Sidewalk Toronto: And Now People of Toronto, What Say You About Your “Democracy”?

Because this is not mine. This is a crisis of mediocrity.

Yesterday I was confronted multiple times with a lie that cannot stand.

The lie is repeated endlessly, brute forcing its ways into a public narrative, no doubt to be picked up and retold, so let this lie be singled out for dedicated attention: there was no public consultation.

And before I move onto this problematic lie about public engagement, a quick note about that oped from Anne Golden and Alan Broadbent that came out today — this in particular: “But what connects these disparate groups [the critics] is that their doubts are born out of the fundamental premise, unspoken or otherwise, that if this all went south, Toronto wouldn’t be able to fight back or hold its own.”

The deeply unfortunate thing about this framing of critics is that it shows a failure to understand what our opposition is doing within our democratic frame. So I’ll spell it out. And I find this somewhat tragic-comic because after I do this I’d be surprised if they weren’t onside with us.

The push on the vendor is to make more space for a better negotiating position for the public. Do I really have to say this out loud? Evidently. As anyone that has ever been an advocate for public interest knows, sometimes your job is to create air cover for what has to happen inside government. In this case, cover is accomplished by focusing on two things: 1. Making sure that Sidewalk’s tactics and operating approaches are known and visible and 2. Making sure government is given the space, resources, and time to do its job properly.

There have been decades of under-investment in the people and systems that are tasked with creating the regulatory response to many of the issues related to this project. They’re hard. And I’m sick to death of seeing the public service get more and more piled onto the side of their desks or outsourced to professional service firms by entrenched power that does not understand what they are asking the public service to do.

The regulatory challenges and the impacts of the digital era don’t stop in the public spaces we’ve been talking about — they’re throwing the democratic house, and our public service, into disorder and rapid change too. Everything is in flux. That’s why the severity of the issues must be flagged endlessly. Out of respect for the space and time our public servants, and we as people in a democracy, need to do our job properly. It would be heartening if the people that are keen to sound off now about how “we’ve got this” would show some awareness of the work that people that oppose this project have done for civic and public technology policy, both locally and globally.

Of course we can do this. The argument isn’t about whether we have the muscle, confidence, or capacity to do it. There is a difference between outside voices and inside voices with family business (aka our democracy). The question is why wouldn’t we have the confidence to do it on our own terms and time. That’s power. Capital will come and go, there’s lots of it out there. Building democratic and institutional strength? That feels more like a moment in time opportunity.

Ceding the framing of this work to this company is a decision to put ourselves in a weak negotiating position because this work never attained social license. This process is building us further into a house of cards with a shaky foundation. Going in further on that is not confidence. That’s what insecurity looks like. That’s fear. Confidence is saying no because we’ve got a clear line of sight on the stakes and the options. Confidence is saying yes to doing this properly without a glaringly anti-democratic input clouding the water.

The Democratic Rupture

Back to the corporate capture of public engagement. There was no public engagement. There was corporate capture of process.

The numbers being used to defend what is coming now are theatrical devices. Props. And all three governments are complicit in the manufacture of this particular lie. They’ve been party to lies like this before. So I understand why people don’t care. I understand this now in a way I didn’t two years ago.

I understand now how normal these lies are. They are so normal that two deeply respected and thoughtful leaders stepped onside with the program publicly today by saying of critics of the project that “Some are politicians who fear the public interest is being breached”.

The public interest is being breached.

Public interest has already been breached.

It’s not personal to point this out. It’s not us vs. them. It’s where do we disagree and how do we manage that area. Supporters are not making good public arguments that the process is defensible. I like lots of people that like this project, no matter how much others want to tell a different story. But I personally will ask for more from my democracy, I will fight for more from my democracy, and I am not ashamed to do so. I’m sorry Toronto that you want to move forward without naming the problems happening but we can’t get there without the mess. That’s what democracy is. Messy.

A democracy that has made space for this lie, that there was public consultation on the issues that actually matter, is a shell, a phantom, a name and label to gesture at. And democracy is not broken. It is working exactly as designed when it intersects with corporate power, entrenching and consolidating power within the establishment. The part I didn’t see as clearly back in 2017 was that it didn’t matter whether that power was corporate or governmental or non-governmental. I thought we still had lines. I have no shame in admitting how often I’m wrong. On this I was very wrong.

In this project established power has fused together in a way that I didn’t think was legal or possible. And when governments start breaking unwritten rules they have the power of trust of to pave the way. They can do it all in public. They can mix words and roles in the comfort of elected authority because other powers are telling you it’s fine. Life if busy. Competing attention spans and all.

I have watched the vendor in this process expose a little bit of a beam of light though, a little beam that may show the political system and process norms here may yet be a little bit different from the United States. Maybe behind them. It’s worth digging our fingers into this crack and breaking it open a bit further. It may be nothing, but it may also be something important.

Permissible Use of Money in Public Sector Projects

I’ve been trying to get my head around how to successfully express why the process that is happening should have everyone’s alarms ringing loud and looking for the kill switch. The worst part of this deal has already happened. It’s not the plan. It’s the process. And given that it’s not been enough to have the Prime Minister allude to a “the fix was in” selection process of the vendor, let’s try another track.

Using a firm like Navigator on the Public

Navigator is a firm that does messaging, strategic communications, gets opeds placed in the media, picks who has influence and gets them to weigh in on public issues, etc. Its job is to create and control a message. Its slogan is “When you can’t afford to lose”.

Waterfront Toronto and Sidewalk Labs are, through their existing legal contract, the Plan Development Agreement, doing joint public relations and government relations. What Sidewalk Labs does, it does in the name of Waterfront Toronto. And through Waterfront Toronto, Sidewalk Labs acts on behalf of all three levels of Canadian government. Based on what I’ve seen in the media and in exchanges with Waterfront Toronto I would think that Sidewalk Labs is in breach of contract but I’m not a lawyer.

What has happened since November 2017 and continues up until today is a process in which all governments are complicit in manufacturing consent, through the payment of a company with that explicit assignment. Actively taking no off the table. Only “how” is allowed. Only how do we do this.

“No” has become “Losing”. “When you can’t afford to Lose”

The process was designed not to ask people what to think about the set-up as a whole — not to question the governance and the relationship between the actors. It buried the land grab, the infrastructure finance, the revenue schemes, the things that should have been front and centre from day one.

Instead it was all framed in terms of what people were allowed to think about and talk about and weigh in on in order to get this deal done. The rest was presented as normative good and a done deal. The process was fixed. It’s what the $50 million USD bought.

There have been many many devices used to accomplish this. I’m not saying this is all Navigator by any means, some are other companies, some is Sidewalk Labs in-house knowledge, lots of it has nothing to do with money at all. I’m saying Navigator because it’s an explicit contract and it helps to use a concrete example.

This is a blurring of the lines that brings the tactics and methodology of a Navigator onto the public. Imagine if the City of Toronto hired Navigator to work on a public consultation? (And I mean, maybe that’s even happened before — I don’t know. Like I said, democracy is not in a great phase). That’s what, in essence, is happening here. Money is being used against the public to get them onside before a democratic process between government and people begins. Co-signed by all levels of government. It’s what some amount of money is being used for/has been used for.

When you design a defensible public process one of the core tenets of the design is what is on and off the table. What is up for debate and what is not.

Silence has been a killer here. The contract that Waterfront Toronto entered into effectively muzzled them. And now the establishment is celebrating a bully that has not shown itself worthy of our respect or time. Can we handle it? Of course. Should we ask more of our vendors? I’d argue yes.

Why are the opening salvos of these supporters’ pieces so consumed with what the opposition is saying? Why so many words and sentiments being placed there? Why not tell some great stories about the global track record on regulatory design for tech companies? Procurement is an absolute tire fire and has been for twenty years at least. The narrative about strength in the face of these truths is being co-opted again, out of context. The strength in this situation does not lie with engaging this company. The strength lies in valuing our civic worth and seeing the opportunity cost of playing defence. But here the civic imagination of the establishment clearly fails.

It’s also fascinating to me that on the heels of the Chair of Waterfront Toronto’s board asking for some respect regarding process, these two individuals feel it’s an appropriate time to weigh in with more establishment support that undoubtedly ratchets up the pressure to make a deal here, to show that Toronto has “got this”. I empathize deeply with Stephen Diamond in this moment. Deeply.

What Does New Power Look Like?

So can we do this? Of course we can. The outcome of the trajectory that this process is pointing us towards? More of the same. The status quo. Power begets power. This isn’t about whether we can withstand this, or whether we can manage it. The question is why is some of the establishment so excited to play defence instead of taking their full power and building this out on our own terms? New power isn’t carrying on with more of the same.

The fatal flaw in the RFP for this project, an item that will no doubt be studied for years to come — is how it was designed to enable corporate capture of regulatory process, for things both physical and digital. This was, unfortunately, an extension of well-considered flexibility in Waterfront Toronto. An intention that could be taken out of context and abused, turned up ten-fold under the eye of leadership that’s no longer in the building.

The common theme of what has happened in the last twenty months is erosion and blurring lines — this is how democracy further dissolves. And the set-up to enable this was perfect. There are multiple narratives that can make this seem like an inevitability, and why we need saving through “partnership” and “collaboration”. What we need is leadership and confidence in our democracy. We can rebuild trust with all of our institutions. The next six months will be an interesting test of who is interested in doing that, whose power they want to line up behind, and how.

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