Tag Archives: public policy

Structural Issues in Government

NoParkingIn my neighborhood we have a large email list designed for neighbor to neighbor conversation and requests for help. A frequent request is a phone number for help with city services. The current problem is needing the city to enforce parking regulations when a life may be at risk because a driveway is blocked. The lack of response from city governments reveals structural issues that as in other bureaucracies will be hard to fix.

The person whose driveway is often blocked is referred by 911 to the parking violations department. Parking violations treats it like an expired meter. They ticket when they ticket. No response to a potentially critical issue. They aren’t designed for that. Their only recourse is to place  the complaint  at the bottom of a long list of towing tasks.  Days later when the tow truck shows up, the car is no longer there. The next day another is in its place.

In the moment, the severely asthmatic won’t reach the emergency room without an expensive ambulance ride and the added anxiety of waiting.

A blocked driveway is different from an expired parking meter or a car parked too close to a corner. The existing policy means the workers are bound to fail. Unless they violate the policy.

Structural Issues in Government

The lack of response is the result of a structural issue, not a personal or department failure in a specific instance. Since a representative of a council member’s office has now intervened to solve the problem, that is probably how it will appear inside the department. Easier to blame one person or team of people than to address policy.

If the city had an appropriate policy, this would be classified as a life or death risk, not a parking violation. It would receive a response designed to avoid emergencies. With permission, the parking  department might also make recommendations to the homeowner for making the driveway appear to be more obviously active, not like an unused alley. Parking people are on the street every day and know the characteristics of places where cars park illegally as well as legally. I wonder if the street and design department talks to the parking violations department? The Meter Maids?

The need is for a clear definition of the problem and a change in policy and practice. As in most bureaucracies, a policy decision like this can only be made at the top levels by a commissioner or even the city council. A single potentially dangerous parked car, however, in a city of parked cars can’t compete with a failing educational system or a city-wide epidemic. Correcting parking policies isn’t a priority. It can take years to change them.

Policy Decisions at Appropriate Levels

In a dynamically organized government based on the principles of sociocracy, the structure would allow a policy to be developed and implemented by the responsible department. Within the larger policies governing the city, the people responsible for safe parking would decide how they will accomplish their purpose.

Many governments follow the practice of defining objectives, measuring effects, and evaluating performance. But this is often done at an abstract level. Numbers, often collated with the statistics from other departments, seem unrelated to day-to-day operations. In response to numbers, changes are made by those several levels removed from those governed by them. Instead of corrections in policy and  structural issues, evaluations often result in personnel changes or reorganizations. Morale falls and new problems emerge.

In dynamic governance, the organization would:

  1. recognize a blocked driveway as a distinct policy issue not covered in the parking violations policy, and
  2. allow policy to be determined by the department.  They directly experience the problem and can most quickly and effectively address it.

In addition to being more effective, correcting structural issues avoids all the unnecessary sturm und drang and time wasted in trying to apply ineffective policies.

Are Policy Decisions at the Level of Parking Enforcement Possible?

I know your first objection will be that the parking meter people and the tow truck drivers are not equipped to make policy decisions. And they are not in charge of their own budget. But I think we need to give it a try because;

  1. These people know more about parking and parking problems than any of us. We only know our own parking problems.
  2. They are our neighbors and are as smart as we are. Inattention and playing dumb is one way to get complaining citizens off your back when there is nothing they can do.
  3. They might not know how to phrase a policy in formal government language — which is probably a good thing— but they know which words work in parking. That’s all they need to know.
  4. Dynamic governance also requires continuing education for everyone (5% of budget) so they can learn about practices in other cities and how city planning effects parking.

When a department’s numbers come out dramatically better in the next review, it will get the budget it needs and be trusted to spend it wisely. But more probably, performance will be so much more effective and their workload brought under control, so more funds will be available within the existing budget.

A related issue is job satisfaction. While some people just want to show up for work and push a broom where they are directed to push it. Others are deeply involved with the issues of green cleaning and more effective service. Organizations, especially governments, often fail to recognize or use this energy.

In the early twentieth century, education was believed to be the best way to ensure a democratic society. Protecting a democratic society, even one controlled by the majority, requires an education policy that ensures access to the information and critical thinking skills sufficient to understand how to participate intelligently in local and national government and civic affairs. The freedom to choose is limited by the ability to understand.

Similarly, we need a democratic transportation policy. One that ensures equal access to essential services and opportunities.

Freedom and Equality Depend on Access

The need for a democratic  transportation policy is less obvious than a democratic education policy but not less fundamental. A means of transportation other than walking is necessary in order to work, receive medical care, be educated, and obtain goods and services at competitive prices. Economic and social viability depends on access.

The legacy of suburban design and the single family home is dependence on private cars. While this has provided greater freedoms than at any time in history, it also brought pollution, depletion of natural resources, and dependence on an expensive asset. The cost of owning a car — purchase, maintenance and repair, insurance, and gas — is often the second most expensive item in a household budget. Support of car use and storage is a also major cost for cities and states and thus an added burden for taxpayers. There are severe environmental costs as well. The construction of roads and parking lots has sealed fertile land under millions of square miles of concrete and asphalt disrupting the ecosystems that naturally cleaning our water and air. The costs are enormous and the negative effects pervasive.

The Effects of Undependable Public Transportation

While privately owned cars and other vehicles will remain necessary in some areas and everywhere for some purposes, to create and maintain a healthy environment for everyone, we need independence from private car use. Public transportation provides equal access at a much lower cost not only to work, education, and medical care but also to parks, beaches, sporting events, recreation centers, and family and friends on holidays.

Unless public transportation is available 24/7, it is not dependable. Many people work weekends and evenings, particularly those in the service industries. Children need access to museums and sports activities on weekends. To stop service during the night and limit service on weekends affects the use of public transportation at all times, not just on nights and weekends.

Using public transportation requires the same educational process as learning how to drive and understanding traffic regulations. Unless it used regularly it will remain unfamiliar and difficult to use, even when available. Undependable service reinforces the belief that public transportation inconvenient and thus only tolerable for commuting. Public transportation needs to become as convenient, habitual, and familiar as using a car or its use won’t replace cars and transportation will remain expensive.

Equal Access to Car Storage

Car storage is very likely the last topic you would expect to be discussed as an example of creating a more democratic society. It is an excellent example of the ways in which habitual thinking contributes to our social, economic, and environmental problems.

Just as personal cars being a major drain in a household budget, car storage is also a major drain in the economies of cities and towns. It almost doubles the width of streets and thus cost of building and maintaining them. Shopping centers have parking lots equal to the footprint of the buildings doubling their environmental impact by diverting water into sewer systems instead of the ground. It has been estimated that for every car on the road, we all maintain 5 storage spaces.

To maintain and restore our the land so it contributes to our health and food supply, we need to develop excellent shared transportation alternatives and reduce the need for car storage. We need trains of all sizes and capacities, buses, and shared car services like ZipcarGetAroundRelayRides, and Car2Go.

So why do cities like DC charge car-sharing programs like ZipCar more to store their cars than they charge for personal exclusive use?

In my neighborhood, a private car receives a permit to park 24/7 for $30 a year while car sharing cars may pay hundreds of dollars a month. In part, charging car sharing companies considerably more is evidence of our bias against businesses and our assumption that if someone is in business they are rich and should pay more. Aside from the fact that we don’t use the same logic when it comes to taxing individuals, charging a car sharing company more is short sighted because a shared car reduces costs associated with car storage.

Each shared car meets the personal transportation needs of dozens of people while also being more environmentally responsible. The cost of an on-street parking spot is moved along to the shared-car users requiring them to pay proportionately more for car storage than personal car owners do. Taxing shared cars at a higher rate than personal cars is certainly not fair or equal.

While the difference in car storage costs may be relatively small in the grand scheme of things, it is an example of the logic that undermines a democratic society and permeates our public transportation policies.