Preparing Our Metros for a Stormy Future

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“If a business wastes its resources on non-results, by and large it loses its own money. In a non-profit institution, though, it’s somebody else’s money – the donor’s money…So, this [performance measurement] is an area that needs special emphasis for non-profit executives. Good intentions only pave the way to Hell.”

- Management guru Peter Drucker, from Managing the Non-Profit Organization

Cities and counties in New York and nationwide face the daunting challenge of climate preparedness.

So are we ready? Settlements in coastal areas are vulnerable to slow-moving sea-level rise and fast and vicious storm surges, those in floodplains experience more flooding and those in the arid west face more wildfires and water shortages. Thanks to Obama Administration leadership (see here and here) we are moving towards readiness for it all.

Boring as it sounds, the first step towards preparedness is performance measurement. Developing specific metrics to define “success” clarifies goals and the steps towards them. This boosts public accountability, delivering reams of empowering information to taxpayers, and we should expect no less since we are government’s “donors.” An example of what's possible from another field is this hospital comparison site courtesy of Medicare (sadly I see my nearest hospital fares poorly).

And there are impressive local performance-measurement activities. For example, I was bowled over by all the work that the International City-County Management Association (ICMA) is doing. This year they published a helpful handbook for local jurisdictions, walking through steps and offering loads of practical advice. It’s full of examples of good programs, and ICMA will certify those which clear a quality bar at three levels with “excellence” at the top. The advisory committee chair for performance management is city manager for scenic Williamsburg, VA, and in the brief video interview he covers the topic and names a practical, life-saving change he's made in response to the data:

Searching for “performance measures” on the web sites of groups that serve metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs), the Association of MPOs (AMPO) and the National Association of Regional Councils (NARC), turned up precious little information. That's disconcerting.

Why? For those who don’t know, MPOs are important planning organizations serving most citizens and businesses. They coordinate planning and investments for multi-jurisdiction metropolitan regions which include little suburbs such as my home town of College Park, Maryland. My MPO is the Transportation Planning Board, and I’m happy it's a pretty effective organization as you can see from this new web site which delivers one-stop shopping for those who want information about the future of our region. More MPOs need to step it up, as many cities and counties are doing.

Fortunately, they have good opportunities to work with state and federal agencies to enhance measurement and preparation programs.

For starters, New York is organizing many of its investments made possible with $750 million in federal assistance in an inspiring “NY Rising” initiative. This program requires local committees (comprised of municipal officials, experts and stakeholders) to develop conceptual reconstruction and preparedness plans by this month, final ones due March 2014, with high expectations for their content (explicitly directing that communities “think big” as per this pdf of a recent presentation). Hard-hit/vulnerable/rebuilding municipalities/regions in New York have a chance to boost their capacity enough to “identify the transformative and innovative actions needed to become resilient and grow their economy” as the state urges, with plans that “recognize that increasing community resilience is an economic opportunity.” And New York has a chance to ensure its MPOs are part of the effort tracking and making progress effectively on some of the most important issues of resilience, sustainability and economic development in an era when metro regions are locked in fierce global competition.

Meanwhile, U.S. DOT is hammering away at performance measures for transportation, pursuant to new federal law (MAP-21). There are three rounds, following the schedule below.

After DOT, states and MPOs must adopt measures too. Given the importance of metro planning – most of us live and work in regions – MPOs must get to work now. The ICMA handbook, web site and staff can help with that. So can programs like STAR Communities  and Portland State University’s new Urban Sustainability Accelerator. Of course NRDC stands ready to pitch in too.

Drucker wrote the opening quote a quarter-century ago, before the internet, smart phones, tablets and big data revolutionized government capacity to manage performance. It’s past time to heed his sage advice by measuring and making progress in our metro regions. It’s time to get to work.