PFR Strategies and Plans: Commentaries
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"Renewing our focus - Moving forward with Structural Change in Parks and Recreation." 10-Oct-2011 
By Jutta Mason, December 2003
On Monday November 17, 2003, the senior management of Parks and Recreation dropped a bombshell on its employees. They called together all the neighbourhood-based supervisors and local-area managers and told them that their jobs were about to be transformed or to disappear. In fact the entire structure of this public-space enterprise was about to change completely.
As a citizen who's been much involved with my local park and also with the bigger picture for about 18 years, I was alarmed at the hints I heard about this meeting. I tried very hard to find out details but it was tough - the 200-odd staff who had been summoned had all been sworn to secrecy. However, rumours started to fly, all the way down to park litter-pickers, and various staff whom I knew looked very unhappy. Then on Friday, an envelope with no return address was left for me at the rink office in Dufferin Grove Park, marked "confidential."
Inside was a paper entitled "Renewing our focus - Moving forward with Structural Change in Parks and Recreation." This, I gather, is the official document unveiled in power-point at the secret meeting. I have spent part of the weekend analyzing the contents to see how they would affect our park. This is what I learned:
There will be one less director and there will be 18 fewer area-managers and neighbourhood supervisors (the report says 28 less, but apparently 10 of those positions are vacant already). The remaining 182 staff at that meeting will be assigned to very large sections of the city, and they will float according to a list of "functions" rather than being assigned to any neighborhood.
This is a very bad blow for neighbourhoods. In our area, if this change goes through, our very active 'park friends' group will have to work with 21 different supervisors and 6 managers, where we currently work with three supervisors and one manager. (The details of this complex new maze, as they would affect our area, are listed in the appendix at the end of this paper.) The working relationships we slowly built up after the last big upheaval when the megacity was created, will disappear in one stroke. And the story will be the same for citizen's groups (park friends and advisory councils) all over the city.
But there's more. If I am reading the report correctly, the role of the "strategic planning" section of Parks and Recreation (to be called the "Strategic and Business Services Unit") will be greatly increased and they will add 22 new people who are called "officers," and who will be the vigilant eyes and ears of senior management. 12 of them would be sent all over to gather information and bring it back to senior management for analysis and planning, and 10 would be sent all over to investigate and report on how well the plans were being carried out. The planning document says they'll be expected to "operate with a minimum of supervision," reporting only to the Operations Support Coordinator.
The Operations Support Coordinator in turn would report to the Director of the Strategic and Business Services Unit. This office would be in charge of all strategic planning, budget, financial and performance measures, and business services. (The business part is selling things to people, like for example, fitness programs and advertising space and the right to place Pepsi machines or Coffee Time franchises in parks.) The Strategic unit would be large: 22 managers, supervisors and officers within the unit itself. Then if you count all the special officers placed in the other sections but reporting to this unit, that would be an additional 13 (including one officer reporting from the general manager's office).
The organizational chart of this unit looks business-generic - it could be referring to General Motors. There is no sense that they're referring to parks or people.
It may be unfortunate or it may be intentional that the unit's numerous investigative staff are called "officers." In some situations, the totalitarian connotations of such an arrangement could possibly be softened in the day-to-day, by the working loyalties developed over years among parks staff. However, in this case the proposed restructuring is so sudden and so thorough that it would likely swamp out the remaining networks of trust and respect among supervisory parks and recreation staff throughout the whole Division. (The 18 yet-unnamed positions to be eliminated mean that any staff openly disagreeing with this revolution right now could suffer a harsh consequence.)
An unusually dedicated parks-crew foreman told me yesterday that the city looks at their employees not as people, but merely as numbers, which can be moved around at will. This report pretty well says the same thing, praising the new system for its "city wide staff allocation…allowing for increased flexibility in placing staff where they are most needed operationally."
It is likely that the "re-structuring" is an attempt by senior management to show the new council that they are taking radical steps to address their Division's overspent budget. The budget problems are real and must be solved, but this plan is no solution. If these plans go ahead, the new municipal government will begin with an exceedingly damaged parks department.
The report has other major problems: 1. The problem of poor consultation
Citizens: The strategic planning process leading up to this report is described as based on "extensive community consultation with Toronto's diverse communities." As a representative of our 180-member park friends' group, I can describe our portion: I was invited to attend one meeting, where strategic planning staff outnumbered citizens. By way of introduction we were shown a TV infomercial about Toronto and then were given sheets with specific planning and vision options from which we had to choose. The strategic planner who led the meeting said that we could not discuss anything other than those options, and she meant it: when an elderly woman tried to raise a concern, the planner interrupted her with the instruction to "stay on task." After an hour of this, I left before the end of the meeting. Other park activists I've talked with told me they had either given up going to city consultation sessions, regarding them as a waste of time, or they had never heard about them.
Staff: I have the impression that no staff below the director level were consulted on this huge organizational change.
2. The problem of misleading numbers
User census: to underline the competence of the current management, this report says that presently 400,000 Torontonians are registered in recreation programs and 2.6 million take part in swimming, clubs, or skating. These numbers are impossible - unless indeed every man, woman and child in Toronto is engaged in a city recreation activity. Polls: the report also repeats the oft-mentioned Environics poll supposedly showing over 90% satisfaction with Parks and Recreation. In fact, the telephone poll (of approximately 500 people) listed over 40% of the 90% as being only "somewhat satisfied" with the parks, even less with recreation centres. Canadians, well-mannered as we are, may not want to act too grouchy when a pollster calls us at home at dinnertime on an April evening. So the respondents chose the "glass half full" option. That means this Parks and Recreation administration doesn't have a polling basis for repeating too often, as they do in their report, that under their leadership "the Division is delivering excellent services." Money: the report concludes that these changes will save approximately $2.5 million. Last year's 2003-budget-committee projections called for the elimination of 9 supervisors and 8 managers, estimating a saving of $650,000. That's 17 people. This report calls for the abolition of 18 positions (in addition to the ten that were already vacant from before). It's obvious that cutting one additional person would not bring the savings to $2.5 million. But there is no additional math showing why the savings would be so large with this organizational deconstruction - just an assertion. In the context of other million-dollar miscalculations of Parks and Recreation expenditures this year, as well as rumoured million-dollar arithmetic errors in their accounting department, this report's savings estimates need more proof than is here.
s color:green%3. The problem of ungrounded management language%%
The report refers to citizens as "clients" and "consumers" and even "customers" of parks and recreation services. A ferry ticket price or a summer camp fee is a "consumer product category." The report says Parks and Recreation needs a transformation, allowing the planners to think big at the top. They are "positioning themselves" to promptly analyze city-wide trends, easily identify costs and implement changes, flexibly place staff and match them to new portfolios, seamlessly accomplish change at the same time as minimizing staff change and above all, repeated on almost every page, "move the division forward." They say they are devoting themselves to "a dynamic process that requires continuous evaluation and fine tuning."
It looks like maybe the folks at the top have lost their way, in the world of this management language, ungrounded in real parks or real neighbourhoods.
(details and consequences for our park and others, if this senior management plan were to proceed)
SUPERVISORS: - 8 "supervisors of recreation and facilities" - would be in charge of programs in city facilities. Separate supervisors would supervise our summer camp, our playground programs, our youth programs (if any), our seniors, our rink, our clubhouse activities, our theatre and performance events, and the year-round use of our rink house.
- 3 "supervisors of parks and open space" - would be in charge of park services. There would be separate supervisors for our field house, our park maintenance including the playground and the washrooms, and our flowerbed litter-picking.
- 2 "supervisors of field services (forestry)" - would be in charge of looking after and planting trees and doing liaison with local environmental and community groups and Councillors. One supervisor would take care of existing trees (i.e. pruning - as far as we know there is no watering and no mulching of park trees in Toronto) and one would be in charge of planting new ones.
- 2 "supervisors of forestry planning and protection" - would be in charge of looking at the larger picture (maybe: this section is especially confusing), and again relating to community groups. If we read this right, we would have to relate to one supervisor for inspecting our parks trees, and another one to discuss planting more trees.
- 1 to 3 "supervisors of parks construction" - this one is again very confusing, but it appears that we would have to deal with various supervisors who maintain park paths (unpaved), fences, stairs, and playground equipment, and also one or several supervisors who may want to remove our playground and replace it with a different model.
- 3 "supervisors of mechanical/electrical and facility maintenance" - one supervisor would be in charge of our rink compressor plants, another one in charge of the park irrigation system and water outlets, another one in charge of park outdoor lighting. It's not clear from the chart, but probably indoor lighting, plumbing, and power in the rink house would still be handled by a single supervisor from outside of Parks and Recreation (from the "corporate partner" currently called "Facilities and Real Estate").
- 2 "supervisors of equipment and inventory stores" - one would be in charge of getting us a working zamboni and keeping it working, and another one in charge of addressing requests for stuff ranging from picnic tables to tether balls.
- 1 "manager, strategic issues" - would be in charge of 3-year plans, political liaison, "analysis of emerging trends and issues." One of our emerging issues is that an outdoor park like ours may have as much public/program/sports/social use as a busy indoor recreation centre, and our park experiment should be recognized and investigated as a promising, less expensive way of serving the citizen. So we'd have to try and get a hearing from this manager. Otherwise we might find out that our neighbourhood park experiment doesn't fit in with this manager's trend analysis.
- 1 "manager of financial and performance measurement" - would be in charge of setting financial targets and measuring performance. If this person were to continue the current practice of closing rinks or wading pools for part of the season to save money, or schedule even less litter pick-up than we have now, we'd have to struggle with them. Also, if some city rinks are closed for days whenever it snows, versus other rinks being better maintained, as has been the case, we would have to present this kind of disparity to this manager as a city-wide performance problem.
- 1 "manager of business services" - would be in charge of all agreements within the Division, including our agreement to help the city run our park; and in charge of park snack bars. A decision in 1993 to try to help the city run this 14-acre park grew out of the fact that our park had become a semi-orphan - the last flower bed was removed that year, there were few benches or picnic tables, the park rink was dominated by a local youth gang which even had members on the rink staff, and there seemed to be an increase in violent incidents. Since we got involved, much has changed, including park use. Earlier this year we found out that some business-oriented staff in the city's corporate services wanted to make our park friends' group pay extra for city garbage pickup, since more people using our park meant more litter than when the park used to be emptier. That experience suggests that all "friends of parks" groups had better be vigilant in relation to "business services" managers. Also, since food has been one way we've drawn the neighbourhood back into the park, we need to make sure that we are not slotted as a commercial concession in competition with a franchise operation (as has also been suggested).
- 1 "manager of parks facilities" - would be in charge of operating our playground, rink, sports fields, wading pool, washrooms, and field house. That means we would have to seek his/her help if we ran into a roadblock. In the past, some years our rink has been cleared badly, one year the rink supervisor hung up on phone calls seeking missing staff, some years the playground trash was left to overflow too often, and for a couple of years, requests for basic washroom servicing were rejected on grounds of costs. In future it may again be necessary to seek help for day-to-day park problems at the manager level.
- 1 "manager of parks support services" - would be in charge of "local park community relations" including the adopt-a-park program. All park friends groups would have to relate to this manager, the more so if they do not choose to become the unpaid litter-pickers and record-keepers sought in the city's new adopt-a-park program. Groups that set their own local agendas and ways of working would perhaps be forced to defend their work in the face of this report's enthusiasm for stream-lined, uniform city-wide approaches.
- 1 "manager of parks and open space" - would be in charge of grass, garbage, and special events. In 2002 we found out from another park friends group that our park was approved as one of five neighbourhood parks in the city for the staging of a "parkfest." From the promoter's web site we learned that this "fest" would involve a great deal of "product sampling," a Conklin midway, and an expected minimum attendance of 10,000 people. There had been no consultation, and we were told that it was already too late to stop the event. However, community disapproval (not only in our neighbourhood) was so intense that the event was cancelled (in our park and also another park). But our park friends' group was in the doghouse. For two months afterwards, until there was a large and eloquent neighbourhood meeting, city staff simply stopped responding to letters, calls, or e-mails from our friends' group. So, dealing with a manager in charge of special events can be painful. But if another such situation came up, we would have to try.