Improving the City's Recreation Program Sign-Up Process Doesn't Address a Larger Systemic Issue
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Improving the City’s Recreation Program Sign-Up Process Doesn’t Address a Larger Systemic Issue

Online registration for rec programs is now better—but it's still not accessible to everyone.

Photo by Dave Tom from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Photo by Dave Tom from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Tales of parents waking up bleary-eyed with three laptops and two cell phones ready to battle with the much maligned City of Toronto Parks and Recreation program sign-up process have been the norm for years.

Last week, Mayor John Tory announced a new partnership with OCAD University’s Visual Analytics Lab as part of a recent series of commitments to fix the registration problem—one that uses an IT system he once described as “being held together with chewing gum and chicken-wire.” Immediate improvements applied to the registration process this past weekend included additional server capacity, staffing increases, and usability improvements to the web interface. These updates are part of a series of short-term fixes happening between now and 2017, when a completely new system will be released.

Yes, the City is on its way to fixing the registration process—but for who?

There are a lot of Torontonians (and data) missing from the narrative about parents that struggle to use the online booking system: parents that can’t afford to put their children in the programs; parents that don’t have time to try to register, or to keep trying if one call doesn’t work; those that don’t have internet access; newcomers.

Mark Richardson, an IT consultant and a long-time advocate for change to the parks and recreation program system explains: “In low-income neighbourhoods, drop-in recreation programs are the norm because the very act of registration is a known barrier to access.”

According to Richardson, fixing the sign-up process is addressing a symptom but not the larger underlying issue. The core problem with parks and recreation program access is a faulty funding model through which prices are artificially low for everyone. This makes program delivery expensive to fund—the City has to pay—and in turn means less programming. The result? Getting a spot in programs is harder than ever, and waiting lists have become the norm.

Richardson has done the research on other Canadian cities, and Toronto’s pricing models for programs are far, far lower than others. “We’re subsidizing programs without an understanding that we’re subsidizing them for people who can afford to pay,” he says. On top of that, we’re prioritizing access for those that can best navigate the registration system.

A sample data visualization of historical registration data released as part of Tory’s announcement. Data Visualization for The Elms Community School and Pool. Photo courtesy of The City of Toronto.

A sample data visualization of historical registration data released as part of Tory’s announcement. Data Visualization for The Elms Community School and Pool. Photo courtesy of The City of Toronto.

“I’d like to see the registration for the free programs at facilities like Regent Park, cross-referenced to the program user’s postal code and home type,” Richardson continues. “Are we providing free swimming lessons to people buying million-dollar homes?”

Years ago, when discussing a 2008 policy proposal for changes to recreation program funding called “Everyone Gets to Play,” Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s West) confirmed this problem:

“What we find in the [staff] report is that a lot of the [priority centre] spaces are being filled by people outside the area who can well afford to pay. What’s happening then is that those people who are in the poor neighbourhoods are being squeezed out of the programs because people in neighbourhoods like, let’s say Humewood, are able to navigate the system better and get their kids in the programs faster than, say, a new immigrant mom in the Parkdale area.”

Consider Parks and Recreation programming in the context of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, where access to services has been identified as one of six core issue areas for attention.

Richardson says the City must look at alternative models, such as those in Vancouver or Ottawa, adjust costs, and set aside specific space for people that need it most. “Right now our systems serve the people who have the most bandwidth to get registered,” he says. “We aren’t funding this properly—we need to reduce costs and barriers for those who can’t afford these programs and increase costs for those that can.”

Newcomer parents who have struggled to afford programming in Toronto have suggested similar approaches, such as using tiered-pricing based on income. The City’s Welcome Policy, which provides subsidies for recreation, is not capturing everyone that needs help, particularly families with multiple children. Vancouver’s subsidy program has similar requirements—the issue, as always, is that many people don’t qualify for the subsidy and still struggle to pay the fees or get into the programs.

Toronto’s history plays into this misplaced subsidy situation. Free and low-cost programming is a tradition of pre-amalgamated Toronto, when poverty was concentrated downtown. As David Hulchanski’s Three Cities work has shown, significant poverty now exists in the post-amalgamation inner suburbs. But the funding policies keep large amounts of free programming downtown. Where programs are free, they are more more competitive to get into—these are also heavily gentrified or gentrifying neighbourhoods where three laptop, three cell phone middle- to upper-class families are the norm.

There is also a historical lack of political appetite to move away from universal access to means-based access. As Richardson puts it, the focus is on “optics versus outcomes.” From budget talks back in 2011, several left-leaning councillors voiced concerns about the potential stigma that might be faced by those having to identify as low-income, or the cost of implementing programs to measure need. Would this not be easier if we just raised property taxes? they asked. It would be. But as we’ve seen time and time again, that’s not happening.

With discussion of considerations for a reduced-rate Metropass for low-income users as part of the Poverty Reduction Strategy, there may be an opportunity to apply the administrative classification to other City services, including access to programs, and a process to prioritize these users.

Parks, Forestry, and Recreation shared an update on Twitter over the weekend regarding the most recent round of system updates and their impact on registration numbers. Of the approximately 35,000 program registrations completed this past weekend, approximately 32,500 were online, 24 per cent more online than this period in 2015. There was a 38 per cent reduction of people registering over the phone, and a 13 per cent reduction of in-person registrations. “Internet has clearly become preferred method for #TOrec registration, increased efficiency making this better,” the tweet reads.

And so we’re doing the thing Michael Gurstein, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Community Informatics best known for coining the term digital divide, warned of recently:

“We commonly hear the voices of some (particularly those in positions of power or privilege) claiming that ‘everyone is online these days’…This is a First Digital Myth and moreover a myth which is increasingly being used as justification for moving to the (often exclusively) online environment the entire range of activities: national government services, local government information, and research surveys, to personal and community support programs, and education and health services, and more. Everyone (that is people like ‘us’) seems to be jumping onto the ‘apps and websites bandwagon’—so it must be good!”

Everyone Gets To Play,” the 2008 policy proposed by David Miller and Joe Mihevc called for a subsidized approach to programming based on increased fees. As Mark Richardson says, the idea of raising user fees is “political kryptonite”—the policy was a complete failure. It would take serious leadership to acknowledge these registration system fixes are a minor symptomatic problem, to connect the access issue with the Poverty Reduction Strategy, and to address the root issue—it’s not just an IT failure, it’s political.