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How three cities are solving big problems

LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Seattle may end up indulging itself in three votes on the embattled waterfront tunnel, or at least three skirmishes over whether to hold those votes. One referendum vote is coming in August (maybe), concerning the City Council’s procedural punctilios; there might be another on Initiative 101 in November; and a third next year (echoing the first) on the council’s “final” vote on going ahead, sometime this fall.

Is this extreme? Is this harmless? Is Seattle fiddling while its economy and its competitiveness burn? Is there any way to get the important issues (funding highway and transit improvements, job growth for non-tech sectors, re-financing the University of Washington, unfunded liabilities, the impasse over taxes) back in the foreground?

Impossible, you say? Well, consider the tales from three cities and how they are pulling together for impressive action on some big problems. In each case the resources mobilized and the broad political bases are commensurate with solving big challenges. These examples, in turn, may be harbingers of the kind of swing back toward concerted political power that could be heading for this region if the pendulum swings back sharply from the stalemated, insurgency years of Mayor Mike McGinn.

Start with Los Angeles, where the urgency of the meltdown of the California economy and its feckless politics have given marching orders on transit funding. Led by Mayor Antonio Vallaraigosa, the city leadership has put together a plan to build 30 years of transit projects in the next 10 years. It will use a new half-cent sales tax, passed in 2008, as collateral to sell long term bonds and secure a low-interest federal loan. It will then take these billions of available funds and accomplish 12 transit projects in 10 years. Construction bids are coming in 15-30 percent lower, given the current economy. And the projects are a modern mix of extending rail transit, bus rapid transit on bus-only lanes, and a way to link three downtown rail lines.

There are other advantages to this speed-up. It means more construction jobs sooner. It means a project like the Westside “subway to the sea,” expected to be done in 2032, will be ready in a third that time, spurring quicker transit-oriented development. The urgency(and the need to present a common front to the feds) helped get important players, like Hollywood, on board.The federal government has agreed to accelerate environmental reviews, hoping the 30/10 plan will become a national model.

And then consider this, from Victoria Broadus, writing on the blog CityFix:

“Dedicated local leaders who are willing to put their reputation on the line by backing such public transit overhauls are always crucial players in the most promising transit improvements in cities around the world. From TransMilenio in Bogota, Colombia to a new high-tech bus system from an innovative public-private partnership in Indore, India to a bus rapid transit (BRT) system in Amman, Jordan, influential local leaders with a passion for improving public transit were critical to the success of new systems.

“One main hindrance to political support for transit is the time it takes for projects to be completed and gain public acceptance; traditional transit systems take so long to complete that many politicians don’t see any point in backing them. But busway improvements like New York’s Select Bus Service, BRT systems around the world, and now LA’s innovative 30/10 plan have provided leaders with models of sustainable transport that can be quickly implemented, allowing them to reap political returns from the projects they support.”

That last sentence is a key argument for speed, as opposed to endless process, Seattle-style. Politicians like to vote for things that might happen while they are still in office.

Next city in our survey: Cincinnati. Leaders in this city and two neighboring cities in Kentucky are working together on a comprehensive approach, “cradle to career,” on education. What began as scattershot approaches turned into a highly coordinated approach to the full education continuum. All the parties and funders agree on common goals, shared ways to measure success, regular high-level communication among the entities, and a “backbone” organization that manages the partnership, called Strive Together.

Here’s an example of what’s happening, from a column by David Bornstein, a leading author about social innovation:

ed on ideological or political issues….You need a common language to bring people together and that language is the data.”

“The Cincinnati Public Schools, which has made gains with an ambitious turnaround program among its 16 lowest performing elementary schools, established “data war rooms” in each school. Teachers have meetings every two weeks, where they closely monitor students’ progress — looking at academic performance, behavioral issues, absenteeism and lateness as well as special services each child is receiving. Through the network, they can easily connect high-risk students with external resources like mentoring or tutoring. Moreover, they can track which programs make a difference — and why — and then share that information with everybody else. The result is that the network can engage in continuous learning based on evidence.”

“Continuous learning based on evidence” is just the kind of networked information strategy of the new economy, making it a good match for Seattle these days. But note the un-Seattle emphasis on a disciplined approach for all the disparate parts. The key, says Jeff Edmondson, who led the Strive partnership and is now spreading the gospel nationally (including to Portland and the Seattle area), “is setting a common vision and finding a common language. You can’t let people get focused on ideological or political issues….You need a common language to bring people together and that language is the data.”

Strive Together is the poster child for a striking development in tackling complex social problems, known as “Collective Impact.” Under this approach, many different players, instead of competing for funds for isolated pilot projects and cultivating donors in this piecemeal way, instead work together in a highly coordinated way that addresses all the components (pre-school, school, non-school hours, nutrition, college, career-readiness, mentoring). Foundations buy into the common vision and stay the course with the funding, as opposed to the normal pattern of investing for a few years in some catchy new approaches.

There’s an influential essay on Collective Impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. It makes the case for cross-sector coordination, citing a few examples in the nation. And it issues a strong call to the nonprofit sector to shift from its hit-and-miss patterns:

“The nonprofit sector most frequently operates using an approach that we call isolated impact. It is an approach oriented toward finding and funding a solution embodied within a single organization, combined with the hope that the most effective organizations will grow or replicate to extend their impact more widely. Funders search for more effective interventions as if there were a cure for failing schools that only needs to be discovered, in the way that medical cures are discovered in laboratories. As a result of this process, nearly 1.4 million nonprofits try to invent independent solutions to major social problems, often working at odds with each other and exponentially increasing the perceived resources required to make meaningful progress. Recent trends have only reinforced this perspective. The growing interest in venture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, for example, has greatly benefited the social sector by identifying and accelerating the growth of many high-performing nonprofits, yet it has also accentuated an emphasis on scaling up a few select organizations as the key to social progress.”

Finally, example number three, from San Francisco. In this case, there is a concerted effort to find (and enforce) consensus about dealing with municipal pensions. Mayor Ed Lee has forged a plan, with broad support, that will save the city up to $1 billion in the next decade. The unaddressed pension liabilities would otherwise soon be costing the profligate city $700 million a year.

Here’s how it happened, as detailed in a story in The Bay Citizen. You start with two strong outside goads. One is the city’s public defender, Jeff Adachi, who pushed a failed ballot initiative for very strong pension reform, with another one in the works. That made the cost of not acting start to look very painful for the municipal unions and their friends in city hall. The second goad is the wealthy financier Warren Hellman, who convened pension reform talks six months ago and kept the issue at the front of public attention.

The result is a compromise plan that forcefully occupies the center ground of the debate, even if it saves, by one critic’s account, only one-sixth of what Hellman initially said was necessary. It has become the prism by which all the candidates for the city election this fall are viewed. Moreover, this centrist consensus has come to resemble a mighty locomotive, crdibly threatening to run over politicians who have not jumped on board. It’s an example of what a mayor, by orchestrating his strong connections to the business establishment and labor, can accomplish on a big issue. even in a town famous for its factional feuding.

Dream on, you say. Would never happen in Seattle.

Certainly we don’t have a mayor who can create and enforce such efforts. And it may be that the city has become so averse to centralized political power that it won’t ever again elect such a mayor. As for leadership from the business community, my fear is that these civic figures are too conservative or too selfish about taxes to command broad respect. Further, as Seattle loses its headquarters companies, you don’t get the top tier participating. As for counting on the nonprofit sector to lead the effort, as happened in Cincinnati, that runs into two local constraints: the overwhelmly global focus of Seattle philanthropy (slighting local issues), and the too-great dominance of the Gates Foundation.

On the other hand, these three stories from other cities are all testimonials to the role of a “shadow government,” and this is where Seattle often excells. Jim Ellis, the father of Forward Thrust (a broad array of funding measures in 1968 for public projects like parks and transit and the Kingdome), was once the master of the shadow government, working connections in D.C., Olympia, and both parties’ leadership. Former Mayor Paul Schell was perhaps more successful as shadow mayor (arts, downtown development, urbanism) than as the elected mayor. And it was the shadow government (law firms, business leaders, unions, a conservative think tank, transportation consultants, Allied Arts) who put in place the deep-bore tunnel solution to the central waterfront Viaduct.

Of course, shadow governments, even if very public spirited, can look shady, pushing populist alarm buttons. Nor do they have effective ways of punishing those who don’t go along, since these dissidents can run to a generally welcoming media, file initiatives, or create little organizations to fund gadflies. The ability to step on the air-hoses of mavericks can take place where you have strong mayors with Chicago-style political machines (as Mayor Greg Nickels tried to create). It’s the knuckles side of the “Collective Impact” approach, uniting foundations into a discliplined strategy that cuts off outliers. And it can be a by-product of a tight deadline, such as Los Angeles’s hurry-up approach to transit, and in cities that face huge ticking-clock challenges from an Olympics or a world’s fair.

Seattle’s next chance to register its preferences will be the 2013 mayor’s race. I see the choice as being among more disruptive insurgency (reelecting McGinn), restoring normalcy (electing the calm centrist Tim Burgess), or a “fierce urgency of now” brought on by some big shock (abandonment of the tunnel plan, an accelerated Boeing exodus, true reckoning of unfunded liabilities).

Given the region’s highly dispersed power, spreading vetoes to many groups, I’d bet on muddling-through normalcy.

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