Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A planner's lament: lack of a preference for basic planning

The best test of public service reform is how well proponents answer a prior question: what is the problem they want to solve?
-- From "A plan that will damage Cameron's health" by Philip Stephens in the Financial Times.

There are a couple of particularly good pieces relevant to planning in the FT and the New York Times. Luke Johnson writes an entrepreneurship column for the FT. Last week's column, "The biggest groups are ill with inefficiency," is a kind of take comparable to the discussion in Allison's Essence of Decision about the kinds of mistakes organizations make in decision-making. From the article:

The paradox of large organisations is that they have virtually all the assets – money, brands, intellectual property, facilities, momentum – yet their natural dominance is frequently overturned by upstarts. How is it that emerging companies, with minimal resources, can defeat huge, established players?

The answer is that big corporates fall prey to a number of diseases, the pathology of which I describe below ...

● Groupthink: a condition whereby an error is perpetuated thanks to peer pressure, so it becomes orthodoxy. ...

● Institutional capture: the phenomenon whereby management end up running an enterprise for their own benefit, rather than for the real owners. This is also known as the principal/agent problem, and is epitomised by behaviour at banks. There, senior executives still think they are entitled to millions of dollars remuneration for an average job. In reality those executives are easily replaceable, while the value and market shares of their banks have actually been built up over decades by many others. ...

● Lack of proprietorship: when employees have no effective capital stake in an organisation, they tend to be less cost-conscious, and take a more cavalier attitude to waste, personal expenses and the like.

● Risk aversion: in most large corporates, the punishment for management failure is greater than the rewards for success. So, rational individuals pursue cautious strategies because they do not want to damage their career prospects. ...

● The burden of history: many older companies have legacy issues such as pension scheme deficits, union contracts, inefficient equipment and so on. By contrast, newcomers can outsource and use the latest technology.

The column is relevant to a variety of organizational and governance issues in all types of organizations.

The NYT op-ed, "When Blame Isn't Enough," is even better, and it has the benefit of being written by a former DC government official. From the article:

When I was the director of child welfare in the District of Columbia I often woke up at 3 a.m., fearing all that could go wrong. During my tenure, there were increases in adoptions and speedier investigations, and more children went to live with foster families rather than in institutions. But substandard care and terrible cases also continued. ...

After I left that job, I kept looking for solutions. For ideas, I examined institutions like airlines and some hospitals that have reduced deaths and injuries. Through rigorous data analysis, they have developed systemic approaches to safety, focusing on clear communication, minimum-staffing requirements and “fail-safe” strategies to reduce the consequences of inevitable human error. Such strategies — including checklists and passing on information at crucial moments like shift changes — can be applied to protecting children.

Findings from the Institute of Medicine, the Commonwealth Fund and other organizations point to several lessons from safety initiatives in these fields:

• You can’t fix a systemwide problem by simply blaming or retraining individuals. When systems are broken, workers respond in counterproductive ways. ...

• You can’t learn what’s wrong with the system from just one case. Understanding what to fix requires analyzing many cases, including deaths, injuries and “near misses.” ...

• You can’t understand problems and fix them unless you create a culture in which employees share information without fear. ...

There is a way out. Making sweeping policy changes and scapegoating individuals are not the best way to enhance safety, but rather, clear-headed, evidence-driven examination of the resources, conditions and communication that guide decision-making in the workplace. That way Marchella’s death will not become just another example of the cycle of outrage and failure.

Both articles are relevant to so-called government reform at the national and local levels. Too often, policies are more ideologically driven (or driven by self-interest of various stakeholder interests) and "reform" is more about favored constituencies benefiting at the expense of those losing out.

What I am realizing more and more is how planning tends to not be driving major policy changes, definitely at the city level, but also at the federal government level.

This is relevant to the next set of blog entries.

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