Million Dollar Baby - Part 4

Dr Jim Gardner
Dr Jim Gardner

For the past 3 articles we’ve been looking at a report from the City staff intended for the Council to advise the Council on whether or not to create a Traffic Commission or Committee. The City pays out more than $1,000,000 a year for the collective services of the report’s authors, yet the report has so many errors that it required three articles and more than 2,000 words just to summarize them. I completed a detailed report on the errors which I submitted to the Council and that report was 7 pages long, single spaced (BTW – you can get a copy if you e-mail me at DrJGardner@gmail.com) .

The City Council makes decisions all the time that directly impact our lives. To a great extent the Council depends on staff reports in their decision making process. When such deeply flawed reports are given to the Council, how can we expect that good decisions will follow?


In their defense, the City calls the report a “framework” and in their own words “This report is not intended to represent exhaustive research…” To what extent are the issues I raised in my critique appropriate to a non-exhaustive framework? Let’s go through my criticisms one by one and see whether or not they are justified. I’ve numbered them in the order of their appearance in my report, and more or less, their order of importance.

  1. The report failed to get any information on the benefits of having a traffic committee. Do they save lives? reduce accidents? reduce travel time? This is the main thing we want to know but the City’s report completely ignores this.

  2. The City did a survey of "staff time" and found out that commissions require a median of 30 hours a month and committees require 12.5 hours a month, but they completely ignored the level of the staff members who provided the time. With salaries ranging from $20 to $200 an hour, it makes a big difference whether or not a committee requires 12 hours of a Director’s time or 12 hours of a clerk’s time.

  3. Failure to look at the impact of committee membership. If being a member of a committee helps get people interested in government and they move on to commissions and councils, then this is a critical piece of information. But staff never inquired.

  4. Failure to adequately analyze the data. I took the city and time data, then added population, physical size, and density and came up with some remarkable findings. The staff never took that extra step.

  5. The city falsely claims that traffic/parking issues are quickly dealt with and dealt with at a “quality” level. I gave some examples where this wasn’t true.

  6. Failure to use the proper statistic. The city used mean scores when the data, due to the number of outliers, called for the use of the median to more properly describe the group.

  7. Failure to provide all the data involved in setting up a commission/committee.


Given that the City’s report wasn’t “intended to represent exhaustive research”, we can excuse items #7 (failure to get more data), #4 (in depth analysis of data), and #3 (impact of committee membership).


Regardless of whether your report is exhaustive or not, some things shouldn’t happen. You should know enough to choose the better statistic (item #6 – median vs. mean). You should use a proper dependent variable (Item #2 – using time without determining the cost of that time). You should look at the major issue (Item #1 – what are the benefits of a traffic committee?). And you shouldn’t mis-represent the level of service provided by the City (Item #5 – the claim that parking/traffic issues are handled quickly and well).

So while it’s clear that the City’s less than exhaustive framework can be forgiven some of its sins, it’s equally clear that there are mistakes being made here (and elsewhere) that reflect poorly on the City’s research and report generating capabilities.


The errors in this report are not an isolated instance. The staff produces deeply flawed reports like this several times a year, and that’s just the ones I catch. Even more troubling is the staff’s general response to criticism. Rarely do they admit their mistakes, and even worse, rarely do they seem to learn from their errors. Hence, this latest report is even worse than the previous reports I’ve commented on.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the Council’s reaction to all of this. To some extent, you can understand if highly paid civil servants don’t like to admit that their research and report writing skills are not up to the task, because this brings into question their highly paid salaries. But the Council members have been voted into office to protect the interests of the citizens. They should be concerned that the quality of many of the reports they get are substantially flawed.


Tomorrow I want to draw some conclusions.

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Tom Cagley December 29, 2013 at 06:36 PM
Jim: Your normal logical study. I know I'm gnawing on the same bone, but your point about the Councils' responsibility is to protect the citizens does not seem to seek into their conscious. When one of the employees wrote me that they work for the Council I wish he would have copied that e-mail to the mayor, et al. I'll look for the 'end of the year' wrap up tomorrow. Who knows, a New Year, perhaps a new view from the Council chambers! Have a Happy New Year if I don't see you before then. Tom
Tom Cagley December 29, 2013 at 10:55 PM
Oops, correction, "does not seem to "seep" into their conscisous...
Jim Gardner December 30, 2013 at 01:02 AM
I think it works either way. :)


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