In the first instalment of a twice-monthly feature, Toronto Citizens will discuss messaging, political strategy and tactics with Ontario Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Director Trish Hennessy and Massey fellow and U of T political academic James McKee.
This week: Whither OneCity?
David Hains: OneCity made a dramatic splash when it was unveiled three weeks ago and then fell apart. From a messaging perspective, what went wrong in selling this vision?
Trish Hennessy: When it comes to promoting a big idea, three things create a spark in the public imagination, especially if all three are ignited at the same time:
1. The big idea answers a need, is a solution to a real and pressing problem.
2. The big idea has a strong, united contingent of influencers backing it.
3. The language employed to advance the big idea taps into a deeply held cultural value and is conveyed in an evocative, compelling way that brings the idea to life.
Some may argue it was the nuts and bolts of the details within OneCity that threw the wheels off. From a communications standpoint, OneCity had something positive going for it: In terms of criteria #1, it presented a solution to one of the most pressing problems facing the GTA: the urgent need for our politicians to adopt an affordable, realistic plan that connects the outer parts of the GTA with the inner parts. The longer they defer this, the more expensive the ultimate solution. So the idea could be viewed a practical solution to a problem, meeting criteria #1.
It fell short on criteria #2. While the idea behind OneCity had a strong backer – Karen Stintz, who has earned credibility on this file – the communications suffered from the lack of a strong, united contingent of influencers joining Stintz. What OneCity needs to survive is a critical mass of city council and perhaps even GTA provincial and federal politicians strongly united behind it and ready to sell it like it is their own. That hasn’t happened.
In terms of criteria #3, the idea of OneCity as a frame holds some appeal because it communicates the deeply held value that most GTAers share: we want public transit to unite us, not divide us – if only because we’re frustrated by trying to get from point A to point Z. The amalgam, OneCity, communicates a united city that’s connected by transit. As a brand, it was stronger than the other two criteria. A future mayor would do well to get behind the promotion of a city united, not only by transit but by politics, which has become polarized and is paralyzing the city on many policy fronts.
James McKee: Overall I agree with Trish, especially in terms of how she sets out her third criteria – and I agree with the first two as well. Certainly the need for transit is a shared concern for many, and no matter the political stripes, moving people around the GTA is on everyone’s mind right now to such a degree that this element seems almost uncontroversial.
As for the second criteria, I think Stintz has stepped into the council limelight, given confusion over what the mayor’s priorities are now. But perhaps It is the ‘nuts and bolts’ that allowed Mayor (and Councillor) Ford to frame this is first as a taxation issue. They draw from the same well time and again – and this crude populism won’t always work – but it wasn’t wholly nonsensical for the Mayor to claim he ‘can’t support taxing the taxpayer’ even for the subways!subways!subways! he promised he’d still fight for just a few months ago. The taxation scheme, changes to provincial legislation and other complex policy elements at the core of the proposal are more than the average citizens cares to think about. But they can understand – whether presented correctly or not – that they will pay more tax. And that kind of self-interested worry appears to have given us the Mayor we have today.
On the left side of council the response was a little more mixed but unhappiness with the lack of staff consultation and a more general concern for the lack of proper process meant the OneCity plan was squeezed from both sides
The third criteria Trish mentions – that of a shared set of cultural values – ties into the effectiveness of the taxpayer frame because it reveals how politics draws on pre-existing sentiments, beliefs (or mistaken beliefs) and combines with strong emotional reactions. Together these form compelling ground from which we all make judgments about our own – and our shared – interests.
But I disagree with Trish in her view that the language of OneCity is itself enough to unite a city that is already overwhelmed with the divisive suburbs vs core rhetoric that we saw again today from the Deputy Mayor. Put another way, it isn’t that I hate the downtown latte sipping elites and their demand for ‘more streetcars’ because the feeling suddenly washes over me in whole form. Rather my anger is made meaningful because I both ‘feel’ it but do so drawing upon previous iterations of the same messaging (they hate Scarborough!), filtering them through long-standing assumptions I hold about the nature of freedom (and thus say, free movement around the city by automobile) and reinforce both to create a kind of durable sentiment.
So Trish is right that an astute future mayor will be able to pick up this unity theme but i think it will take a lot of reframing to get past this core/suburb split that is such an easy reference point for councillors (hello Mammo!).
Underlying all of this – and i certainly can’t confirm it except to reflect on the public statements of various councillors – it seems like the secrecy and lack of consultation on the OneCity plan left a lot of bad feelings in an already rancorous council session. Simply put, bad feelings meant that a lot of otherwise reasonable debate gets swallowed up in feelings of resentment, disappointment and hurt pride. These feelings have real force, even in places where might hope they don’t.
DH: It seems Stintz and co. put forward OneCity as a political solution more than one based on research, consultation and a thorough process. It’s a tempting approach; get the political and public buy-in before doing the staff legwork. But did they get this backwards?
JM: A longer answer would require an account of the judgment of council. For some councilors (I believe Adam Vaughan was pretty vocal on the point) the comprehensive approach of a city–wide transit system was not as self-evidently virtuous as the TTC chair and vice-chair assumed it was. Instead of the political benefit the lack of staff consultation mattered more – Peter Milczyn was similarly concerned I think.
But even the crudely anti-tax side didn’t buy into the inherent value of an amped-up subway system; this too seems to be a kind of judgment about the policy process even if for different reasons altogether.
For some reason this reminds me of Aristotle’s claim about the wisdom of crowds. In a conversation about the merits of a broader participation in political life – as opposed to the inherent wisdom of the political elite – he suggests the analogy of a potluck meal is instructive. Under certain conditions the group can provide a better meal than the sole cook; provided that each brings a dish to complement all the others for example, then a better meal can be had.
Similarly, the most effective way to include as many as possible in a decision is to carefully manage their involvement, trying to maximize the benefit so that each of their ‘meals’ (in this case their votes) provides a better outcome (a more limited expansion of priority transit options).
I think this is where the analogy falls apart of course; no one would call the participation of all city councilors as a properly orchestrated balance of their respective virtues. Indeed, Aristotle warns of the faults of letting the many judge in a populist regime. But in the abstract we see that collectively city council came to a better judgment than just Karen Stintz and her allies did alone. And more importantly, it isn’t often that we get to include Mayor Ford and Aristotle in the same train of thought…
TH: Just to clarify re. my thoughts on the language *potential* of OneCity, I think it holds potential because of the value it taps into – not in a superficial way, but in the deeper and more lasting idea that we look to our politicians to unite rather than divide us. That idea of unity holds strong potential from a communications standpoint, especially in the face of a deeply divided council.
But in answer to your question, I think staff legwork — meaning policy legitimacy via research and metrics — is one element of a long-lasting plan that moves us out of the metaphorical political gridlock. It’s how politics should be done.
But your original question relates to messaging, and the reality is the messaging aspect of OneCity was not as well-gestated as it could have been. That takes me back to the original three guidelines I proposed at the beginning of this exchange. Also, staff legwork is essential to internal integrity of a transit plan, but from a messaging standpoint, is not essential (policy people always hate it when communications people say that). Ideally, the two merge. That is, ideally policy and communications go hand in glove. In this case, OneCity did not find that sweet spot.
As an aside, with due respect I’d really love to dispose of the worn out cliche that downtown Torontonians are latte sippers and everyone else likes their coffee black and somehow that explains political polarization. That is a metaphor the extreme right has adopted which only serves to create a fictional divide when there is a lot of room to explore what we hold in common. That’s what holds my interest, from a communications standpoint. My partner likes black coffee. I go heavy on the cream. There’s a whole lot else in our world that we agree upon. The latte metaphor runs thin, whereas the idea of language that taps into our deeply held value and longing for unity could prove to be very strong. That’s my ultimate point about the potential for OneCity as a frame, rather than solely as a policy solution to our transit woes.
DH: No one at city hall was even able to agree on what watered-down policy solution they eventually voted for on Wednesday. So if OneCity as a policy frame has value in furthering transit as a unifying conversation, are our divisive city hall politics capable of facilitating that discourse? If politicians are interested in transcending that divide to get something done, what will have to change (also, how do they get the caramel in the Caramilk bar?)
TH: The secret to the Caramilk bar in this case lies in city council remembering its potential. And in returning to the second criteria that I originally laid out: for any idea to take spark and survive, it requires strong champions who believe in the power of the big idea. The only predictable thing about this city council is its unpredictability. There are times when a plurality of councillors have surprised and amazed us. There are times when they have disappointed. As Yogi Berra famously said: “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
JM: I have more than once wondered if this OneCity moment was all part of a larger strategy – to put every conceivable transit line on a map so that the actual outcome (say the East bayfront LRT) actually seem reasonable in comparison.
So yes, council has been surprising of late – and more surprises will surely follow. But given the reticence of Metrolinx and the province to radically change course, and the polarized discourse already present we can only look to the latent potential of council’s better judgment.
By way of future possibilities, think about the current language of ‘cleaning up’ the discourse on the federal House of Commons – not much has changed yet, but it gives the public a new way to think about they hold parliamentarians accountable. Suddenly we see the ’13 heroes’ language pop up – I think this is pretty exciting – and something like this can certainly gain traction here at the municipal level as well.