Draft (October 2007)

Tolerating bad decision processes

Part 1 of "The Palo Alto Process: A culture of bad decision-making"

By Douglas Moran

The "Palo Alto Process" is widely and justly vilified, most notably for unnecessarily stretching out the time to make decisions and for repeated reconsideration of decisions—too often beginning immediately. However awareness of this problem causes decision-makers to allow themselves to be stampeding into ill-considered decisions. There is a dismissiveness toward facts that astounds people new to the process. And "civility" is use as an excuse for not taking action against bullies, liars and other abusers of the system.

The underlying problem is that City's leadership - a long line of City Councils and City Managers - has not just put little value on the decision-making processes, but has routinely rewarded abuse of those processes. Just as with manufactured products, the quality of decisions in large organizations is largely determined by its processes.

Periodically, one or two Council members will attempt to improve the City's processes - Mayor Kishimoto led one such attempt shortly after she joined the Council (2002) - but successes have been short-lived because a critical mass of the Council has not supported those efforts.

In a proper decision process, there is an early phase involving fact-gathering, evaluating alternatives and establishing the cost-benefits. This is then organized and presented to the decision-makers. In the Palo Alto Process, this model is routinely violated by all parties.

For example, in 1998, the owners of historic properties complained that the advocates for the Historic Preservation Ordinance were refusing to take their concerns and perspective into account. Not only had they not been invited to the (early) meetings, they had been blocked from participating when they found out about them and showed up. Any competent leader would have realized that the credibility of the process had been severely damaged, and that dramatic action was required to reestablish it. Instead, Council chose to do nothing, and the predictable extended, highly contentious battle ensued.

And the lesson has gone unlearned. At a public meeting to get public input on changes to the Downtown Library in 2005, then-Library Director Paula Simpson brazenly announced that it was a mere formality: She had already made her decision and nothing said at the meeting would change it in the slightest. When members of the audience protested, they were berated by a Library Commissioner. Council's response to a pattern of such conduct by that Commissioner? They re-appointed him. (The City Manager makes the decision on staff such as the Library Director).

Even when the preliminary process works well, it can be for naught. Shortly after Planning Director Steve Emslie was hired, he recognized that the repeated postponements of a study of the Charleston-Arastradero corridor had become a crisis, and proposed a 6-month moratorium on approving new developments to allow completion of that study. The recommendation followed extensive participation by residents, developers and other involved parties. Near the end of public comment to the Council, two individuals asked that Alma Plaza being included, and Council added it without asking even the most basic of questions. Its inclusion had been considered and rejected by a broad consensus of those involved - by City staff based upon their professional expertise (it is a 1/3-mile distant from the corridor) reinforced by the personal experience, and resulting intuitions, of residents. Neither did Council consider the impact on plans to redevelop Alma Plaza (it killed a plan that had been years in the making). The Council member who made the motion subsequently rewrote history, claiming that it was "the residents" who were responsible for this, using it as a justification for his being dismissive of residents' concerns and inputs on the next proposal for Alma Plaza.

Although it is natural, and expected, for politicians to try to please everyone, this should be tempered by the understanding that what you are giving to one person is often being taken from others, sometimes explicitly, sometimes subtly. And it is unsurprising for politicians to excuse their pandering by claiming that that particular exception is so small that it couldn't possible do any real harm.

When I first became involved in the Palo Alto Process, I assumed I was hearing such excuses, but over time, I have become convinced that a disturbing portion of our decision-makers and other influential people truly believe that Palo Alto's money and resources are effectively limitless, and thus concerns about cumulative impacts can be ignored - they are irrelevant.

Bad decision processes are a major reason that Council has been far less than the sum of its individual parts.

Palo Alto needs a core group of Council members who understand "in their guts" the importance of good decision process, and are willing to expend political capital to put them in place. They are going to face stiff resistance because there are powerful insiders who have learned how to exploit the current situation to their advantage.

My experience is that people who have only an intellectual understanding of this are very unlikely to make the investment needed to even start cleaning up the current mess. Look for someone who has been badly burned by bad processes, and whose examples show that it is part of their psyche.