Seattle process: Does working together make us dumber?

Critics decry our need for consensus as a source of civic frustration and gridlock. But the perils of going it alone are real.
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The meetings demotivator poster captures the downside of Seattle's infamous process.

Critics decry our need for consensus as a source of civic frustration and gridlock. But the perils of going it alone are real.

Have you seen that great Demotivator poster? The one that shows a group of hands and reads: “Meetings. None of Us is as Dumb as All of Us.”

It comes to mind when thinking about Seattle process. Critics of our tendency to think and talk everything to death while looking for consensus frequently cited it as a source of civic frustration and gridlock. Yet the hazards of circumventing the process are real. Politicians are frequently punished for being decisive. Greg Nickels was accused of bringing a “Chicago style” to city politics by exercising his mayoral muscle. Mike McGinn was seen as “divisive” when he expressed strong opinions that strayed from the mainstream, as on the tunnel. Both men lost re-election bids.

We say we want deciders, but do we?

One advantage of Seattle process for civic leaders is safety in numbers. Getting consensus or going through the elaborate Kubuki theater of “inclusion” and seeing “buy-in from all the stakeholders” spreads political risk. If “all of us” make a dumb decision, “none of us” can be punished for it. The buck doesn’t stop with anyone because no one individual has more than a few pennies in the game.

When a bold decision is made, we often tend to be surprised and even a little aghast.

For example, the Seattle School Board pushed through the appointment of interim Schools Superintendent Larry Nyland to be the permanent boss. Of course, permanence is relative in the Schools supe job. But with the resignation of Jose Banda, the board decided in hurry-up fashion to hire a temp for the job. No big national search, no parading of candidates among all the education constituencies. Just a decision that Nyland was good enough, so let’s move on.

Such moves are risky. The school board is now on the hook for the choice, which was not a unanimous decision. There’s no question here about who’s accountable.

I have no idea whether it is a good hire or not. School leadership choices here tend to be underwhelming, at best. But the quick decision is startling. Some might find encouragement in it. A board taking swift action. Others are left wondering.

Not only do such decisions carry risk — will the new guy work out? — they undercut some of the other advantages of Seattle process. One is trust in the process itself. The argument being that a trusted process is more important than the actual decision it renders. A new Schools Superintendent will last a couple of years, parental distrust can persist for years, even generations.

One PTA representative, David Robison, told KUOW: “I actually teach management at UW Bothell, and one of the things that I warn against is analysis paralysis, but there needs to be some process. It doesn’t need to be endless, but there does need to be some informative process.” He had misgivings about the way the board made its choice.

Another risk of hasty decision-making is that Seattle process comes with safety valves to keep us from making terrible decisions — a way to derail bad ideas (Green Line monorail). Unfortunately, that cuts both ways because process can also derail good ones (the South Lake Union Commons). Our process often includes multiple public votes on projects so we can do or undo them. Those with a strong inner Robert Moses — New York’s city-building powerbroker — are often frustrated by the process-oriented approach.

Another poster child for process gone wrong is the waterfront tunnel project, which seemed to combine the worst of top-down decision-making and bottom-up inclusion and no real public votes to approve or disapprove the final plan. More than just a stuck tunnel machine named Bertha, it’s bucking to be the poster-child for the whole Demotivator meme.

Those frustrated with Seattle process tend to yearn for a pre-process golden era, the days when a few good men decided the fate of Seattle over breakfasts at the Olympic Hotel or drinks at the Washington Athletic or Rainier clubs. That was how we got the world’s fair. But even back then, such initiatives were rare. And times changed. Eddie Carlson, the hotel exec who ran that show, recognized as early as the 1980s that it was no longer possible to do things that way. The public, he said, had become too inquisitive. Robert Moses, for his part, complained at the public's lack of gratitude.

Accountability, transparency, open meetings, public records, endless whiteboards and Post-It note confabs with stakeholders: they reduce distrust a bit, and satisfy our curiosity even if they do not guarantee good results. And they still cause us — encourage us — to question our final decisions.

In the case of our schools, Seattle has had mixed success. Picking both insider candidates and hires made through public searches has brought us six superintendents in the last 10 years, with some notable failures.

Some decisions are just hard to get right no matter how you go about making them.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.