Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Chicagoism, Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms by Robert Munson

This photo represents what historians could come to regard as the Chicago Spring. At this moment in May 2011, there were two big breaks with history. First and obvious, the person leading Chicago’s transformation changed from Richard to Rahm. Richie Daley’s two decades made Chicago half-ready as a leader of the Sustainable Century. Making us fully ready depends on fulfilling Rahm’s campaign promise of “fiscal sustainability.” This is his key challenge… and our responsibility, too. This photo also captures the good fortune of Chicagoans to have political genius-follow-genius in the Mayor’s Office.

Seemingly staged to capture a second and larger historical transformation, officials from all levels of government are present: the Vice President (hidden partially by Daley and whom Rahm has just shaken hands with), the Governor and Cook County officials. The photo implies an unspoken acknowledgement that governing cities well requires a Realignment of authorities, one of the 3Rs in the update of Chicagoism.

The second R — Reinventing services — was central to Rahm’s Inaugural. And the third R — Reforming accountability — was symbolized by his first official acts; what I call The Five Ethical Executive Orders, including the Mayor not taking campaign gifts from City contractors.

As a useful way to picture Rahm’s challenges and our transition to a government that can address today’s challenges, let’s quickly introduce how these 3Rs build a framework that generalizes a key problem, suggests how a principle of sustainability can guide solutions (see bubble diagram in Section 2) and summarizes solutions as Sustainability’s 3Rs.

Back to the details of Chicago’s transition under Rahm…. The positives of a new era were apparent quickly. Many Chicagoans also knew we should start girding ourselves to make the tough choices ahead. Details may differ, but many of these decisions are common to America’s cities today. To contrast the difference between talking about Big Changes and actually getting things done, the tale immediately below is instructive.

Compare Occupy Chicago to Chicago Spring

These two simultaneous events tell us a lot about how government will reconnect to its citizens. Occupy Chicago resulted in little more than an inchoate protest. While serving as a resonant response to our deadened federal and state democracy, Occupy Chicago still was three or four stages removed from the practical reforms needed to remake governments so they work again. Some 18 months from starting its talk, the Occupy movement is mostly memory.

While much of the nation was struggling in a democracy-of-irons, Chicago Spring launched our city on a path that can break through democracy’s complications. Chicago Spring accelerated the previous decade’s changes using governing strategies that this series synthesizes as an updated Chicagoism. Consider this practical -ism as a framework to categorize the first two years of changes and, more important, craft the deal needed for sustainable progress.

Rahm’s First 100 Days Opens Horizons to a Deal

During his transition, Emanuel talked straight to the City Council with comments such as “Nothing ahead of us is easy. It’s all hard.” Welcoming frankness and rapid changes, Chicagoans seemed to like what they got. Rahm’s honeymoon was applauded with an astounding approval rate pushing over 80% by Labor Day.

Accompanied by a PR machine producing prodigious press releases announcing an amazing and full range of improvements, here are some samples gleaned from the many 100 Days reviews offered by opinion-makers; most of whom were impressed, but felt it was too early for conclusive results. This condensed list only glimpses at Rahm’s enormously energetic display of remaking municipal government.

* Outlined $75 million in savings in before the Inauguration; realizing $50M before September 2011.

* Expanded the privatization of recycling. Plus, continued re-routing garbage collection.

* Created the city’s first ever interactive budget website at chicagobudget.org.

* Hosted the first Facebook town hall and several other innovative public forums.

* Announced securing 4,000 private sector jobs downtown and some neighborhoods.

On the fraud and abuse front, Rahm even reined in credit card use by City managers.

Further Acts of Accountability

To show his intent to cleanup the bigger money, he also tried to resolve Daley’s primary blemish by creating a task force to recommend reforms to Tax Increment Financing. In an assertive effort to avoid future TIF scandals and to minimize the ever-present appearances of impropriety in the particularly murky world of real estate deals, Rahm had the Task Force deliver proposals quickly by late August.

Accepted by most mainstream observers as a genuine effort at reform, the TIF report and the five Executive Orders served to give many Chicagoans pause to ponder that the “city that works” might actually do so in a reasonably ethical manner.

As a hindsight summary, consider Rahm’s first 100 Days as a political triumph because it made possible the changes that were to follow.

With its honeymoon faded, the Emanuel Administration’s rapid progress slowed as 2011 ended. Running out of low-hanging fruit to harvest, the Administration also had to contend with the dissatisfactions bred by budget cuts.

While big statement changes — such as the Five Ethical Executive Orders — were less frequent and the PR machine made more muted music, Rahm’s Administration still made solid progress during 2012. If you need more convincing, make a quick revisit to “The Urbanophile” September 2012 post, “Fixing Chicago: Rahm’s Work In Progress.”

In part, progress continued when the governed started sensing a new reality: Rahm’s strategy ameliorated small sacrifices by making things better in multiple ways.

How A Multi-Benefit Strategy Works for “The City That Works” and Can Work for Your City, Too

Compare Chicago’s 2012 results to those of Uncle Sam or Illinois. What level of government is creating “the new order of things” and which levels are preventing it?

While every government’s dilemmas are different, Rahm’s strategy produces progress because it markets multiple benefits: one change helps citizens in multiple ways. For example, Rahm tells the administration to publish the City’s data and let the private sector profit by adding value. Characteristic of how sustainable strategies produce multiple benefits, Rahm’s strategy has three wins.

First, sharing data makes possible greater accountability, a break from Daley’s secretive years.

Second, greater information flow can boost Rahm’s present problem: making services more efficient. Emerging when Daley was Mayor, the biggest example is BusTracker because it reduces waiting time and increases ridership and revenue. Other innovations also are creating the incremental use of data that, in total, makes noticeable progress.

Third, this governing strategy also stimulates local startups in the information economy by developing micro-applications. This last area could prime the pump to grow an industry that helps update Chicago’s role as a global center. While industrial Chicago took raw materials and added value to consumer products, an information-based Chicago today can convert more data into sustainable practices.

(If all this multi-benefits stuff sounds familiar, it should. It is a verbal rendition of the same dynamic describing the bubble diagram in Section 2.)

While we have too few results to judge how well Rahm’s overall tech strategy is working, it helped carry him over bumps during 2012. And for a few risks and pitfalls that may become apparent, go to the end of “The Urbanophile” post “Thoughts On Chicago’s Tech Scene.”

Whether or not Rahm’s tech emphasis is a triumph for economic growth, his information strategy helps two of the three “R” principles emerging in the 21st Century Chicagoism: Reinventing services and Reforming accountability. While seeking the Synergy “thing” certainly helps give the impression of progress, we explore two key examples of what we hope is lasting progress in the next installment.

Chicagoism Series Index
Part 1: Lessons from the 20th Century
Part 2: Starting the Transition to Sustainability
Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms (this post)
Part 4: How Chicagoism Works Again
Part 5: Where Do We Go From Here?

Robert Munson sharpened his interest in regional planning while serving on the Citizens Advisory Committee for the metropolitan plan released in 2010. Out of that experience, he started the website CCC or Chicagoland Citizens Central where you can find his profile. Readers can contact him directly at robertmunson@earthlink.net.

Topics: Economic Development, Public Policy, Sustainability, Talent Attraction, Technology
Cities: Chicago

5 Responses to “Chicagoism, Part 3: Reinventing Services, Starting Accountability Reforms by Robert Munson”

  1. James says:

    In Chicago the big challenge is high labor costs. City services cost the citizens and businesses of Chicago too much money. For real estate transactions you need a water certificate and getting one from the water department requires firms to have an employee there all day. The loss of man hours waiting in the water department is but one example, it happens everywhere. The dilapidated L is hampered by labor costs – over 70 percent of the CTA’s budget goes to labor. And don’t get me started on the unfunded pension obligations: the “real” reason why the city and state is broke.

    So far I don’t see any ideas from you or the “genius” mayor on how to fix it.

  2. the urban politician says:


    If Chicago could resolve the labor issue and the pension issue (see yesterday’s Crains declaring Illinois the “Greece” of America), I think this region could really take off economically.

    However, you are wrong that Emanuel has made no effort to fix the problem. He has been probably the first mayor in a long time to directly confront the unions (to varying success), and he has pushed hard for pension reform. Unfortunately, fixing the pension issue is up to the state legislature and governor in Springfield. There is only so much the mayor can do other than shout from the sidelines.

    Springfield is the real problem here.

  3. Robert Munson says:

    In the spirit of seeking the new urban synthesis, let me agree with both comments.

    James certainly is correct in that not enough has been done to improve how City employees provide services and their impact on the budget deficit; both of which are constrained by labor contracts that are really tough to change. (I explore this a bit more in the post for 2/5.)

    TUP (if I might presume to use his acronym) also is correct about pension reform being the other fiscal key. To change both contracts is complicated not just by the courts, but also the politics have to be un-done.

    The unions of the public’s employees cannot give to the reelection campaigns of our representatives, since they sign these sweetheart contracts. To end such bribes fairly, everyone should be forbidden from bribing and campaigns should be funded by the public who, in turn, should get the good information they need to select the people who will make government work.

    To break today’s trap, we need a new social contract… but don’t let me get ahead of myself!

  4. May says:

    Why is no one mentioning the underlying issue behind the Illinois pension crisis: too many local governments!
    http://www.chicagomag.com/ Chicago-Magazine/The-312/ September-2012/Illinois-Land- of-7000-Governments/
    Illinois: Land of 7,000 Governments
    By the way, another state with too many local governments, Pennsylvania is also in a mess.
    ” home to a quarter of U.S. public pension plans”

    Fireman Pension Forces City to Lose Its Water Money: Muni Credit

  5. Robert Munson says:

    Thanks for making a good point.
    All those governments must contribute to the pension crisis… much like all those governments create their own bureaucracies to serve special interests and contribute to the fiscal crisis… much like all those governments create a sprawl too expensive for households to maintain and build the savings they need for college and retirement.
    But back to pensions… they are unregulated obligations now being passed around like toxic waste. Every time I get stumped by the state’s stupidity, I go back to the 3Rs:
    * Realign regionally to rationalize services (and pensions);
    * Reform accountability, create independent pension boards elected by public funds;
    * Reinvent how the public’s employees are compensated.
    A clean, regional government contracting among Chicagoland’s 244 municipalities and 1400+ local government units is the most economic way to provide citizens and corporations the needed services and keep track of long-term obligations… like pensions.

The Urban State of Mind: Meditations on the City is the first Urbanophile e-book, featuring provocative essays on the key issues facing our cities, including innovation, talent attraction and brain drain, global soft power, sustainability, economic development, and localism. Included are 28 carefully curated essays out of nearly 1,200 posts in the first seven years of the Urbanophile, plus 9 original pieces. It's great for anyone who cares about our cities.

About the Urbanophile


Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

Full Bio


Please email before connecting with me on LinkedIn if we don't already know each other.



Copyright © 2006-2014 Urbanophile, LLC, All Rights Reserved - Click here for copyright information and disclosures