posted May 27, 2003
Parks & Rec Restructuring Analysis
A MAP OF STRATEGIC PLANNERS' MINDS:
RE-STRUCTURING TORONTO PARKS AND RECREATION
CELOS: Centre for Local Research into Public Space
Follow-up working group
May 27 2004
Since Toronto and its surrounding municipalities were forced to amalgamate in 1997, the management of the much expanded Parks and Recreation Division has been searching for a way to make it all work. Their ideas have been set out in quite a few reports and papers. The ones we have obtained are shown in the sidebar to the right.
What follows is a critical look at the contents of these reports, beginning with the most recent. The reports are not easy to read, since they are repetitive and their language is often mind-numbing. However, not studying them carefully puts us in danger of what Jane Jacobs calls "being like ostriches." It appears that the management of Parks and Recreation lost its bearings some time ago. The more confusion, the larger the strategic planning section, the more reports, the more dismay from both outside and inside Parks and Recreation. What to do, is a puzzle.
In November 2003, the "Friends of Dufferin Grove Park" very actively expressed our alarm and joined with others in lobbying our politicians to suspend an ambitious Parks and Recreation re-structuring plan. It was to be put in place a few weeks before the term of the newly elected municipal government began. The plan would have abolished our existing working relations with Parks staff and forced us to start again from scratch. Despite our obvious interest in the issue, when Parks and Recreation's strategic planners took another run at re-structuring in April, no one from our park was invited to participate in the Stakeholder Reerence Group that the planners set up to discuss their new approach. However, we found out about the reference group's existence, and we asked and were given permission to come and listen at the May 11 meeting. We also asked for access to the reports in their information binder, and then studied more than a hundred pages of plans. Having now learned more about what city staff are proposing, we understand that their not inviting us made sense. We're not on the same page as their strategic planners' approach, not even close. Sometimes, while studying the strategic plans, we had to wonder if those planners are even in the same city.
The latest "draft strategic plan" is meant to lead to a "three-year business plan," and its many, many goals can be summarized as:
- Saving the environment and
- Saving the citizens.
We're alarmed. It's already obvious in our park and many others that staff are scarce, and so the parks often show signs of being orphaned. With everyone so busy planning and meeting around all the ambitious goals in this new scheme, how will the everyday work get done?
The answer is, it won't. The day to day work of Parks and Recreation has been wobbling along with some difficulty for a long time (well before amalgamation). We're fearful that the latest round of strategic planning interventions will cause the whole unsteady structure to sink under its weight.
What to do is a puzzle. In honour of Jane Jacobs' advice to us: "don't just stick your heads in the sand like ostriches," we'd like to apply the resources of our park's "follow-up research group" to this difficult situation. Our first step is to look in some detail at the reports and plans coming from the Strategic Planning Section.
All the plans and reports use certain words repeatedly. In the case of technical terms, they are repeated in adjoining sentences, to show their importance in discussion. This technique is presumably used to encourage the reader into the strategic planners' way of looking at things, by requiring the reader to use the correct planning language, e.g. the city responds to trends, forces, needs and demands by developing a wide range of plans, strategies, and policies. The next sentence just repeats all those terms.
Other terms are used so often that they form a matrix for thought in the same way that the "f" word forms a matrix for the speech of many teenagers in our neighbourhood. The word "alignment" gets more play than in a chiropractor's office (alignment of strategy, of process, of operational framework, of directions, of divisions, of business plans). There are phrases like "opportunity to reposition intentions," or "perform a communication role within sector organizations" or "begin to measure and monitor service outcomes," that seem like technical code.
communication conduits, and if lots of city staff or park users come to a meeting, they're measured by volume, e.g. a meeting had a high volume of participation. All these terms compare people with tools or material. There are certain verbs that get a lot of play: ensure, emphasize, promote, strengthen, value, involve, develop, challenge, expand awareness, define, increase. These verbs seem to be a call for action, but what exact action is not clear from the verb (nor, often, from the sentence they're in).
But it's hard for an outside reader, or perhaps for an inside reader, or anyone at all, to find the meaning in such phrases. People are often referred to as
THE TECHNIQUE OF USING FANTASY AND MAGICAL THINKING
- "A Vision for Toronto," a kind of managerial fantasy of how the city and its Parks and Recreation department would be in a perfect world, and
- "Guiding Principles," a follow-up section of magical thinking, describing 13 ways in which Parks and Recreation WILL become perfect.
(both sections from the Spring 2004 Draft for Review and Comment).
These sections also introduce a stern and heroic tone: Parks and Recreation's three foundations cannot and will not be pursued in isolation from one another.
Strategic planners invite both park users and city staff to think big; they ask people to give them the big ideas. They offer their own -- The Three Foundations, i.e. Environmental Stewardship, Lifelong Active Living [in most of the reports this part was called Lifelong Health and Wellness for All, but it seems to have been downgraded slightly for Spring 2004], and Child and Youth Development. Also sometimes referred to as the three key priorities. Parks and Recreation's ambitions are pretty well total: they intend to maintain and improve both nature and culture, target the entire community, "build a base of leisure skills" into all children and keep working on them from there. The three foundations are usually accompanied by a list of various numbers in Parks and Recreation's domain, for example: hundreds of camps, thousands of hectares, hundreds of thousands of daily participants, millions of street trees.
Comment: With tasks and responsibilities this huge, any attempt to examine specific problems, occurring in a specific place, will likely be swamped out by the big picture. The message here is that Parks and Rec is huge, and the job that needs to be done is huge. You can drown in it.
STRATEGIC GOALS AND DIRECTIONS
In the Spring 2004 Draft for Review and Comment the format is three subsections for each "foundation." The first part is called "Parks & Recreation's Perspective," and it gives more details how huge are the problems that the staff are concerned with (bad air, bad water, bad weather, huge immigration, old buildings, dying wildlife, etc.). The second part reiterates the planners' determination to perfect the department's work, and the third part sketches the outline of a work plan for accomplishing this. The work plan:
- calls for quite a few meetings, analyses, designs, and promotional campaigns
- is otherwise remarkably vague on details
- if taken literally would require a very large increase in the Parks and Recreation budget (double would be good)
- if taken only as an ideal standard for staff performance evaluations, would drive the Parks and Recreation staff mad with the chasm between their task list and what they could ever realistically accomplish.
AN INFATUATION WITH COUNTING. Not even the Count on Sesame Street could have a greater love of numbers than the strategic planners. 240 vegetation communities are threatened. 8 out of 10 Ontario urban residents have particular opinions about the value of trees. 1000 people die prematurely because of pollution each year. 30% of the city's children live in poverty. 85% find it restful to be near nature areas. 57% of adults are insufficiently active. In the calendar years 1996-97, some adolescents reported low levels of self-esteem. On and on and on it goes, a veritable stew of numbers of all sorts.
NONSENSE NUMBERS. Despite their love of numbers, the strategic planners' counting is not always reliable. In the 2002 Parks and Recreation booklet, "Defining our Vision, Mission, and Key Priorities," one can read that there are 500,000 people in registered programs and 2.9 million in drop-in programs. The November 2003 Parks and Recreation re-structuring manual lowered that to 400,000 people in registered programs and 2.6 million in drop-in programs. These same numbers were repeated again in the stakeholder reference booklet and also in Commissioner Halstead's to city council's Economic Development and Parks Committee report last January 28. But no matter how many years these user numbers are repeated, they're still nonsense. Who could take seriously that more than 100% of the city's population could go to Parks and Recreation drop-in programs?
That might be why the participants' guide for the public sessions didn't use these particular numbers. They write that 6.4% of the population is in registered programs, which would bring us down to about 153,600. And the "drop-in" figure is shifted over to "community and sports organizations" who, with the help of 200,000 volunteers, provide "opportunities" for over 2.5 million people a year on parks property. Perhaps they are counting Caribana.
SCIENTISTIC PRETENSIONS. There are examples throughout the text of statements that want to take on the mystique of science, but they have the style without the content. Real scientists call such statements "scientistic." Scientistic statements are often small, pompous phrases that pass by quickly. Cumulatively the Strategic Plan uses them a great deal. They mean to impress and convert, but often they just make the reader glaze over. And on a science test such statements would get a zero. Two examples:
Social scientistic pretensions: (p.32) A healthy natural environment contributes strongly to neighborhood satisfaction levels. This is an attempt to use statistical language to persuade the reader to read this banal idea as a weighty sociological measurement.
Physical scientistic pretensions: (p.37) ...three out of five children and youth aged 5-17 are not active enough for optimal growth and development. A scientist does not purvey an "optimal" standard. What would it mean? Who would decree it?
PARKS AND RECREATION RE-STRUCTURED AS A BUSINESS.
1. CUSTOMERS: The Strategic Plan refers to citizens as clients or consumers or, most often, customers of parks and recreation services. A ferry ticket price or a summer camp fee is a consumer product category. When a school gym is closed due to a strike, when a Hydro blackout occurs, when we're hit with SARS or a terrorist attack, there's a loss of customer base. Buildings more than twenty years old are "aging and outdated infrastructure," which interfere with the growth of customer base. (For some years now the different sections of the department have bought and sold services to each other. For instance, when our park water fountain is broken, and the park staff call in a work order for the city's own plumbers, they are put on hold to wait for "the next available customer representative," i.e. the repair dispatcher.)
2. RAW MATERIALS: The general product category of this business is a mixture of saving the environment and saving the people. This guarantees that Parks and Recreation will be in business for a long time. The planners' list offers an endless supply of material to work with. The objects of the planners' attentions range from teenage sexual troubles, to the condition of 3 million city trees, to fat citizens of all ages, to shifts in the city's ethnicity, to the TV habits of poor kids, to the U.S. Surgeon General's thoughts on how to "maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints."
3. INVENTORY: Because the work plan of this business is so ambitious, the ongoing project of keeping track of how it's going is enormous. The planners feel that Parks and Rec has to "develop community profiles and undertake community needs assessments on a regular basis." In fact, they have to monitor, analyze, measure, design, have meetings with their corporate or social service partners, and do ad campaigns pretty well continuously. As if that didn't keep them busy enough, they also have to engage the citizens in "infrastructure and service planning and service delivery" all along the way. And they have to continuously monitor customer service quality.
4. TOOLS: Seeing Parks and Recreation as a business means that in many parts of the Strategic Plan, the natural world is recast as a business proposition. Trees become pollution scrubbers: Trees removed a total of 997 Megagrams of pollution from the atmosphere for a total associated value of $8,565,000. Bad air hurts business: ..air pollution costs the Toronto economy at least $138 million in lost productivity. Parks and trees bring in more money, and also save money: Green space...draws in investment and promotes prosperity. It can replace a good deal of expensive infrastructure.
The natural world should (according to strategic planners) also be used as an instrument, by parks and recreation staff, to fix up humans. For the strategic planners, the citizen is recast as a programmable learning system. Environmental education programs show ... a decrease in socially inappropriate behaviours. People come to sound robotic: they do nature appreciation, learn life-long leisure skills, take environmental education programs to get an increase in levels of social interaction.
5. ADVERTISING AND PROMOTION: The goods and services from Parks and Recreation that are on offer for people in the city are promoted as being magically vast: providing an opportunity for adults to develop their full and holistic potential; enhancing perceived quality of life for individuals, families, and communities; reducing self-destructive and anti-social behaviour, including reduced crime, racism, isolation, loneliness and alienation; providing the catalysts that build strong and self-sufficient communities...and so on.
Many of the claims in the Strategic Plan sound like an ad. Young people's participation in physical recreation programs not only builds better muscles and bones, but also leads to better time management, protects against emotional problems, helps kids stay in school, reduces single parents' reliance on social assistance, pays for recreation programs by reducing the use of child psychiatrists and - most astonishingly - enables children and youth with psychological disorders to achieve the same level of social, physical and academic competencies as their non-disordered peers. Ads are supposed to exaggerate.
The current restructuring effort involves a Communications Staff Team, which is in charge of visual identity, naming, internal and external communications, media relations and marketing and communications campaign on the value of parks and recreation. The work of this staff team is directed at Parks and Recreation users, staff, and at city councillors. It must result in excitement and momentum built up around the process and a high rating of input opportunities by staff. Staff input was partly a "test run" in preparation for the public input phase. The Communications Staff Team is also supposed to create positive "buzz" within the Division about the whole process, as well as positive feedback with the Corporation about Parks and Recreation's key role in achieving the three foundations. This last is also called positive positioning with the Corporation and Council, and it's a long-term task listed to the end of Dec.31.
6. PRODUCTS: These are also called deliverables. The "deliverables" called for in this proposal are seven new plans. The planners divide the seven deliverables into plans that are elements and plans that are supports, both of which will provide vital content for both the process and the end product, namely the three-year Business Plan.
There is also a longer-term plan going to 2010. Here the Three Foundations form the basis for goals (what Parks and Recreation wants) and directions (how they will they get it). We analyzed the list of directions, but found that it was tough to get much of an idea of actions that might follow. One of our group prepared a chart (see the chart we developed) to sort out the different directions, with columns headed "means a study," "means more training," "means more advertising," "might mean something specific," and "what does this mean?" Most of the directions are so vague that they had to be put in the last column. So the actual products of this "business" remain a mystery.
There's a wide gap between many of the suggestions that come out of the planners' meeting rooms, and the day-to-day parks and recreation work. Let's take the idea of the planners wanting Parks and Recreation to be seen as a business, with consumer products, satisfied customers, and (at the heart of its structure!) a three-year business plan. Many of us wince at that approach, it seems so nutty. But if we were to take them at their word, we could ask: how's it going after six years of this business fantasy? (Remember, the business language came into fashion right after amalgamation).
A few examples:
In 2003 this business was unable to collect a large amount of its accounts receivable:
From the Toronto Star, May 12:
"City won't see $1M in rec fees, auditor estimates
Users owe $4.5M for city programs, councillors told.
Parks commissioner advises against harsh crackdown."
Balancing the budget: In 2003 this business spent between $8 and $10 million more than it had. What's more, the accounting system is such that the size of this disparity was not anticipated until late in the year.
From P.L.A.Y. Toronto: Since 1999, this business has spent $6.5 million destroying parks playground equipment and replacing it with dumbed-down playground equipment. The reason: an edict attributed to the Canadian Standards Association, a trade group that's over 90 % manufacturers and barely half Canadian. In the process, Parks and Recreation broke its own rules for public consultation, and its crews removed equipment that the CSA didn't ask to be removed anyway.
Advertising and promotion, detailed examples from the city's 51 outdoor artificial ice rinks: 1. This business has a rink "hot line" that only carries recorded messages and that leads the caller into constant dead ends when seeking information about ice conditions. 2. The telephone book's blue pages rink listings have had all the individual rink numbers removed because this business has a policy saying that skaters must not have phone access to rink staff. 3. For most of the past rink season, individual rinks were not allowed to photocopy their skating schedule to give to users because of a division-wide edict to save money.
And the city web site has gaps: some sizeable parks are left off the park listings altogether. Information is often out of date. (To be fair, that's not only the fault of this business. The corporation of the City of Toronto as a whole has a web site with over 20,000 static pages and a poorly functioning search engine.)
Timely maintenance of facilities and equipment: this business has no-one assigned to check on state of good repair in the parks from year to year. Examples from Dufferin Grove Park: in the case of damaged park benches and tables, their staff often wait until the bench or the table collapses, and then take it away in the trash. In the case of our outdoor artificial ice rink, this business refused their "customers" (rink users') request to bring in a specialist in rink concrete, to investigate the numerous cracks in the concrete slab (skating surface). Instead they plan a general city-wide rink survey later on.
Tools: during the month of May, this business was not able to supply its park workers, nor its park volunteers, with compost, fence posts, or wood chips, to take care of its park garden beds. This is on a budget of $160 million.
Allocation of resources: Example #1: Dufferin Grove Park is crossed by two unpaved, rutted walkways, which get heavy use from residents walking through the park. This business has no money to pave the walkways. Wheelchair users and people with strollers cannot use these rutted tracks in bad weather. Meantime, this business continues to spend $50,000 a year on the "Garrison Creek Project," building "entrance features" into parts of city parks that lead to nowhere. Example #2: A very popular indoor skateboard program in an inner-city recreation centre applied for funding to get better equipment. This business denied that request. Instead, it paid $70,000 to a consulting company to write a Parks and Recreation staff safety manual. The previous Parks and Recreation safety manual done by this business is less than 10 years old and is used internationally. Example #3: this business spends upwards of $2 million a year paying its planners to think up things in meetings, have training sessions, and do campaigns advertising the value of Parks and Recreation. It would be good if that same $2 million was used instead for getting these planners out into the parks and the recreation centres, participating in the everyday work. That way the planners could learn more about the business by getting their hands dirty (some for the first time). The consequence might be a net increase in the planners' understanding of the whole picture.
To be continued.
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