Enlisting Davis’ Citizen-Analysts

City HallBy Richard McCann

Two news items this week caught my eye. The first was the announcement of Project Toto by three current and former members of the Budget and Finance Commission, to analyze and forecast the City of Davis budget. The second was an article by Dan Carson, vice chair of the Budget and Finance Commission, outlining the Commission’s recommendation to the City Council on how to formulate an agreement with the University of California over the UC Davis Long Range Development Plan (LDRP). In both cases, it’s citizen members of the Commission, not City staff, Council members, or consultants, driving the analytic process.

What is the common thread? While City staff provided important logistic support, the analytic work was either conducted by Davis citizens, or they gave direct and detailed instructions to consultants conducting the analysis. And from my perspective, in most cases these citizens have been at least as well qualified as the consultants doing the work.

I point out that this situation is entirely unique to Davis. I am not aware of another community in California that has so many citizens who work for either a large research university and the state or federal government. (The only comparable situation I can think of would be in Palo Alto/Menlo Park/Mountain View where Stanford faculty and large corporate staff reside.) Those who work at UCD or in the state capitol are highly qualified, and perhaps even more so, compared to the consultants brought in to conduct these analyses.

And the City staff is as qualified as any in the state, and have helped plan and implement some of the most innovative policies in the state and even the world. But City staff needs to be more generalists and managers, covering a breadth of issues and “fighting fires.” So many Davis citizens have specific, deep knowledge acquired through years of focus on narrow issues.

There are many examples of how City commission and committee members have delved into issues to develop new insights and derive important recommendations. I am familiar with less than a half-dozen of these bodies, but I can come up with several just in the last several years:

  • The Valley Clean Energy Alliance (VCEA) is a community choice aggregator (CCA or colloquially, CCE) being formed as a joint power authority (JPA) with Yolo County based on a recommendation by the Davis CCE Advisory Committee. That committee (of which I was a member) relied on analysis prepared and supervised by a small working group. The consultant relied on detailed scenarios constructed with input from the committee, and the committee constructed an alternative decision analysis approach that lead to the final recommendation.
  • The Water Advisory Committee (WAC) developed an alternative, innovative rate structure to encourage conservation while assuring revenue stability for the new water treatment plant. Again, the rates were proposed and analyzed by a core team of committee members.
  • The Utility Rates Advisory Committee (URAC, now a commission, of which I am a member, and the successor to the WAC), developed an alternative formulation for the water connection fee paid by developers for new housing. The URAC restructured the initial proposal from the consultant, working directly with the data sets and developing alternative models.
  • The URAC is now reviewing proposed wastewater rates prepared by a consulting team lead by a former member of the URAC, who resigned to take on the work assignment. The URAC is highlighting the need for a revised City policy on managing enterprise funds based on analysis done by URAC members.

With a bit more research, I could find many more examples. I was part of two citizen task forces over the last 20 years addressing energy management options in which the committees wrote the majority of the reports. And this is just among those bodies that I follow.

I am also aware of several cases where reliance on outside consultants has either gone awry or delayed important information. The most obvious was the use of a Los Angeles firm to assess whether creating a municipal electric utility was feasible and desirable. Despite deep reservations by a citizen advisory group, the report was issued and then trashed. It cost ten times more than comparable reports and nearly derailed the effort to gain some control over electricity management decisions. In other situations, City staff have reached out to consultants on retainer rather than bringing citizens who can provide the same information or analysis more readily.

So I am left with this question: Why are we not using this wealth of human capital to our advantage? Why don’t we assign, and even hire or retain, these individuals to prepare these analyses for commission review? Why should a member have to resign to conduct an analysis, as was the case with the wastewater rates? Too often we confuse “low cost” with “efficient” or even “effective.” The fact is that our local citizens are more likely to be familiar with the local issues and possess the necessary expertise. It’s time to rethink City policy on who to retain for our studies.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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19 thoughts on “Enlisting Davis’ Citizen-Analysts”

  1. David Greenwald

    I think Richard raises a good point here.  The question I think will be whether the city is willing to trust in community based research.  I’ve heard that they may get their own expert as a counter-weight to the TOTO project.

  2. Richard McCann

    That would not be a good path. We cannot have the staff pitched against the citizens appointed by the council sitting on commissions. The staff serves at the pleasure of the community.

    1. Matt Williams

      Richard, the Project Toto team, of which I am a part, are 100% committed to working collaboratively with the City’s hired consultant.  We firmly believe in a “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” approach.  The consultant attended today’s Project Toto presentation at the Davis Downtown Brown Bag Luncheon.  Jeff Miller is meeting with the consultant tomorrow to discuss how we can/will work with one another.  I am optimistic about an efficient, effective, collaborative effort.

      1. Richard McCann

        I guess my point is: Why did we need to hire an outside consultant when we probably already have a well-versed team with a tool that is almost certainly better than what they might create at great expense? I’m familiar with Analytica and likely will perform better with more transparency than whatever the consultant develops.

  3. Lorenzo Kristov

    Thanks, Richard, for raising an important topic. And thanks David for a comment that opens up some central questions about how we decide things. In particular I want to examine your question about “whether the city is willing to trust in community based research.” Where does this question come from? Why is our default setting the idea that research performed by community members would be less trustworthy than research performed by someone from outside? And who is “the city” who decides whether community experts are trustworthy? The Council? The staff? The totality of Davis residents? Whose judgment of trust should determine who is best suited to provide expert services to the city? Granted, we should not tolerate conflicts of interest. But beyond that, where expert research or analysis is needed for a community decision, I’d be way more comfortable trusting an expert who will live with the consequences of the decision, than one for whom our community is another client. Too many of the decisions that seriously affect our lives are made by people who are removed from the consequences of their decisions. The fact that an expert lives here is not a conflict of interest, it’s just the opposite. So where Richard’s article and David’s comment take me is to the realization that deep citizen engagement in the affairs of our city may trigger some discomfort, perhaps because it transgresses conventional boundaries between council, staff and citizens. In order to fully utilize the vast human capabilities that reside here for the betterment of the city – indeed, in order to become more complete citizens ourselves – we may have to expose and break through some unspoken assumptions and taboos.

      1. Richard McCann

        Matt, I agree with Lorenzo’s sentiment. The question is what should be our default perspective? Why should we trust someone from outside who’s no better qualified and simply being paid over someone equally qualified who also has a stake in the outcome? It’s the consultants who should be building trust the old fashioned way, not the other way around.

        1. Bob Fung

          First, thanks to Richard for bringing this up.  I do agree with him that there are people with significant analytic expertise in Davis who are willing to volunteer their analytic skills.  But the City staff have often been working there for a long time.  They have consultants that they have known and used for many years.   And then there is the political angle that City staff often have a point of view that they would like to reinforce.  Consultants are aware of this and work with it.

          Why take a chance on people you don’t know that well even though they might have excellent analytic skills?  That’s the real world.

           

        2. Howard P

          Bob… do you believe City staff are incapable of good, honest, competent analysis without consultants or third parties?  Meant a an honest question…

        3. Matt Williams

          Howard, there isn’t a simple answer to your question. First, Staff are neither homogeneous nor consistent.  Second,  Staff are definitely capable; however, being “capable of” can be trumped by factors that have nothing to do with capability.

        4. Richard McCann

          Bob, my point is that we should not passively let the staff direct city policy. We are the citizens here so we should direct policy. This city is small enough that individuals can have very direct influence on policies and decisions. Reliance on staff becomes more important as city size increases. I would expect that San Francisco needs to be much more reliant on staff resources and decisions. That’s not the case here.

          And the real bottom line is that the staff’s political views really shouldn’t be relevant to the question. They should be taking all of their direction from the council, commissions and citizens’ input. My suggestion is one way to better ensure that happens.

      2. Matt Williams

        Richard said . . . “The question is what should be our default perspective? Why should we trust someone from outside who’s no better qualified and simply being paid over someone equally qualified who also has a stake in the outcome?  It’s the consultants who should be building trust the old fashioned way, not the other way around.

        Richard, you are framing the issue in an either/or dichotomy.  I don’t see it that way.  I believe we all float up or down collectively … with both the citizens and the consultants all in the same boat.

        Said another way, it doesn’t have to be a zero sum game with winners and losers.  We can all win together.

        1. Richard McCann

          Matt, my point is about the default perspective. Right now the default is that the outside consultant is thought to be more qualified. Or it might be a staff perspective the outside consultants are more easily managed by the staff. I want the default to be that we look to citizen analysts first, THEN outside consultants. A bias will always exist–it’s unrealistic to assume that they will somehow be on an equal footing. The bias arises for different reasons, including even how contracts are solicited (see my post below on the Core Area Plan.)

  4. R Fung

    Richard,  Again I agree with you.  I think that is a valid approach.   And the citizens do direct city policy through voting on Measure R ballot measures, various tax measures, City Council members etc.  Furthermore, citizens have shown that they have their own mind.  The City staff and council has been working for a long time and had put in alot of effort to develop innovation parks in Davis.  Their strategy has been a major failure so far – the citizens voted down the Nishi project – the smallest most attractive of the proposals and the other 2 proposals have been withdrawn.

    One of Project Toto’s major goals is give citizens good visibility into the City’s long-term financial future.  The City does publish a 10 year budget forecast but more is needed by citizens in their decision making.    I think the Project Toto analytics could be an important source of information to citizens in this area.

    But there are  at least 2 important issues.  One is the City has the data.  Some of the data is in public reports but some of the critical data is not.  They may or may not share that data with citizen analysts.  If they don’t share or don’t share data in a timely way, that would make citizen analytics problematic.

    Second, I think there should be some institutional support for citizen analysts.  I think a light-weight organization (maybe a nonprofit) that houses the data and has the support of community groups (Chamber, Enterprise, Vanguard etc.)  could work.    I think of something for cities like the legislative analysts office at the CA state level.   This should tie into whatever open gov / government transparency activities the city is involved with.

     

  5. R Fung

    Don,

    Thanks for the offer.  Server space would be needed.  The most important aspects of the organization I think would that it would provide a trusted place for the City to transmit data and that its partner organizations would help communicate results to the public.  The organization would be non-partisan.

    1. Richard McCann

      Bob, Cool Davis is running into a problem accessing City GIS and permit data in a timely fashion. It’s in discussions with UCD to house and manage GIS data. I think the City needs to share data with the citizen analysts for transparency.

  6. Richard McCann

    The City has issued an RFQ for Core Area Planning and EIR: http://cityofdavis.org/business/bids-rfp-s

    This is a clear example of how the City should first rely on citizen analysts, or at a minimum, locally-based consulting firms that are embedded in the community.  Project TOTO might be a key tool in analyzing the planning scenarios.

  7. Richard McCann

    Mayor Robb Davis took up this suggestion in his column in the Enterprise:

    To fully explore these options, and enumerate others, will take a concerted effort of city staff and citizens. We have had great success, as a city, in appointing knowledgeable citizens to work on focused challenges and proposed solutions. Past and ongoing successes include the Downtown Parking Task Force, the Sports Park Task Force, the Community Choice Energy Advisory Group and the Broadband Task Force. Our community is blessed to have many residents with specific experiences and expertise to explore solutions to challenges and make recommendations to the City Council for action.

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