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.

Friday, July 21, 2017

For a lot of "urban problems" the issue isn't knowledge about what to do, but willingness to engage that knowledge

I can't help but laugh at the WAMU-Radio (local NPR) article ("From Rats To Confusing Forms, D.C. Recruits Scientists To Find New Solutions To Old Problems") about how DC Government got a grant to hire "scientists" to address urban problems. From the article:
Scientists and researchers working at think tanks will often offer their educated opinions on whether government programs are actually working. But a new initiative in D.C. is turning those outside experts inside the government, where they’re being tasked with finding new solutions to old problems.

It’s called The Lab, and it was funded through $3.2 million grant from the Texas-based Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which paid for similar “policy labs” in Houston, Michigan and Rhode Island.

The earlier labs focused on working with experts at local universities. D.C.’s is the only one where they are embedded in the government itself, creating an in-house think tank of sorts.

“It’s really groundbreaking work for us,” said City Administrator Rashad Young. “They have a set of skills that are uncommon in government.”
One of the reasons those skills are uncommon in government is that governments tend to not want to hire or keep around people who have those skills.  (I know this from personal experience.)  Critical analysis is uncomfortable for the people who are analyzed.

For example, with urban planning, the point I make is that outcomes from planning and zoning are supposed to improve quality of life, the local economy, etc., and when outcomes don't do this routinely that is an indicator that the processes that generate the outcomes are flawed.  So then I look backward and analyze the processes, and identify those elements which produce the undesirable outcomes.

The knowledge to solve many--not all--urban problems is already out there.  ... although the money may not be.

The problem is that we aren't using knowledge-based responses as a matter of course, and previously created programs ("solutions") are painted with the brand of the other party or predecessors, so that when the other other party gets elected, or chief executives (Presidents, Governors, Mayors) change, "old policies and programs" get junked in favor of "new policies and practices."

A perfect example is how Republican Governors in Maryland want to junk Smart Growth practices because they were initiated and developed by Democrats, and it is the opposite in Massachusetts.  Democrats want to junk Smart Growth practices because they were initiated and developed by Republicans.  The fact is Smart Growth principles are universal.  But they are political, in that their execution reflects different philosophies about government action and resource use.

But there are many examples of this in DC with the transition from Mayor Williams to Mayor Fenty, Mayor Fenty to Mayor Gray, and Mayor Gray to Mayor Bowser--and they're all Democrats.

The issues are:

- acknowledging knowledge, let alone caring about knowledge/evidence-based approaches
- being open to other approaches
- focusing on delivering programs through agencies rather than focusing on addressing the problem
- being willing to acknowledge failure

This piece, "All the talk of e-government, digital government, and open source government is really about employing the design method" (2012), made the point that the issue isn't "open data" or "digital solutions," but about openness to ideas and the design method more generally, regardless of the way of doing so is "analog" or "digital."

That's why I get frustrated reading articles about how "big data" will save us. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for analysis of big data sets and applying innovative solutions as a result of nuanced analysis.

But when we aren't even looking at what we might call the nuggets of "little data," what's the point?

-- "Does the focus on big data mean we miss the opportunity for better use of "little data"," 2015
-- "Creating the right program vs. the hype of big data," (2013)

Executive Branch Government tends to be incredibly hermetic. Critical analysis is seen as "personal criticism." People want cheerleaders, not alternatives. It's a joke whenever people point out the value of "telling truth to power."  That's the last thing people want to hear.

-- "Helping Government Learn," 2009

For a variety of reasons, elected officials aren't too interested in policy analysis, and government officials can be very constrained and parochial in their analytical frameworks too. Often, governments repeat the mistakes they've made before, or refuse to learn from other experiences.

For example, one of my favorite quotes is from Bismarck:
"Fools learn from experience. I prefer to profit from the experience of others."
People in government--at least elected officials and the people who work for them directly--tend to focus on "people" and individuals, not "the system" and structural conditions. I wonder if this is a problem endemic to elected officials, the kinds of people who are most likely to be successful at getting elected. Structural approaches generally tend to elude them. 

And so, many projects and initiatives fail.

-- "I get tired of all the talk about rewarding "failure"," (2017)

When an Executive Branch Government doesn't value critical analysis, it's hard to believe that a program like The Lab has a long term future.

But Legislative Branch Government isn't necessarily better.  DC would be better served if we had a unit comparable to New York City's Independent Budget Office, to provide critical analysis of budget and programs,

Although the DC Auditor, renewed under the tenure of former Councilmember Kathy Patterson, has moved that office forward in many ways.

-- "Why inspector generals don't often seek the whole truth," 2013
-- "Strengthening DC's political systems and structures: The Inspector General and DC Auditor positions should be abolished and replaced by an elected Public Advocate, 2014 (written before the DC Auditor office was revitalized, but I still believe the office should independent of either the executive or legislative branch)

There are other examples of similar kinds of capacity building and analytics initiatives focused on improving local government, from the "Grand Jury" process in California--citizen "juries" review government programs and agencies to the Municipal Research and Information Service in the State of Washington.

Not having such organizations functioning that way in DC hurts the quality of local government.

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At 11:39 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...


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