05 March 2010

The Case of Dufferin Grove Park

The dysfunctions of bureaucracy are widely documented throughout the critical management literature, and in books and documentaries like The Corporation. These dysfunctions are most certainly etched in the minds of countless individuals who spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with the ensuing frustrations, both as inside members, and outside victims, of bureaucracies. But while bureaucracies were noted by early 20th century economist and sociologist, Max Weber, as a superior way of organizing work for maximum efficiency, they have become anything but that merely one hundred years later. The case of Dufferin Grove Park and its headlong clash with City of Toronto’s Parks, Forestry, and Recreation bureaucracy is particularly illustrative: it not only highlights bureaucratic dysfunctions; it serves as an almost too-perfect example of using Valence Theory as a frame for organizational healing.

The complicated facts of the case are, by now, well-known thanks to reportage in the press, and through the community organization, Friends of Dufferin Grove Park (FDGP). The principles being applied by the City, and specifically Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR, headed by its General Manager, Brenda Patterson, with Councillor Janet Davis as the Chair of the Community Development and Recreation Committee) are clearly BAH – bureaucratic, administrative, and hierarchical in nature. They go something like this:
  1. There are two, distinct organizations involved in this issue: one is a community organization defined loosely by self-identified association (i.e., those who consider themselves members of the Dufferin Grove community are, de facto, members); the other is a City department whose members are defined according to formal employment contracts.
  2. A member of a “formal” (in this case, meaning paid employment) organization is considered by that organization to owe his/her first allegiance to that formal organization, strictly according to terms set out in the employment contract (in this case, the collective agreement between the City and its workers’ union, CUPE Local 79).
  3. Organizational members are interchangeable in a particular “office” (job function or station) so long as they have equivalent technical specifications; individual personalities, dispositions, and other so-called soft skills are (for the purpose of job assignment) in effect, irrelevant.
  4. The City claims to be the agent for the public interest in the matter, which creates a problematic conflict of interest, since the “public” (specifically, FDGP) holds opinions that are diametrically opposite from those of its putative agent, namely, the City in the body of PFR. This is not dissimilar to an accused defendant being represented in court by the Crown. Nonetheless, the City is, bureaucratically and administratively, indeed the nominal representative of the public according to our rooted-in-the-13th-or-19th-century system of government (take your pick). One is left to contemplate whether this 13th- or 19th-century principle is useful in this instance of a problem in 21st-century Toronto.
  5. PFR is determined, seemingly at any cost to the community or effectiveness, to “reproduce its system of means” (Manuel Castells’s definition of a bureaucracy) by ensuring that all community-based organizations are structured, managed, and most of all, controlled in the same ways, strictly according to centrally determined policies and procedures. The department’s determination here is based on the presumption that all areas of the City should be treated equally. (Another analogy: As a good parent, to treat your children equitably do you treat them each exactly the same?)

It is all too clear that the conventional, BAH reading of this situation will not lead to a happy and healthy resolution of this situation. Were it not for the determination of FDGP, community programming in the Park would not have been initiated in the first place, and certainly would not sustain this current strife. Although it would not be obvious to the thinking of the bureaucratic personality, I would argue that by attempting to set identical standards that intend to “provide excellent service to residents throughout the City,” as Councillor Davis suggests, the City is, in fact, diminishing its capacity for innovation to provide quality services as and where they are needed. According to my research, bureaucracies are structurally incapable of creating innovation (and they’re incapable of perceiving quality, as well). It is only through UCaPP-style undertakings, such as FDGP in this case, that innovation can, and does, occur.

Valence Theory provides a very different understanding of the five issues I raised. Approaching the problem from a Valence Theory context enables more of the salient issues to become discussable, thereby fostering a quicker, more satisfying resolution to the problems at hand, and providing healing to the organizations involved.

1) Valence Theory maintains that there is no difference between internal and external constituencies. All members who share several of the five valence relationships (Economic, Socio-psychological, Identity, Knowledge, and Ecological) are members of the organization. Hence, City workers, officials in PFR, and community members of FDGP are all part of one valence organization—let’s call it Larger Dufferin Grove, for clarity’s sake. One could say, therefore, that there is an allegiance owed by all members to that larger, composite organization.
2) Specifically, the collective agreement and employment contracts in general define only the Economic valence relationship between one or more members and one particular organization, namely, the City. That organization is not Larger Dufferin Grove (although workers and the City are both constituent members of Larger Dufferin Grove; hence, there is a level of complexity here that is not contemplated in collective agreements). Thus, the collective agreement is, ultimately, not a useful complication in resolving this matter, since it serves to divide rather than unite the parties. As well, one key constituency of Larger Dufferin Grove – FDGP – is not a party to the collective agreement; thus, based on a principle of fundamental fairness, the collective agreement should not be used as a determining factor or justification for actions taken on behalf of Larger Dufferin Grove. Yes, this means that management’s assumed unilateral prerogative to control its employees essentially goes out the window. (Don’t worry, since under Valence Theory, collaborative leadership is far more effective and efficient.)
3) Since, according to Valence Theory, organizations are emergent from relationships among people, if you change the people, you change the organization. Specifically, by reassigning Ward 18 recreation supervisor Tino DeCastro to supervising cleaners at Metro Hall, Larger Dufferin Grove has been changed. The principle here is relatively straight-forward to understand: people are not machine parts; they are not interchangeable according to similarity in technical specifications.
4) The term, “conflict of interest” has been bandied about considerably in this circumstance, specifically pertaining to protecting against the potential for fiscal malfeasance (something with which the City is well acquainted). However, as I mentioned in point 4 above, there are clearly conflicted interests on the City’s part (specifically PFR, and even more specifically in the Office of its General Manager—and I am clearly distinguishing between the Office and the person of the GM, according to bureaucratic theory). Interestingly, throughout this entire matter, there is no venue for recognizing and reconciling the specific interests of Larger Dufferin Grove, as each of FDGP, PFR, and City workers represent the interests of their particular component organization (and yes, this is a tricky one to get one’s head around, but think about it for a minute or two because it’s a key concept to understand the distinction between Larger Dufferin Grove and each of its constituent sub-organizations).
5) Treating all communities and citizens fairly and equitably is not to treat them all the same, no matter how much bureaucratic principles would wish it so. A city like Toronto is diverse and complex. Hence, a complexity approach (which is neither a simplistic nor complicated approach) is required to resolve these sorts of issues.

So, where to start? According to Valence Theory, the order of priorities is as follows: Values, Tactility (effects), Relationships, Purpose, Goals & Objectives, and Tasks. The Larger Dufferin Grove organization must convene to create organizational values that are emergent from those of its participant members (and not vice versa). With underlying values commonly understood, the organization can then answer its tactility question: who do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them today? This will reveal the specific effects that Larger Dufferin Grove will want to enable among all its component constituencies, via the five valence relationships. From an in-depth understanding of these effects and relationships, the specific purpose, goals, and objectives of what is to be accomplished will emerge and come into focus, and from these, the specific tasks that can be taken up by all members.

There are any number of venues and intervention techniques (facilitated through a competent organizational therapist; disclosure: this is what I do) through which this process of organizational healing can occur. However, I maintain that it is vitally important to change the language of interaction among Friends of Dufferin Grove Park, the Department of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation, and the City workers themselves in order to create a common ground of organizational healing for Larger Dufferin Grove.

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