LEVERAGING PUBLIC SPENDING FOR MAXIMUM IMPACT: Do Multiple Goals Make Projects Better — or Unmanageable?

Keep It Simple.  Focus.  You can’t walk and tie your shoes at the same time.  Projects are much easier to manage, and it is easier to hold project managers accountable, if there is a single and explicit goal.  Transparency is vital to maintain public trust in government, and it is best accomplished when the line from spending to result is clear and straightforward.

On the other hand, life is complicated, everything is connected, and the need for improvement is enormous.  Every project impacts its audience, and the world, in complex and multiple ways.  Given the scarcity of funds and the magnitude of the problems facing us, doesn’t it make sense to leverage every opportunity to create as much positive change as possible – and to increase the odds of overall success by being explicit about each of the top priority goals even if they relate to different issues?

Furthermore, creating a coherent and effective solution to a problem often requires dealing with an enormous breath of complexity.  Creating a “one stop shopping” approval process capable of providing “rapid decisions” for business developers is a common government goal that requires enormous inter-organizational coordination behind the unified application form.  Boston’s office of “urban mechanics” is creating simple and direct methods for citizens to interact with local government, which is forcing significantly complex organizational changes in the internal operation of city hall.  And, as software developers seeking to create easy, self-explanatory user-interfaces have learned, the simpler the presentation the more complicated the programming that empowers it.  Maybe we need to accept that managing complexity, that having multiple explicit goals, is part of having effective public programs.

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No Project Is An Island

Is a transportation project really just about moving people and things around?  Is a housing or commercial development just about constructing buildings?  Is a corporate subsidy program only about securing jobs?  Or are they also about stimulating the larger economy, increasing public revenue, improving our natural environment, strengthening the sustainability and livability of local communities?

Everything has “side issues” – which are likely to turn into unintended and perhaps societally damaging consequences if left unexamined.  Profit-seeking businesses have an inherent need to externalize costs and ignore negative impacts or else their products would be a lot more expensive and their owners a lot less wealthy.  But even non-profits and government agencies can easily become seduced by the same quest to keep costs low.

This is why so many large projects are now required to do environmental impact assessments or explain how they fit into regional/municipal Master Plans.  It often requires extra paperwork, research, time, and money.  And neither the process nor the requirements always straightforwardly lead to the desired harm-reduction goals. But they are society’s way of acknowledging that nothing stands alone.  For example, the recent effort to push for “health in all policies” is utilizing the new idea of Health Impact Assessments (HIA) to expose ways that a project or policy – in any field – might influence public health and then suggest ways to deal with any negative effects.

From Avoidance To Improvement

However, these “impact and mitigation” analyses are primarily about identifying and then avoiding negative effects.  Maybe it would be even better to raise these “secondary” issues to a more central status; make them co-priorities with explicit and measurable goals.  Doing that might make it possible to work towards positive impacts – finding ways to improve conditions rather than merely avoid making them worse.

There are many ways to effectively manage towards multiple goals, even when those goals span several issues or professional fields.  There is, in fact, a whole field of “convergence” that explores this topic.  One approach is to have joint ventures uniting several different public agencies.  Massachusetts’ Healthy Transportation Compact was supposed to bring together the Departments of Transportation, Health & Human Services, and Environment-Energy – and while little seems to have come directly out of those meetings both MassDOT and the Department of Public Health are now running programs (GreenDOT and Mass In Motion, respectively) that incorporate an awareness of the inter-relationship of their fields.  Another approach is to merge agencies or at least bring them under united leadership, as Doug Foy did with his “super secretariat” back in the early more “liberal” days of Governor Romney’s administration.   And a third way is to create new agencies or organizations, either from scratch or through the full merger of existing ones that brings together complementary expertise for each issue.

The Democratic Imperative

But why do it?  It’s true that having multiple goals is likely to make an individual project more complicated and expensive – although it is likely that proper planning will allow diverse goals to be achieved without significantly raising costs.  However, we also know that problems tend to become more complicated and expensive the longer they are allowed to fester – so it might be cost effective to deal with them now, even if as one goal of a multi-goal effort.  And we know that externalizing costs or postponing solutions tends to mostly penalize those least able to deflect or afford the consequences – meaning the poor, the elderly, the young.

Politically, expanding the breath of a project’s vision may make it both harder to work out all the needed compromises but easier to build the broad coalitions needed to secure approval and funding.  At an event sponsored by LivableStreets Alliance a couple years ago, Enrique Penálosa, former mayor of Bogotá, said that because US politics are more participatory and democratic than those of his region it takes longer for us to decide to take action around an issue but once the decision is made we are more likely to stay the course.

In addition, the narrower the goals of a policy or project the easier it is for “insiders” to deal with it as a merely technical, non-political issue – thereby avoiding public scrutiny and debate about the larger purpose or impact.

Improving our collective and individual quality of life requires action on many levels and dimensions.  And the public sector – despite the anti-government simplicity and the anti-“Agenda 21” bizarreness of the lunatic right – needs to lead the way by appropriately understanding and dealing with that complexity.  The ultimate hope is that we can make all our programs, policies, and projects “holographic” – meaning that every facet and piece contains the full vision and values of the society we are trying to move towards.  But the first step is to accept that every project has, on some level, multiple impacts and therefore is best managed by having an explicit even if diverse set of accountable goals.

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Related previous postings:

PARKS, GREENWAYS, AND TRANSPORTATION: Increasing Usefulness By Combining Visions

THE COMPLEX INGREDIENTS OF LIVABLE CITIES: Complete Streets to Interior Design, Transit to City Planning, Art to Education

When Budgets Shrink, Mission’s Must Converge

What is “Healthy Transportation” — Issues for a Health Impact Assessment

REDEFINING TRANSPORTATION: from Moving Vehicles to Place-Making

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