Staying in Touch with Reality – 2012

My plan for the New Year will be to stay in closer touch with reality by paying more attention to the quality of information I receive and less attention to uninformed opinions.  This plan will surely be tested by controversial elections, financial problems, and news sources that place a higher premium on entertainment and sales than they do on accuracy.

Losing touch with reality is a dangerous tendency for anyone and particularly so for a city manager.  A friend and colleague was recently forced to resign after failing to properly monitor his city’s finances for an extended period.  The result appears to be that nearly half of the city’s employees either have or will lose their jobs and important city services will be compromised.  Equally damaging is the loss of trust between residents and their local government.  It will be hard for the community to organize and complete projects in the years ahead.

I believe one of the most important tools we have to keep track of reality is carefully collected data.  I think everyone understands the importance of accurate financial accounting but far too few understand the value of monitoring other city activities and services.  The City has invested heavily in improving the quantity and quality of our data in recent years, and I believe this investment has helped us maintain service levels with smaller numbers of employees.  Despite these improvements, I know we have much more work to do.

Data, however, provides only a partial view of reality.  I was talking with the owner of an Albany manufacturing company last week, and he explained that a city in another state had offered him significant financial incentives to move his business.  He was interested and visited the community, only to find what he described as a dying downtown with crumbling old buildings.  The employer told me he would never move his business to a place like that and suggested to their mayor that he contact Albany for information about how to improve his community.  Just as stories about people having problems with city services or decisions can be important warning signals, success stories can help validate the conclusions we draw from data.

I think we are all vulnerable to information that reinforces our biases or serves our interests, and the most important questions we can ask about data or anecdotes are what are the sources and who benefits from it.  Research that is conducted to support a conclusion the researcher wants to see is suspect.  If the manufacturer who told me the story about the other city wooing him was looking for support from Albany, I would have reason to be skeptical of both his motives and the accuracy of his account.

I would guess that I will be the only one to wish you a Happy New Year, filled with precise data and accurate stories that will make your life better and more productive.