political motivations, and the consultant’s task

We were having a nice conversation about expertise vs. activism in a beautiful, abstract space, and then Engineer Scotty brought us back to earth:

Unfortunately, in many cases the constraints [on the options being considered in a study] …  are not imposed by the decision-maker (especially in political systems where much of the authority is distributed), but imposed by outside actors, who may be engaging in self-aggrandizement or rent-seeking at the expense of transit outcomes, but whose participation is needed for the project to get done.

And in many cases, such folks don't want their fingerprints on the planning documents–you won't ever see an Environmental Impact Statement [EIS] explicitly stating that [bus options weren't] considered for project X because developer Y would withdraw his support for the project causing his ally councilman Z to vote no; or conversely that governor W is a teabagger who considers rail transit to be a Soviet plot and thus BRT [Bus Rapid Transit] was the only rapid transit option to advance out of the [Draft EIS] phase in order to avoid a veto. These sorts of political decisions are made in the backroom, off the record, and then often justified on an ex post facto basis when the stench gets too bad. …

Reputable consultants ought not take work that involves declaring that night is day, in an attempt to paper over a blatantly bad political decision. However, in situations like just described, there is plenty of work for reputable consultants to help transit agencies to make the best of a bad situation–if the political realities of a situation require that agency A implement a transit network using only mixed-traffic streetcar, and that other modes are off the table, a good consultant will help them design the best streetcar system that lies within their budget.

At the risk of misquoting Jarrett …, sometimes this is what "help[ing] you implement your values" really means. Often times the "values" in question aren't the values of the riders, the community, or the sponsoring agency, but those of the powerbrokers who ultimately control the fate of the project in question, and who may have little actual interest in improving mobility.

As a consultant, I really like working in situations where the key players really do want to explore the options and reflect the community's values.  Having said that, I don't think there's a experienced transit planning consultant on the planet who hasn't been in situations like the one Scotty describes. 

Especially in big, complex urban areas, you work for your client agency, and your client agency answers, sooner or later, to elected officials, and if those elected officials aren't happy, the consultant is likely to be blamed.  So yes, in an ideal world, the elected officials are conduits for the aspirations and values of the people.  But if the elected officials decide to reflect somebody else's values, well, they still get to decide, so yes, it's about their values.

Some purists decide that whenever someone talks about high ideals such as reflecting the values of the community, but then works in real situations where other objectives are taking precedence, that person's being hypocritical.  There's some validity to that.  At the same time, we all have to move between idealistic and practical modes of thought.  You may feel that what company X is doing is ethically wrong, but while you fight that you still have to live in a world where company X is doing that.  It's one of the harder things that humans are asked to do, actually, because we do want, in varying degrees, to feel pure and consistent, so we feel awkward about working inside a situation that we know, in larger terms, is somehow wrong.

I've thought about this a lot, because one common critique of me as a consultant, at least in my errant youth, was that I often talked about ideals at moments when everyone in the room needed a practical focus on the current political situation.  In middle age, I'm better at working in whatever situation I'm in, but I still feel the awkwardness, and in fact I value it.  So long as I feel uncomfortable about the real-world situation, I know that my adaptation to the situation isn't undermining my ability to hold, and act on, clear ideals.  Only if it felt easy would I start worrying.

8 Responses to political motivations, and the consultant’s task

  1. Scott February 25, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    It occurs to me after reading this post that in a sense, it’s good when someone like the newly elected mayor of Toronto just says openly, “I believe that above-ground rail is bad, because it gets in the way of cars. We will only build rail below ground. The previous plans under way to do otherwise will be abandoned, because I say so.” At least you know where the buck stops!

  2. EngineerScotty February 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm #

    Of course, it’s easy to be blunt and up-front when killing off a project, even if under dubious circumstances, then it is to be similarly blunt when promoting one. You won’t hear a big-city mayor proclaiming “the unions and/or developers elected me, so by golly, we’re gonna build boondoggles from here to kingdom come!”
    Two reasons for that asymmetry:
    1) For a public official to do things they ought not do, when being influenced by outside officials, is likely to bring about a corruption charge. For a public official to not do something that they probably should, is harder to prove.
    2) It’s far easier to kill a public project than it is to (re)start one. Chris Christie terminating the ARC probably means it will be decades before anything similar is built–were a more transit-friendly New Jersey governor to be elected in 2014, they can’t just resume the project. Much of the work has to start over from ground zero–in particular, the hard parts of coalition-building and acquiring funding (the previously-allocated dollars being redistributed elsewhere), and the reputation of the Commonwealth of New Jersey is damaged–how can potential partners be sure that the next teabagger governor won’t kill the project again?
    Of course, there have been plenty of examples of progressive politicians killing off proposed highway projects as well, including some that were well along in the planning phases, including several that ran on the platform. (Portland’s Neil Goldschmidt and the Mt. Hood Freeway being one notorious example).

  3. EngineerScotty February 25, 2011 at 6:29 pm #

    Here’s a question for Jarrett, which he’s free to decline if he likes (and no need to name names, obviously):
    Have you ever been engaged on a project where, in your opinion, a) no-build was (in your opinion) the best option among all those on the table, and b) no-build was nonetheless not considered an acceptable option? In other words, TPTB were bound and determined to build some boondoggle, and weren’t about to take no for an answer?
    And another question. Some professions, such as accounting and law and engineering, impose on their practitioners a duty to the general public which is in some cases above and beyond their duty to clients–accountants are not permitted to assist in the cooking of books, lawyers are not permitted to assist in barratry, etc. These professional force-fields also protect the professional when they do expose wrongdoing on the part of clients–as it’s the professional’s duty to do so (and all competing professionals have the same duty), accountants or lawyers who blow the whistle on clients are generally at far less risk for loss of subsequent business (up to and including blacklisting) than consultants in unregulated professions.
    Given all of that, what would you think of similar professional requirements in the transit planning discipline (and related disciplines above and beyond engineering, where it already largely exists)? Have you ever had clients (again, no names) that you would have just loved to embarrass in the media but were prevented from doing so by the current norms and standards at play in in your field?

  4. Jarrett at HumanTransit.org February 25, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    @ Scotty.  Short answer to both questions is no.
    Keep in mind that an option can be defined as objectively "best" only if there is a completely unambiguous set of precisely weighted and entirely quantifiable evaluation criteria, which is rare.  I avoid saying "best" as a consultant, except in a clear context of "best at achieving your stated objective x".
    Re whistleblowing, I have trouble believing that professional oaths will do the job.  Now and then I see experts write that "I personally know of modellers admitting" that they were bullied into making assumptions that were counter to their professional judgment.  That's as close to whistleblowing as you get, and it's after-the-fact and anonymous for a reason.  For more on this see Bent Flyvbjerg's work:  https://www.humantransit.org/2011/02/denmarks-cost-containment-rockstar.html

  5. NCarlson February 25, 2011 at 11:56 pm #

    With regards to professional duty, you might be interested in looking at the OPPI Code of Practice (http://www.ontarioplanners.on.ca/pdf/Code_and_Standards.pdf). Obviously there are some significant differences across jurisdictions, but the emphasis is on planner’s primary duty being to the public interest – generally before the clients. Broadly speaking this is talked about much more in terms of maintaining independence of judgement than whistle blowing, but I would argue it does fall into the category of protections and requirements you talk about.

  6. NCarlson February 25, 2011 at 11:57 pm #

    Sorry, that link should have read:

  7. teme February 27, 2011 at 1:55 pm #

    Been there, and I don’t do transit planning, happens in different fields too. My approach:
    Try to talk some sense to the decision maker. Keeping in mind that you in all your expertise might be just wrong, for reasons outside your expertise usually in my experience.
    But if you are right and they are wrong, damage control: Bullshit like it is a strategic choice usually in my case, strategic being sufficently vague and polite way to say it doesn’t have to make sense. The damage control part being that you do not end up making some convincing sounding justifications that take a life of their own, resolting to same mistakes being made over and over again even after the biased decision makers are long gone. Complex calculations and measurements that take lot of effort to prove wrong being the worse. That would be just plain wrong.

  8. David in Ottawa February 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    What’s the point of linking to the OPPI? In Ontario, transit “planning” is done almost exclusively by engineers who have monopolized transportation planning of all sorts. This raises plenty of questions in and of itself, including why are unqualified engineers meddling in transportation planning? Planning is for planners, not engineers. They haven’t got the necessary training, yet they dominate the industry, banking on the politicians’ and public’s perception of the supposed expertise of engineers. And the real world consequences are transit planning failures like Ottawa’s Transitway. I’ve yet to meet a planner who thought the Transitway was a good idea, but all too many engineers wax poetic about it and often lament a decision by a socialist government (of all things) to deny them the money for their beloved bus tunnel project (perhaps Ontario is an odd province, but here allegedly “conservative” car-happy types like to spend mega-bucks on tunnels for transit while “socialists” like to spend it on wider-ranging transit projects). Some engineers, not satisfied with ruining Ottawa, went on to proselytize the supposed virtues of the Transitway to other unsuspecting cities around the world (sorry good folk of Brisbane, sorry).
    Most engineering consultants I’ve encountered haven’t the faintest idea about issues like land use, urban design and even the nature of light rail. Their idea of “integration” is berms and landscaping. Their route planning models and decision criteria tend to favour routes and alignments that are, to put it charitably, messed up.
    Here’s a question for all: what ways are there to dislodge engineers from their entrenched role in transit planning, and transportation planning more generally?