Bathurst Station bakery, included in the recent sole-source contract (photo by Marium Matti, BlogTO)

When a political announcement arrives badly wounded, you have to wonder how it managed to get that far without being humanely put down. Here, I’m thinking about of the recent  announcement by TTC Chair Karen Stintz to go forward with a $50 million sole-source contract for the company that currently runs 65 newsstands in TTC stations.

How could the TTC Board have thought that it would be ok for a cash-strapped agency to give out a $50 million sole-source contract? For business reasons, maybe the contract is acceptable, or maybe not. These things can be complex and technical; who can easily understand the basics of the contract and assess whether it is a good and fair deal for the TTC and for Torontonians? On a first reading, it’s clear that there is something not quite right with the deal – but that’s not my point here. I’m suggesting that the contract should have been shot down from the start, but from a communications perspective, not a business perspective.

Why? Because:

  • The process to award the contract was not particularly transparent and lacking total credibility
  • Most people, on first reading, would think that the contract doesn’t pass the logic test (Huh? A $50 million contract, untendered? Doesn’t the TTC need money? Surely there is a rule that contracts that big have to be tendered?)
  • This is a clear “Gravy Train” issue for Rob and Doug Ford and allows them to play their favourite role of angry defender of taxpayers’ interests. Plus, they have a history of suggesting these types of deals are, ahem, kinda corrupt — all of which should have been easy to predict
  • The contract went against TTC staff advice – which naturally will be made public
  • It’s actually expected that the TTC would make a strange decision like this – it fits in with current public perceptions of the organization

How this issue traveled through the debate and announcement process is particularly relevant in the larger context of an ongoing and increasingly public debate over how to fund needed transit expansion in Toronto.

Any decent communications person would have flagged all of this while Stintz and TTC Board made their decision. Suggesting that it will be a very difficult deal to defend in the present context. In fact, this may have happened – but if so, the advice was ignored. Despite any possible merits of the contract, it is blindingly obvious that it would have the stuffing kicked out of it as soon as it was made public.

Sure enough, after it was announced, a competing newsstand company made an unconditional offer for the contract, worth an additional $4.5 million more than the sole-source contract – hardly a surprising development. Stintz continues to defend the decision, saying that critics, including Rob Ford, don’t understand the contract (I should add that being patronizing is also on the list of communications mistakes).

The way this issue was handled suggests that Karen Stintz is a poor decision-maker, has bad political radar and is maybe not the reliable and credible person we need right now as the city starts to have a big, badly-needed conversation about how we are going to pay for a decent public transit system.

It has since been announced that the deal its being “reviewed”. If it goes to an open tender, good; if it doesn’t, then Stintz and members of the TTC Board will have to spend more time and energy defending this decision when they could be making better use of their time and reputations to tackle the bigger issue of how to pay for the transit we need.

My advice? Involve communicators early in the process of debating and deciding on policy options and ensure those options are examined in the context of how they will be communicated. After all, you can’t sell what doesn’t work.

UPDATE, February 25: The review of the deal is out, and it recommends an RFP — which Stintz says she’ll support. So… that’s that.

It’s interesting that the announcement of the review’s findings and Stintz’s decision to accept it came on Sunday night. And not just any Sunday night, but Oscar night. I know most people don’t care about this, but putting out a press release/announcement at that time is sad an strange. Toronto reporters working Sunday night — particularly those who have no affection for the Oscars — likely saw this news as a ray of light on an otherwise dark night.