Rob Ford understands the rage of feeling like the city’s services aren’t working correctly. Now he needs to get serious about solutions.
There was lots of big news during the final weekend in January: We got a new premier! (Kathleen Wynne! She’s a she! She’s gay! She’s from Toronto!) And, somehow, even bigger news around these parts: We got the same old mayor! (Rob Ford! He’s a Rob! He’s a Ford! He’s Rob Ford!) The first bit of leadership excitement promised a new beginning of sorts for the Liberal government of Ontario, while in Toronto, Rob Ford was hinting things might be different, too. “This has been a very, very humbling experience,” he said at his news conference on Jan. 25, an hour after the court decision allowing him to remain mayor was announced.
Sadly, he followed up that proclamation of newfound humility with some fairly odd demonstrations of it: bragging about how he’s the best mayor of all time, that he’s supported by 95 per cent of the population, and that he’ll be mayor for another six years. During his speech, he also took the novel approach of repeating the not-quite-true phrase “promises made, promises kept”—something he told me should be his mantra way back in 2006 when I followed him door to door as he listened to complaints about city drainage ditches, cockroach problems, and roadwork needs. So, yeah, the court’s decision is that we keep the same old mayor, and he appears very much to be the same old mayor.
This extends to the personal dedication to customer service for residents he showed me back then. At the time, he said he always told people who have a problem they need sorted out to “call my office first.” On Sunday afternoon, Ford underscored this same sentiment on his radio program by promising the people who called in with various complaints that he’d have the CEO of Toronto Hydro and the CEO of the TTC personally call them back within 24 hours to hear their concerns.
Now here’s the thing: That’s actually a really crappy customer-service strategy. If you cared about making city services work for people, you wouldn’t have the CEO of hydro return their call about the streetlights on their block. You’d fix the system so that they don’t encounter the issue, or at least so that when they do, the front-line customer service staff can solve their problem. The idea that someone like the mayor is listening personally to your rant may feel empowering, but what feels even better is when you have no need to rant in the first place because you’re happy with the service.
This comes to mind when Ford talks about “promises made” and all that, because one of the big promises of his mayoral campaign—both spoken, and in the hearts of voters, I think—was that he understood the rage of feeling like the city’s services aren’t working the way they are supposed to. Here, I’ve always shared Ford’s frustration: every bus that doesn’t come on time or garbage collection that’s missed, every pothole that’s not fixed or filthy park washroom undermines our faith in the city. We need this stuff to work for us. Ford’s greatest promise was that he might actually get the city government to deliver great service.
But instead, as in so many cases, he’s been so far unable to see that addressing the enraging details involves larger, system-wide solutions. Some of them cost money. Very few of them are simple.
If Ford was actually humbled by the experience of having his inattention to systemic details (like conflict-of-interest procedures) almost cost him his job, he might realize that he doesn’t need to play the part of the banal superhero who swoops in and personally fills a pothole every time a jostled driver spills some coffee. A works department that filled those potholes before they became a danger to drivers in the first place would give Ford fewer chances to be the problem solver, but it would actually make the city a better place to live.
It’s a shame that Ford hasn’t decided to get serious about the work of addressing the real and entrenched frustrations many of us have with government services. Because as much as it would be a huge “Promises kept!” achievement for him, it’s a goal virtually everyone in the city—including his fiercest critics—could get behind. And that would really be something new, for the mayor, and for the city he suddenly finds himself still leading.