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Spokane

Condon team big on ideas – and jargon

Fri., Jan. 13, 2012

If you were hoping that Mayor David Condon would “manage” the city more effectively, take heart.

His transition team’s report this week was spectacularly managerial: It was full to the brim of organizational jargon and cliché.

Example: “What successful reform models and processes have been undertaken by other cities, i.e., what are best practices for delivery of policing services?”

Best practices for delivery of policing services. No one ever used a phrase like that unless it was destined for a PowerPoint presentation, the world’s No. 1 sleep aid. The transition team, in presentations to the mayor at City Hall, invoked every sweaty old warhorse from the stable of word-like bureaucratic communication, from “stakeholders” to “benchmarks,” from “best practices” to “strategic alignment,” from leveraging opportunities to mitigating costs, from “Don’t reinvent the wheel” to “Challenge the status quo.”

This is not to say that the team itself was not an admirably broad-based, large group of folks. It was. The mayor picked scores of people from around the community and seemed not to choose merely yea-sayers. They volunteered their time and worked hard to come up with their analyses of the major issues facing city government.

And this is not to say that the team did not come up with some specific ideas. It did. But it’s almost impossible to see them, because they’re so deeply buried in a verbal thicket.

The transition team’s presentation effectively achieved the dual aspirational benchmarks of excessively syllabic communications: A) To appear to be saying something of substance when you are not; and B) to appear, when you are actually saying something of substance, to be saying something more innocuous than you really are.

In other words, this language has an agenda. It is employed for various purposes that are additional – and sometimes contradictory – to letting people know what’s going on. The ubiquity of these phrases, from higher ed to boardrooms to government panels to staff meetings, is an argument against them: As soon as every single administrator in America has said the same things a gazillion times, the words become utterly empty.

The chance of meaninglessness is high.

The transition team had some fine ideas. My favorite is the “de-militarization” of the police force and an emphasis on community policing. Yes. Let’s do that. My least favorite is the suggestion that city regulators not be allowed to deny permits to businesses that don’t follow the rules – only the mayor and his appointed business czar could do so.

But the presentation also had an abundance of obviousness (“Citizen participation should continue to be encouraged & valued”), fuzzy meaninglessness (“Examine alternative models for cost control”), and even a Venn diagram charting the intersection of “Stabilize Funding Structure,” “Keep Utility Whole,” “Improve Customer Outreach & Communications” and “Leverage Opportunities & Mitigate Costs.”

In some cases, there was a stubborn refusal to say what’s being said.

Take “structural gap.”

The big problem with the city budget is that costs are rising faster than revenues. Labor costs, mostly. Fixing this problem requires paying people less, paying fewer people, or finding more money to pay them. These are things that are easier said than done, given that most city workers operate under labor contracts and cutting services is unpopular, and even when they are said, they are usually not said directly.

Thus: “Structural gap.”

Here’s how this was outlined in the transition team’s bulleted presentation:

“A structural gap dominates the City’s budget process”

“The structural gap distorts management practices”

“This distortion impedes the City’s ability to achieve strategic alignment and effective delivery of services”

All clear? The presentation also offered some wonderful solutions for the problem of a structural gap dominating the budget process, distorting management practices, and impeding the ability of the city to achieve strategic alignment and effective service delivery:

“Employ principles-based leadership, benchmarks and best practices throughout City government.”

“Eliminate the structural gap”

“Enforce sound management practices”

“Align the City’s work with desired outcomes”

“Create a culture of cost control, effective management and strategic alignment.”

Brian Benzel, the former Spokane schools chief and head of the budget task force on the transition team, talked about setting “appropriate compensation levels,” about “a disciplined and sophisticated parameter-setting process” in labor negotiations, about more “sharing” of health care costs by employees.

But you have to dig deep and long, call in a translator, get out a dictionary, cross your fingers and take a guess to arrive at what a manager might call “the takeaway” – we have to pay people less, pay fewer people, or find new money.

Structural gap. It sounds so much better, because it means so much less.

This is not to dismiss the body of the team’s work. I’m sure it was valuable, and I’m sure it will help the mayor. He probably understands this language better than normal people. But I was struck by one of the best suggestions for how the new administration might engage citizens: “Make information clear to all users.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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