Science in the Service of Art

I had a discussion a few weeks ago with a skeptic about the City’s efforts to improve performance through more rigorous measurement and a systematic approach to problem solving. The skeptic has lived through many of the same management waves that have washed over organizations I’ve served in the past 20 plus years and understandably felt that the latest initiative is probably just one more bright idea that will grow dim with time.

Our critic could be right. Excellent performance is dependent on so many variables that achieving it in any field is a blend of art and science. My view of the scientific approach to managing ourselves is that we are simply opening ourselves to new possibilities. Science really doesn’t provide immutable answers; it asks questions and provides a method that leads to progress. The core of what we are doing at the City of Albany is asking new questions in a manner not unlike what a detective might do when attempting to solve a case. Getting the best information possible is an important part of the process and so is applying it systematically. Detectives don’t solve cases by sitting at a desk waiting for inspiration. Similarly, we won’t improve our service to the community unless we gather evidence, analyze it, and apply it with discipline.

I consulted an on-line dictionary for the following definition of art: Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter, or counteract the work of nature.” I like this description because I think it’s exactly what most of us do every day. We don’t usually think of ourselves as engaging in artistic endeavors as we figure out payroll, check out books, patrol the streets, fill a pothole, treat sewage, or respond to a fire; but I believe our work neatly fits into the dictionary definition of art. If we did not do what we do, nature would indeed take its course. The History Channel has been advertising a show in recent months that offers explanations about what would happen to Earth if humans were no longer around. I haven’t seen the show, but its advertising featuring a world where human structures are crumbling and covered in vines illustrates my point.

When the singer/songwriter Bob Dylan was more a poet and less a celebrity, he wrote a song entitled “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The exact words of the song never made a lot of sense, but the spirit it conveyed to me was that we all produce works of art and that we might even eventually create a masterpiece. Our best chance to do that is, in my opinion, through applied science.

I think the next time my wife asks me what I did at work, I’m going to tell her I just spent some time painting my masterpiece. Who would have ever thought that approving requisitions or responding to a dog complaint could compare to the Mona Lisa or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Just as those masterpieces were produced by people using science as a tool to alter the work of nature, we have the opportunity to use the same tool to make life better in Albany. I can only imagine how my skeptical friend might respond to the notion of city government as a masterpiece.