Houston lessons from the updated "Dallas at the Tipping Point"First, Otis White from Governing magazine with the update and recap (again, no permalinks, so this is the whole thing), then I'll get into some excerpts from DMN and my thoughts.
And then, from the Dallas Morning News overview story:
Why the Facts Are Not Enough
How to Create Change in a City
What does it take to cause significant change in a city? For some, it's simple: Just lay out the facts. If the problems are made clear enough, leaders will change, and so will the city. For those who believe that, we'd like to introduce you to Dallas.
In April 2004, the Dallas Morning News published what must be the strongest case for change in a city of the last three decades. Simply put, the series (titled "Dallas at the Tipping Point") announced that the city was on the road to becoming the next Detroit, with soaring crime rates, an underperforming school system, a rapidly fleeing middle class and a dwindling tax base. Worse, it said, city officials, including city council members, seemed unaware of the trends. "It was as if Dallas City Hall were an aircraft flying blind and in the clouds, in a steep nosedive, with a disoriented pilot," the newspaper said recently, looking back on its 2004 report.
Just a bunch of newspaper hysteria? Top city officials tried to spin it that way, but the Morning News had done something clever: It had hired the corporate consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to look at Dallas as if it were a Fortune 500 company, sift through the numbers and decide whether Dallas was headed in the right direction. Result: If anything, the Booz Allen consultants were more pessimistic than the reporters. (You can view the 2004 Booz Allen report by clicking here.)
But surely things have changed since 2004, right? A few months ago, the newspaper and Booz Hamilton revisited the numbers, interviewed elected officials and took measure of the changes. The good news: The politicians are starting to talk the right talk. The bad news: They aren't walking the walk. Going back to its airplane analogy, the Morning News said, "The flight crew has begun to get its bearings. But without an altimeter, or a full sense of the impending crisis, the pilot is fiddling with the flaps instead of pulling back on the stick." Translation: Dallas is still hurtling toward disaster. (For the update report, click here.)
What explains the inaction of the past year and a half? Well, don't underestimate the power of denial. But there's something deeper here: To use a 1980s phrase, it's the difficulty of making paradigm shifts. Dallas' mayor and city council were elected with one view of the city and its future, the Morning News has presented them with a very different view, and the politicians are having trouble moving from one to the other. Hence, their incessant bickering about details, such as whether the mayor needs more power and whose ward is being favored, rather than dealing with the gathering crisis.So what does it take to turn around a city? The facts certainly help, and for this the Morning News should be thanked. And a few extraordinary politicians may find their way to the new paradigm. But the greatest opportunity for change lies with future candidates who can explain the crisis and the opportunity for change in ways that leave the voters feeling both frightened and hopeful. When enough of these new candidates are elected and enough of the old politicians are gone, change will happen.
Certainly a sobering and cautionary tale for Houston. Lessons for us?
The study uncovered a series of startling government failures and offered a sober conclusion: If Dallas does not reverse its course, the city will spiral into a cycle of decline that could gut services and hollow out civic life.
A year and a half later, a similar study anchored the original findings – Dallas has sky-high crime, bottom-dwelling schools and a middle class that's stampeding for the suburbs – and made a double-helix sort of discovery.
Dallas City Hall does not have a plan to fix the mess. So, even though City Manager Mary Suhm has recalibrated city government in important ways over the last 18 months, even though the city is benefiting from the ideas and leadership of a new police chief and economic development director, even though there is fresh energy and optimism in the Dallas Independent School District under Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, the city's underlying problems remain.
Key findings in the 2005 Booz Allen report:
•Dallas has the highest crime rate of any large city in the nation. And, even though the city is projected to spend more money than ever on public safety, Dallas spends less to fight crime than its peer cities around the nation.
•Dallas public schools have among the highest-paid teachers and the lowest standardized test scores in Texas.
•Dallas residents are migrating from the city to the suburbs at a faster rate than anywhere else in the nation, taking businesses and tax dollars with them.
- Aggressively stomp out the recent crime spike, before it becomes a trend - the same way the Federal Reserve pulls out the stops to stamp out inflation at the first whiff, before it grows out of control - even at the risk of slowing down the economy. This means hiring and training more police and putting pressure on hot-spot apartment complexes to increase their security. I'd also like to see an active exploration of new technology, like ankle-bracelets with GPS tracking and wireless reporting for ex-cons on probation or parole (since most crimes, esp. violent ones, are repeat offenders). Crime reported? Check the database logs to see if any ex-cons were in the vicinity at the time, then look up their current location and pick 'em up.
- HISD is making slow but steady progress - evolutionary change - but they're not experimenting with radical, revolutionary change like the YES and KIPP state charter schools. They need to establish their own district charter school program and push innovation when it comes to educating poor, minority, and immigrant English-as-a-second-language students.
- Invest aggressively in mobility to keep jobs in the core, while also moving forward on annexations to keep up the tax base (and before the state takes the power away). The most critical mobility investments are congestion-priced, always-fast, EZ-tag toll lanes combined with a high-speed, point-to-point, regional express commuter bus/van system, ideally with subsidized but competing private operators (competing on comfort, schedule, reliability, route, and amenities like wireless internet).