Toronto’s public debate has periodically suffered from Big Night Syndrome, the thinking that we’re just one mega-project away from realizing our brightest dreams (or our darkest nightmares).
The public consultation process about a possible casino in downtown Toronto is winding up this week. So far, the debate has centred, in part, on the idea that a Vegas-style gambling palace is a make-it-or-break-it proposition for the city. Some see it as a solution to all our economic and tourism problems, while others consider it a toxic pill that will poison the entire city. The truth is that a casino would likely be neither: I think it would be a net negative for the city, that it would cause a few social problems, but would also provide some income and possibly serve as a half-decent events or convention venue. But I don’t think the fate of the city’s soul hinges on whether we are home to a hall of blackjack tables.
And while there are plenty of things that bother me about the discussion (absurdly high estimates of potential city revenue and proposed locations that are little more than red herrings), it’s the framing the debate that grates on me. I call it Big Night Syndrome.
In the 1996 Stanley Tucci movie Big Night, two brothers who run a humble but failing restaurant put all the money they have left, along with every bit of their energy and creativity, into preparing for one big night—a private party that they think superstar singer Louis Prima will attend, certain that a celebrity endorsement will turn their operation around. When Prima doesn’t show, they’re ruined, and it’s clear the plan, even though it produced an astoundingly good meal for those who did come, was a set-up for failure from the start.
Toronto’s public debate has periodically suffered from this syndrome—you could also call it Monorail-itis or Crash Diet Mania. We often talk as if the entire city’s future is wrapped up in a single Olympic or Expo bid, a visionary transit plan, adding a Ferris wheel to the Port Lands, or tearing down the Gardiner Expressway. In all cases, the thinking is that we’re just one mega-project away from realizing our brightest dreams (or our darkest nightmares).
We saw a version of this in Rob Ford’s promise to slash the cost of government by “Stopping the Gravy Train.” During his mayoral campaign, Ford was very clear in attributing all of Toronto’s problems to wasteful or inefficient spending, and suggested he’d finance both service improvements and tax cuts from the money saved by cutting out waste. How could such a simple plan fail? Just one big night of finding efficiencies and we’re home free, yes? No.
Once in office, Ford encountered the truth: Much of what looks purely wasteful at a glance is vital to the functioning of the city, and fixing those things that truly are inefficient or unnecessary often requires more than a slashed budget. Changing the processes and culture of the bureaucracy is a tough, time-consuming management job. So, too, improving customer service—for the city or any other organization—involves more than sloganeering or symbolic firings. Great service is not in the grand gesture, but in millions of individual front-line interactions and tens of thousands of different formal procedures.
In his new book, The Slow Fix, Canadian writer Carl Honoré shows how all kinds of organizations—and most individuals—are addicted to looking for a quick solution to whatever ails them. “When it comes to tackling problems in any walk of life, we all yearn to score epic wins with a single blow,” he writes. “Yet despite scoring some tactical victories, we end up losing a lot of wars.”
The solution, Honoré suggests, is to slow down, look at the roots of every problem, and figure out long-term solutions. The first step is acknowledging the mistakes that have been made. We should seek out permanent, lasting solutions—the ones that are often complex and take a long time to find and implement.
Toronto’s political debates—about casinos, transit, population density, services, etc.—would be far more productive if we stopped having yes-or-no deadline discussions about One Big Party to Save the City and started talking about how to accomplish all the many small, long-term things that would help us become the city we want to be.