Monday, November 28, 2005

David Abbott Meets the Bloggers

At George's invitation, I trekked north to join him, Bill and Tim in a Meet the Bloggers session with Gund Foundation Executive Director and Voices and Choices Mover/Shaker David Abbott. You can download the podcast at the Meet the Bloggers website. In the meantime, or for any of you disinclined to treat yourselves to a one-hour plus MP3 interview, I'll run down my impressions of the evening. I'm writing this "cold," without having looked up posts by the other bloggers who were there.

Bill, Tim, George and I have each posted our misgivings about V&C, and about the broader agenda of the Fund for Our Economic Future, of which Voices is a part. Each had a chance to ask questions, so Abbott in one way or another responded to each of our concerns. I will leave it to the other guys to post their impressions of David's answers to their questions, except to say that I left reasonably well satisfied that Voices/the Fund doesn't have a blueprint already written somewhere and that they haven't rigged the process to put it on a glide path to a predetermined destination.

My questions addressed what programmers would call a GIGO problem -- Garbage In/Garbage Out. The process is so freewheeling that the only real information provided to participants is that provided by earlier participants mostly the unnamed economists and leaders who VC/tF talked to prior to the Town Hall.

As I noted in my first post after the Town Hall, the information we received was incomplete. The Participant Materials mentioned problems with the business tax system without acknowledging that we now have an entirely new system in place. Pages are devoted to K-12 education without mentioning the challenge of privatization which undeniably drives the debate in this state. (It should be noted that White Hat Management is one of scores of sponsors of the project. Given how everything is unfolded, it's hard to believe WHM had anything to do with the omission, but their involvement is noted.)

The exception to the blank slate philosophy, as I understand it, are a couple of propositions advanced about the primacy of focusing regionally -- that the rest of the world looks at us as a region and that the region is fragmented. I quibble with both of these, but they appear to be immutable truths in the VC/tF process.

Other than that, the facts compiled, apparently, are those supplied to VC/tF by the participants. When asked how the process provides for fact-checks, David said basically all of us. The citizens of NEO are all invited to participate from here on out (there will be online discussions, more Leadership meetings, another Town Hall, etc.) Those of us familiar with the facts on the ground need to step up and infuse the process with solid information. Otherwise, the ultimate outcome will have no *ahem* foundation.

What's more, David acknowledges that the VC process will guide the ultimate dispersal of tens of millions of dollars. At some point some constituencies are going to get wise to this and do what organized constituencies do -- get involve in the process, submit their versions of the facts, try to guide outcomes to their benefit.

If you read this blog -- and the rambling policy thought pieces that make up its bulk -- you obviously have some affinity for wonkery. You should get involved in this. I'll post information about the next Voices participation opportunities so you can step up and share your knowledge. It's easy to be cynical about the process, but it's happening and will end with some real projects going forward. Get in there and mix it up before you bitch.

Finally, I would be remiss for failing to acknowledge my interviewing skills. I was happy to leave the initial questioning to the other three who had done this many times before. Then, just as we were getting started, they said "Pho, you were there, you go first." My first, well formed, well articulated question was something like: "Gheh!!??!! To defend myself a little, asking questions purely about process -- which at this point is what we have before us -- is deceptively difficult. Still, I'm contemplating re-entering the paid work force soon and deciding what I'd like to be when I grow up. "Broadcast journalist" is officially off the list.


Anonymous said...

Pho - Brilliant ideas. I think your site is an able complement to George's. Here are thoughts I had written about 2 years ago that I thought I would share again. What does it say that the conversation had not changed much..Forgive the length..

Self organization is fine for study groups, agrarian revolutions, the proletariat against the bourgeois, the hoi polloi petitioning benevolent rulers etc. Not for developing a strategy for growth for a city.

Would it make sense to let a football team be self-organized in developing strategy? Or, a war strategy be developed by foot-soldiers and colonels? I suggest not. Consider the chaos, missed time-lines, politicking that can ensue. Large organizations - GE,Dell,P&G - or cities - cannot be self-organizing in strategy.

Leaders (or a collective of them) should take it on. Whether in football, war, corporations or cities. That's why they are there. Why go through extended rounds of elections – mayors, councilmen, etc. and then again get involved in grass-roots efforts. The great leaders take it on and don't shirk their responsibilities.

The weak ones call for unending meetings, chat sessions, feel good inquiries, and in the end find a way to dodge responsibility, accountability – and some end up dodging action.

So let me address why should leaders head up strategy. Because strategy is about choices – whether its football, war, corporate renewal, or the city’s economy. The questions are – what to do? Or what should we do? And the only ones who can answer that – and make choices – are those who have knowledge of 1. what competencies, resources and latent resources do we have – that will determine what we can do. 2. what competencies, resources and latent resources do our competitors have – that will determine what we should do (because whether it is retaining business or attracting business – the city is competing with another place – it is not in vacuum). 3. what competencies and resources are potential clients/ businesses seeking (the ones we seek to retain or the ones to gain). These pieces of information help develop strategy (or call it a direction – or plan – or heck, an idea.)

My argument that strategy cannot be a grass-roots idea is based on these premised. The above 3 types of knowledge cannot be held by the grass-roots. And they are not supposed to. Even the most successful entrepreneur in the city should be and will have knowledge that pertains to his/her business – not about economic development! So, how can the hoi polloi or every budding business people or – god save us, entrepreneurial retreads - have this insight. They will not – that’s why they elected and put into power people who should.

But, if the leaders are failing - the answer is not in building some grass-root movement to develop strategy. There cannot be an end-run around those who resources and political connections. The only option is to empower them – or if they have proven deficient, to replace them. Yes – a coalition of “advisors” to develop strategy is a good idea – and if they have power – this coalition can also help implement ideas. Hopefully, the new organization in town can do this – I think they can – for reasons noted earlier.

The grass-roots are critical for implementation and should be kept informed – should be persuaded to see the vision, once developed. But the grass-roots cannot develop the game plan – cannot say who should we be and who can we be (at best they can come up with individual, fragmented dreams of who we should be – flip-charts full of hopes, dreams and ideals- and that kind of info cannot help develop strategy).

Free-safeties, gunnery sergeants, and web-designers cannot develop strategy – leaders can – and should.

Scott Piepho said...


First off, thanks. "An able complement to [BFD] is high praise from a Vulcan.

Second, I agree with most of what you said. It's hard for committed Democrat and democrat to reject grassroots anything, but you are right. In the context of development, it's holding a vote on which way to steer the plane.

Your ideas also mesh nicely with Tim Russo's observation that V&C is basically a political exercise -- a policy debate about how to grow the economy -- without a political outlet -- electing the folks to do what people want.

Just to acknowledge the other side of the debate, David Abbott's response to the foregoing would likely be something like "we need to involve people so that they will embrace the outcome." Personally, I think you are closer to right, but that's the view from V&C central.

Anonymous said...

I agree that it is important to involve/inform. As I suggested above" The grass-roots are critical for implementation and should be kept informed – should be persuaded to see the vision, once developed. But the grass-roots cannot develop the game plan."

But then this exercise seems far too involved/expensive/hyped for that one reason. Can you imagine cities/states/regions holding such events when determining next steps? Consider the failure of the III frontier nonsense - or the anger of the California electorate that they even had to participate in the special election - "do-it-yourself democracy" as some called it.

There is much merit in soliciting input into how a foundation's grant should be disbursed. However, an advisory board or perhaps meetings with mayors/local leaders including young leaders/ would suffice. Not this extended, public event masquerading as strategy setting..