Core service review: Learning from Toronto
The main problem with core service reviews is they have a bias against excellence.
If the municipality is doing something better than others, the service is above average and assumed to be problematic, says a consultant who went through the experience in Toronto.
Sean Meagher, president of Public Interest, shared some of his insights into the process he experienced when Toronto undertook a review, during a lecture at CNC Tuesday evening. Like Prince George, Toronto chose KPMG to complete the review.
“The idea is to give services a good hard dispassionate look, but there is no role for civil society,” he said.
The core service review didn’t take social goals into account, he said. Meagher pointed out it’s hard to know how to spend your money if you don’t know what you want to buy.
Meagher asked if a core services review is really a good way to look at city’s services. In the case of Toronto, KPMG was given three months to evaluate city services and look for efficiencies. However, there are 236 services to investigate.
KPMG took those 236 services and bundled them into a few dozen areas.
In Prince George, he said, they were grouped into seven.
The lack of time invested in the review led to some interesting suggestions to save residents money.
For example, one suggested Toronto sell off its seniors homes. However, as it turned out, it was illegal to do so.
The city would save money by cutting back on recycling, it was suggested. However recycling in that city is done on a cost-recovery basis. They should put the city zoo up for sale, however the city didn’t own the land the zoo sat on, nor did it own the animals.
All it owned was the cages. It suggested they cut back on grants to the community, like Meals on Wheels, even though $1 spent on those programs leverages $10 for the city.
“Those are the kind of things a review can come up with,” he said.
Another thing the core service review doesn’t do is take into account what kind of city people want to live in. It has no social goal. And the process of the core services review, he added, was difficult. Questionnaires were complex and leading.
And the city didn’t wait for the results of the review before municipal leaders started making cuts.
“In the middle of it they bought out 1,700 workers who were cut from the payroll. Sound familiar?” he asked.
In Toronto, the tide changed when residents continued to speak out against it, to hold rallies and speeches, then took their concerns to their councillors.
“The voices saying the core services review isn’t working were diverse. You want the city to work for the people who live in it.”
In Toronto, research showed fair and equitable taxes was on of the bottom of the list of priorities for Tononto’s residents while services to people was most important.
Peter Ewart with Stand Up For The North pointed out 10 of the major issues he sees with the Prince George core services review.
“In my opinion there is little to praise and much to criticize with the core service review,” he said.
He questioned KPMG’s independence, saying the company promotes privatization. A KPMG member, he added, sits on the Select Committee on Business, whose report has been merged into the core review process.
The cost of the review, at $350,000, is very high, he said. Though it might be comparable to the price of a review done in Toronto, that city is perhaps 30 times bigger than Prince George.
The online survey questionnaire was difficult, complex and hard to use.
The public engagement sessions were supposed to be facilitated by KPMG employees, however he said they, along with the mayor, planted ideas.
He added the public sessions don’t follow research protocols. The opportunities identified by KPMG don’t list how many people supported each one.
The mayor and council, he said, are not setting a good example, asking people to tighten their belts while taking a pay increase and approving a trip to China.
“The China trip is just another example of the bad optics the mayor and some of council are giving off,” he said.
He added there should be an examination of council’s spending on mega-projects.
“I think the core review is about opening up the municipality to privatization,” he said.
At the end of the day, he said, he doesn’t believe the city will find a substantial decrease in spending.