Saturday, December 22, 2007

THE CITY DESK - Rory Riddler

Strategic Plan Is Shiny Thing
To Distract You From The Truth

The latest newsletter from the City of St. Charles arrived this past week and gave me one of those “stop, rewind, what did that say” moments. The article from the City Council was about a retreat they had in August to discuss a Strategic Plan for the City of St. Charles.

The article described how they “dove” into the strategic planning process. They hope to be able to identify the issues facing the community and establish a vision for our community as a whole.

Now in my day (earlier this year) the Council was “elected” to establish policy for the City. The identification process for the needs of the people, were “identified” through the process of running on a platform, and going door-to-door in a campaign to listen to the people. Council members were elected to roll up their sleeves and begin the job the people elected them to do, not to begin a never ending process of self-evaluation with what amounts to an over-priced therapist asking our elected public officials to just lay back on the couch and tell us about their childhoods.

So four months after they began, nine months after the new council was elected, we are reading a December newsletter about what they talked about last August. They state in the article that the retreat was “…not a forum for the establishment of priorities for specific projects.” Why bother with the details like accomplishing anything.

No, the strategic planning process, or as our President likes to call it, “Strategy”, is like the Never Ending Story or worse, every parent’s nightmare trapped in a car with young children…The Song That Never Ends. You know, “This is the song that never ends. It just goes on and on my friends. Someone starting singing it, not knowing what it was. And now they go on singing it, forever just because…this is the song that never ends. It just goes on and on my friends…” (Must will myself to stop now).

Ahhh, that’s better.
So how long can this process go on? Well, the Mayor’s column in the same newsletter gives us a hint. She writes, “This next year will see us planning for the future with a Strategic plan…we want participation from everyone…It is our gift to you.” Wow, a gift I get to put together myself.

This is how the council described the process, “Only after we have received input from the overall community, and secured the full commitment from stakeholders, business and residents will we begin to formulate our vision, mission statement and goals for the City.” Yawn, this could take longer than I thought. I wonder if they would know a stakeholder if they saw one? We used to call them taxpayers back in the day.

Of course, for the public to come together and plan where the community is going, everyone will have to have the same level of information and knowledge of where we’ve been, where we are, the available monetary resources, types of taxes, funds, previous commitments for those resources and basic finance principles, personnel resources (manpower, training and management capabilities), the limitations placed on change by State and Federal Law and the Courts, and perhaps some experience in urban planning.

That used to be the job of our elected public officials, to educate themselves and work in a political environment to serve the needs of the people. Now, like the advent of self-service gasoline pumps, we are being challenged to do it for them.

All of this is not to say I am against planning, but people with some experience, expertise and authority best do planning. It isn’t like the City doesn’t have a newly updated “Comprehensive Plan” already. The Planning & Zoning commission and the Community Development Department led that effort and it lays out exactly what the Council in their article said they were looking for in a Strategic Plan, “…a widely accepted guidebook to achieve a higher quality of life”.

There is an old joke that goes, how do you spell Government in action…with one word (inaction) or two (in action)? There is also what I like to call “dynamic inaction” which is when government, business or large utility companies (Ameran U.E. is a master at this), talk a lot about what all they are going to do, commission studies, hold hearings, focus groups, think tanks, do public engagements and run full-page ads telling you about how new and improved they are.

Nothing gets done, but they try to look busy doing it. It reminds me of the Dilbert cartoon where he asks, “How did people look busy before computers?”

One of the sillier ways in which Washington bureaucrats have decided to waste our money is in requiring a “public engagement process” on larger Federal projects. The Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) just signed a contract to spend over half-a-million dollars with a company to see how people feel about them dumping sewage in area streams and rivers because of an outdated collection system for sanitary waste.

My guess is the public feels that is “bad”, but may not want to spend the estimated billions it will take to fix it if it means raising sewer rates. A year from now, and after spending $500,000 to check it out, we will see if my prediction is true.

Of course if City officials truly wanted to know what is on our minds, all they have to do is conduct a scientifically valid public opinion poll. We can know with a range of plus or minus 4% what the majority of people think about any given subject. We have the technology.

But knowing the “real” truth versus shepherding along the development of a “perceived” truth, are two very different things. No one really wants your opinion in this kind of process. They want to have a select group of elites come together and validate their own beliefs. The process will test public opinion, but only the public opinion of those individuals engaged enough to come to meetings and sit through the process. The end results are therefore invalid for the universe of all City residents from the start.

In many ways, these are the same skills magicians employ to distract us from the truth. It is called misdirection. The Strategic Planning Process is a giant shiny thing being dangled in front of the public to explain away a lack of progress and vision for the community…a vision at one time provided by those we elect to public office.

Haggling over the nuance of every word in a one-size fits all mission statement, may be shiny enough to distract a cat, but will it work on real people? What we’re missing is the obvious. They don’t have a clue what to do.

Not everyone in local government can be painted with the same broad brush. Many, I am sure, came to office with ideas, goals, hopes and dreams. But they are being badly served in listening to those who now say the City’s future is better served if we get everyone together for a group hug. Nothing against group hugs…it’s just no way to run a City.