Monday, September 19, 2011

Is Richardson Working on the Right Problems?

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Joseph Heller's classic novel "Catch 22." In it, there's an unforgettable scene in which the protagonist, Yossarian, a bombardier in World War II, treats his fellow crew member Snowden's leg wound during an aerial bombing mission:
Next he began binding the compress in place with a roll of gauze. The second time around Snowden's thigh with the bandage, he spotted the small hole on the inside through which the piece of flak had entered, a round, crinkled wound the size of a quarter with blue edges and a black core where the blood had crusted. Yossarian sprinkled this one with sulfanilimide too and continued unwinding the gauze around Snowden's leg until the compress was secure. Then he snipped off the roll with the scissors and slit the end down the center. It was a good bandage, he knew, and he sat back on his heels with pride, wiping the perspiration from his brow, and grinned at Snowden with spontaneous friendliness.

'I'm cold,' Snowden moaned. 'I'm cold.'

'You're going to be all right, kid,' Yossarian assured him, patting his arm comfortingly. 'Everything's under control.'
Source: Catch 22.
I won't print the spoiler here, even for a 50 year old book, but you don't have to be a fan of "Catch 22" to guess that everything is not under control. Everything is not going to be all right. Yossarian, in fact, has been working on the wrong problem all along.

After the jump, why the Richardson city council's goal setting exercise reminded me of Yossarian's first aid.

No, Richardson's city council is not at war. No, Richardson's city council is not dealing with matters of life and death (not directly, not imminently anyway). If death and taxes are the only sure things in life, the city council deals primarily with the latter. Taxes and zoning and trash collection and alley repairs and screening walls and playgrounds and hookah lounges and dog parks and parking and HOV lanes and bike lanes and shade trees and, well, you get the idea. There's a lot on the city council's to-do list. Is everything under control? Is the city council even working on the right problems?

The city council came out of a series of planning meetings with twenty pages of goals for their two year term, an unprioritized grab bag of goals with no coherent overall strategy of what the council is trying to achieve. Now, the council is working on an associated set of "near-term action items." You might think the council would first prioritize their goals, then develop action items to drive progress on those goals, with special attention to the most important goals.

You might think that, but you would be wrong. Instead, the process of developing the near-term action items, as far as I can tell, was to take the action items left over from the last council and step through them one by one, striking action items considered complete and adding new action items as they sprang to mind. No effort was made to ensure correlation between the just-agreed-to goals and the action items being developed. For homework, each council member is prioritizing the 60 or so action items on their list. There was no discussion of the criteria to be used to prioritize. The twenty pages of goals were not themselves prioritized to help with this latest exercise.

Does this process put you on the edge of your seat waiting to learn where the action item "Advocate for Richardson access points for the HOV lanes on Central Expressway" will come out in the combined rankings? No? Are you more curious how such a pointless action item made it onto the list at all? Then, come sit by me. There is no goal in the twenty pages of goals dealing with the HOV lanes at all. One council member laughingly dismissed the chance that DART or NTTA or whoever makes such decisions will ever grant Richardson's desire for HOV access points. Still, it's now an action item for the city council. An action item in support of no goal.

Are you on the edge of your seat waiting to learn where in the prioritized list this action item will land: "Form a community development corporation that can hold land and engage in other economic development transactions in redevelopment zones"? The answer is simple. It won't be in the list at all. It was one of the action items suggested by Andrew Laska at a recent council meeting. Because it was raised during "visitors" section of the meeting and wasn't on the agenda, the council could not deliberate the matter during the meeting. And, from what's been made public since, it hasn't been deliberated since then, either. Maybe no one took notes. Or maybe no one read the minutes. Or whatever. This suggestion didn't even make it onto a first pass list of potential action items for the council to deliberate. It fell into a black hole as soon as it was uttered at that earlier council meeting, never to be heard from again.

I'm not insisting that the council adopt Laska's idea. But it was a big deal. It potentially could have a significant impact on Richardson's redevelopment and future prosperity (or decay). It deserved consideration. My own suggestion, offered here in this blog, is a little idea. That is for the city to give some kind of public feedback, any kind of feedback, to matters raised during visitors section of council meetings. My suggestion didn't make it onto the list for consideration, either.

The council should have prioritized the goals first, then focused on developing action items to make progress on the top goals. The council should have solicited hundreds of ideas for action items - from themselves, from city staff, from members of the public - then applied their judgment as to which ones would be most effective at furthering their goals. In that case, it would have been understandable if my own little idea didn't make that cut. But when the goals aren't prioritized, when there's no discernible connection between goals and action items, when ideas (big or little) don't even make it onto an initial brainstorming list, it's a sign of a defective process. And because of that, it's impossible to say that the council is even working on the right problems. The bandages they apply to Richardson's ills might be clean and secure and snipped exactly as they want, but everything is not necessarily under control. Everything is not all right.


Anonymous said...

Mark, As you can imagine I pretty much agree with you.

I must say that I chalk some of this up to growing pains. This is a council with three new members and a council that no longer has certain long term members. That said, I do not chalk all of the issues you mention up to the lower experience level of the aggregate council.

I have been dealing with council interaction for about five years now and had unspoken opinions about city matters before that. As you well know I am heavily involved with trying to get things done especially in matters of redevelopment.

With some past council members, relationships were developed to the point that I (and others) were able to have some quite heated discussions about issues and I do mean heated if you catch my drift. At the end of the day, we were still colleagues pushing the same heavy cart down the road and in the end we knew the direction of the road. Today nobody has told me where the road leads.

What the goals and actions items lack is a sense of strategy. While I agree with most of the goals, you are correct that it is "an unprioritized grab bag of goals with no coherent overall strategy of what the council is trying to achieve."

The goals should be prioritized first, then priority of action items is -- more or less -- a function of the relative importance of goals.

If it was up to me, I would have scrapped the old ones and started with a fresh slate of concise and strategically minded goals and action items. However, all of that is not up to me.

Andrew Laska

glbeach said...

Thank you for sharing your insight. I had wondered how the new city council was functioning.

glbeach said...

Naturally, after having posted my comment, I came across the following 'Thought for the day' on the Word.A.Day that seemed appropriate:

There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all. -Peter Drucker, management consultant, professor, and writer (1909-2005)

mccalpin said...

Last week, Council members did make a first pass at prioritizing the Near Term goals - see
starting on page 31 in the PDF.

However, in the discussion in the worksession on Monday evening, it became clear that not all the Council members scored things the same way - some said, for example, that they did not score things high that the Council would have to do anyway (such as revision of the council district boundaries, done after the census every ten years). In other cases, Council members argued that the timeframe for some goals should increase their priority. Councilman Omar pointed out that the goal of discussing having a separate charter vote on direct election of the mayor needs to happen soon to make his preferred May 2012 timetable.

On this last topic, we should also recall another point that Councilman Omar brought up: averages, medians, means, deviations, and other ways of analyzing statistics. I suspect the issue of direct election of the mayor got very high scores from a few council members and very low from the rest, which looking at just the averages would not show.

In any case, I don't believe that separating direct election of the mayor from the general issue of charter review makes any sense...if we were to have a charter vote in May 2012 on the issue of direct election of the mayor, then the next available date on overall charter updates would not be until May 2014. Given that every candidate for Council this spring (for all we know, maybe including the invisible Alan North) stated that he/she was in favor of proceeding with charter review, it is nonsensical to stall even the possibility of the people voting on it until 2014 - which is halfway into each Council member's NEXT term.


Mark Steger said...

Bill, thanks for the feedback. I'm working on a blog item about the council's prioritization of the action items. I'll focus on the rankings, not the process. The discussion you mention about how different council members used different criteria for ranking, certainly throws the value of the whole exercise into question.

(I won't go into how the list was published as a scanned document, even though its numerical table content would have made it an ideal candidate to publish in spreadsheet format, including the numerical inputs provided by each council member, so analysis about means, medians, standard deviations, etc. could also be used to shed light on the results.)

Splitting out the discussion of a charter revision for direct election of the mayor from other possible charter revisions, well, that just won't work, for the reasons you state. Why the council would even entertain the possibility is puzzling and disappointing.

Anonymous said...


The council did not prioritize the goals. They prioritized the action items.

mccalpin said...

Andrew, I said that "the Near Term goals" were prioritized, because I used "goals" instead of "action items" bad...the "Near Term" was right, as you can see from the link.... ;-)

As for the "goals", it will be interesting to see what they do, given that the action item list alone will consume much of the next year or two...(under the theory that the near term action item list will drive the staff calendar in terms of staff presentations for the Council)...