If you accept that the central issue for cities—and their governments—is people and places, how they interact, and how they can be made to interact better, then there are two obvious questions:
- How can people and places be made to interact better?
- How will those changes come about?
Let’s deal with the first question. If you read Lesson One, you know my answer is that cities must find ways of using land more intelligently and creatively. What does that mean for your city? Answering this is your job as reporter or blogger. I gave you some starting points. Now go forth, observe, question, and write.
Now, about that second question: How will changes in land use (or, really, anything important to a city) come about? In other words, setting aside the changes themselves, how does change come to a city?
This is a big subject and one I’ve spent years writing about. This blog is filled with entries about how communities change, who is involved in the process, what aids change, what hinders it. I’ve written a multimedia book about a civic project that changed a city. If that’s not enough, you can consult my podcasts, which are interviews with people who’ve changed something big in their cities, focusing on how they did it.
I got interested in this subject in 1990 as I watched the greatest civic long shot I’ve ever seen take shape: the campaign to bring the 1996 Summer Olympics to Atlanta. I was editor and publisher of a business magazine at the time, which gave me a perfect position from which to watch this crazy idea and its nearly anonymous father (a mid-level lawyer named Billy Payne) work their way methodically through a city’s complex decision-making process and eventually through the even more Byzantine processes of the International Olympic Committee on the way to a stunning result. Honestly, the games themselves were not so exciting.
One of the things I’ve learned since is that this crazy process wasn’t all that uncommon and maybe not even all that crazy. To explain, it helps to divide change processes into three parts. First, where do big civic ideas come from? Who comes up with innovations and big civic projects (say, to pursue a streetcar line, create a major new park, or bring the Olympics to a city)? Second, what happens to these ideas as they move toward resolution? Who gets a voice along the way and how do they exercise it? And, finally, what determines whether ideas are ultimately accepted or rejected?
I’ll give you a few ideas here about these three parts. If you want more, click on “Archives” at the top of this blog, then try searching through some of the tags to find exactly what you’re looking for.
To begin, where do big civic proposals come from? Usually not from city hall. That is to say, big (and especially disruptive) innovations typically don’t come from mayors, city managers, or city council members. They come from broad based civic organizations such as chambers of commerce or more narrowly focused groups like downtown associations, parks conservancies, and transit affinity groups. And sometimes they come from preternaturally determined individuals like Billy Payne—a group I’ve taken to calling “visionistas.“
This is not what I thought when I was a city hall reporter. If you had asked me then for an analogy that explained the public-policy process, I would have hemmed and hawed and said . . . “it’s like a factory.” That is, somebody (the mayor, the city manager, a council member) comes up with an idea or improvement, then runs it through the bureaucracy and city council . . . you know, like an assembly line.
I know now that’s not way it works with most truly big ideas. Turns out, city hall isn’t as much a factory as a switching yard, where political leaders wave a few proposals through, rearrange the cars on others as they load them up with additional freight, and send still others off to the sidetracks.
That’s not to say that politicians don’t have important roles; they do. It’s just that they aren’t (and we shouldn’t expect them to be) the originators of ideas. At their best, they are the recognizers of needed civic innovations and, at the right time, their champions and facilitators. (For a paper about how three acclaimed mayors created change in their cities, please go here.)
So where do the ideas that steer your city in one direction or another come from? That’s for you to find out in your reporting. And here’s a way to get started: Take a look at the three biggest proposals that city hall has considered in the last five years. (If you’re not confident in your ability to do this, poll city council members. Ask them whether they favored them or not to list the biggest proposals that have come before them in recent years.)
Then do some reverse engineering. Where did these ideas come from? Who were part of the early discussions? How did they attract enough support to move forward? Were these borrowed ideas (in the sense that they were things other cities had tried first)? If so, how did they come to the attention of civic leaders? (If your city does “intercity trips,” where groups of political and business leaders visit other places, this could be the source.)
Then move along the timeline. How were these proposals modified over time? Who was consulted? Who had to say yes? Did anyone say no at first, only to change his mind later on? Why? At some point, the cost of the proposal had to be considered. When was this done and who were part of those discussions? (If your local government has a city manager, he or she was almost surely in the room . . . probably with the dominant voice.)
In a democracy as tight as a city’s, public reaction had to be considered. When did supporters think about how to explain their ideas to the citizens? Who were part of those discussions? Did the messages change over time?
Finally, the proposals had to be resolved. Who had to say yes to them formally (that is, at an official meeting) or informally (such as among interest groups)? Did a state or federal agency have to approve it? Was there a referendum? And who managed the approval process? Was the same group involved at every step or did its composition change?
This is a big piece of reporting, but it will change the way you cover city hall because you’ll understand that what happens at city council meetings is only the most visible part of processes that stretch across the city and originate months and maybe years before. Not to diminish public decision making, but a city council meeting in some ways is like a performance. This reporting will take you backstage to where decisions are made, the cast recruited, and roles assigned.
What you’ll learn along the way is that your city has political fault lines, interests that, depending on the issue, must be consulted before decisions are made. You’ll find out who these interests are, how they are consulted, and what they want for their support.
And something else: You’ll learn the joy of writing a political narrative. Most of what city hall reporters write about are events, with an occasional issue backgrounder, investigative article, or profile. They rarely get a chance to tell a real story with a beginning, a middle (filled with complications and near-misses), and an end. Writing about how your city makes big decisions by tracing several of them will give you that opportunity. You might like it.
One thing is certain. Once you get a peek backstage, you’ll never look at your city or its government the same way. Nor will your readers.
A postscript: When I was a city hall reporter, there was a flurry of “power structure” studies, where a newspaper would name the “10 most powerful people in . . . (fill in the name of your city).” Most reporters didn’t know this, but the power-structure idea went back to a book written by sociologist Floyd Hunter about Atlanta in the 1950s called “Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers.”
Hunter’s premise was that the same 40 people were involved in decision after decision and that these 40 Atlantans made up a “power structure.” (Hunter used pseudonyms for the 40, but it has long been a sport in Atlanta to figure out who they were.) Hunter’s thesis has its passionate defenders and its passionate critics. Yale political scientist Robert Dahl wrote an entire book, “Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City,” disputing Hunter’s premise, nearly line by line.
So is there a cohesive power structure in your city? Or is power far more free-floating, as Dahl argued, with some people involved in some decisions, others in other issues, with little overlap? That’s for you to determine. But I’d urge you to go into your reporting with as open a mind as possible. Otherwise, you’ll discover only what you believe as you start out.
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 Sookie licensed under Creative Commons.