22 February 2012

Crisis of (non-)Leadership at Toronto City Hall

Yesterday’s decision to oust now-former TTC Chief General Manager, Gary Webster, signals a potentially disastrous new twist in the incumbency of Mayor Rob Ford. Let me state up-front that I’m no fan of the current mayor and most of his policies. I’m also no fan of Mr. Webster’s style of technocratic leadership of the Toronto Transit Commission, nor his brinkmanship and inability to engage appropriately with the Amalgamated Transit Union. But those subjective opinions on the men involved have nothing to do with my deep concern over what this foolhardy decision means for the future of our city.

The firing-without-cause is explained by Councillor (and TTC Commissioner) Frank DiGorgio as follows: “Excellence in bureaucracy isn’t defined like excellence in private enterprise … . Excellence in a bureaucracy … is the ability to put forth the positions that are consistent with those adopted by the mayor.

Sadly, what Mr. DiGorgio describes is not “excellence,” but rather the root of problems in traditional, dysfunctional bureaucracies. These sorts of bureaucracies are the mindless, non-learning organizations that tend to repeat their past mistakes, in which “accountability” is a euphemism for blame and witch-hunts, whose leaders behave like Alice-in-Wonderland Red Queens—the sort of petty tyrants whose only response is “off with their heads” when s/he doesn’t get her or his way. Such bureaucracies operate under the myth that the leader is all-knowing, all-wise, and (at least in the context of the organization) all powerful. Said leader – who necessarily believes this myth – too often suffers under the delusion that afflicted the fabled Emperor whose unfortunate sartorial choices left him considerably exposed for all to see.

In the public sector, the role of staff (so-called bureaucrats), including senior/executive staff, is to provide the subject matter expertise and reasoned analysis that can give good guidance to the elected representatives, so that they can make the types of well-informed decisions the public (supposedly) elected them to make. What we want as citizens is for political considerations to be left out of the complicated and complex analysis of situations, for the circumstances to be presented as fairly and – dare I say it – objectively as possible. It’s the politicians role to add the political dimension, to justify decisions taken when proposed policy is at odds with reasoned analysis, and to ultimately be accountable to the electorate for those decisions. To insist, as Mr. DiGorgio and Councillors Vince Crisanti, Cesar Palacio, Denzil Minnan-Wong and Norm Kelly did, that the role of the civil service is to provide only analysis that conforms with the mayor’s desires and whims is to create a smoke-screen behind which cowardly politicians may hide when decisions are misguided, ill-informed, or simply turn out wrong for the benefit of the city and its citizens.

What Mr. Webster’s principled stand in providing his best analysis and honest opinion did was to say to the (political) Commissioners, “if you want to decide on an alternative course of action after hearing this analysis, I cannot in good conscience provide your cover; you must take the responsibility.” What the (political) Commissioners accomplished yesterday was to put a freezing chill on honest analysis by the municipal civil service. The message is clear: “If your analysis disagrees with the Mayor’s (uninformed-by-facts) opinions, your livelihood is at risk.” A culture of fear-induce sycophants does not a healthy, well-run, thriving city make. Certainly it does not demonstrate Mayor Ford’s vaunted “respect for the taxpayer.”

This is not leadership. This is abdication of responsibility. Sadly, would-be Emperor Ford – sans clothes – will not abdicate his role.

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