Congratulations to Nashville Mayor-elect John Cooper, who won the runoff with nearly 70% of the vote last week. The word is he may be open to some input on what the priorities should be for the next four years. While, admittedly, my usually steadfast objectivity could be a bit compromised in this case, here’s my two cents for what it is worth to them.
First, when it comes to priority setting, luckily they don’t have to rely on my objectivity. In 2018 we launched Nashville’s first recurring, random-sample resident survey, a performance management tool most communities of this size have had in place for a long time. The survey collects data from 400+ households each quarter (MOE +/- 5 on a quarterly basis and +/- 2.5 on an annual basis) and results are posted on Metro’s open data portal for public use.
The usual suspects–public education, police, affordable housing, streets and sidewalks, and public transportation–are consistently represented as high priorities, but note some of the differences in rank order and value across groups. For example, respondents who have lived in Nashville for less than five years are nearly twice as likely to say that public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority compared to respondents who have lived here for twenty or more years. Despite making up the majority of WeGo ridership, only 6.0% of low-income (< $30,000) respondents and 4.7% of black respondents think that public transportation should be Metro’s highest priority. Affordable housing, by contrast, gets 26.6% and 32.6%, respectively.
None of that likely comes as a surprise to transit advocates or political candidates and campaign staff with access to expensive polling data. But polling data isn’t usually in the public domain and open to scrutiny; thus it can’t provide the common set of facts needed to openly debate and reach consensus on controversial issues. I’m hoping Mayor-elect Cooper is serious about pushing Metro, and the city, in this direction. Increasing Metro’s investment in the resident survey to get a large enough sample for council district breakouts would be a good start.
Second, there needs to be more public engagement in Metro’s budget process. There’s a question on the resident survey about satisfaction with Metro’s budgeting and stewardship of public funds. The campaign rhetoric from Cooper’s side painted a dire picture of majority, widespread discontent on that front. In reality, 41% of respondents are dissatisfied with Metro’s management of public funds, according to the survey. Now, while 41% is not a majority, it is significantly higher than the 19% of respondents who are satisfied, so, you know, well-played and all. But that leaves 40% who say they either don’t know or are neutral on Metro’s financial management–and that’s an information gap that shouldn’t be wide enough for politicians to exploit. But it was a smart strategy. The column in the table above marked Highly Engaged includes respondents who have contacted a Metro elected official and attended a public meeting in the last year. This gets to the difference between political polling focused on voters and performance management surveys focused on all residents, but it’s probably safe to assume that the Highly Engaged crowd generally maps to voters. They are 20% of the survey sample and 58% of them are dissatisfied with Metro’s financial management.
We need to reverse that trend. Engagement should yield more confidence in Metro’s budgeting and stewardship of public funds, not less. There are several approaches worth considering. The City of Austin, for example, starts holding community meetings several months in advance of the proposed budget. Check out this summary of Austin’s FY 2019 budget engagement process and consider how it compares to Metro’s standard approach. Other communities have experimented with participatory budgeting. Results are mixed, but it’s worth considering in Nashville. It would be a logical next step in the evolution of nonprofit direct appropriations and the Community Partnership Fund.
Finally, Metro and the city of Nashville need an economic development strategy. We touched on this in our meetings of the Tax Increment Financing Study and Formulating Committee, but it was a bit outside the narrow scope of that effort. To be clear, Metro’s economic development staff is, and has been, top-notch. They are professionals in every sense of that word. But we are deploying subsidies–the “tools in the toolbox”–without a clearly articulated, consensus position on what we are trying to accomplish. In strategic planning terminology, we are deploying strategies (the how) without clearly defined goals (the what), and we’ve entirely skipped over the call to action (the why).
We have to fix that by engaging the community to help develop clearly defined, measurable goals for inclusive, equitable economic development that improves living standards for residents. That should be the goal. I’d encourage Mayor-elect Cooper to check out Austin’s economic development policy. We revamped it about ten years ago to include a publicly available cost-benefit analysis of every proposed deal–a common set of facts–and multiple opportunities for the community to weigh in before a contract was approved. It even earned an award for transparency from a leading anti-subsidy advocacy group, Good Jobs First. Restoring trust starts with transparency.
Congratulations, again, to Mayor-elect Cooper and his team. Here’s to a more data-driven Nashville.