Risk-averse leaders who want to be known as courageous should look for opportunities to take safe bets that look riskier than they really are: unpopular proposals that quickly gain support once people experience them firsthand.
By Ryan McGreal
Published February 27, 2013
Some cities have progressive, risk-taking cultures. They innovate aggressively on civic governance, inventing new ways to serve the public, new ways to deliver existing services and new ways to organize civic life.
They are willing, in the language of Facebook's developer culture, to "move fast and break things" as they try out ideas and look for opportunities to do better work more effectively.
In a culture of innovation, people are willing to try things out - to play with ideas, test hypotheses, and be proven wrong from time to time.
As Ken Robinson put it in his hilarious-yet-sobering TED talk on creativity, "I don't mean to say that being wrong is the same as being creative, but what we do know is: if you're not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original."
A culture of innovation doesn't punish failure. It recognizes that success doesn't come without trying and failing.
Cultures of fear are different. In a culture of fear, proposals are judged based on conformance with accepted orthodoxies, and new ideas are met with fear-mongering and defensiveness. Policy is often driven by ideology, and evidence-based reasoning is derided and disregarded.
Cultures of fear assess innovative ideas by their potential costs, not their potential benefits. Decisions on risky proposals are deferred indefinitely or killed outright. The leadership tends to lurch from crisis to crisis, reacting to threats instead of responding to challenges, panicking and making bad decisions from a fear of loss.
Cultures of fear are characterized by top-down control, bullying and intimidation rather than support and encouragement. Members are under intense pressure to keep their heads down and their mouths shut. Mistakes - real or perceived - are punished swiftly and ruthlessly.
Fear culture can start with people in power, but it seeps through the entire organization as the culture is imposed, adopted and internalized. Anxiety is high and morale is low.
For an organization, a fear culture is a self-perpetuating death spiral. Fear leads to secrecy and hoarding, and the bad information that produces leads to poor decisions. Those decisions tend to reinforce the unhealthy practices and dynamics that produce them.
Similarly, a fear culture drives out those members who are willing to take the risk of leaving.
Our Council defaults to fear of change. It takes an extremely compelling case plus an escape clause for them to commit to a risky course of action that goes against their status quo orthodoxy. Examples are easy to find:
During the casino debate, Councillor Merulla was only able to get support for his Flamborough-only motion if he also granted the proviso that Council can revisit their decision in the future.
Similarly at the LRT presentation, a number of councillors were only willing to vote for the LRT motion once they were assured that they could change their minds later.
Last year, Council recoiled from a proposal for a one-way to two-way street implementation team - even though their transportation plan approved two-way conversions over a decade ago - and could only accept a proposal to "study" conversion.
During the Great Stadium Debate, we saw council repeatedly make a firm decision on a location, only to back down when the Hamilton Tiger-Cats threatened to pick up their toys and leave. After lurching from alternate site to alternate site, they ended up on a compromise that helped no one but epitomized their change-averse reflex - building a new stadium in the same location as the old one!
This is a council terrified of being punished for making a mistake - a classic sign of a fear culture.
But while there's considerable evidence for the culture of fear, but there are also signs that there are leaders in the organization trying to change that culture, at least within the staff ranks.
One thing that struck me from Monday's general issues committee meeting on transportation was how visionary and optimistic the staff managers presenting the city's reports looked and sounded.
City manager Chris Murray, transit director Don Hull, associate medical officer of health Dr Ninh Tran and transportation project manager Peter Topalovic were refreshingly willing to stick their necks out with their progressive, evidence-based case for a more forward-thinking transportation policy.
Council punted on Topalovic's extremely well-researched bike share proposal, in which both the capital and operating costs will be covered, but let's give them a benefit of the doubt. It's likely they were merely too fatigued from the barrage of information they received during a nearly eight-hour long meeting to make another big decision after approving the city's LRT plan to submit to Metrolinx.
The real test will come at the end of March, when staff bring the plan back to Councillors with more information about the city's liability in the event that someone gets injured on a bike share vehicle. There are 200 cities that already have working bike shares, so it's unlikely staff will come back with a deal-breaker.
There are other signs things are starting to change. I've been writing for years about the potential and promise of open public data, but for a long time the only people within the City who supported it were afraid to speak on record.
A community group called Open Hamilton formed to explain and promote open public data. Open Hamilton has published some handy applications using City data. I tried to help by creating a few simple applications from data I found on the city website to show what is possible, including a map of school crossing guard locations and city recreation centre locations. (Unfortunately, because the city does not publish this data in a machine-accessible format, these maps may not be current.)
In early 2011, city manager Chris Murray sent an update to council to explain what open data is and how it can help the City. Pointedly, he wrote that supporting open data is "part of a transformation agenda" and "means sending a message within the City administration that this is the public's information and not ours to control."
Before this current term of Council is over, it is my intention to see that significant movement is made toward a smarter, faster, and cheaper way of doing business for our residents and businesses through the use of technology. The City of the 21st century can not be the same as the 1990s, nor should its manner of governance.
After several years of asking the Planning department to provide monthly building permit data in a format other than non-machine readable PDF, I finally got my wish in 2012. I now have a year's worth of line-level data and am working on a report/visualization so we can see more clearly where development is going.
There are other signs as well. I recently met with Councillor McHattie and a traffic engineer about the crosswalk at Aberdeen and Kent Street, which would routinely take between 40 seconds and almost 2 minutes to activate after pushing the button.
The engineer acknowledged that the crosswalk had been programmed to provide "minimum service to pedestrians", and suggested that this was done deliberately by a team that resented having to do anything that might impede automobile traffic.
The engineer agreed that the crosswalk was dysfunctional, and within a couple of weeks it was already reprogrammed. Now it works exactly the way you would expect a pedestrian-activated crosswalk to work. (Note to city staff: the next crosswalk to fix is the one at John and Augusta, which is still as dysfunctional as the Aberdeen/Kent crosswalk was before it was fixed.)
I believe our city leaders want to think of themselves as courageous and pragmatic, making value-based decisions informed by evidence. However, they are still afraid of making the wrong decisions and getting punished for them. One thing Council can do is to consider not just the evidence on a given policy, but also the evidence on how people will respond to that policy.
Here's a topical example: everyone knows that everyone hates highway congestion pricing. It's so politically radioactive that the Ontario government has stalled for six years before coming up with a regional transit investment strategy for the next phase of Metrolinx projects that will necessarily include highway tolls.
Conservatives hate congestion pricing because they think of it as a tax (even though it is exactly the kind of market-based incentive they might otherwise be ideologically inclined to like). Progressives hate it because they also think of it as a tax, and a regressive one at that. Politicians of all ideological stripes hate it because they believe the public hates it.
However, a curious thing happens in those brave jurisdictions that actually go ahead and impose congestion pricing: within months of actually experiencing it, the public goes from overwhelming opposition to overwhelming support.
In a remarkable presentation transport planner Jonas Eliasson showed that Stockholm was able to eliminate traffic congestion literally overnight by implementing congestion pricing.
Eliasson noted that congestion is a non-linear phenomenon, in which a small incremental increase in traffic can produce a disproportionate increase in congestion - and that the reverse is true. By reducing 20% of vehicles, pricing can eliminate congestion.
He also noted that people are remarkably adaptable and respond immediately to incentives - or "nudges" as he calls them. When the congestion charge was eliminated after the trial period ended, the congestion came back, again literally overnight. "Travel patterns are much less stable than you think. Each day people make new decisions, and people change and the world changes around them, and each day, all of these decisions are sort of nudged ever so slightly away from rush hour car driving."
Finally, he noted that public opinion about the congestion pricing went from strongly opposed before the charge was implemented to strongly in favour afterwards.
Even more remarkable was the fact that people did not know they had changed their minds. In surveys following the congestion pricing system, the people who supported it said they had always supported it, even though a majority of people had previously opposed it.
There is an important lesson here for politicians who want to become less risk-averse: look for proposals that a) have strong evidence to support them, and b) also have strong evidence that opposition is fear-based rather than evidence-based, and that opposition will evaporate once people experience it.
This is a good kind of political risk to take, because it's not nearly as risky as it looks. As long as leaders have the courage see it through, they quickly come to be recognized as visionaries, not villains.
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