Tuesday, January 31, 2006

What is your theory of change?

Mayor Potter's "Visioning Project" is underway. The Oregonian reported today that the effort has exactly one fan on city council - the Mayor.

Here's the plan: the Mayor wants to spend $1.1 million to figure out what "vision" the people of Portland have for what the city will look like in 30 years. He's appointed a 55 member "visioning committee" to spearhead the whole thing.

I wrote about the project when he first announced it, so I won't go into detail here how ridiculous it is to pretend that there is a single unifying vision that Portlanders agree upon.

I find it also a bit funny that he would appoint a committee so big that it has a Committee IQ of below .25 (yes that is point-two-five.)

But mostly, I want to write a little bit about what the Mayor's project (and other similar projects being conducted around the state) reveal about the Mayor's "theory of change."

What do I mean by "theory of change?"

Basically, I mean: what do you think drives change? What impels social institutions to reform? What forces bring it about? Look at any politician's programs, and you can tell a lot about how he or she thinks change happens.

Potter has appointed a committee to talk to the people in the hope that a unified vision will emerge, which he can then lead them toward. He thinks this is really important. He even said that visioning was "the most important thing he'll do as mayor."

There are a couple assumptions that underlie this effort. 1) There exists among the citizens a single coherent vision, agreed upon by everybody, about what Portland should be. 2) The leader's job is to figure out what this is, and lead the people toward it.

The leader, then, in the Potter view, is less of a leader than an implementor. His job is to divine where people want to be led, then to be an efficient technocrat by getting them to this place in the most efficient manner.

I think this is, well, absurd. There is no such thing as a shared vision. That is the language of collectivism. There is a majority vision, to be sure. Politics is an exercise in deciding on which is the majority vision and the winner gets to make it happen, if he or she has the skill.

But there is no such thing as a shared vision in any political body as large and diverse as the city of Portland.

The funny thing about Potter's project is that for more than two decades Portland has indeed pursued a vision. It happens to be a vision that I disagree with, but apparently a majority of Portlanders don't, and so it has been implemented with all the usual efficiency of government (insider's graft, sham processes, budgetary shamanism, public relations initiatives, etc.)

So now, after decades of implementing this vision, Potter wants to conduct a million dollar visioning initiative?

OK, let me fantasize for a moment. Imagine that every public meeting, every forum, and every outreach session that the committee of 55 (with a committee IQ of .25) held was completely void of any "new urbanist" perspective. Imagine if in every meeting the Mayor and his committee heard only from people who: reject light rail, think we need more road capacity, think "sustainability" is code for "radical environmentalism, think transit oriented developments are a waste of resources, love Wal-Mart, and think Homer Williams is a whore.

Do you think the Visioning Committee would dutifully report that Portland should embark on a long term vision of paving over light rail lines and increasing road capacity?

No Way! This is not an attempt to divine the people's vision; it's an attempt to pretend that the current vision is supported by the people!

And the theory of change? Technocratic. Decide how we want the place to look, and put the proper programs in place to make it look that way.

As opposed to a dynamic theory of change. A dynamic theory cares not a whit about what the future will look like. It is futile to guess! In 1985, how many of us could predict and plan for the changes that would come from the internet? Which technocrats effectively planned for that?

My theory of change, at least as it applies to politics, is quite different. I believe change to established institutions never happens from within. It is only brought about by pressure. Institutions will NEVER reform themselves, even if a committee is charged with doing so.

That means if you want to improve an institution (say, public schools) the LAST thing you'd want to do is appoint a committee of "stakeholders" to figure out what to do.

Yet what is the most common thing we see politicians propose? A "Blue Ribbon Committee."
Think of how many such committees we've seen. The Quality Education Comission, for one. A much shorter list: how many have actually reformed an institution?

I spend a lot of my time trying to build a vibrant and robust charter school industry in Oregon. As a theory of change, charter schools are the exact opposite of the "stakeholder/committee" model. They are organic/dynamic, and succeed only when there is enough pressure on the establishment schools to create a market for the charter.

My opinion is that reform never comes from within. It only comes from outside pressure.

Mayor Potter's "Visioning" project will just be further proof.


MMW said...

Interesting that as you wrote this, the President (in his State of the Union speech) proposed a "bi-partisan committee" of stakeholders to decide how to reform entitlements such as Social Security.

Everyone seems to conveniently forget that we've had four or five blue ribbon Social Security and Medicare reform committees already.

I'd say your theory is sound.

Dare!PDX said...

Rob, your right all the way around on this post.

I have an aquaintance who is actually on the visioning comittee. Her stories of the meetings are facinating. Your typical victim olympics/government should meet all needs type of rhetoric.

She showed me a list of the other members on the board which the recognizable names were ultra-green-party activists. I quipped "If this was the 1950's and I worked in Hollywood it would be a career killer to sit on the Visioning Commitee, the politics would dye your reputation red." She agreed and mentioned that they over-assumed her politics because of her background in government employment prior to being a small business owner. She's definitely in the real-world minority on a commitee of demographic "minorities".

rickyragg said...

Wish I'd read this before I posted about the same subject.

I've got no insider contacts but I don't think they're necessary to grasp this one. Most people intuit the folly of Potter's approach and his motivation.

If they think at all


Jim Evans said...

Rob,you are right on target. Let me add a thought or two. We have a representational form of government. The reprsenitives must be accountable, and responsible directly to the voters who elect them. The appointment of committees, boards, and commissions deflects responsibililty and accountability from the elected represenitives. Doesn't our present polical situation reflect this lack of accountability. Specifically Mayor Potter's vision quest. Instead of articulating his platform or vision before the election and having the burden of persuading and explaining why his proposed policies warrant his election, he says in essence "trust me, I'm a progressive." The Mayor then deflects responsibility on to a committee. This process happens over and over; look at the tram, the whole process was dominated by committee work from proposal to building. The citizens must insist on direct resposibility from their elected represenitves; let's pressure the members of the council to cut the boards, committees, and commissins. This is a message that transcends political parties. The message is REFORM, ACCOUNTABILITY, and BETTER goverment as a result.