A quick guide to Cityspeak

by David Forbes November 23, 2014

Strategic goals! Best practices! Benchmarks! Here’s a guide to that jargon city officials are so fond of, what it means and why it matters

Above: City Hall at night. Photo by Max Cooper

If you’ve attended an Asheville City Council meeting, pored over one of the city’s many, many master plans, grilled a city staffer at a local meeting or just followed the live stream of a Council meeting, you’ve probably heard a certain lingo crop up repeatedly.

“Best practices,” “we’re benchmarking,” “in pursuit of our strategic goals.” This jargon is beloved by city planners and even some elected officials (and not just in our city, I should note). Every profession develops its own particular speech, and there are reasons for its use. At the same time it can come off, to put it mildly, as a bit obscure to the regular public, More dangerously it can fog real political agendas and disagreements behind technocratic language that gives the false impression that a properly professional staff can magically eliminate real differences about the future of a city.

Over the past few years, Council’s seen a shift in its political dynamics. While it used to be the site of considerable internal debate, including clashes and disagreements between politicians and city staff, now split votes are quite rare. Staff and Council are almost always in agreement, with the elected officials backing city management even in cases of considerable controversy. As this has happened, this sort of jargon has cropped into the discussion more often.

So let’s take a look at some of these most-used terms, what the heck they mean, the reason for their use, and some of the pitfalls and catches to this particular way of thinking.

Benchmarks — When city staff talk about benchmarking (like in the plan to overhaul the police department) they mean that they’re going to compare Asheville to other cities facing similar issues and see how particular measurements (say the cost of housing or the level of violent crime) respond to whatever program they’re hatching, especially if those cities have tried similar solutions. It’s a way of assessing if city policies in a particular area are working over a period of time. The affordable housing report card that the city commissioned last year is an example of this kind of process.

The reason: Asheville doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s important to compare our progress (or problems) to cities of similar size or nature. With this information it’s possible to practically see the impacts of a policy over and, if it doesn’t compare favorably to similar cities, to find a way to adjust it accordingly.

The catch: Cities are also a bit too complicated to fit on a graph, and every one of them is a different stew of political, economic and social factors. It’s entirely possible to pick benchmarks without knowing the whole story, and so tie the city to a policy that may work very differently when applied to Asheville.

Best practices — Closely related to benchmarks, though with more focus on specific policies and less on comparative stats, “best practices” means that by comparing notes with other cities, staff arrive on a type of policy that seems to work to fix the particular problem they’re facing or provides a better guide to running an organization.

The reason: Learning from other cities is good, and if one of them has a policy that’s done really awesome things, Asheville should incorporate that into its policies. By keeping an eye on what other cities facing similar problems are doing, city staff can avoid considerable trial-and-error mess and improve their own policies. When combined with benchmarking, this provides a way to both put better policies in place and carefully measure their effects.

One area, for example, where city staff believe this has succeeded is the new recycling program they began to implement in 2012. Drawn from a number of other cities’ experiences, it’s boosted Asheville’s already-high recycling rates considerably without a huge amount of expense or controversy.

The catch: There are a lot of cities out there, with radically different policies towards just about every issue one can imagine. “Best practices” often reflect a particular view about what should happen, rather than some sort of objective measurement of efficiency. Want to crack down on buskers? Want to give buskers more free rein? You can find plenty of cities that do both, throw some of their policy suggestions into a report and call it “best practices” whether the goal is, at the end of the day, beneficial or destructive.

For example, staff and Council billed the graffiti ordinance passed earlier this year as crafted on “best practices.” But the city subsidizing the removal of graffiti on private businesses is quite controversial, and represented only one approach of many cities around the country take regarding graffiti and public art.

When this phrase in particular is evoked, citizens would do well to look at what cities the practices are drawn from, what their political goals are and who they target. No policy comes without an agenda. That agenda might be a good one, but it’s at least worth the public being aware of exactly what it is.

Data-driven — Often seen with its cousin “measurable metrics,” this particular bit of city jargon means that staff are setting some sort of target number as a way to measure the effectiveness of their policies. It is, naturally, related to the above, but a “data-driven” policy.

A good recent example is the commitment to creating a target number for the affordable housing units city government creates through its subsidies each year. By this, the city believes they can set a clear goal to then measure policies. A lot, then, will ride on how existing policies do or don’t effect a particular statistic.

The reason: Some things in urban politics do come down to hard numbers. A certain number of people are moving to Asheville per year, for example, and unless we know exactly how many affordable housing units are needed to accommodate both that growth and existing residents, it will be very hard to craft policies that ensure the city is really assisting them. By insisting on real numbers for policies in a range of areas city staff can avoid vague policies or long arguments about theory in favor of narrowing down what actually benefits the people of Asheville.

The catch: I’d be remiss if Mark Twain’s old saw about “lies, damn lies and statistics” didn’t come up at least once in this column. While that’s probably overstating the case a bit here, statistics never tell a complete story, and which one is chosen as the basis for a policy matters.

Asheville, for example, has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state. However, even leaving aside controversies over how that number’s calculated, it’s entirely possible for many people to have jobs but also have a city where those jobs don’t pay enough to meet a rapidly rising cost of living. Focusing on certain statistics when crafting key policy can lead to missing the forest for the trees and leave a city with a whole set of different problems its officials missed while they were focused on certain bits of data.

Stakeholders — This particular term often comes up when staff or Council hatch a planning process or talk about the make-up of a city board. Specifically, they’ll mention which “stakeholders” they want to have a seat at the table. These might be local businesspeople, community activists or nonprofit heads, but they’re who the city perceives as having a stake in an issue and whose perspectives they believe are needed to craft new rules or programs.

The reason: There are a lot of differing opinions about what should happen in a city and who changes benefit or hurt. It’s important to have people directly affected by a particular policy involved in its creation. Putting stakeholders in early in the process ensures that a variety of voices are heard and play key roles in crafting new policy, but is less cumbersome than holding many public meetings over what may be a years-long planning process. The result should be that enough voices are heard for a policy to be fair (or at least relatively unopposed) while avoiding the “too many cooks” problem.

The catch: Which stakeholders city officials choose, and how they perceive a “stake” in an issue in the first place shapes the process dramatically. A board or planning committee stacked with realtors is going to come to very different conclusions from one made up of neighborhood activists or public housing residents. Which stakeholders are chosen often reflects the political beliefs of those doing the choosing.

An example from recent years is the attempt to create a Business Improvement District, an independent nonprofit that would have had its own tax revenue and broad powers, in downtown. While the proposal involved many notables from the area in its development, it drew criticism for reserving board positions for wealthy landowners and ignoring nonprofits, some residents and downtown workers. This meant the BID ended up the target of a broad and angry backlash. Like the BID or hate it, the “stakeholders” clearly had a specific political agenda that many people felt was against their interests.

Strategic goals — Every winter, usually during its retreat early in the year, Council gets together to decide which “strategic goals” it wants city staff to pursue. Usually these are broad areas of action like “economic growth and sustainability” or “high quality of life.” Staff and elected officials will then tie more specific policies to these larger goals. Here, for example, is the city’s current strategic plan. So when you hear a staff member mention “strategic goals,” this is usually what they’re referring to.

The reason: As these goals are large but essential areas to work on, it’s important that staff keep in mind how their specific projects or proposals tie into what city officials have, after a long discussion, decided are the city’s major priorities. Designating these goals and making sure that individual proposals at least address them in some fashion is a good way to make sure that the multitude of projects the city’s pursuing at one time are at least heading in something resembling the same direction.

The catch: While the city’s strategic goals do address broad concerns, they’re also really, really vague. While this is something that’s hard to escape when trying to deal with big problems, it also means that any staff member pursuing any agenda can make almost any proposal sound like its fits one of these goals if they craft their statements carefully. Like with the “best practices” above, any time anyone invokes a strategic goal as a justification for a policy it’s worth looking at exactly what agenda they’re pursuing, who it benefits and who it might harm.

Politics endures

I hope this quick guide has been useful. The key point in all this is that politics, in any city, never disappears. It may be good, it may be bad, but there are no supernatural professionals with an easy solution removing a city’s populace from the need for groups of people to decide what they want and how to pursue that goal against their opponents.

Pay attention and, if you have opinions on what local government’s doing in your name, to your city, speak up. We have politics not because we can all magically agree, but because many of us don’t and never will. That’s fine. It’s what happens tomorrow, and the day after, that matters.

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