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Browsing Blog Henrik Bechmann's Blog (currently on 12-Nov-1212)
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PFR: Recreation provider of last resort?

12-Nov-2012 [7464]

Toronto's newly released recreation plan (Report: Recreation Service Plan 2013 – 2017) is a challenge to unpack. For one thing it's long, and for another, it's full of contradictions.

Here's my first take. If you scan it (ignoring, as you should, the Executive Summary), PFR appears to be positioning itself as the Recreation Provider of last resort, in a pretty narrow sense. For one thing, it leaves out many basics - Facilities, Parks, or Fees, (aren't parks places of recreation?) - as stated in Presentation: Recreation Service Plan 2011. Then it goes to great pains to list all the "service providers" (categorically) in the field that it thinks of itself in. See for example the figure on page five of the report. PFR sees itself as a player in this sector, and doesn't want to duplicate services. In many cases it sees itself as simply a staging area for other providers to deliver services.

This is not altogether surprising, given the history of recent decades of thinking of users of public services as "customers" (see New public management). It follows that if PFR has customers, then it must be in the "business" of serving them. The main concession to its place as part of government, is that it should be "inclusive". Given the positioning as a business, this leaves it to pick up any slack left by others - leading to its focus on poor, elderly, physically challendged, and disadvantaged youth.

Lost is the notion of community integration and building.

Secondly, it continues its perverse obsession with systems over people, continually talking about improving systems, measures, standards and the like. It even identifies methods of improving customer service through many bureaucratic means (see for example page 41 of the report - Strengthen the customer service experience), without considering what should be the main priority: the basic dialog between users and the local staff. Ick. Recreation and community are nothing if not about people, and this seems to be lost on the authors.

The report's main recommendations boil down to a "Primary Programs" model, A "Swim to Survive" program, and a "Youth Leadership" program. Primary Programs is a "menu" of introductory programs; Swim to Survive is basic swimming, and "Youth Leadership" is aimed at developing youth social skills. All of these fall out of the authors' understanding of what nobody else wants to tackle city-wide. There's nothing wrong with any of these in principle, but the context begs for a skeptical, even cynical attitude. How can PFR teach leadership for example (a very human skill), when it provides such a miserably weak example within itself, hiding instead behind its policies, procedures, and above all "compliance"? I take these recommendations as being weak.

Finally, the report is full of contradictions. It includes lip-service to various platitudes and buzz-words, such as its guiding "quality, capacity building, inclusion and equitable access" terms. But the translation is procedures, bigger budgets, more rules, and still more rules. Or in summary, more money and power for itself, and public value: not so much.

Don't expect any changes we could be proud of. At best, all this will provide some dedicated PFR line staff a little more maneuvering room to do some good more or less in spite of PFR management.

My advice? Scrap the report, do a global search and replace on the word "customer" (replacing it with "citizen"), and start with some clear and simple notion of localized public value, using a citizen support model instead of a producer/consumer model. And for goodness' sake, focus on line staff support!