(This article first appeared in the SF Weekly)
San Francisco produces so many “studies” about itself that it must surely be the most looked-at place on earth. Feasibility studies, development reports, slavery disclosure evaluations, new special use district plans … given the chance to stare at itself in a mirror, San Francisco would rather do it on paper.
These studies cover a dizzying array of subjects and concerns, but they tend to have one thing in common: most of them appear to be written by college sophomores. They make classic English 101 term paper mistakes – and so are fit for little more than sitting on a shelf in a nice glossy binder.
Here’s three recent examples:
Study: Economic Development Report
English 101 classic mistake: saying everything even when you have nothing to say
The city’s first “economic development plan,” released in January, contained more padding than a bra on prom night.
The falsies come out early in this 221 page report, when on page 2 it uses a full page chart to explain how … put your thinking caps on … “Policy and Action” leads to “Economic Foundations” which leads to “Economic Drivers” which leads to “Economic Performance.”
If you can’t imagine reading 221 pages of this stuff, try to imagine writing it. Do we really need a report to tell us that:
“The City’s economic structure is shaped by global economic forces as well as local actions.” “An area’s export sectors, and their competitiveness in global markets, have a powerful influence on the economic outcomes that affect the quality of life.”
“Retaining growing knowledge-sector firms in San Francisco will require making the City as competitive as possible with alternative locations in the Bay Area.”?
Honest-to-God … how many times do you have to say “No shit,” reading one report? By my admittedly unscientific count, there’s an average of two “duh” moments per page.
This is especially distressing given how the final recommendations … the ones you have to wade through about 215 pages for … are essentially no-brainers: more cooperation between the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development and the San Francisco school district; better market youth employment programs to the relevant industries; review the tax structure to see if any taxes are particularly onerous; raise the small business exemption … really basic stuff. It would take me 3 pages to explain what they did in 221 – and most of mine would be snark.
Study: Back Street Business Advisory Committee Report
English 101 classic mistake: writing about the wrong topic
You can tell exactly why this report is going to crash and burn when you read one sentence:
“This report tells the story of these local business owners and workers.”
Wait, this report … a set of policy recommendations … tells personal stories? Why? Why why why would it do that?
It’s not kidding, either. “This report is written as a story about those people and their work,” it notes in the introduction. “Whether business owners, workers, big companies or small entrepreneurs. It is the story of an industry that often exists behind the scenes, but provides thousands of well-paying jobs to local residents and essential goods and services to Main Street businesses, local residents and the larger economy.”
Oh, great. We wanted a policy recommendations, and instead we’re getting 57 pages of inspirational pap.
Here’s what it says about one local business:
“Sheedy Drayage is a true San Francisco company. When Joseph D. Sheedy founded Sheedy Drayage Co. in 1925, its equipment consisted of a single truck and its main work was hauling to and from San Francisco’s docks and railway depots. The company now operates a fleet of more than 100 trucks, trailers, cranes and other heavy-duty lifting and hauling equipment. Sheedy is one of northern California’s leading crane, rigging and heavy hauling contractors. Sheedy provides rigging services, erects tower cranes and manlifts.”
You can probably guess that it goes on like this … at length.
Once again, the eventual recommendations are so obvious you would almost have to invent a new category of obviousness to explain them. Examine the bureaucratic structure to see if it can be made more accommodating; offer incentives to new businesses; use zoning to make sure there’s enough land for these businesses to operate. These are all good suggestions, but, there’s not an original idea around … certainly not one that justifies 50 pages of “storytelling” to get there.
If the writers Economic Development report made the classic college writer mistake of thinking that no one will notice hundreds of pages of padding, the Back Street Businesses report made an equally classic mistake: forgetting what the assignment actually is.
Study: Slavery Disclosure Ordinance Report
English 101 classic mistake: thinking it’s all about you
Sadly, the city’s short reports aren’t any better – though at least they’re short. The report on the city’s “Slavery Disclosure Ordinance” was a modest 25 pages, which is all most city reports need to be. Yet somehow … somehow … it completely failed to provide any new information. All of the companies that admitted to having profited from the slave trade had previously admitted to it in other instances. We gained nothing – although we spent over $17,000 to hire 5 interns to prepare the report.
However, the report considers that to be a success anyway, because one of its purposes was to “provide an opportunity for students to learn how responsive government could be to societal imperatives.”
Really? Well, no … that wasn’t an official purpose when this report was commissioned, no … But somehow those 25 pages turned into a empowerment seminar. For the record, it’s an experience the interns were extremely grateful for: they, along with City Administrator Edwin Lee, spent a great deal of time at a public hearing telling the Board of Supervisors how wonderful a learning experience it had been.
So, to recap: we didn’t learn a damn thing, but the report was a great learning experience.
How does this happen?
Put these mistakes together … the needless padding; the “storytelling”; the transformation of a city report into a great learning experience for its writers … and a pattern emerges: we’ve forgotten what government reports are for.
At their best, they represent a means to an end … a way to determine the best policies as quickly as possible and make suggestions for implementation. But in San Francisco, reports have become an end in themselves. They must be artful, empowering, filled with both enlightenment and (quite often) pictures and graphs – and each step taken in this direction makes them a little less useful to the bottom line.
You’d think that in a city filled with writers, artists, and intellectuals, the government could produce a decently written report.
On the other hand, maybe that’s exactly the problem. We need experts.