POSTED ON NOVEMBER 30, 2011:
Post Impasse Prospects: Part Two
New council and Mayor Bartlett can turn page
Part of Tulsa's struggle seems to be with its own identity. Who will we become in the next 50 years? More like Indianapolis, pretty but forgettable... Or more like, say, quirky, artsy Austin? Or loud, industrious Oklahoma City? Or suburban utopia Kansas City? ... Is Tulsa Destined to Be the Next Indianapolis?" --Jennie Lloyd, Urban Tulsa Weekly, Nov. 23.
A very challenging part of the problem set that bedevils Mayor Bartlett, our civic and business leadership, and regular Tulsans is that we're still trying to get a handle on Tulsa's identity.
As my UTW colleague Jennie Lloyd adroitly pointed out in last weeks issue, it's a nearly existential problem: we need to get a grip on who we are going to be 5, 10, 15 years, hence. Oddly, we seem to want to look at places that don't seem to represent particularly compelling models for how we might move ahead. Places like Indianapolis, the site of a recent visit by the Mayor and a small army of chamber people, may simply not be great models. But the more important thing: imagining a compelling future apart from emulating any specific city or community.
A recent voter poll featured in the Tulsa World illuminated the damage Mayor Bartlett has taken in the last two years: the consequences, in part, of the catastrophic impasse between him and our city council. As UTW readers may know, most of Tulsa's city council membership will be new come Dec. 9.
Interestingly, the new poll also highlights pretty substantial dissatisfaction with the Mayor's leadership. We'll get resolution if Mayor Bartlett and the mostly new council do some alchemy and create an effective working relationship during the two years leading up to general city elections in 2013.
The leadership deficit at City Hall stems, we could argue, from a signal failure to launch transformative projects. And strategically, there is another riveting angle: it looks increasingly like Washington is not going to be the place to craft and execute many of the big change/high yield efforts that could define America in ten or twenty years. Stuff that goes to energy/climate change, accelerated economic growth and infrastructure -- our streets, bridges, agile mass transit, and newer items like supercomputers and locally managed public/university sci-tech "collaboratories" to spark growth-spawning kinetics in bioscience, materials and even aerospace -- is increasingly "local-local". Folks, cities look a lot like the new "can do" spots to build the future. But here's the come down: The Mayor is associated with some admirable but not exactly exciting projects, efforts that don't have the potential to put Tulsa on a different, more promising and "identity fostering" trajectory.
Example: Mayor Bartlett's new Management Review Operation, an outgrowth of audit/consulting firm KPMG's year-plus look at city operations, will surely identify some cost cuts. If nothing else it could make the costs much more evident and might foster savvy alternatives for doing key pieces of work at Tulsa City Hall, independent of who does them.
But evidence from the management consulting and the service science literature suggests that privatizing city services actually pushes many costs up. And although the Mayor's management review office has set up training opportunities (lead by KPMG!) for targeted city hall workers to help them compete in these bid wars -- it's fair to say that this may not be the fairest or most motivating arrangement for public employees who want to improve their performance and keep their jobs.
So, what game-changing initiatives could the Mayor/Council check out? Last week, I took a look at fully implementing Tulsa's great new physical plan and profoundly rethinking police and fire services: both are hugely important and police/fire are an outsized part of city outlays. But providing Tulsa with a compelling identity and moving the ball economically means doing something heroic, something as they might say in Austin, "wild".
The Alt Energy Thing
The first item we could look at is the Mayor's vague, but potentially high-yield energy initiative. An emerging group of planners, energy entrepreneurs and local elected officials envision a future in which cities join up with private producers and new age coops to create big shares of an area's electrical and other power needs.
This would be done "on site/in city" using newly scaled and agile energy technologies, including lots of alternative energy sourcing and heavy reliance on wind, solar and advanced biofuels. A handful of U.S. cities are already joining with adventurous partners to do pioneering projects -- this sort of meta-effort is surely consistent with the Mayor's aspiration to make Tulsa "the alternative energy capital".
Some places will become champions, red hot beneficiaries of jobs and the rich ecology of vendors that could spring up in the wake of an alternative energy win. But we need to get far more specific, craft a bevy of really inventive pilot projects and maybe even talk to the voters about spiking a world-class effort with some local tax dollars.
Re-imaging Civil Engineering
The Mayor has jump-started a long needed re-structuring of the city's massive public works department: this is a very good thing. But creating three public works "boxes" to replace one sclerotic operation doesn't begin to harness the power of a re-conceived, technologically imbued city engineering operation. And while there is no golden path for kicking public works into higher gear, there are a handful of powerful notions afoot including what some call the "intelligent city" movement.
Intelligent cities have revolutionary consequences for cities, how they are managed and the birth of a whole new industry -- what some call "physical computing". The notion exploits a passel of emerging technologies including real time scanning of streets and traffic conditions; dynamic monitoring of the health of assets like bridges; storm water and utility systems and other powerful "net-centric" concepts.
And the direct cost of this path appears to be modest -- a small fraction of Tulsa's current half a billion-dollar street improvement package. An imaginative approach might spark new firms, capture outside companies and foster a bevy of classy replacement jobs for industrial workers and a new kind of tech worker. Maybe we can tap our huge capital improvements and Vision 2025 efforts, and recent bid "reforms" at City Hall to execute this new agenda.
We need some "beyond the usual stuff" leadership at City Hall and we need it real soon.
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