Stealth Visioning?

I've been skeptical in the past of organized efforts to do "The Vision Thing" in Pittsburgh, so when I heard again today about something called the "Imagine Greater Pittsburgh" project, which is in the process of hiring an Executive Director, I was immediately alarmed.

There has been relatively little media attention paid to the initiative (here's a story from the Trib from last August, for example), and the position announcement for the Executive Director job is pretty cryptic. Here is the full text:
The Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh seeks a consultant and/or contract employee to serve as Executive Director of Imagine Greater Pittsburgh, a regional visioning project. Imagine Greater Pittsburgh (IGP) will be a broadly-participatory public project in which the citizens of the economic region centered on Pittsburgh – including 14 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania, five in Eastern Ohio, ten in Northern West Virginia, and one in Western Maryland – will be invited to envision together the best future for the region.

The ultimate goal of IGP is to create awareness of those problems and opportunities which are regional in nature, and which will require collaborative approaches, and to encourage the will and enthusiasm needed to seize such opportunities and resolve such challenges.

IGP will be carried out pursuant to a plan approved by three initial partners, the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission, the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, and the Greater Pittsburgh Nonprofit Partnership. These three organizations have recruited a Steering Committee of more than 40 leaders from across the region, who are representative of the government, business, and nonprofit sectors, and representative of the demographics of the region. The Steering Committee has appointed an Implementation Committee to oversee the search for an Executive Director.

The Executive Director will be engaged for an estimated period of two years, and will execute the project on a budget of between $1.5 to $2 million. The Executive Director will be under contract to the University of Pittsburgh, but will report to the Steering Committee, and more specifically to an Executive Committee of the Steering Committee once it is appointed.

The Executive Director will be responsible initially for working with the Steering Committee to complete the regional visioning plan in greater detail, to select consultants, and to engage necessary additional staff. Throughout the life of the project, the Executive Director will be responsible for all aspects of day-to-day implementation. The Executive Director must have a demonstrated track record as a civic entrepreneur – a person who can appreciate and build creative connections among the different people and institutions across the region, draw out their values, and help them to appreciate challenges and recognize opportunities.

The Executive Director must be a person who can work independently - who is a doer as well as a manager - and who is free to travel extensively within the region. If the person is not a current resident of the region, he or she will need to relocate to the region for the duration of the project.

It is preferable if the Executive Director has skill and experience in: facilitation; creative uses of communications technologies; public relations; planning; writing and public speaking; and the workings of government. This position requires someone who has a strong familiarity with the region, its people, and its institutions, as well as a solid reputation within the region, and an ability to share credit as appropriate. Most importantly, the Executive Director must be a person who is herself or himself, a person of creativity and vision.

That's a lot of money to spend on what a cynic might dismiss as an effort by Pittsburgh's usual political and cultural elites (the ACCD and the Institute of Politics in particular) to identify and mobilize the social capital associated with the region's past, present, and future. To give that capital a name and make it easier to find, let's make up a name. Say, "Steeler Nation." Does it exist? Can it be identified? Mobilized? Most important, marketed? Let's spend $2 mm to find out!

That's the cynic's view. Despite the expense and the "usual suspects" character of the initiative, I'm going to be guardedly optimistic here. When I posted before about "the vision thing," I wrote, "Is Pittsburgh's traditional leadership elite ready to open source regional renewal?" What I meant was that Pittsburgh's economic and cultural momentum needs to build on grass roots resources, coming from both inside and outside the region. Out the door goes the idea that the Allegheny Conference knows what's best for Pittsburgh and all of us should get in line. Out the door goes the idea that "visioning" means marketing. "Visioning" means "building," not marketing.

If you read the position description above carefully, you will note echoes of "open source visioning":
The Executive Director must have a demonstrated track record as a civic
entrepreneur – a person who can appreciate and build creative connections among
the different people and institutions across the region, draw out their values,
and help them to appreciate challenges and recognize opportunities.

Of course, the project still sounds top-heavy in that old-school-Pittsburgh-style-of-smothering-new-initiatives. IGP is a collaboration among the IoP, the ACCD, the SPC, the GPNP, and some of Pittsburgh's more progressive foundations. We might call that "collaboration," which is a good thing, usually. But with a 40-person Steering Committee? Get real! That's not a working board; it's another classic Pittsburgh ritual for recognizing people as part of the Next Big Downtown Thing.

I understand the politics of not-for-profit finance: If you want to fund a $2mm initiative, you need to hand out a lot of seats at the table. But you don't get much bang for the buck. If you want another sideways-sliding Pittsburgh marketing initiative, build a 40-person Steering Committee. If you want real civic entrepreneurship, take the money but build a 15-person board. People who are more interested in the future of the region than in the future of their own careers will understand. Let Imagine Greater Pittsburgh leave the gun [the board seat], and take the cannoli [the cash]. Go lean.

So I'm optimistic in the sense that it's unlikely that nothing harmful will come out of this, except possibly the waste of a couple of million dollars that could be better spent. With a different structure, the whole thing might have promise. I'll wait and see.

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Pittsblog 2.0 is written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. Send email to michael.j.madison[at]gmail.com. Mike also blogs at Madisonian.net, on law and technology. Chris Briem of Null Space drops by from time to time.

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Pittsblog 2.0 has a motto: "It's steel good in Pittsburgh." Say it aloud, with a Pittsburgh accent.

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