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Explainer: The Zucker Report marginalia

Monday, March 9, 2015 by Michael Kanin

There was a lot of unveiling in the Zucker Report. We saw that a third-party analysis of the City of Austin’s Planning and Development Review Department did, indeed, show what appears as evidence of multiple divisions in shambles, as had been suggested for some time by department patrons. And, no doubt, there will be plenty of discussion of what Liz Pagano first reported Friday morning about the department receiving some of the worst responses the Zucker firm has seen in the course of its work.

Still, what may be more interesting — and perhaps more important as an artifact of this city management — is what’s written in the margins throughout the 700-page report. There, in a rare glimpse inside the internal thinking of those who populate the upper levels of city management and the department in question, interested parties can see how management interacts with at least these very critical consultant remarks.

Let’s first acknowledge that PDRD is among the more important city departments. Put simply: The planners, reviewers, administration and other support staff assigned to that division of Austin’s civic apparatus greenlight projects. Big projects. Small projects. Renovations. Demolitions. If you’ve build it here, at some point you’ll have been subjected to the efforts of this department.

(Full disclosure: My partner and I did some renovation work on our home in 2013-’14. For the record, we had no major problems in our interactions with the department.)

The department also weighs in on things like the city’s comprehensive planning efforts — those big-picture takes at what future Austin should look like.

For some time, PDRD’s customer base has quietly and not-so-quietly expressed concerns over operations at One Texas Center. Chief among these is the idea that conditions in the department were causing development delays, an issue that faced (along with a continued growth boom) City Council back in 2012, when it hired 14 more staff for the department.

As issues lingered, in June 2014, Council OK’d the Zucker study. Late that same year, whispers about the sharp negative findings of the report began circulating, and pressure started to mount on the city over its release.

In February, the Statesman reported on the release of a heavily redacted version of the report (still, we should note, in working form) — an event that appeared to please exactly no one. But new Council members seemed to support a full release of the documents, and, last Thursday, management finally unleashed the full Zucker Report.

It came with an introduction penned by Assistant City Manager Sue Edwards. There, Edwards details exactly why, from her perspective, management does not release half-baked reports. “Overall, it is staff’s opinion that releasing any consultant’s information prematurely and without proper vetting will distract from the analysis,” Edwards wrote.

Edwards implied that the documents staff released contain factual errors, and that a full review and drafting process would “(help) ensure that the analysis and findings are sound.” She also seemed to hint at what might — and indeed does — appear to a wider readership as a combative stance from management. “In no way does the City ever seek to influence the analysis, opinion or findings of hired consultants.”

(The full three-paragraph statement from Edwards is here.)

And that brings us to the marginalia. As Pagano wrote Friday, some of the notes are certainly trivial — the sort of fact-checking and clarifying of stuff that Edwards argued would make for better results. But some of it appears to be much more.

In a section that deals with issues the Zucker team casts as “related to (the) entire … department,” the consultants tabulate a list of departmental culture findings. These include that PDRD “interprets codes with no deviation,” that it “nit pick(s) submissions” and that it “does a first review that is incomplete just to meet the timeline performance goal.”

At the head of the table, staff comments suggest that “(t)his is not exclusively the culture of PDRD but reflective of the culture within the Austin community.” Staff continues on to cite another portion of the study as evidence of what it says is an internal report “contradiction.” “In fact, in your Executive Summary under the History section, you reference your 1987 report and the ‘Austin Way’ which seems to contradict the ‘existing culture of PDRD …'”

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The Executive Summary portion of the document does not appear to be included in this release. However, the statement seems to point at the notion that familiar citywide difficulties contribute to cultural troubles in the department. And this may indeed be correct. Either way, this is an extremely candid observation — one not likely to make its way into these pages without anonymity and perhaps full context.

Shortly after these comments is another example of a rare glimpse into management thinking. As Zucker consultants approached a recommendation that PDRD “managers should work on changing the culture” of their department, staff suggests that they’d need support from Council. “This recommendation should reference the policy makers who control the level of discretion permitted to staff,” reads the comment.

Again, this is not a statement that would normally make its way to these pages.

Pagano cited another example of the value of these comments in her Friday piece. This time, observers are treated to a look at the department’s extremely candid view of itself. “In the section on the city’s Permit Center, for example, an observation that wait times were, at a maximum, two hours and 21 minutes long was changed to read that the wait time for customers is 42 minutes,” she wrote. The comment continues:

Marginalia on those changes read, in part, “(Permit Program Supervisor Cande) Coward is a fairly recently appointed manager and still believes her job is to come to the counter and help staff when they are backed up, which is all the time. She needs to manage! A little victim mentality going on here. (Permit Review Specialist Zulema) Flores does the same thing, helping at the counter rather than real supervision. I’ll need to look closer at this. I’ve basically just tried to shed as much work as possible from this group.”

Like everything here, this will all take much more vetting to put in full, proper context. And our reporters will do their best to look at what’s here — whether internal pressures and the city’s involvement paradigm weigh down its operations — and more. But for now at least, we are grateful to have a rare, printable look at management — even if it’s just in the margins.

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