Repost: Capacity Matters

City Council meeting, Columbia, Missouri.  The knowledge the people have at the front of this room matters.
(Note: here’s a repost from this past December.  I think it’s pretty interesting, and it gives me a chance to sound like a hotshot management consultant.  I’ve added a little bit from the earlier version.  Enjoy.)
I’ve had the opportunity to meet with probably hundreds of local elected officials and planning professionals throughout my career.  They’ve come from all types of places across the spectrum – in big cities, in inner ring suburbs, outer ring suburbs, small cities, rural communities.  In nearly all cases, the local officials and planners have brought a fascinating blend of knowledge and experience to their work, and a strong passion to do the right thing for their community. 
However, I’ve learned that if there is one thing they all have in common, it’s that local capacity and understanding of the drivers that impact your community matters.  If you don’t have that, your community is likely spinning its wheels.
In my experience capacity can come in one of two ways.  You can have excellent elected leadership that can marshal change in your community, or you can have superb planning staff that lead the charge.  Ideally you should have both.  But oftentimes communities have elected leadership who have priorities that go beyond planning (which, by the way, amazes me since developing your community seems to be the most fundamental activity), and there are professionals that lack the proficiency to serve their leadership or their communities well.
I’ve thought about this, and it seems like a cool table could summarize how I view this:
Uninformed Leadership
Informed Leadership
No professional staff
1
Dysfunctional
4
Dealmaker
Uninformed professional staff
2
Ineffective
5
Dealmaker/Professional
Informed professional staff
3
Ineffective/Dealmaker
6
Professional
1.       Dysfunctional – Leadership lacks understanding of effective planning practices; no professional staff that can provide direction.
2.       Ineffective– Leadership lacks understanding of effective planning practices; professional staff is in place but also lacks understanding.
3.       Ineffective/Dealmaker– Leadership lacks understanding of effective planning practices; informed professional staff is in place but is often in conflict with leadership.  Leadership adopts a (usually ineffective) dealmaking strategy of planning.
4.       Dealmaker– Leadership has a limited understanding of effective planning practices; no professional staff that can provide direction.  Leadership adopts a (sometimes effective) dealmaking strategy of planning.
5.       Dealmaker/Professional– Leadership has a good understanding of effective planning practices; uninformed professional staff is in place and is often co-opted by leadership.  Leadership adopts a (often effective) dealmaking strategy of planning.
6.       Professional– Leadership has a good understanding of effective planning practices; informed professional staff is in place.  Leadership and staff work jointly to make informed and rational planning decisions.
What it boils down to is this.  There are communities (the 1s and 2s) that don’t exactly know what they want and surely don’t know how to get there.  There are communities (the 3s and 4s) that have an idea of what they want but little idea of how to articulate it, so they negotiate – sometimes successfully, often not.  And then there are communities (the 5s and 6s) that have a good idea what they want, but only a select few (the 6s) have a clear, realistic and current vision of their community that serves as the foundation for future growth.
In my experience, I’d say fully half of all communities in a given metro area fall into categories 1-3, and another third are in categories 4 and 5.  To be sure, there are communities that could be deemed successful and prosperous communities in each category, but getting there meant relying on factors outside of the scope of this analysis — a large employer or employers creating a big tax base the community can rely on, or the generosity of a developer who left a legacy of a well-built community.  Only one-sixth of all communities can be said to be in the category 6, and they are often recognized as the well-governed and well-managed communities in a given area.    
If we want to improve the quality of our built environment, we must improve the quality of our leadership.   want to do what I can to shift the balance.

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