Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Memphis Malaise Prevents Progress Seen In Other Cities

We have a bad case of Memphis fatigue.

We’ve already overdosed on race-baiting rhetoric, style over substance, divisive posturing and election coverage more in tune with the reporting at Churchill Downs.

And, the campaign season has barely kicked off.

More Heat Than Light

We keep hoping that someone will accidentally trip up and talk about something that really matters, a real problem or a real issue. It’s beginning to feel that we might as well get used to media coverage that emphasizes heat over light, but meanwhile, we think the rest of us should take it on ourselves to ask the kinds of questions and engage in the kind of discussions that are needed on the campaign trails.

Maybe, it’ll even be contagious and a candidate or two will start talking about some new answers to some of our city’s oldest problems.

We promise to keep things in perspective. After all, despite all the inflammatory coverage, Memphis isn’t alone in embarrassing itself on a national scale.

We Are Not Alone

The former mayor of Atlanta, a dozen contractors and members of the mayor’s staff remain in federal prison, and elected officials are being indicted in every corner of the country.

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom coped with the resignation of his campaign manager whose wife, the mayor’s former appointments secretary, admitted to an affair with the mayor as part of her substance abuse therapy. Whispers about alleged cocaine use by the mayor finally burst into the open, too.

Meanwhile, a city supervisor was accused of shaking down business owners for $40,000, and the story took an interesting twist when it was revealed that the supervisor doesn’t even live in San Francisco. Despite all this, the supervisor continues to cast votes while questions remain about whether he’s even a legitimate member of the city’s legislative body .

More Headlines

In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa admitted that he was separating from his wife of 20 years after his affair with a Telemundo television reporter was reported by the media. The reporter, meanwhile, was suspended for reporting on the mayor’s estrangement from his wife, but somehow neglecting to mention a central fact - her role in it.

Over in Salt Lake City, populist Mayor Rocky Anderson threatened to “kick the ass” of a local developer in City Hall and released security camera video showing their chest-to-chest altercation. In the Windy City, more than 30 employees and contractors have been indicted in a widening investigation into bribes and rigged city hiring in Chicago City Hall.

And that’s just a few of the headlines from across the country.

Missing The Boat

In other words, Memphis is in good company when it comes to controversy and conflict. Where Memphis misses the boat most often is with offsetting headlines about new policies and programs from the mayor’s office.

There’s New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s unveiling of the most comprehensive greening plan in the U.S. – 127 separate initiatives aimed at reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030. If that wasn’t enough to keep him busy, he also says he’s going to tackle poverty in the Big Apple.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino’s takeover of the city’s public schools and the first experiment with pilot schools continue, and inspired by Menino’s success, Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty took over management of the Capitol’s public schools.


Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson rolled out a $85 million, multi-pronged crime-fighting plan that builds on his leadership on regional issues. Speaking of regionalism, we’ve previously mentioned Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper’s phenomenal victory at the polls, winning a regional referendum in which voters increased their taxes to pay for 119 miles of new and extended light rail and commuter train lines that cost about $5 billion (not to mention his victory with a referendum for $378 million jail bond issue).

If there’s any single issue that best exemplifies Memphis’ missed opportunities, it’s regionalism. While many metro areas are stitching together regional alliances built on the recognition that regions are the units of competition in the global economy, Memphis still thinks it’s at war with DeSoto County. Sadly, Memphis identified regionalism years before it was every one else’s priority, but despite years of research and detailed reports, the promise went essentially unfulfilled.

Cities like Pittsburgh, Seattle, Tampa, Honolulu and Eugene, Oregon, are using Google so citizens can easily find what bus to take, where to catch it and how long it will take to reach its destination. The public transit website in Portland, Oregon, tells citizens precisely where all the buses are, - in real time no less, gives directions to the nearest bus stop with the precise waiting time until the next bus comes. (It also tells you how much you save by taking the bus rather than driving.) Here, MATA has finally gotten into the 20th century with a trip planner that is at least usable, replacing a previous system based on a 48-hour response time.


Digital technology is being used widely in other cities to reinvent government services, but here, our local governments can’t even give us websites that are usable or useful, much less offer serious e-government programs.

Wi-fi plans proliferate in more than 300 cities, but not in Memphis, not even in the downtown core. We still don’t even have a 311 hotline for citizens who can’t access city services. In other cities, the 311 hotline is more than a hub for citizen complaints. More to the point, it produces statistical snapshots of city services and serves as an early warning system that identifies potential trouble spots.

Most of all, it brings a data-driven approach to government administration that in time changes the culture itself through budgets based on performance measurements. Budgeting for results seems like a pretty straightforward concept, but legislators often resist it because they rightly conclude that the measurements could just as easily be used to hold them accountable.

Knowledge Is Power

As former Martin O’Malley – now governor of Maryland – proved, nothing shakes up entrenched bureaucrats as much as a data-driven approach to government. O’Malley’s reporting sessions for his CityStat program featured devastating dressings down of managers and directors who failed to make progress in their measurements. The meetings became the stuff of legend – and dread – in Baltimore, and O’Malley is now transplanting the philosophy into state government.

All in all, there is a widespread lack of understanding in government about how data can be used to drive important decisions, and normally, its implementation is driven by a single disciple elected to the mayor’s office. As a result, it’s unlikely to become part of our city government anytime soon, but hopefully, it will at least become a topic for the campaign trail.

At a time when revenues are getting tighter and tighter, more and more elected officials are grasping the connection between dollars and results. Best of all, the results are being given to the public so it can see what’s being done with its tax dollars.

Data And More Data

No one in public offices seems to grasp the potential of a data-driven government as much as Mayor Bloomberg. But then again, he made billions by creating a company based on real-time data.

Each new New York initiative – eliminating the health department’s ineffectual anti-smoking program in favor of massive cigarette tax increases, a smoking ban in restaurants and suspending recycling – is justified on the basis of hard data.

A final lesson to be learned from Mayor Bloomberg is an emphasis on hiring the smartest people and letting them do their jobs. His directive to one newly appointed manager: “It’s your agency. Don’t screw it up.” We wonder the last time any city director heard that from Mayor Herenton.


Anonymous said...

All good points.
One thing about Desoto County (and other suburban areas). Desoto County officials look at themselves in competition with Memphis as well; they consider it a "victory" that they recruit business and residents from Memphis, rather than concentrating on recruiting NEW industry to the area. How shortsighted that is, because desoto County is just beginning to see some of the problems from Memphis spill over to them. Look at parts of Southaven, much of the older areas of that town are a dump. Abandoned strip malls, unkempt cheap houses.
There was a comment from a Piperton TN official in the paper several months ago in which the guy was gloating over recruiting a major business from Memphis. Guess what folks-- either this entire metro area starts working together or we'll ALL eventually lose out (except for the development crowd, who profit handsomely from the emptying of Memphis into new greenfield development areas.)
There are only two possible roads to take: work together regionally in a positive manner OR, leave the Memphis area entirely (on an individual basis).

walter dawson said...

a few years ago, i served on the city's strategic planning committee as a member of the infosharing subcommitte. there is an incredible amount of data collected by the city that would be useful to neighborhoods if only people in those neighborhoods could get to it easily. the information is public record, which means taxpayers have already paid for it to be collected. however, few (very, very few) communities in the mid-south give their citizens quick access to this information. a candidate for public office could build quite a campaign around this issue -- assuming, of course, the candidate followed through once elected.