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Epic Mismanagement

Freezing Rain Light Rail Stoppage in Ottawa

As a bit of a perverse hobby, I have been studying "Management". I have been doing so for many years and, for reasons I struggle to explain to myself, I continue to do so. Fortunately, this hobby provides moments of merriment. As one example, I have come across multiple studies and even some books that explore, or more correctly serenade, the exemplary management practices displayed by the managers of the City of Ottawa (Canada's capital). The merriment comes from being able to contrast these glowing representations to the stark reality of the City of Ottawa's grotesque mismanagement of many large and important things. So the City of Ottawa is indeed exemplary but not in the way that we see them profiled in either academic or trade publications. 

In the not too distant past, I managed to offend one particular author when I was unable to keep my proverbial mouth shut. Theirs was the most recent publication to showcase the management acumen of the City of Ottawa and, as a former long-time resident of the city, I could not be silent. Sure things like parks and the trash pick up work most of the time, and potholes in the street are occasionally filled. But when it comes to big things, things demanding effective management, it is hard to find an organization less worthy of praise and more worthy of derision than the City of Ottawa. 

Light Rail Train Stuck in the Ice

Surely I am exaggerating, you say. To this I will offer Exhibit A: Ottawa's ill-fated light rail system. I should say Ottawa's multi-billion dollar debacle, the ill-consequences of which are only just beginning to make themselves felt. At present there are inquiries and accusations and these, predictably, are aimed at finding a scapegoat or two. The real culprit, and the one destined to survive all recriminations, is the systemic mismanagement that made the disaster possible and that will ensure that all efforts to "fix" the problems will only make matters worse.

There are several reasons why this particular spectacle so infuriates me. One of these is a personal connection to an employee of OC Transpo (the city's transportation institution) who had been involved in a precursor project called the O-Train. He had explained how the City had undertaken the O-Train project in part as a learning exercise, albeit an expensive one. One of the lessons they had found was that Ottawa has a brutal climate and that many "light rail" trains simply cannot hack it. They found that they had to renovate / replace the undercarriage of the trains to deal with the challenges posed by Ottawa's climate. Interestingly, years later and billions of dollars later, it seems that those lessons had not been internalized because one of the problems plaguing the current light rail project is that the train undercarriages cannot cut it. So what I had been willing to grant as a good management step of learning what works and what will not work had been thrown away. So both the old investment and the new were wasted. 

Another is that so much about the current light rail project, and so much of what is wrong with it, was entirely foreseeable including the fact that the people lobbying for the project - the would-be suppliers, the armies of consultants and specialists who would be employed, and even the unions who knew that the investment would create new jobs as well as protect old ones - all leveraged the most vacuous of green rhetoric to promote their case. Other proposals were in the running early on but they had the demerit of being affordable and probably effective and these other proposals were brushed aside as insufficiently "green" and inadequately "modern". The Mayor, the City Councillors, and the "City Managers" (bureaucrats) all fell into line with the script being written by the lobbyists. Of course, having internalized the talking points these people did not exert themselves in ways that would really see the vision become a reality (see my earlier post on Feeling Absolutely Awesome About Yourself). The result is a catastrophe of almost biblical proportions. Going back to the feel-good rhetoric about "green-ness" and "accessibility", we can and should wonder about how much good could have been done, and would have been possible in the future, if we had not dumped billions into a failed project and billions more into its inevitable replacement (see my earlier post on the mismanagement of government software projects in The Content of Systems and on how failure has its own fanbase).

Protest Occupation of Downtown Ottawa

Let's move on to Exhibit B: Ottawa's comical mis-handling of the famous occupation of downtown Ottawa by protesting truckers during the COVID crisis. There were lots of contributing factors that led to the bungled initial response to the occupation and all of them can be traced back to a City of Ottawa that ignored the need to "manage" anything other than their public image and the electoral interests of a coterie of officials. When the time came to act, quickly - decisively - professionally, the operational mechanisms needed to act turned out to be made of paper mache that dissolved on contact with the world. 

Mayor Watson and Councillor Deans 

Skapegoating is inevitable and I can hardly resist it myself. Pictured above are two who are notably implicated - Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Deans - but there are many others. In pursuing and villifying them, appropriate and satisfying as that might be, we will not really get down to the root cause that makes these expensive mistakes inevitable. What we need, I submit, are fewer research papers and magazine articles (indeed, ideally none of them) celebrating management virtues and more, a lot more, excavating the entrails of mismanagement as exemplified by the City of Ottawa in these two exhibits and as seen always and everywhere. Like a rotten onion, there are many layers to mismanagement and they are not always easy to separate. The smell, however, is unmistakable.


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