Power, Politics, and why I can’t get The City to trim a tree limb without calling my local councillor.

For about two years after I moved back to Toronto after a brief western adventure in British Columbia, I tried my hardest to put my Political Science degree to good use. I got involved with municipal politics by volunteering with my local city councillor, some Toronto-based and Toronto-centric NGOs, as well as both the federal and provincial branches of the Liberal party.

I learned a lot in that time, in many different areas. One of the most important things that I learned for my own purpose, was that at this point in time involvement in policy and politics isn’t for me. And tonight I’d like to elaborate on one of the reasons why.

In the (fantastic) book “Tragedy in the Commons“, by Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan, one aspect that they discuss when it comes to the deficiencies of our parliamentary political system is that our Members of Parliament do not have specific job descriptions. As such, they are free to create their own. This can result in socially beneficial outcomes, if the MP is both self-motivated to create positive change and empowered by his or her party to do so. However, in cases where one (or, often, both) of those conditions are absent, the MP can meander into conducting their job in ways that might be best suited for other members of the Public Service of Canada.

One thing that MP’s often wind up doing is serving as navigators of the bureaucracy on behalf of their constituents. Working in a politician’s office, whether in Ottawa or back in their home riding, staffers regularly get calls from citizens asking for help with their passport / their aunt’s immigration process / their annoying neighbour with the dog / whatever other issue, big or small, is bothering them that day. And I am not here to criticize those callers – it is their prerogative to call their elected representatives for assistance when they see fit. That being said, my take on the issue (as well as that of Loat and MacMillan – if my memory serves me correctly, considering it’s been a couple years since I gave their book a thorough read) is that our MPs should spend their time passing legislation and reducing regulation to improve the flow of the bureaucracy for everyone – not using their insider knowledge to assist those who should happen to call them for help.

The current situation leads to our highly-compensated representatives spending their time and their office’s budget on solving pesky day to day problems, rather than working on the societal big picture. It also allows for unequal access to government services. If I can skip a line or two by calling my MP to pull some strings, I’m going to do that every time. But if not everyone knows that, then I am at an unequal disadvantage. Which is unfair and counter to the very ideal of our democratic system.

There are tons of reasons that this cycle continues. The main reasons being that: a) most who run for office genuinely want to help people, b) assisting these people creates a positive association with the politician that will then lead them to be more likely to vote to re-elect them at the next election, and c) that so many of these bureaucratic processes are genuinely overtly complex and would be difficult to streamline, even if a competent and motivated team of MP’s took the issue on.

I encourage you to check out the book for a thorough and engaging look at these issues. Alison and Michael offer some compelling suggestions for change as well, and knowing that organizations like Samara (their NGO) are pushing for these types of reforms is reassuring to me as a Canadian.

To sum up, I want to quickly touch on the title of this post, which exemplifies how much this process is amplified, and to be frank, much much worse, at the municipal level.

While volunteering with a Toronto councillor, I spent plenty of hours working the front desk in his office, dealing with reams and reams of emails as well as dozens of daily phone calls. It’s a tough job – taking the call, listening to the complaint/concern (and sure, the occaaaaaasional compliment), and deciding how high of a priority it should be assigned. Some issues were ones that the councillor shouldn’t even be dealing with (other jurisdictions of government, issues for a condo board, or simply something that the person just has to figure out for themselves in their daily life). But some issues were clearly coming from someone who has been infuriate with the bureaucratic run-around that dealing with city entails.

Examples that I can think of off the top of my head include:

  • Someone who’s lawn was torn up to replace a fire hydrant, and was now being told that they had to pay for re-sodding because it wasn’t the city’s fault the grass didn’t re-grow.
  • Somebody who had a nice tree on their boulevard that had been there for years, and all of the sudden they woke up one morning to a work crew cutting it down. They were told that technically the boulevard is city property (despite the fact that they’d been mowing the lawn on it for years, and had cared for the tree all that time as well), and were calling the office to complain that they’d lost such a valuable natural asset to their property.

These are just two, but you get the idea.

The city councillor is the ultimate navigator and tour guide of the city bureaucracy. Now that I know that a councillor can help my with basically any issue from A-Z, I don’t hesitate to call. However, it shouldn’t be this way. A call to 311 or a form on Toronto.ca should be able to engage the power of the thousands and thousands of city employees, spread over dozens of departments, to fix the problem and make our city a better place to live. But so often it doesn’t: complaints get bounced around from department, the proper person is on vacation, it’s technically not our problem in the first place, and all of the sudden you call back and WHOOPS, that case # has been closed with seemingly no real attempt at a true fix. So either the process starts again, or you just give up.

All of this is to say that, of course, building and maintaining a world class city is difficult. I’m not saying that there aren’t thousands of people working hard and trying their best. But when politicians talk about cutting red tape and upping the efficiency of the public sector, I really do get it. And so long as they’re not using that type of talk to disguise their true intention (to reduce environmental standards, funnel more money to the private sector, etc.), then I’m fully on board.

Thanks for bearing with me on this journey of wonk-ish politics-speak – tomorrow I’ll try to come back with something a bit lighter ;).

And thanks, as always, for reading.

This post is the fourth installment in my month-long project, “500 in 28”. For the next 28 days, I’ll be spending 28 minutes a day writing 500 words. See here for my first post explaining the project. #500in28

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