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Afraid to do good

April 18, 2012

A conversation with a senior civil servant some years ago made a lasting impression on me.

He said, “I see myself as a risk manager.” He knew that politicians of every political stripe were waiting to pounce on procedural errors for political gain. “It doesn’t matter how innovative a project is” he said, “or how brilliant its success. If they find one picky error in the procurement process, my department is on the line.”

His strategy was to hunker down, protect his core programs, and do nothing more. And I thought: “Is there a greater waste of public money than this: to pay for a civil service that is afraid to do good?

I thought of this conversation afresh when I saw the terms of reference for the LeSage Review requested by Toronto Community Housing’s board of directors. As you will recall, two former TCHC executives and members of the Daniels Group voluntarily invested their own money in Regent Park’s success by buying condo units at the market price.

Entitled to your own opinion – not your own facts

One phrase in the terms of reference particular struck me: the people involved must be found not to have created “the appearance of a conflict of interest.” How does one defend oneself against that? Any propagandist can create the appearance of wrongdoing and anyone at all can say, “I just feel you did wrong.”

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, ““You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Indeed.

It seems to me that if there is to be a review, it should be based on the law – did TCHC, its staff or its partners break the law or not? If the answer is “yes” then the penalties available under the law should be invoked. If the answer is “no,” then the accused should be fully and publicly exonerated, and anyone that persists in false accusations is just asking to be prosecuted for slander.

Will it happen? I wish it had happened 25 years ago, when City Council deliberated on the supposed wrongdoing of then Councillor Jack Layton, a resident of Hazelburn Co-op.

I was a consultant involved in Hazelburn’s developement, and so of course knew all the facts of the case.  As I was watching the debate from the gallery, I slipped a note to a centrist member of council. It said something like, “I can testify that Hazelburn’s member selection process was absolutely clean.”

Later that day, the councillor rose to say, “We’ve been hearing all these innuendoes of wrong-doing. Well, let’s have it. Show us the evidence.” There was a dead silence, and then one councillor sputtered, “We read it in the papers.”

The gallery laughed and it was pretty much the end of the council debate. Nonetheless that false accusation of wrongdoing dogged Layton until the day he died, and I still see it crop up on comment boards.

This experience did not stop Layton from going on to do good. But I fear similar experiences are indeed preventing the public from benefitting from our best people.

Fresh ideas stymied

This blog is dedicated to “Fresh ideas in social housing.” But how can we have what I believe is the essential debate about the way we conceive and deliver social housing in this “hunker down” climate?

What government will try something daring – even something that would do great good – if there is even the slightest risk it will go wrong?

What public servant is free to run with a bright idea? I see friends in the public service who are longing to do good – who spot problems and know how to fix them – who are either keeping their head down or getting out. And of course we can never hear the voices of these bright lights in public debate. Their every word must be vetted through their communications departments.

And what about non-profit housing providers and agencies? They’re not deputing at public meetings either. Why not? Because they work for municipally funded organizations and they’re afraid speaking up will jeopardize their funding.

Even advocacy organizations are treading carefully. They may not receive government funds themselves, but their members do.

And how likely is the private sector to come forward after the treatment the Daniels Group has received? As one colleague put it, “Why get involved in a political shit-storm if you don’t have to?”

So who is left to carry on this debate? The people dismissed as “professional activists.” Some tenants. Some students. A few keen citizens. All stumbling along without funding, staff or access to data.

Meanwhile the people who work full time on these issues, who do have money, staff and data – not to mention sophisticated thinking, technical knowledge and often decades of experience – are hobbled.

The result? The field is left wide open for those with opinions who don’t want facts to get in the way.

Postcript – two signs of hope

Last week I was delighted to meet a group of policy graduates being courted for public service through a City-sponsored program. They struck me as well-informed, keen and smart, smart, smart. If they’re fearless too, and are given the opportunity to run with good ideas, we’ll be in good hands.

And second, I attended the inaugural meeting of Councillor Bailao’s working group on TCHC. They have an uphill battle: a tight schedule, little money for research and a climate where many have thrown up their hands and said, “there are no answers.” But I don’t believe that and neither should they. This is a chance to do good, and I look forward to the working group seizing the opportunity.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Paul Dowling permalink
    April 22, 2012 6:53 pm

    Right on, Joy! The appearance of a conflict of interest indeed!

    When it comes to taking a risk, I remember a Minister of Housing who after announcing the largest non profit housing initiative in the Province’s history acknowledged that we would make some mistakes along the way and would have to clean them up afterwards. She said this because, in response to a :housing crisis, she and the government were prepared to make a bold move. We did make some mistakes and she paid the price, but the housing has continued to provide decent homes for 30,000 households for 20 years. Well worth the price, I say!.

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