Thursday, October 16, 2014

Modifying “Gnats” As A Strategy

In the early 1990’s, I don’t think Durham’s local governments realized they were being strategic when they provided nearly all of the funding for a new non-profit organization to do advocacy for downtown revitalization.

Typically governments across the country do this initially either as a “dole-out” to “make some constituents happy” or because it seems like an inexpensive way to shed a responsibility.

Either way, it turned out to be genius.  Essentially, the organization turned out, at its best, to be a sort of ombudsman to work deep within those bureaucracies both as a collaborator with public servants but also to connect dots between agency silos.

Any large organization, public or private, could benefit from a few “gnats” such as that.

I know it wasn’t a strategic move in Durham because the formula hasn’t been replicated in other areas even once.

In fact, when I pointed out how it had worked to one administrator, she tried to replicated it with Keep Durham Beautiful but clearly as a way to shed responsibility for community upkeep on the theory that businesses and residents could be panhandled to do it instead.

To apply a popular rhetorical device, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” .

KDB was instead embedded within the bureaucracies but given a hybrid non-profit with which to work along with a tiny fraction of what had been given just for downtown advocacy, greatly inhibiting its effectiveness.

But essentially this has still served its more valuable role as a “gnat” to “connect or reconnect the dots” between agencies regarding the huge dividend local governments can reap by fulfilling overarching responsibilities for curb appeal.

There are advantages to each approach.

But having seen both close up now, I am persuaded that the former makes it less likely that such “gnat” will be weighted down with internal agency culture.

Even so, it still doesn’t appear that local governments here have caught on that funding “gnats” could be scaled up as a broader strategy but then again being strategic or innovative often goes unrewarded in public service these days.

Ironically, before there is any “eye-rolling,” most stupid public sector decisions originate when instead of creating economic value on their own, some private sector “bottom feeders seek to leverage value through manipulation of public policy as a substitute.

Or when small groups of vocal constituents sense handouts could result.

Remember, the “Baby Bell” that reconstituted AT&T after its breakup did so by overwhelming the Texas legislature and a soon-to-be US President by literally deploying a lobbyist for each member of that body.

Thus we now see even our jointly-owned airport shamelessly out panhandling local governments to subsidize fights that don’t make sense otherwise to businesses.

Where do you think they got that bright idea?  Proponents of convention centers and stadiums such as subsidy-ravenous event planners and promoters?

Of course, even if Durham had been strategic with downtown advocacy and community appearance, the “gnat” model only works as long as public, rather than special interests are foremost and those spearheading change are insulated from closed-door strong-arming and retribution.

That given, an area ripe for extension of the “gnat” model as strategy is in the area of land use and specifically, the character of the “built” environment that can make or break the distinct sense of a particular place, that is, if like Durham, it still has one.

This certainly isn’t a role for which commercial boosters would fit, or anyone afraid to walk away from a project.

But Durham local governments do have a non-profit with the mission, sensibilities and now expertise to fulfill this role and one with which they already have a relationship, however modest.

They would be well advised to greatly expand the role of Preservation Durham in the mold of how it has done with Downtown Durham Inc.  The organization both by sensibility and by expertise is in a unique position.

It already serves to survey and identify landmarks but it could do so much more, much as DDI did for revitalization, but in this case to work with planners, general services, open space and many other agencies.

The dividend would be to shape public and private structures early in the process where modifications aren’t costly in ways that ensure the structures belong in both scale and design and links and benefits to their surroundings and to the “built” aspect of Durham’s sense of place.

This wouldn’t be a much fun for those who enjoy public policy “car wrecks” and controversy, but it is something Durham’s local governments need, not a shedding of responsibility but another useful and collaborative “gnat.”

Converting tactics into strategies, let alone overarching strategies is not always the best way to shape strategy, but often innovation occurs unexpectedly when something works for a reason other than intended.

Think “post-it notes”, “stainless steel,” “x-rays,” “Velcro,” even “potato chips” and “matches.”

Durham local governments stumbled on its own “post-it” innovation and now, in my opinion, it is well advised to strategically replicate it.

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