Goal for the Blog: Be 13.5% More Inspirational

Bleary-eyed, I approached the counter at the airport snack bar and ordered a coffee. “You take yours black” noted the barista. I answered in the affirmative and made a crack about needing my caffeine at such an early hourly. When she replied, “Well, this isn’t your first time on this flight, I’m sure you can handle it” it dawned on me that perhaps I have been on the road too much. Despite the fact that I have become a regular at CHA, ORD and DSM, life is good and I have no complaints. I typically don’t write about on-going projects unless they happen to be public processes in Chattanooga that jibe with the theme of this space. This week, however, I will borrow one story from my travels as it supports a point I want to make (again).

I’m working with a small community in Iowa on the revitalization of their downtown and a vision for their riverfront. In the downtown scope, one of our WIGs (wildly important goals), is the reversion of their one-way pair to two-way traffic. This one seems to be an easy call: five different consultants over the past twenty years have made the recommendation; it’s supported by traffic analysis; we don’t lose any on-street parking; travel time through the area remains the same; it’s cheap; and a philanthropic entity is prepared to essentially foot the bill. It appears that most people are on board with the switch, but some are not yet convinced. Politics in Iowa, I have found, are a different ball game.

During my most recent visit, I had an exchange with a skeptic during a stakeholder meeting. She essentially challenged me to convince her to change her mind. I proceeded to make my case (two-ways reduce out of direction travel, increase safety, increase business visibility, make navigation easier for residents and visitors, and on and on…) She did not accept these conceptual arguments- she wanted hard numbers. I then laid out a number of case studies of positive results in similar situations. She did not accept these examples because they occurred in other cities, not her own. She again stated that she needed hard numbers on why she should support the project. At some point during our conversation, it occurred to me that she was asking for the impossible. Sure, it is possible to project what will happen if we make the reversion, but no matter how thorough our methodology, a projection is a guess. Aside from the unrealistic expectation of future telling, I was once again face to face with a nemesis- the philosophy that if something is important it can be measured.

Not everything of value can be quantified. This, I have said this before. What number describes the love we have for our children? What is the price of the atmosphere of a Birmingham City v. Aston Villa game? What is the value of our public realm? How much is community vision worth? What is the metric by which we measure inspiration? Which brings us back to Chattanooga. The City administration (which has been a breath of fresh air after the WME) is working towards implementing an outcomes based budget. In short, this process is an alternate budgeting approach that is based on relationships between funding levels and results. I think it’s fantastic to consider another approach to spending public money- our country has not proven to be the most efficient or frugal. I am concerned, however, about a subtle distinction in the approach to budgeting for outcomes.

In reading through various approaches to outcome-based budgeting, the common theme is the application of funds to community values. The typical steps in the process are to: determine the price of government (what the city has to spend), determine civic priorities, determine a price for each priority, determine how best to deliver each result at the set price, establish measures for success. The detail devils in this approach have to do with how civic priorities are established, and how measures for success are approached. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the community has a decent track record for establishing priorities and this will not pose a problem. This leaves us with the aforementioned subtle distinction- achieving civic goals vs. achieving measurable civic goals.

If you are reading this blog, you are probably aware of the vitally important role that the Design Studio* played in the rebuilding of the city over the past thirty years. Even in hindsight, is it possible to say that the value of the studio was found in the measurable goals it achieved? The Studio didn’t really do projects- it worked to make good projects great, to interject new concepts into the civic dialogue, to advise decision makers in both public and private sectors, and to be a voice for a constituency that did not exist until the studio created it. Did that play a crucial role in the rebirth of the city? Yes. Can one use numbers to describe the value of that work? No. Did it achieve civic goals? Yes. Did it achieve measurable civic goals? Eh, probably not.

My hat is off to the Mayor and his staff for having the stones to take on the big challenges facing the city. He has taken on the Herculean task of reforming a $200 million budget when he didn’t have to and no one would have expected him to. He and his crew are all sharp folks, so I have faith that their work will bear fruit. It is imperative that that the public sector perform the civic duties that they are alone are equipped to execute. My hope is that as the city continues their work the value of the unquantifiable will be appreciated.

*Yes, I know that the Design Studio was a not a city entity. It did, however, receive some form of civic funding going all the way back to the days of Mayor Gene Roberts. The point, in any event, is that not everything that is of value to the community can be evaluated by quantifiable measures.

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