“Love You, But I Would Love You More If Only…” In Public-Private Partnerships

This past week I have been dipping my toe in and out of the livestream for the ArtPlace America Summit. One of the plenary sessions I went back to listen to more fully was a discussion ArtPlace CEO Jamie Bennett held with Kresge Foundation CEO Rip Rapson and Detroit Future City Executive Director Anika Goss-Foster about public/private partnerships.

The title of the session was “You’re not the Boss of Me: What Happened to the Public in Public-Private Partnerships?” and the most fascinating parts dealt exactly the issue of who the boss is in public-private partnerships.

Around the 12:15 point, Rapson talks about how one of the previous mayors of Detroit had approached him at the Kresge Foundation asking if they would fund a long range master planning process to revitalize Detroit. The team Kresge put together was so successful in generating participation and investment from the community that the city administration started to feel that their prerogatives were being challenged and their competency was being questioned. The city government began resisting the efforts of the Detroit Future City team Kresge put together to work with them.

Kresge decided to shutdown the process for a year and pull it out of the mayor’s office. However, they had built up so much momentum getting the community involved over two years, the community wouldn’t allow them to dial things back. Kresge restructured things toward a community ownership model and finished the master plan.

Around the same time, a new administration took charge of Detroit city government and they embraced the externally generated plan. But then the same dynamic developed where the city government came to resent the involvement of outsiders. According to Rapson, they did recognize the talent of the Detroit Future City team, but they wanted to absorb the organization into the city planning department and have them work under the city’s terms.

Rapson says that in the current national environment, the lines between public and private are much more porous than in the past. At one time a philanthropic entity wouldn’t get involved with this type of work. At one time the view was that private sector work was tainted and the public sector was far too messy and political.

Today he says, when faced with a problem there is more of a negotiation of who does what the best. Who is best equipped with the expertise, capacity and resources to address an issue. For instance, only the city government is empowered to set zoning laws, levy taxes, etc.

What intrigued me was Rapson’s implication that Detroit Future City’s work was influencing how the Detroit city government viewed and executed community outreach, shifting it from an authoritarian approach to a more collaborative one. Though there is still work to be done.

I wondered if this might presage a new trend in the way cities might operate. Jamie Bennett asked if the ideal wasn’t supposed to be that citizens already had the opportunity to participate in planning through their vote and approaching their government representatives.

Rapson responded acknowledging that in this particular case, the Detroit Future City team had helped to create a constructive process and environment. But he also makes note that it had been an anti-democratic (his term) philanthropic institution which had been responsible for making sure the community voice was at the table.

My read between the lines on this was marginally cautionary. It is working in Detroit thanks to a number of conditions that have come into alignment, but it perhaps shouldn’t be seen as a broad panacea applicable to every city.

It sounds like Detroit Future City is doing a great job involving community input in their advocacy. Goss-Foster said people will come up to her in the streets and supermarkets to point out that the group with which they identify isn’t included in the plan. She said she often concedes they are right and invites them down to her office to talk about getting them included.

Do You Fear Innovation Will Threaten Your Effectiveness Metrics?

Over the last few years, I have frequently written about the problem with using metrics as a measure of value and performance.  As long as we continue to be told that use of quantitative measures are important, I am gonna keep pushing back and reminding you it ain’t the be all and end all of evaluation.

Carter Gillies is actually more adamant and eloquent on this topic than I am so when I saw a piece on Aeon that started out sounding almost verbatim like Carter, I did a double take to check who the author was.

The author, Jerry Z. Muller, points out that performance metrics often incentive a gaming of the system in a manner which often runs counter to the purpose of the organization.

Or take the case of surgeons. When the metrics of success and failure are made public – affecting their reputation and income – some surgeons will improve their metric scores by refusing to operate on patients with more complex problems, whose surgical outcomes are more likely to be negative. Who suffers? The patients who don’t get operated upon.

One of the other issues is all too familiar to non-profit organizations come grant report time:

To the debit side of the ledger must also be added the transactional costs of metrics: the expenditure of employee time by those tasked with compiling and processing the metrics in the first place – not to mention the time required to actually read them. As the heterodox management consultants Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman note in Six Simple Rules (2014), employees end up working longer and harder at activities that add little to the real productiveness of their organisation, while sapping their enthusiasm.

Non-profit organizations are well acquainted with implications of metrics. Organizations are often restricted to what government entities, foundations and donors are willing to fund. It can be difficult to innovate or address needs if your funding source has different priorities or restricts how funding can be used.  I have discussed before that there can be a tendency to report that everything you did met or exceeded the plans laid out in your grant proposal.  The fear of losing funding for not being successful enough disincentivizes being honest about challenges the organization faced.

While there have been plenty of embezzlement scandals at non-profits to leave funders concerned about whether their money is being used responsibly, metrics provide faulty assurances because they are so easily falsified.

So what should be used instead of performance metrics? Well, Muller really doesn’t say.  Doing a good job and having good outcomes might be a start. You’ll want to examine numbers to assist in the process of reducing needless waste. But trying to squeeze an extra percentage out so you can improve your efficiency score over last year when you squeezed an extra percentage over the previous year is not constructive.

Ultimately, the truth is that evaluation is hard. Even if we were to urge funders to invest more time in investigating outcomes directly rather than relying on numbers, the tendency to have positive associations for feel good stories will benefit some organizations over those that do unsexy, but impactful work. Then we will be back to rallying removing the emotional element by employing cold, hard numbers for evaluation.

Have You Hugged Your Grant Panelist?

Short post today because I just returned home after serving on a grant review panel for the state arts council.

The deputy director of the council was reminiscing about the days in the not so distant past when the review process for the main grant program took three days. Even though the panelists reviewed the applications in advance, they would spend time reviewing VHS tapes, etc as a group and discussing final thoughts on the grants across those three days.

Now it is possible to review and pre-score the grants online and likewise review videos, recordings, webpages, etc online and in advance as well. The stacks of applications for each grant program are distributed between different groups so that no group of reviewers has to spend more than a day at the arts council offices deciding on final scoring.

However….

It is still a big job to serve on the panels and potential reviewers are busy.

A month ago a colleague told me she had been asked to serve on a panel for another program, but felt some trepidation about having enough time amidst all her other commitments to review the 45 proposals that had been assigned to her group.

There was a member of my panel today whose background and expertise I felt was much needed because it aligned with the non-arts field components found in five of the grant proposals. She also expressed reservations about serving again due to the time commitment required to preview the 45 proposals.

I should note the actual time we spent reviewing the grants today was about 6 hours. That is about an appropriate number of proposals to assign a group to review for a day. But it was also only possible thanks to 25-30 hours of preparation.

The moral of my little story here is to encourage everyone to volunteer to serve on your state arts council (or NEA) grant panels when asked.

Failing that, give your panel participants a hug in thanks.

Heck, definitely give your arts council staff a hug. They vet many multiples of proposals for basic qualifications and prepare them for the grant panels. Not to mention organizing and providing orientations to the panelists in the first place.

Probably The Only Time Comic Sans Is Appropriate In A Planning Document

Back in February CityLab covered an effort by residents of the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul, MN to get people invested in contributing to the Small Area Plan for their neighborhood.  This was in part driven by the experience the Frogtown Neighborhood Association voted to refurbish an historic theater in town but the mayor choose to direct the money to a police shooting range because the theater wasn’t in the neighborhood’s small area plan.

Because Small Area Plans, like strategic plans tend to be dry documents that get put on a shelf never to be consulted, the Frogtown Neighborhood Association were determined to make their plan a living document with which people interacted. They did this by placing the plan and the feedback they received from hundreds of residents into the framework of a comic book.

What I admire about the document is that they create 8 characters who are experts on major areas of concern like land use, housing, transportation, education, arts, health and wellness, economic vitality and resource allocation.  They make each of these people representative of different demographic segments like long time residents, house owners, apartment renters, kids, married couples, single college grads, etc.

By doing so they put a face and connect expertise to different people in the neighborhood so it is more difficult to dismiss people as gentrifiers or cranky malcontents standing in the way of progress.

They reiterate their goal quite a few times across the book to employ design thinking to “Sculpt our community into a mixed income, arts, entrepreneurship and education centered urban village.”

Because it is a planning document it is still pretty text heavy, but this is an example of what is contained within the book.  As I sort of implied before, you could probably do worse than applying this approach to your strategic plan.

 

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