Understanding How City Plans Fail

In my experience a City’s successful implementation of a plan depends greatly upon a their reaction to and investment in the actual elements of the plan.  For successful implementation to occur, a city must be mindful of the tendency for its performance to ‘default’ to status quo (generalization and avoidance), substitution (solving a less complex problem) or surrogation (substituting a performance measure for goal attainment).

Status Quo

Status Quo appears most typically in the forms of generalization and avoidance:

Generalization

Generalization occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but not integrated into the working operations of the city. Plan implementation may be added to council, management and department agendas, but on-going engagement in discussing both the plan and its implementation gets almost exclusively focused on existing daily operations or is skipped due to a lack of time spent on other matters. This tendency to generalize the meaning of ‘implement the plan’ leads away from the strategic discussions, decisions and actions required for real plan implementation. Drawing a comparison to small business, it’s like the owner always putting “do marketing” on their task list without a direction (e.g. promoting a special off), specific strategies (e.g. add content to social media, purchase radio spots) or a process of reviewing and measuring outcomes.

The result of this generalization is either (a) an abandonment of the plan (often arising from the feeling that the plan is too big) or (b) a sense that the plan is so comprehensive and well documented that it’s enactment is naturally occurring without an on-going focus (what we can only assume must be an evolutionary product of the common planner reference that a plan is a ‘living, breathing document’).

However, the truth is that generalization results in one outcome: inaction. The lack of on-going conversations at council, management and department levels about the specifics of how the plan and strategy are being implemented, the progress towards implementation, and the measurement of the results and adjustment of strategy leads to deprioritizing the importance of the plan and replacement by more pressing, emerging matters.

It’s a false expectation for a Council or Manager to assume that a broad directive of ‘implement the plan’ without frequent interfacing is enough for a department or individual to determine the who, what, how and why for each plan element that must be accomplished in additional to current operational responsibilities.

 TIP:  Hold regular implementation conversations and (at least) an annual workshop or retreat to make strategic decisions on assigning responsibility, monitoring progress, adjusting strategies, and evaluating success.

Avoidance

Avoidance occurs when a plan is accepted or adopted at the Council level, but due to the city’s present budget and general financial policy, Council and management avoid discussing, recommending, prioritizing and appropriating adequate resources (staff time, programmatic funding, etc.) to carry out the work.

This tendency is to avoid financial decisions (during and after budget adoption) while generally accepting that the community has the staff and financial resources to (at least) begin to implementation of the plan is a manifestation of the general notion that there are inefficiencies or underutilized city resources that will somehow adapt to carry out this responsibility.

The truth is that most cities have focused such great attention in recent years toward controlling expenses to limit property tax increases that existing resources are strained and often less efficient. From combining jobs and duties to asking departments annually to cut a % of their budget but maintain a similar level of service has made government ‘leaner’ but it’s also created an expectation that implementing new plans, strategies and services can be accomplished within existing operations and using existing resources.

It’s a false expectation to assume that successful implementation of a new strategic plan will occur without evaluating the resources (staff, money, etc.) required to succeed.

TIP:  Regularly discuss the delivery of services and allocation of resources to make more strategic decisions that support the plan’s implementation and the city’s broader priorities of government[i],[ii].

Substitution[iii]

Substitution is defined as the act of replacing a more complex element of the plan with an easier action that is rationalized as having successfully met objective.  This occurs as follows:

Cities tend to respond best to emerging issues, emergencies, questions and requests. This ‘fighting fires’ approach is justified because it feels production and it can be rationalizing (subconsciously or not) as being related to or fulfilling one or more of the elements within a work plan.  Substitution takes the place of elements within the plan and is generally (at all levels) accepted as crossing that item off the list.  In practice this may look like the following situation.

The local newspaper starts a quarterly advertorial insert called “The Progress Edition” featuring local business stories and a significant amount of advertising.  The city responds by purchasing a year’s worth of ad space.  The purchase may be good for the city, the newspaper and the community, but the decision is often made by rationalizing the outcome as promoting economic development or marketing the city.  This can become a substitution for the actual marketing elements of the plan and be wrongly counted as fulfilling all or a portion of those associated plan goals.

The truth is that not all city actions can or should be accounted for as actions related to adopted strategic plans. While these actions may benefit the city and community, their replacement (substitution) of more complex and resource intense plan elements won’t ultimately move the city closer to the achieving the established plan goals.

It’s a false expectation that every city action is an extension of the strategies within an adopted strategic plan.

TIP:  Allocate resources to carry out the plan’s implementation and determine how long-term projects will be sustained in the face of both daily operations and emerging requests for resources.

Surrogation

Surrogation happens when the measurement of a goal is interpreted (represented) as the goal.  A common example of this as applied to city operations would involve the goal of high customer satisfaction in the planning department where the speed (# of days) by which building permits are issued comes to singularly represent customer satisfaction.

In the context of implementing a strategic plan, surrogation is a method for simplifying plan implementation by reducing the scope of the strategy to either fit within a budget limitation or to avoid (revolt against) broader systemic change.

The truth is that the desire to prove progress and accomplishment drive a tendency to use performance measures (especially those that are positive) to not just represent how a goal is being achieved, but that the performance measure (if good) is the achievement of the goal. This is misleading and results in a failure to accomplish more meaningful, long term results.  Returning to the example from above, customer satisfaction with a planning department can neither be accomplished nor measured solely by the timely issuance of permits as such measurements may not reflect the difficulty in applying for the permit, the cost of the permit or the experience with permit related inspections.

Further, relying on the performance measures as the goal can lead to crazy interpretations of the performance measure, including (for example) that the timely issuance of permits should only measure how long the jurisdiction took to issue the permit, not how long the overall process took.  The city may have performed much worse when the latter was considered because the city frequently stopped the clock to seek additional information from the applicant.

It’s a false expectation to assume that a single performance measure can accurately represent achievement of a goal and the application of such is an invitation for surrogation to promote a false sense of achievement.

TIP:  Cities should adopt and evaluate performance measures, but such measures of progress and performance should not be singularly focused nor reflect the sole means of determining goal satisfaction.

Endnotes:

[i] Washington State enacted a successful and innovative priorities in government budgeting approach in 2002 under former Governor Gary Locke (background: https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/priorities-government-budgeting)

[ii] For more details, see also The Price of Government: Getting the Results We Need in an Age of Permanent Fiscal Crisis by David Osborne and Peter Hutchinson

[iii] Substitution as referred to herein is a more simplistic view of what’s known as “attribute substitution”

A Common Failure in Economic Development

In February newspapers reported on a city council that was discussing the potential of defunding their economic development department a mere 3 years after its creation and 12 months after it had become fully staffed.  Read Story

Even more troublesome?  The city completed a 62 page comprehensive economic development strategic plan on November 6, 2016 – just four months before this discussion took place.  We reviewed the comprehensive plan and it’s clear they spent a lot of money to develop the strategy.

Unfortunately, this is an all to common occurrence in many communities across the U.S.  Here’s five major reasons why city led economic development efforts are NOT WORKING:

  1. City funded economic development departments often lack an actionable strategy and the views of elected leaders on “what is economic development” often don’t align with how economic developers do what they do.
  2. To develop a formal strategy, cities usually hire a consultant to complete a comprehensive strategic plan with market analysis, a regurgitation of every community plan before it, design sketches of what areas of the community could look like in the future, and other ‘fluff’ that many consultants sell like candy to a toddler.  These plans are expensive and they are usually light on the actions that need to be taken and how those actions will be completed (implementation).
  3. Economic development isn’t cheap and when a city (or county) budget fluctuates, economic development is often viewed as a luxury best afforded when times are good.  When the choice is between public safety and economic development, you know who will win that battle.
  4. Economic development doesn’t happen overnight and without a clear strategy (with clear expectations and timelines) that elected leaders, staff and the public can understand, it’s nearly impossible to show a return on investment (ROI) in an era where everyone wants the pay-back on their investment to begin immediately.
  5. Cities often times fund economic development just enough to hire the qualified staff, leaving them without the resources to do their jobs effectively.

How can this be overcome?

  1. Clarity.  A city investing in an economic development department must have a clear and common vision for what economic development means for the community.  For example, is it retail development or tourism or new industry attraction?  Each of these requires a different approach, comes with a different set of actions and happen over different timelines.  If that isn’t reconciled first, then expect trouble ahead, especially if a city (or county) believes economic development is all of those things.  That’s when priorities need to be established, because no 1-3 person staff can expertly focus on all of it at once.
  2. Simplicity.  Spending 6-12 months and $100s of thousands of dollars on complex market studies, sub-area plans, design standards and all the rest that cities (and counties) typically ask for in a comprehensive economic development strategy can be too complicated for the first action and create unreasonable expectations.  Thus, before biting off a comprehensive plan, a city (or county) needs to adopt a basic and implementable strategy that flows from the common vision (discussed in “Clarity” above) and addresses the top economic development priorities.  This establishes a short term work plan and is the precursor to additional planning and analysis.  Vague strategy like “develop the retail corridor” is bound to fail.
  3. Prioritize results over extravagance.  Cities (and counties) should prioritize results and momentum over more elaborate, extravagant and expensive planning projects.  Starting with the comprehensive plan may be a good idea when you are a well-funded private (or semi-private) economic development organization, but when you’re a newer, publicly funded economic development program the public perception is your spending lots of money and then the expectation for results ratchets up and quickens in urgency.
  4. Planning isn’t an accomplishment.  Cities (and counties) need to realize that completing the plan isn’t an economic development “accomplishment” nor is how much you spent on the plan and measure of how good your program will be?
  5. Another way.  Here’s an alternative to starting with comprehensive planning efforts.  Hire a consultant (or facilitator that understands economic development) to lead elected leaders, staff and a few citizen and business stakeholders through the creation of a vision and common understanding of economic development followed by prioritizing some initial action items and a timeline implementation of additional planning steps.  At fraction of a cost, this truncated strategy can help a city avoid the pitfalls we’ve discussed and more quickly demonstrate progress, build momentum and produce early wins.

Disclosure: we are not working for the city referenced in this example, but we are confident we could help.

If Growth Management is Chess. . .

What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” – Sir John Lubbock

In chess the opportunity to trade moves is often a terrible strategy that will lead to playing into an opponent’s trap. Hence why chess draws comparisons to military strategy, focusing less on winning battles and more on winning wars.

Similarly, in dealing with Growth Management, the strategies of those developing projects need to be focused on their immediate moves, but to be truly successful they have to have a long game for how to win.

So what’s your next move?

Now that the development industry as a whole has suffered some major legal setbacks (see Snohomish County, et al v. Pollution Control Hearings Bd., et al, 92805-3) and residential developers/builders continue to cope with an ever shrinking building lands supply, as well as complex and changing regulation, businesses have to ask themselves some strategic questions:

  1. What’s the next fight for your business and how hard are you willing to fight to move a project forward?
  2. And, if you fight, what resources do you truly need?
  3. Are their opportunities in the coming years to stake out a claim to land that may be added to urban growth areas (UGAs) and then work within the forthcoming processes to play this to your favor?
  4. What gambles might your business be willing to take to maintain a pipeline of lot supply?

This is where we can help.

Toyer Strategic Consulting has been working on the battlefield where growth management policy and real estate development clash for the past 15 years.  We’ve helped companies (and a few communities) successfully address each of these key questions and implement a plan of action to accomplish the end goal(s).

From identifying opportunities in long range planning where companies may be able to move land into the UGAs to nuancing the politics and processes that shape local land use policy, we understand the positioning and preparation real estate businesses need to complete and win should they wish to get aggressive to sustain success.

Contact us for a free consultation today

 

Skip the New Year’s Resolution & Set A Goal

According to StatisticBrain.com, 45% of us will make New Year’s resolutions.  Unfortunately, only 8% of us will succeed.

Why?  Perhaps its semantics.

The definition of a resolution is “a firm decision to do or not to do something” but resolution is also synonymous with intent or decision.  By contrast a goal is defined as “an end to which effort is directed.”  Merriam-Webster elaborates on the significance.

Intention implies little more than what one has in mind to do or bring about.  Whereas a goal suggests something attained only by prolonged effort and hardship.

Ready to set your goals for 2017?  Here are two critical recommendations we see over and over again:

  1. Be specific.  The more vaguely a goal is stated, the more wiggle room you’ll give yourself.  Once you start to wiggle, it’s not long before the goal loses its significance.  Great goals may take time to accomplish, but can be measured along the way.
  2. Get a goal buddy.  Seems lame right?  Well, research shows that sharing a goal with another person helps increase your accountability and the likelihood you’ll succeed.

Want some more tips on how to have a great 2017?  Check out this online article by Laura Shin in Forbes.  While her article was pushed in the lead up to 2016, the content is relevant regardless of the date used.