City leaders have been chided lately for their
ham-handed approach to public process in the renaming of a downtown stretch of
Georgia St. and the commissioning of a public sculpture by internationally
renowned artist Fred Wilson.
Complaints in both cases have focused on a perceived
lack of public input regarding these initiatives, the feeling that city
muckety-mucks have gone behind closed doors, cooked up what they think are some
Big Ideas and foisted these things on the citizenry.
There's some truth in this analysis. Indianapolis
movers and shakers have a long, by now wheezing, history of autocratic
behavior. To my knowledge there was never a referendum on declaring this town
the amateur sports capital of the world. Nor, for that matter, was there a
great deal of public consultation involved in the decision to devote a big gulp
of the city's resources to hosting a Super Bowl.
an open and more participatory public process in community decision-making is
certainly called for, the notion that public input guarantees progress seems
The late Steve Jobs comes to mind. In the days since
his death, the former Apple CEO has been hailed as a transformational figure
who used design to change the way we relate to communications technologies and,
by extension, each other.
What seems to have most amazed observers about Jobs
was not his technical expertise or even his wonderfully elegant and intuitive understanding
of the power of aesthetics. What blew them away about Jobs was his seeming lack
of interest in what people wanted.
Unlike the vast majority of contemporary managers who
base their actions on polls and market research, Jobs proceeded from the assumption
that people couldn't tell him what they wanted because they really didn't know
what that might be. Therefore it was up to him to conceive and design products
that could speak in a way that turned people on—arousing and fulfilling
desires they didn't realize they had.
Viewed from a certain angle, this made Jobs arrogant
and a gambler. But it's a short step from there to an appreciation of him as
visionary leader. In any event, Jobs lived by the courage of his convictions.
Would that we could say the same thing about our
supposed movers and shakers.
In the Georgia St. renaming debacle, members of
Indianapolis Downtown Inc. and Mayor Ballard's office appear to have had the
not fully baked idea that pinning a new label on a redesigned, pedestrian-friendly
stretch of this downtown boulevard would somehow signal the place as a cool
destination. This, in itself, was not an unreasonable conclusion to reach. The
problem was not that city leaders proceeded to engage in a wobbly attempt to
get the public to help rename the street, but that they unveiled their idea
without a clear sense of what they actually wanted. This lack of creative
imagination created a jumble that left everyone feeling that no change at all
was the preferred solution.
In the case of Fred Wilson's sculpture, a depiction of
a freed slave entitled "E Pluribus Unum," appropriated from a figure
already appearing on the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, leaders from the
Central Indiana Community Foundation and, again, Mayor Ballard's office, backtracked
on a plan to install the work on the plaza in front of the City-County Building
when this news provoked an outcry among some members of the city's
It's easy to write this setback off to a lack of
public process. But Wilson's work was designed to provoke a complicated public
reaction. Unanimous praise was not its intention. The question would be whether
the work's sponsors would have the courage of convictions that drew them to an
artist like Fred Wilson in the first place. Unfortunately, rather than defend
the work, the plan to put it in front of city hall has been abandoned and now a
series of focus groups is meeting to determine where the work should
be—or whether it should be created at all. Public process has become a
kind of reverse tyranny.
This is what happens when we get managers instead of
leaders. Without the political leadership to drive the discussion, we get
studies and commissions, editorials and public meetings, but nothing happens.
That's because elected officials aren't willing to stake their offices on
championing an idea not publicly pre-approved.
Given our current class of public managers, don't hold
your breath, for example, about ever getting a viable public transit system
Living in a city without good public transit is
similar to life before iMacs and iPhones arrived: We can't appreciate the
impact of the innovation until we experience its influence on our lives. Then
we wonder how we ever lived without it. Public process is necessary, but it isn't
the answer to everything. We also need leadership capable of asking, "What
would Steve Jobs do?"