I’d like to persuade you to stop badmouthing the “c” word. The word I have in mind is “compromise.” Done right, a compromise is a way of opening the door to change by reducing the objections of interest groups. And it is the closest thing in politics to an art form.
That doesn’t mean all compromises are good, of course. Some satisfy interests but don’t create much change. In fact, some compromises are designed just to paper over problems. (In Washington, this is called “kicking the can down the road.”) Others appear at first to be ingenious solutions but come apart because they aren’t sustainable. And some look so ungainly that even participants call them “ugly babies.“
But just as you can admire the creative process while sometimes not liking the art, I encourage you to step back and look at how your city hall arrives at these deals. Yes, by all means write about the bad deals and car-wreck compromises. But also develop a little curiosity about why some compromises DO work. Look for patterns in the way they are arrived at in your city. Figure out who your city’s compromise artists are. And by all means, don’t denigrate the art form.
Before we begin, though, a little perspective: If you’ve read the introduction to this series and the first three installments, then you can see some themes developing. Projects and policy ideas tend to flow into city hall from the outside. The city council is at or near the center of decision making, sometimes in the lead role, sometimes in the mayor’s shadow. And the central issues of cities have to do with land and how it is used by people.
This lesson is about the most important work that mayors and city councils (and sometimes others) do, which is creating compromises that allow projects and big policy ideas to move forward.
Now, please don’t charge out the door looking for these things. Major civic projects and big policy changes don’t come along every day. Most of what mayors and city councils do is routine: creating and amending budgets, approving small policy changes, making appointments or approving personnel changes, reviewing contracts, and acting as quasi-judges on zoning matters and development decisions.
But that’s why you should sit up when one of these difficult decisions does come along. That’s when talented politicians do their best work, bringing the interests together, finding hidden areas of agreement, plotting the way forward, and figuring out how to present the results in ways acceptable to other politicians and the public.
And they do this in one of two basic ways, by personality or process. That is, they personally hammer out a compromise, or they send the dispute through some sort of process that the combatants and larger community feel is fair.
Here are two examples of the personality-driven compromise. First, a small but telling compromise authored by Mayor Ed Murray of Seattle allowing ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft to operate in his city while offering taxi owners just enough to quieten their opposition. (Why is it “telling”? Because a mayor who can knock out a compromise like this in his first six months in office demands our attention.) 2023 update: Ed Murray was, indeed, a talented mayor who was undone after three years in office by a sex scandal.
The second, more sweeping example is Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson’s 2012 plan for reforming his city’s schools, which required that he get state legislative approval and the governor’s support after reaching a series of compromises with local business interests, educators, reform advocates, and labor and ethnic leaders.
The personality-driven approach seems to be the way most compromises come about, and in cities with strong mayor forms of government that’s what you expect to find. (Story idea: If your city has a strong mayor system and there are big disputes not being resolved, why? Does the mayor not consider these things important, does he not consider fashioning compromises as part of his job, is he bad at this work, or is there some other reason? What do others in the city say?)
The other way of reaching compromises is with a process. San Diego’s “ugly baby” compromise on housing was a “locked-room” process. Basically, the city council president sent the interests to a room and told them to come back with something they could all support.
Other processes involve task forces, which involve broader community interests, and mediation. Mediation was how Minneapolis resolved a difficult dispute over a light-rail line. In this case, you see the importance of fairness in a process. The compromise was reached after the mediator proposed it, but it was pretty much the same set of ideas others had suggested. When it came this time from a neutral party, city officials took it to heart.
Finally, there are those compromises that are so complex they defy easy description. Detroit’s “grand bargain,” by which it will exit bankruptcy in the months ahead, is a web of compromises involving a federal bankruptcy judge, the governor, the city’s emergency manager, state legislative leaders, foundation leaders, the mayor, business executives, Wall Street interests, labor leaders, and a host of others. Which parts of the bargain were contributed by leaders and which came as a result of the bankruptcy process? Hard to say precisely, but the biggest elements (including the foundations stepping in to support the art museum) were clearly the work of creative leaders.
So, how can you report on compromises in your city in new ways? Well, you can start by reverse engineering them. That is, you can begin with the deal, which is almost always announced publicly, then ask who was involved at each step and how each element of the compromise fell into place. I promise you this will make a great narrative that will tell you and your readers much about how your city works.
Then you can ask not only how the compromise came about but why. People usually agree to things involving sacrifice only because they fear an alternative. So what were the alternatives? And how were they presented to the different interest groups? (This alone may be a fascinating story, as you may see that the alternatives presented to one side were the opposites of what was presented to the other.)
Finally, you can revisit some earlier compromises. Some likely will have failed. Why? Were they too ambitious, not ambitious enough—or were they designed (consciously or not) for failure? If they were designed for failure, what were the design flaws? For those compromises that succeeded, again . . . why? Did the interests find the alternatives so frightening that they stuck with the bargain through good times and bad? Did participants discover over time that there was hidden value in this new way of doing things? Or did the interests just move on to other issues?
What about the personalities and processes behind these compromises? What makes some leaders good at crafting deals? Do they use a standard way (some leaders use anger and threats, others tend toward calmness and reason) or does each situation demand a different approach? If they sent the dispute through a process, what was the process? Why did it work? Why did people accept it as a legitimate way of deciding these things?
This is the heart of civic decision making as it plays out inside city halls. And it’s what makes talented politicians so valuable. Perhaps the best comparison is to business leaders who see markets others can’t and ways of reaching those markets that don’t exist yet. A book ghostwritten for Donald Trump called this “the art of the deal.” (There’s little evidence Trump was much of a dealmaker, but others in business are.) In politics, the compromise that allows progress while sustaining itself is the work of art.
Footnote: So why do reporters denigrate compromises? I’ll let others do the full analysis, but let me offer one theory. It has to do with nonzero-sum contests.
Huh? Most city hall reporters also report on political campaigns, and elections are zero-sum contests. (Google the term.) That is, every vote I get is a vote you have to overcome and exceed in order to win. There aren’t that many zero-sum contests in our lives. Sports, conventional land wars, card games, a few others.
Most of our lives is spent in a nonzero-sum world, where both sides can gain from a transaction and, sometimes as a result of cooperating, the pie grows. I hope your newsroom is a nonzero-sum environment, along with your family life, your relationships with friends, even your dealings with merchants. (If you’re happy with the car you bought and the dealer is pleased with the money, then voila. Nonzero sum.)
The problem for some reporters and politicians is that they have trouble making the transition from the artificial world of zero-sum elections to the more common world of nonzero-sum government. Put another way, they can’t believe that a compromise where no one walks away with a clear win isn’t . . . well, fishy.
If that is so, then every successful marriage, enduring business, and long-term friendship is fishy. Because like good compromises at city hall, they too live in a nonzero-sum world.
This is one of a series of postings about better ways of understanding local government and writing about local politics. To read the introduction, please click here.
Photo by Cabinet Office licensed under Creative Commons.