepts as necessarily good or bad, but believes that they are effective.

Distinctive guardian syndrome precepts include: using deception for the sake of achieving results (the end justifies the means) rather than overt dissent or objection; exerting prowess (pulling rank or citing reputation or qualifications) rather than engaging in competition; and being disciplined and obedient rather than efficient. Jacobs finds the guardian morality in man’s transition from hunter/gatherer and nomad to rooted settler, where territory and the division of tasks must be overseen, managed, and organized. It is this necessary management (the standard operating procedures) that she believes reinforces the values of loyalty over collaboration, respect for hierarchy over initiative, honour over honesty, and tradition over innovation.

New councillors and mayors will be initiated into this world, a world to which few citizens feel connected and fewer still might understand. Citizens and small enterprises live in the world of commerce, of trade. According to Jacobs trade is conducted using moral precepts that often contrast with those needed to administer territories and run hierarchical corporate bodies.

Calgary’s new mayor Naheed Nenshi describes city hall bureaucracy in blunt terms, as a “horrible soul-destroying system” with a “risk-averse culture.” While he’s been elected on a wave of optimism, and Calgary’s government may be worse than some, even there his “12 Better Ideas” will need to be implemented as effective change to a longstanding system of government, and that will be neither easy nor welcomed.

A prime example of this reality is the framing of debate regarding light rail transit in Waterloo Region. Consultants, the development industry, lobbyists, and those who benefit from the status quo have much to lose if real change is implemented. Investments have been made on the basis of present arrangements, and much is riding on the assumption of continuity. Although there is much talk of Smart Growth, and the changes it will bring for our communities, this is policy only, and policy can sometimes be far from the reality of specific decisions. The time-honoured administrative conveyor that turns farmland into subdivisions and lanes of congested traffic will continue unabated, in the name of “housing choice for consumers”.

Never presented as a threat to car-based development and patterns of living, public transit is touted as an added benefit that will complement traditional growth. Its expense cannot be compared to the $300 to $400 million that will be spent moving Highway 7 (from Guelph to Kitchener-Waterloo) into farmland and wetland, estimated by its project consultants to save about 5 minutes of a 20 minute commute. That expense is quietly seen as necessary, but it’s only nominally for transportation. Its real task, as with most road and sewer infrastructure, is to open up land for development. Although its proponents will never admit such a thing publicly, the road will succumb to the inevitable pressures and arguments that created the Woodlawn Road and Victoria Street “gasoline alleys” it is meant to replace. A first, then a second, then more big box developments will be approved by township councils eager for assessment dollars, and less-than-smart-growth will be perpetuated.

Similar logic for rapid transit, that it will spur development, albeit in existing built up areas, falls on deaf ears. The debate over Highway 7 has been framed as one of transportation, of freedom and consumer choice, which plays to a taxpayer’s understanding of the public realm as nothing but support for his private movements. Evidence is glossed over, of how the highway’s further lanes will quickly become as congested as ever. The project’s real purpose: land development, growth, and the profits that flow from it; lies in the background. Light rail transit cannot be sold in similar terms. It is a system of infrastructure that requires an overt shift in where development profit is harvested. The development industry will always prefer greenfield subdivision, with its control of “lifestyle” sales message, over the messy dictates of urbanism. That is the devil it knows, and the mechanism that our civic bureaucracy is designed to support.

Low turnouts at municipal elections are not to be wondered at. While it may be true that a municipality’s services and programs, its policies and procedures, and its way of doing things have greater effect on our lives than any other level of government, it is also true that few citizens believe City Hall can truly change, regardless of how it may affect their children’s future. The apathy does not spring from the issues. It is a view of how our guardians conduct themselves, and their lack of healthy skepticism. Where politicians cite the mantra “On election day the voters have their say, and they are always right” they should add “And on election day, those who do not vote have also spoken loudly: that the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

JM, October 22, 2010, as originally for the Business Times

Maximizing the Minimum, from House to Transit


Two contractors are interviewed for a project. The project owner asks about the standards that will be brought to the performance of the work. Contractor A says, “We will ensure that the standards of the Building Code are rigidly enforced, and that our trades are equally vigilant regarding this requirement. We are ISO 9000 compliant to this standard, and we have checks and balances in our quality control procedures to ensure the performance is achieved.”

Contractor B says, “We will build to the minimum allowed by law.”

Big difference? Well, maybe not.

Actually, like so many adopted standards, the building code is simply the minimum allowed by law. It is no guarantee of quality, but a minimum level that we have set for ourselves in the public interest. A sort of floor beneath which we’d rather not sink.

Contractor B’s workmanship sounds like it leaves a lot to be desired, but perhaps his is a marketing problem.

A brief tour of websites for new condominiums and “quality-built homes” provide numerous examples similar to the following: “For Your Comfort and Convenience {the} entire home sealed on exterior walls with 6 mil poly vapour barrier system.” Sounds impressive, but such construction is actually the minimum allowed by law. Where buyers are influenced by this statement, any further investment in quality is just money down the drain.

My very nice and quite competent car mechanic told me several years back that a passing grade for a “safety inspection” didn’t actually require the car to have an engine. The safety check ensures the car can stop, signal, and do all sorts of things, but “going” isn’t necessarily one of them. When you’re shopping for a used car, there sure is a lot said about that safety certificate, but how much does it actually describe the quality of what you are buying? In the absence of specialised knowledge, not much.

Some builder agreements restrict access to the building site by the home’s purchaser. Safety and liability concerns are cited as reasons why viewing or photographing the fundamental construction underlying all those interior and exterior finish options is, unfortunately, not possible.

As purchasers, how can we enforce quality when we are denied access to the product?

In our building industry and beyond, we trust government and standards organisations to design and enforce quality where our own efforts as purchasers fall short. Judging from letters to the editors, it might be the only thing we entrust to government. We rail against regulatory intrusion into our lives and the marketplace, but seem quite willing for that same regime to ensure we receive “quality” for our purchasing dollar. In some cases, such as where tap water can exceed the quality of the bottled product for which we pay so dearly, we show our trust in strange ways .

A delightful case of obfuscation regarding quality and standards lies in the history of the ISO 9000 series of certifications with which we have become so familiar. Trumpeting achievement of these standards is by no means restricted to the manufacturing sector. According to ISO {the International Standards Organisation} in 2004, “service sectors now account by far for the highest number of ISO 9001:2000 certificates – about 31% of the total”. Compliance with the ISO 9000 series standards is tacitly linked to the quality of a product or service that is offered to the marketplace. In fact, these standards (9001, 9002, and onward) describe the consistency and efficacy of business practices that an organisation uses to conform to its own quality goals.

What is missing from the scene in the rush for conformance,

is some measure of the actual quality of the product or its improvement.

The worldwide-spread of ISO 9000 standards is described by various commentators as occurring with little evidence linking the achievement of ISO 9000 management standards to improvements in product or service quality. These same authors often point out that “quality” is actually defined in ISO 8402 while the 9000 series standards concentrate on the “how” rather than the “what”. Even the definition itself: “The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs” focuses on customer satisfaction rather than some innate degree of excellence for the thing itself.

Our attempt at quality has become a contest of consistency.

Rather than raising the bar, we exult in our ability to clear it again and again and again.

Aaron Renn, in his recent “urbanophile” post, talks about raising the bar on design, using Chicago’s transit system as an example of design that satisfies the minimum, but keeps the bar relative low. He provides many examples of inspiring design for transit stations and other elements of public transit that enrich the lives of those who use them.

Here in Waterloo Region, the transit debate is heating up once again, with opinions polarized about whether to build urban transit in the form of a light rail system, or extend the current bus system in an effort to modernize transit.

Whatever we decide to build, it would be nice if we committed to quality, inspiring design as the minimum.