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Ward 18 Wading Pools: Triumph of Technocracy over Reason (1)

18-Aug-2012 [5692]

• An initiative by a wading pool worker to set up a craft table for kids (while the pool was empty) is declared dangerous

Part way through his tour de force work The Master and his Emissary on the left/right hemisphere and its implications for society, Iain McGilchrist makes a helpful distinction between reason and rationality[1]:

The first of these [reason] - flexible, resisting fixed formulation, shaped by experience, and involving the whole being - is congenial to the operations of the right hemisphere; the second [rationality] - more rigid, rarified, mechanical, governed by explicit laws - to those of the left

One could say that reason is grounded and open to change - a kind of common sense; that rationality is abstract, somewhat disconnected, and rather defensive.

So it was in August when a wading pool worker took the opportunity of a lull in the wading pool activity at MacGregor Park to prepare some recreation for the kids, do chores, or prepare food. A Public Health Inspector happened to be there, and declared these activities to be unsafe, as it was distracting from her responsibilities (of guarding non-existent kids in the pool). Notably rhere was always one pool worker who was guarding the non-existent kids, just to be a good sport, but the inspector insisted that protocol requires that there be two at all times (even without kids in the pool). There was a similar incident soon after at Dufferin Park.

So some key things happened as the result of this incident.

  • I understand that some wading pool staff (who were known to participate in recreation activities) throughout the Ward were sanctioned and replaced by new staff under the exclusive control of the Wading Pool Unit of Parks, Forestry, and Recreation (PFR), including all scheduling (there had previously been some flexibility with Recreation)
  • Recreation staff were instructed not to speak to wading pool staff, let alone interact or integrate activities, except through a supervisor
  • Wading pool staff were reminded that when they have nothing to do given their narrow responsibilities, then their responsibility is to do nothing. This seriously degrades recreational activities for the kids, not to mention the working conditions for the workers.
  • The communication of the changes, the reasons for them, and the implementation was limited and muddled by management, causing morale problems

This is clearly rationality, or what I call technocracy, at its worst, and of course is a poster child for government waste (we've all seen young adults sitting by wading pools doing nothing). Not to mention an over-reaction on the part of management, but that's another story.

Some obvious comments:

  • There was no safety issue. One of the characteristics of technocrats who are deeply steeped in their culture, is that they (truly) can't tell the difference between rules and reality. This is a form of delusion.
  • This was an insult to the workers in question, as it did not recognize their years of experience and contribution
  • In normal organizations, supervisors stand up for their staff. This leads to a relationship of trust, loyalty, and a clear trade-off of benefits: if the staff act badly later, they are (justly) sanctioned for, as it were, betraying a trust. That makes for a powerful bond and motivator. In this case, the supervisors failed to defend their staff, and even punished them further
  • formalizing an absurd rule for the sake of consistency is the definition of government waste. It must be resisted.
  • It's hard not to interpret the enthusiasm for punishing these staff as a hostile act of management specifically directed against the ward 18 workers who have brought such benefit to our community. Some wading pool staff from elsewhere are said to be relatively lax about their duties (as opposed to contributing to recreation activities) without sanction. On the other hand such bad treatment of staff could be general. Hard to know which is worse...

Certainly this kind of incident has become quite common in the past couple of years in Ward 18, as senior staff try to get local staff to obey "comply" with department policies and procedures. What they're trying to do is simplify, and impose control. What they're accomplishing is to drive away talented, skilled, experienced, staff, thereby losing decades of hard-won knowledge. Staff morale is low; trust between staff and their supervisors is low. As I've written elsewhere, you can't run our local parks like that without destroying the work that has been done over the last couple of decades to make our parks the envy of the city and beyond.

There's much more to this story. I haven't touched on contradictions with training (they were told originally that they could participate in Recreation activities during slow pool times), arbitrary and inconsistent rulings, reductions in attention through over-long pool-watching sessions, staff suspicions of being spied on and persecuted, and more. I'm holding back a bit so as not to interfere with any grievance procedure that might be launched.

I've numbered this "Triumph of Technocracy over Reason" number 1, because if I have time, it could be the first of many.

It is, after all, not just a part of a pattern, but part of an ongoing commitment to technocracy by senior managers at PFR. And that's the real problem.