Rahm measuring up—and down, and sideways | Bleader

Friday, August 26, 2011

Rahm measuring up—and down, and sideways

Posted By on 08.26.11 at 11:55 AM

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Earlier this week, Rahm Emanuel reported on his first 100 days as mayor of Chicago. By his own objective assessment, he has exceeded exceeding expectations, and then some.

Emanuel seems to have an insatiable need to measure. He was born with a silver ruler in his hand. He doesn't believe in measuring twice and cutting once—more like measuring a half dozen times, cutting once, then measuring another dozen times, with triumphant proclamations of each result.

As the Tribune's Kristen Mack and Bob Secter observed Sunday, even before Emanuel took office on May 16 he "was already eyeing the 100-day mark on Tuesday as an opportunity to strut his bona fides as a go-getter and a visionary." His transition report contained dozens of goals to reach by his 100th day as mayor. "So intent has Emanuel been on demonstrating his leadership mastery that just 30 days into office he posed for cameras in front of a super-sized list of those goals, several of which were checked off well ahead of his self-imposed deadline," Mack and Secter wrote.

Rahm described his first 100 days this way to the Trib: "It's been more change at every level in a shorter period of time than at any other time in the history of the city of Chicago, and I challenge anybody to say otherwise."

A statement of such breadth is pretty hard to contest. It's also possible that Rahm has shown more conceit at every level in a shorter period of time than at any other time in the history of the city of Chicago. I'd challenge him to say otherwise, but I think he might agree.

Hiznumber's own glowing 100-day report persuaded many out-of-town reporters that he was off to an unparalleled start. Emanuel "has already put his stamp on the city with a flood of initiatives," the Economist gushed. "It is rumoured that he never sleeps....All anyone talks about is his energy."

That's an exaggeration. While I myself have chatted with friends about nothing else, reliable sources have informed me of two recent conversations in Chicago where Rahm's energy went mysteriously unmentioned.

My own statistical analysis of Emanuel's 100-day report, with an error margin of 3 percent, has determined that 71 percent of it is fluff. It's bloated with business efficiency-speak. His administration has developed new performance benchmarks, drafted comprehensive strategies, launched evaluating processes, identified ambitious goals, outlined structures for implementation, and designed new data collection systems.

Emanuel would never simply pluck the lint from his belly button. He'd appoint a task force to craft formal guiding principles on lint removal, assemble an Innovation Delivery Team to identify creative approaches, develop performance metrics for the removers, establish return-on-investment standards, and launch a pilot project. Reports would be issued. Goals would be met. Eventually, the lint would be plucked.

Unlike the reign of a certain former governor, there's no hint of corruption with Emanuel—and, like most citizens, I prefer elected officials who are partial to graphs instead of graft. But his administration does seem to be fucking goal-ridden.

Business efficiency methods, including goals and frequent progress assessments, can be helpful in government. But they have their costs, especially when they're overemphasized. They take time to set up and manage, they can encourage cheating to meet goals, and they tend to depreciate the value of important qualities that aren't easily measured.

I'm not convinced that Rahm is really as infatuated with numbers and measurement as he appears. I suspect he mainly recognizes their political value. Numbers are magically persuasive, as marketers have long understood. It's why Wonder Bread helps build strong bodies 12 ways, instead of a bunch of ways.

And business rubrics are in vogue in government today, because of the illusion of actual accomplishment and progress they offer citizens. "Good government is good politics," Richard J. Daley used to say. The maxim today would be, "Good productivity benchmarks are good politics." Rahm knows you can't fool all of the people all of the time, but 65 percent may be an achievable goal.

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