Wednesday, December 19, 2012

When Process Hinders Progress

There's an old joke about a substance called Administrantium.  It runs like this:

The heaviest element known to science was recently discovered by university physicists. The element, tentatively named "Administratium," has no protons or electrons and thus has an atomic number of 0. However, it does have one neutron, 15 assistant neutrons, 70 vice neutrons, and 161 assistant vice neutrons. This gives it an atomic mass of 247. These 247 particles are held together in the nucleus by a force that involves the continuous exchange of meson-like particles called "morons." Since it has no electrons, Administratium, is inert.
However, it can be detected chemically as it impedes every reaction with which it comes in contact. According to discoverers, a minute amount of Administratium added to one reaction caused it to take over four days to complete. Without the Administratium, the reaction occurs in less than one second. Administratium has a half life of approximately three years, at which time it does not actually decay, but instead undergoes a reorganization in which assistant neutrons, vice neutrons and assistant vice neutrons exchange places. Studies seem to show that the atomic mass actually increases after each reorganization.
Research indicates that Administratium occurs naturally in the atmosphere. It tends to concentrate in certain locations such as governments, large corporations, and especially in universities. It can usually be found polluting the best appointed and best maintained buildings. Scientists warn that Administratium is known to be toxic and recommend plenty of alcoholic fluids followed by bed rest after even low levels of exposure.
It's with this old joke in the back of my head that I'm writing this post.
An article in the Star the other day ( showed some groundwater that is near-permanently seeping out of the road in my neighbourhood.  An investigation by City Hall found it's not a leaky pipe or sewer, and is probably attributable to groundwater.

This doesn't surprise me.  I live up a hill from this location and even at my higher elevation, I know that groundwater can rise to just 2 ft under my basement floor.  I know this because when we recently dug down in our basement and installed our backwater flow preventers to stop the city drains pushing up into our house again, the hole filled up with water whenever there was sustained periods of precipitation.  When it stopped raining, the hole would drain accordingly.

So, estimating the basement floor plus the depth of the hole, we know that the water table can be as little as 7ft below grade.

When the City responded that the issue in the Star was probably groundwater, it occurred to me that there's probably an acquifer running under the neighbourhood that means free water.  Given that the city charges me a water waste fee for water that evaporated out of the fish tank and never went down a drain, or that was soaked up by the lawn when we turn on the sprinklers, I wondered about offsetting this by just pumping up the water that's under the house.  

My thought process is that rather than pay for chlorinated water to be thrown on the lawn, a small pvc pipe with holes drilled in it that is inserted 7ft down should fill with water that can then be pumped onto the garden, stored in water butts, etc.   

So, I asked "Question: Given how much water is near the surface, are there any rules against pumping it up for private use?"

Now, this was promptly passed to 311 Toronto… and everyone knows I've dealt with them on a regular basis.  They know who I am, where I live, and probably have my photo on the office dart board because I'm such a pain in the arse.  Rather than just "yes, you can pump up your own water for private use", or point me to a published set of rules, they wanted to know my address… for the umpteenth time this year.

I'm still feeling quite raw from back in the summer with all this:  I couldn't report a basement flood because I wasn't actually phoning from the house (we were giving birth to twins, so was a bit busy), even though we'd had a stream of officials and visitors come to our property (basement flooding managers, water board engineers, city infrastructure managers, councillors, etc) and everyone knew the situation.  Our house was well documented, well known, and this flood was just a repeat of the same type of event, so the answers would be the same as before.  But, 311 Toronto was adamant that we call back another day from the house location - despite the fact that the answers to any questions would be the same regardless of where I was calling from.

Since that day, I've not bothered to report further basement floods. However, I'm acutely aware that whilst I'm not going through the motions because I'm annoyed at the rigid process and lack of common sense when it comes to recording a repeat event (same place, type of event, outcome, etc, just a different date), the downside of this is now the city and other planners and engineers are not getting the full data that helps solve the issue for other people.

The same thing happened with the waste department: I asked 311 Toronto for the line managers name of the twit that messed up our garbage pickups nearly every week.  Eventually, I cut 311 Toronto out of the picture and found the name of the person myself, emailed him directly and the garbage problems magically went away.  

The net result of this "process over progress" is highly ineffective.  For the basement flooding, you have to question why a person can't just enter their details in a form on the city website and record events that way.  You question why the same thing does not apply to the garbage service too.  Why do I have to email a physical human?

My conclusion is currently that the one thing that was supposed to make life easier for residents of the city has now turned into the biggest barrier to getting anything done with the city.