It’s super easy to laugh at the foibles of a large City like San Francisco. A recent SF Weekly article about the inefficiencies of San Francisco’s numerous Boards, Commissions, and Task Forces makes you glad that Alameda seems positively streamlined in comparison.
San Francisco doesn’t know how many commissions, committees, task forces, or working groups it has. The clerk of the board monitors 96. The mayor’s office keeps tabs on 97. A database lists 116 citizen bodies — a total well over double that found in other large cities in California and nationwide.
Not only is the city not counting its commissions, it’s not accounting for them. This has led to duplication and inefficiency. San Francisco prides itself on allowing everyone to talk (and talk and talk).
But it does guarantee a price tag. A recent analysis revealed that servicing San Francisco’s battalion of commissions requires scores of thousands of hours of city employees’ working time, with some commission secretaries being compensated nearly $200,000 a year. Mass public input is costing millions of dollars — and, in many cases, actually resulting in an entrenchment of the bureaucratic status quo.
It’s a really interesting article and worth a read.
Alameda recently attempted to reign in its own Boards and Commissions but I think the exercise ended up losing focus. I was underwhelmed by the process — so far — that has been initiated by the City Council subcommittee of Vice Mayor Rob Bonta and Councilmember Doug deHaan. The problem appears to be that neither of them seem to be that invested in the Boards and Commissions and so just went along with the staff suggestions on how to move forward with the consolidation process.
While I think that Boards and Commissions — and by extension Task Forces and Committee — can be an important tool for cities, I also think they can be inefficient and worse, ineffective. Which then means they are just a waste of time for everyone involved.
For example, the Transportation Commission, which I believe was created with every intention of doing good work examining transportation projects in Alameda and providing well thought out comments from citizen commissioners with a strong interest and/or expertise in the matter. Within the past two years that Commission has been used not for the purpose it was created but as yet another place where City Staff could bring a dog and pony show to be able to report that they “brought it to the Transportation Commission.”
Another example, the Fiscal Sustainability Committee, which I was super excited about produced a well written report on the state of the long term outlook of the City’s finances, but never actually produced any recommendations that could have been adopted into action or made into policy. Which would have been, you know, useful.
The problem with these Commissions, Boards, Committees, and Task Forces is that they end up becoming a solution in and of itself. Such as, what have you done about transparency in the City? Oh, we created as Task Force. Or, what have you done about tackling the concerns of young people in the City? Oh, we have a Youth Commission. What have you done about the financial state of the City? Oh, we formed a Committee. And so on and so forth. If the Commission, Board, Committee, or Task Force is just around to make people feel good about creating something then it’s not really doing much other than appeasing folks.
What I was hoping that the Council sub-committee was going to do was — as ironic as this sounds — create a limited scope committee — and by limited scope, I’m really talking about time — to review all the committees and produce a report that first and foremost laid out the point of having Boards and Commissions in the first place. For Boards and Commissions that were not charter created to understand what the purpose of every other Board and Commission is and based on that whether or not that Board and/or Commission is redundant or duplicated elsewhere. Then after we figure out what the hell it is the Boards and Commission actually do, then work on what to do with them. Also, as part of this, there needs to be a policy recommendation about the creation of new Committees and Boards — and their related brethren the Task Force and Committee (of any ribboned color) — so that those do not get abused by those looking to score some cheap political points with certain factions within the City at the expense of actually doing something. John Knox White actually wrote about this when the topic came up initially at the City Council and articulated it much better than I can.
Right now, the City is approaching the subject in terms of staff hours and how much it costs to them — which is an important factor, but not the only factor in terms of getting a handle around this issue.
It’s not too late to make Alameda’s exercise in examining its Boards and Commissions a meaningful effort, but it will require someone actually caring about ensuring that the Boards and Commissions are actually effective bodies as opposed to just a campaign slogan or an easy soundbyte. And it starts with not creating some cheesy blue ribbon committee every time someone gets it into their head that a cheesy blue ribbon committee should be formulated. It starts with the City, and more importantly the City Council, understanding why and when Boards, Commission, Task Forces, and Committees should come into existence.