The Buzz with Jordan Rae Hillman, Deputy Director of City Planning for the city of Jackson, Mississippi
You don’t have to look very hard to find an article about a large failed local government project. Projects like sports venues, convention centers, smart water meters, smart parking meters, zoning code rewrites, enterprise resource planning software, mega road projects, and more. I’ve seen a few first hand. Projects with good intentions. Many times these projects go very wrong.
Mayors, councils, and many city leaders often fall for silver bullet solutions and are attracted to shiny objects. When local governments are faced with problems that seem too large to overcome, a well-timed silver bullet salesperson (sometimes an actual salesperson, sometimes a internal influence) or shiny object plan seems to arrive.
What if we didn’t focus on silver bullets and shiny objects? Solving these large problems could instead be incremental. Chuck Marohn of Strong Towns regularly can be heard asking what is the next most incremental step you can take to make your place better? On the Strong Towns website (if you don’t follow, you should) Marohn has written a series of articles on incrementalism. Strong Towns focuses on the development patterns of our cities and how that pattern affects our abilities to pay for infrastructure repair and services. I think the approach outlined by Marohn applies to local government work beyond development decisions. On the website Marohn says that the Strong Towns approach:
Relies on small, incremental investments (little bets) instead of large, transformative projects,
Emphasizes resiliency of result over efficiency of execution,
Is designed to adapt to feedback,
Is inspired by bottom-up action (chaotic but smart) and not top-down systems (orderly but dumb),
Seeks to conduct as much of life as possible at a personal scale, and
Is obsessive about accounting for its revenues, expenses, assets and long term liabilities (do the math).
Applying this same approach to local government in general seems logical. Create pilot projects and low cost interventions then test and measure their results. Focus on the human scale effects of our decision. Assess our return on the investment through examining revenues, expenses, and liabilities.
No one project will save a city or solve a problem. A series of decisions, changes, shifts, nudges, and small projects will solve problems and can set the stage for big project success. Be aware of the silver bullet syndrome and prepared to counter it with incremental change.