Smart Growth and the Herding of Cats

Without strong executive leadership and teamwork, cross-agency acceptance of a smart growth agenda is a long shot.
April 18, 2007 AT 3:00 AM
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

Every governor enters office with a determination to see that the cabinet works collaboratively, across agency lines, to achieve key policy goals of the administration. Yet, it is rare that a governor has not, within a remarkably short time, been frustrated by cabinet leadership "going native," i.e., becoming spokespersons for the interests of agencies rather than agents of the governor in the agencies.

A good case in point is smart growth, the "coming issue" for at least two decades, yet one producing more speeches than regulatory reform.

This January, Smart Growth America reported on at least five states where incoming governors pledged fresh energy to revitalizing older urban areas as part of a broader "sustainable growth" strategy. Driving these reforms down into state bureaucracies requires heavy lifting by administrations on all manner of budgetary, policy and regulatory changes, not to mention shifts in agency and staff attitudes. However, if governors aren't up to heavy lifts such as these, we'll have to settle for symbolic progress.

Even with top leadership saying all the right things, shifting state policies to produce redevelopment in older built-up areas and compact exurban development means herding a lot of state agency cats. If one or more don't align their behavior down into the depths of the bureaucracies, forget it.

Don't Be Lulled by the 'Meeting-Goers'

Like some other gubernatorial priorities, smart growth requires deep cross-agency alignment well beyond "policy." A story from New Jersey illustrates this truth. In 1999, a decade after the first interim "smart growth" State Development and Redevelopment Plan was adopted by the New Jersey Planning Commission, the governor sent a key staffer to interview leadership in the six state agencies whose heads sat on, and voted for, adoption of the plan.

It became evident that many line staff saw the plan as irrelevant to their program operations, and, in some instances, antithetical to their mission. Despite participation by agency heads and support by the sitting governor and her two predecessors, policy change had occurred only at the margin. Line managers sniffed that meetings on the plan had been attended by "the meeting-goers," not the real agency staff.

Understanding the Usual Suspects

The heart of the issue for smart growth is that most state agencies don't even think in terms of "place." Policy directions about "place" barely penetrate long-standing habits and expectations because of this disconnect. Few agency leaders are committed and skillful enough to drive change through powerful bureaucracies. Consider the institutional status quo:

Transportation agencies deal in systems, not places. Their overriding goal is vehicle mobility and safety. They resist the notion that they have land-use impacts or responsibilities. They build for 50-year horizons, and do not want to under-design for demand they believe might develop.

Environmental agencies are predominantly inhabited by individuals (in the words of Doug Foy of Massachusetts ), "there for the religion." Many professionals resist differentiation by place -- a watershed is a watershed. The same rules apply whether it's in a designated growth area, a distressed urban area, or a pristine wilderness. Getting a "regulatory" personality to move to a proactive, development-in-the-right-place orientation is daunting.

Economic development agencies prioritize around jobs and businesses. Rare is the governor who will risk losing a potential investor to another state by denying that business a greenfield site. The tension between "smart growth" and "any job, anywhere" is an everyday issue.

Planning and community affairs agencies are place-oriented organizations that inherently "get" the notion of place. And they worry about urbanized and/or distressed areas. But they generally have little clout. At best, the department is one among equals with its transportation and environmental peers. Without critical leverage, their plans will be disregarded by their behemoth colleagues as investment decisions are made.

Herding the Cats Successfully

Whatever the issues, strong, collective teamwork by the entire cabinet requires executive leadership and messaging first and foremost. But even determined executive teams need strong change-management support. Essential tools:

1. Translation of new policy into language and vocabulary used by the agency

2. Guidance specific to each agency, and fast resolution of conflicts with existing practice and across agencies

3. Tools -- GIS, checklists, review criteria, etc. -- integrated into the practices of the agency's programs

4. Cross-agency, sub-cabinet units to ensure collective problem-solving and police passive aggressive behavior

5. Rewards for models of good practice and behavior, and competitiveness about problem-solving and doing the right thing

Above all, consistent, persistent and inescapable gubernatorial attention is critical to successful, permanent change.