Austin City Council Plans to Plan; Statesman Stenographizes

The oldest joke in the sales business goes something as follows:

Customer:  Ok, you’ve convinced me.  I want to buy your opto-broadband peanut butter emulsifier.  How much is it?

Salesman:  What’s your budget for the project for your  digital lunchbox project?

Customer:  Eleventeen thousand shekels.

Salesman:  Well, well!  Do I have a remarkable coincidence to report…

As silly as that seems exchange seems, something remarkably similar seems about to go down between the Austin City Council and the sixteen consulting firms who think the $1.5 million the Council proposes to spend on  focus groups, surveys, and general facilitation would be pretty good work if they could get it.

The Statesman dutifully explains the Council’s logic:

The Austin Tomorrow plan was adopted in 1979. Numerous smaller-scale efforts dealing with issues such as neighborhood preservation, transportation and water quality have taken place in the intervening decades.

The new comprehensive plan won’t replace those detailed documents.

Instead, the goal is to document a community-wide consensus on how Austin should deal with its expansion.

“It’s an opportunity to have us all take a breath and say, ‘What is our overall vision of growth in the city?’ said Jim Walker, chairman of the regional planning group Envision Central Texas.

“It’s important because it will allow us as a community to define what our goals and visions are for the coming decades and then really plot out how we go about achieving that from a lot of different perspectives, such as land use, transportation, parks and public safety,” said Council Member Laura Morrison, who made the need for a new plan a campaign issue.

Austin’s leaders and citizens deliberated for nearly a decade before the city adopted the 176-page Austin Tomorrow Plan, but current city officials want to complete the upcoming process in just two years.

“We looked at comprehensive plans in other big cities, and it’s almost universal that the plans that took a long time were less successful,” said Garner Stoll, assistant director of neighborhood planning and zoning. “The plans that try to do too much got bogged down. It’s really to engage the whole community in establishing the broad policy directions.”

The planning process will include public participation through workshops, focus groups and online opinion surveys.

Am I missing something, or is this just irredeemably strange, from the standpoints of both process and content?

First, process.  It seems odd to broadcast the City’s budget for the project before anyone bids.  Maybe this always happens–I’m certainly not immersed in the protocol of such things.  But in the private sector, an RFP would outline what we’re interested in doing, not how much we’re willing to spend.  Then, we’d choose a vendor based on a combination of price and other criteria.  What seems to be happening here is the reverse:  “we’ve budgeted $1.5 million; what can you do for us?” 

Next, content.  Take a $1.5m budget and carve it up into people-hours, at a very generous rate of $200 per average consultant, fully burdened (that’s $400k per year, more than we pay almost any of the CEOs in our portfolio).   That works out to 7,500 person/days.  Ummm…doesn’t that seem like a lot?  And as for pricing, I needn’t point out that this  is likely the slowest professional services environment since the Depression, and we’re shopping for what appear to be relatively commodity services.    The fact that 16 bidders showed up might give some clue that that the City has room to negotiate; it’s hard to believe that a lot of municipalities are clamoring for long-term consulting services in this economic climate.

We have some really smart people on the City Council.  Is this all as bass-ackwards as it seems?   And if I’m even anywhere near the mark, why doesn’t the Statesman ask these questions?  Even if they’re only published on-line, where there are no space constraints?  And if the paper is not going to ask such questions, why write a story at all?  That’s what I mean by stenographic journalism.

 

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One Response to Austin City Council Plans to Plan; Statesman Stenographizes

  1. Ted Whatley says:

    Re Austin City Council: How about the adoption of a massive citywide recycling plan without a facility to process and separate the items. So, we ship our recylables to Dallas and/or SA to be processed. Absolutely no plan much less accountability…

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