From the Good Ideas File: Joining the Journey to True Transparency

Transparency has become a huge issue in parts of my circles lately, especially among people who are working with open data and civic technology, as well as my colleagues who are trying to build better public engagement.  It seems like everyone who has any awareness of how the world is changing understands on at least some intellectual level the need for more transparent governments and organizations… but that doesn’t mean we always want to do it.  Or that we even fully understand what our options are.

That’s why I was delighted to encounter this post from Andy White, a multi-faceted startup wizard involved with the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, who has out-and-out stated that he is on a “Journey in Radical Transparency.”  In this post, Andy works out what I think is the first typology of transparency that I have seen.  His categories:

  • Inadvertent Transparency
  • Voluntary Transparency
  • Exclusionary Transparency
  • True Transparency.

The first two probably translate pretty readily for goverment and nonprofit and social enterprise types.  Inadvertent Transparency is when something goes badly and you have to ‘fess up and make something transparent that wasn’t before.  Andy outlines this conundrum well:

…the information is forced out into the open. The source must then to react to whatever situation is created. Many times this makes them go on the defense, and it’s not pretty.

This begs the question, why was the information held so closely in the first place? Of course there’s always a reason but, are those still valid?

What if the information was readily available?

The second type, Voluntary Tranparency, is what my colleagues in open source are looking for — but Andy also identifies how such seemingly proactive transparency can also function as a spin job.  His last point should especially hit home for city managers and economic development types, who face huge pressures to always put on the happy face:

This is when information is pro-actively shared. There are significant benefits to this. First, it’s a great motivator for accountability. Second, it builds trust. Third, there are no concerns about containing information. This can be done in a variety of different ways for a variety of reasons.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing it done at times as a marketing stunt. Only releasing good news after it happens is not transparency.

As I wrote about recently for a Strengthening Brand America e-book, marketing stunts increasingly don’t work, or they backfire.

Andy’s last two categories are the ones that I think represent particularly important contributions to this topic.  The first, Exclusionary Transparency, can go a long way toward addressing the fears that talk of “transparency” often raises for city administrators and councilors:

This may seem like an oxymoron but, it’s very important to frame the conversation.

There’s an implied value around transparency that all the pertinent information is being shared.  This also creates an implied context around the data. If this is not the case it’s important to define the areas that are not being revealed.

Every organization has exclusionary policies. These range from salaries to hiring and firing, research and development to product launches. This helps build the full context around the topic by defining what you don’t know.

This is crucial on both the convincing-the-organization side and on the communicating-to-the-outside side. For the organization, this end-runs one of the common complaints against transparency: “but we have some things that can’t be public!”  Fine, exclude those from the transparency stance.

For the public side, stating clearly that certain information has to be protected and why becomes crucial to the trust-building that transparency is ultimately designed to do.  As I wrote about in my magnum opus about the Downtown Project after a bout of bad press, one of the challenges that this organization hit was that, while they wanted to be as transparent as humanly possible about what was really going on, they hit the usual legal and HR restrictions when it came to talking about actual employees.  Which meant a somewhat abrupt switch from human language to HR-talk, and I would suspect that the suddenness and unexplained-ness of that switch might have worked against their transparent intentions.  Better, probably, to state in plain English where the boundaries of transparency lie.

The final dimension of transparency that Andy describes is what he calls True Transparency, but could also be termed Consistent or Ongoing or Ingrained Transparency.   He makes a crucial and too often overlooked point here:

There’s one additional element required to have true transparency. In addition to voluntary and exclusionary there must also be a consistent flow of data. If it’s not on a consistent basis then it can’t be true transparency. The consistent flow is what reinforces the trust. It’s imperative that the information is being shared no matter what story it tells. Many times we see inconsistent timing of the information being shared. This calls into question the purpose of the data and erodes trust.

Amen.

Since Andy has written all of this so well, I’ll let him also have the last word — it’s as true for those of you who work to make communities better as it is for the start-up businesses he counsels:

Ultimately everything we do is transparent to some degree. We leave behind a trail of information that can be pieced together to form a story. The main question is how involved do you want to be in the creation of that story?

When you answer that last question, keep in mind: if you don’t create your own story, someone else will create it for you.  And, especially when it comes to communities, the story that the main stream media, or your local axe-grinders, or other sources may create from your trail of information probably won’t be the whole story.  So you might as well be transparent.

Stores for Free? From the Not Sure if It’s a Good Idea file

We all like free.  But free isn’t always good.

That was one of the two thoughts that I had when I read this article from Bizdistricts.com.  On the surface, it certainly sounds like a good idea:

The CreateHereNow program aims to offer free rent to new businesses. It allows empty storefronts to be occupied for the first three months at no charge – with hopes that these eventually will be paying leaseholders.

The program, which is featured on The Day, has been implemented at 20+ cities across the US state of Connecticut. The $500,000 program is run through the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

The groups that have passed muster to become the city’s first CreateHereNow storefronts include an independent eyeglass retailer, a cooperative boutique, bike repair shop, wellness cooperative, furniture and design store, skateboard shop and a children’s learning center.

Like I said, we all like free, and free probably beats vacant most days of the week, at least in the short term. And while I have certainly dealt with plenty of get-businesses-into-vacant-storefronts-one-way-or-another initiatives, I don’t know this one specifically.  So read the rest with that caveat in mind.

If you’re going to do a program like this, there’s several factors that I think you should be very careful to address:

  • Running a business is not a natural skill.  While we like to say that some people are natural-born for sales, or that someone has a talent for making things, almost no one is naturally gifted in the whole range of skills and tasks that it takes to run a small business.  As I’ve written elsewhere, a small business owner gets forced to become a jack of all trades, and if the small business owner doesn’t have aptitude for (or willingness to) learn one of several core skills (inventory management, accounting, display set-up, employee management, etc.), then you’re probably looking at a failed business in pretty short order. Careful vetting of businesses, like they’re doing with these programs, can help, but Stuff Happens.  If you’re going to be in the business of helping businesses get started, you have to be prepared to help them build their skill sets.  That seems to work best as a combination for formal training and peer connections, but it’s often overlooked, or poorly delivered.  And central to making an initiative like this work.  Failure that people learn from is not a bad thing, and failures are a natural part of small business life, but you have to keep in mind that a few high-visibility failures can put a program like this at significant risk.
  • Too much space is not a good thing.  Especially in districts that have a lot of vacant space, we find pretty quickly that we can get a whole lot of square footage for not a lot of money.  That’s not necessarily a good thing.  Space requires stuff to fill it — inventory, tables that will generate demand for food, etc. If the space is not filled, or filled sparsely, that makes the business look half-done, unprofessional, unsuccessful. A new business owner may be better set up for success in a very small, even tiny space, than an overly big one.
  • Free space that was vacant for a reason… will still have that reason. A commercial space can be hard to fill for a lot of reasons. Yes, it may be that the building ( or the block that it’s on) may not be living up to it’s potential simply because the market doesn’t get it yet– it’s an up and coming location, it’s newly renovated, it’s a type of building that the lenders don’t know how to work with yet (often the case for mixed-used buildings in districts that haven’t gotten much recent investment). But…there could be other reasons. Is the building poorly maintained? Poorly insulated? An out of the way location? A scary or intimidating neighborhood? Just because it was great once doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good building or location now. Failing to address issues like maintenance or getting people to come to the location could easily set a new business up for a very rocky start.
  • Small business start-up strategies should be part of nearly every community’s tool kit– we need them to seed our economies, keep our money in our community and give our public places. But just like you don’t grow a healthy vegetable garden by throwing a handful of seeds at a vacant lot, growing a successful crop of small businesses takes more than just free buildings.

Do Business Recruitment and Retention Right: a guide from Sara Dunnigan

My friend Sara Dunnigan just announced that she is leaving the world of consulting to become the Executive Director of the Virginia Board of Workforce Development, a job that perfectly fits the most enthusiastic Make Our Existing Businesses More Successful professional in the economic development profession.

Thankfully, before she moved on, she wrote up her research on best practices in state-level business retention and expansion (BRE) programs. And that’s fantastically good stuff for you, no matter how you are or are not actually involved in BRE.  That’s partly because business retention/recruitment is so crucially imporant, but so often overlooked in favor of the big game hunt, but also because there’s good advice in there for making any initiative work.

You should go read the whole thing, but here’s a few of her key findings.  The most effective programs Sara studied had the following:

 

1) An integrated, statewide strategic plan for economic development. Ok, this sounds simple. Your state has a plan, right? I was amazed how strong the planning efforts were in the exemplary states. And BRE was front and center, on par with business attraction and situated right alongside workforce development. That gets me excited. So dust off that plan and tell me where it leads you.

2) Clear, measurable outcomes and program objectives. Economic developers all over are catching some heat for a lack of accountability, but the best BRE programs I reviewed charged in straight away with stated goals and very specific programs of work. Even better, they reported regularly with their results. And when they didn’t hit the mark, they weren’t afraid to change course and say why. I think outcomes say a lot about an organization. They shed a light on what an organization values and they should elicit some sort of emotional response. I could tell people were excited about what they were tasked to achieve when I talked to them. This creates momentum.

3) Dedicated leadership and outreach teams with appropriately matched resources. BRE is often the most understaffed area in economic development. Forced to do a lot with a little, most programs languish, never reaching their full potential. The best programs I found had staff and had them deployed in a way that made a big impact. That’s not to say every state had a huge stable of developers combing the countryside. They leveraged regional and local partners. Think matrix organization.

4) Strategic research and sophisticated firm targeting methods. Good news – no more random samples and mindless business surveys. The best programs I found are using business intelligence and predictive models to find and support high-impact, growth-oriented firms. This is probably one of the most underutilized approaches, despite the availability of both industry and firm-level data, but I am hopeful the places investing here will see big yields.

5) Coordinated outreach and business intelligence gathering. Ask any BRE program manager what their biggest constraint is, and they’ll likely tell youtime. It’s the time needed to talk to firms and do that critical needs assessment PLUS respond PLUS ongoing monitoring. The most creative programs have figured out how to leverage partnerships to get more people in the field and use technology to monitor firm-level activity in a more real-time way. They have also figured out how to open up more continuous conversations and pull in business intel from disparate sources. And then they share it with the team so people can act on it. Yep, you read it here first.

6) A comprehensive, value-added service delivery system. This is where the magic happens. I was blown away by some of the tactics being used to link companies to resources in new and different ways. The siloed case management approach is falling by the wayside and new network models are emerging. Sometimes it’s simply combining existing assets in novel new ways. It requires a framework and common goals, but it can be done. It’s all about leadership. There’s also a fair amount of investment in industry-led consortia models where businesses organize their own service array. It’s ok. Buy the coffee and get out of the way.

7) Emphasis on capacity building and professional development for the economic development community. You know I’m a big fan of leveling up the profession and almost every manager I spoke with quickly and enthusiastically acknowledged the importance of professional development. National and state associations made the list, but training that supported this new way of doing business, developed specific industry knowledge, and supported the unique work of BRE program managers was also mentioned. Think everything from CEcD to PMP.

8) A supporting technology platform or CRM. Last but not least was the enthusiastic endorsement (and actually utilization) of a robust client relationship management system. The best ones let people put information IN but also lets you get in OUT in an organized fashion, not just to track activity, but also analyze trends and extract very specific data on firm characteristics. Again, the most progressive organization weren’t using their CRM to cover their collective asses, but were actually working to build a strategic project management and business intelligence system. (Sorry, I said asses.)

 

You can read more and grab Sara’s white paper here.

Thanks, congratulations, and knock em dead, Sara!

Unintended impacts: the 21-mile walking commute and what that really says about our decisions.

What-you-do-will-have-impacts-you-didn’t-expect is probably one of the strongest themes in the Local Economy Revolution Book.  As I describe in there, one of my earliest encounters with the profession of planning resulted from being hip-deep in the aftereffects of  a massive urban renewal project in Green Bay, Wisconsin.  No matter what I did, where I was, which building I worked on, who I dealt with, most of my professional time and energy seemed to get tangled in trying to address the aftershocks of a decision to tear down a large part of the city’s downtown and put in a shopping mall.

From the loss of identity and relative paucity of what we now call “sense of place,” to the downtown’s economic decline and the displacement of residents and businesses of modest means more than two decades before, it seemed like everything I did in that community in the 90s had to do with trying to repair the stress fractures that emanated from that event.

The decisions we make as residents and officials have long-term repercussions that extend like shock waves into the future, and the bigger the thing we try to do, the number and intensity of those shock waves seems to grow exponentially.  But too often, when we make those decisions, we do little more than pay lip service to that potential.

I thought about this as I read CityLab’s excellent analysis of the recent crowdfunding phenomena around a dedicated gentleman whose story of a 21-mile commute to work on foot led to a huge outpouring of support.  It’s a heartwarming story, but CityLab did an excellent job of teasing out the bigger story:

 

Just think about it for a moment: strangers are falling over themselves to help subsidize a personal vehicle for one individual (although insurance, gas, and maintenance are obviously on him going forward), but voters in dozens of suburban communities in the Detroit area have voted to “opt out” of the region’s public transportation system. In so doing they have shut down job opportunities for thousands of area residents who are eager for employment, and denied employers access to untapped sources of labor. [….]

Strong regional public transit systems help people to find employment and keep it, which is a good thing for everyone. But many regions shrink from making tax contributions to such systems because they like to think of themselves as being separate from those who need public transit. They don’t want to think about a scenario in which they or one of their family members or friends might not be able to drive because of medical or financial reasons.

 

I usually shy away from writing directly about transportation issues, mostly because platforms like Streetsblog cover that topic better than I have the energy to do. But there’s a prime example of unintended consequences here.  These are oversimplified, but consider:

  1. Community decides not to fund transit.
  2. Increasing numbers of people can’t afford to travel to work because service jobs do not pay as well as the blue collar jobs they replaced and because cars are expensive (and cheap cars are both expensive and unpredictable, which screws up that whole getting to work thing pretty regularly).
  3. People struggle to make a living.
  4. Money available in local economy declines and gets shifted from local goods and services to cheaper goods and services provided by big suppliers who can cut costs and survive on narrow margins due to standardization and massive volume.
  5. Tax revenues decline while needs of residents increase
  6. People who have the means and ability to move, do, while those who have less means or ability stay.
  7. Return to #3, repeat cycle.

Ok, yes, that’s certainly not the whole story, and there’s a whole lot of other factors in community economic health and decline, and transit isn’t the only factor, etc. etc.  I gave you a model, not a full-blown system.  But consider: in our guts, we understand that all of these things, from employment to local business to tax revenue, have at least a decent chance of being logically and systematically connected.

And yet, after all these years of knowing this, how often do we conveniently close off those connections in making these decisions?

I use “we” a lot, because these big issues are about all of us, whether we are professionals, electeds, or plain ol’ resident/voters/potential voters.  We all have a piece of this.

We don’t talk about the connections because they’re hard, they’re hard to prove, they’re complicated.

Unfortunately, tough crap for us.  We gotta do it anyways.