Sounds like a plan

The City of Alameda loves its strategic plans.

At least the staff who propose them and the Council members who vote for them do.

And the consultants who get paid to prepare them can’t be too unhappy, either.

As the chart below shows, Council has approved six strategic plans since 2018, and two more are in the works.  The total amount of the consulting fees authorized to date comes to $1,370,437, with another $114,416 contract going before Council this Tuesday.

Typically, the City has issued a Request for Proposals to select the consultant to prepare a strategic plan.  The exception is the DEI plan, for which staff solicited recommendations from municipal agencies in northern California, got 10 names, interviewed the firms to determine their “approach and availability,” and chose SEED Collaborative as the “best qualified” of the lot.  The staff report described SEED as “a California‑based consulting firm focused on sustaining community‑aligned organizations.”

Sometimes, the RFP generated multiple applicants.  For example, four firms bid on the Transportation Choices Plan.  The successful applicant, CDM Smith, was a “global” engineering and consulting firm that later got multi‑million‑dollar contracts from the City to prepare the plans, specifications and other contract documents for the Central Avenue ($3,158,930) and Clement Avenue ($1,360,633) street‑improvement projects.

Likewise, four firms bid on the Active Transportation Plan.  Toole Design Group, which the staff report described as “a national leader in bicycle and pedestrian planning and engineering,” got the job.  The scope of its work also included preparing the Vision Zero Action Plan.

Other times, the interest level wasn’t so high:  only one firm responded to the RFP for the “Citywide Strategic Plan” whose preparation Council will be asked to sanction Tuesday.  (According to City Public Information Officer Sarah Henry, “what we are hoping to achieve is a detailed three‑to-five‑year workplan based on the priorities set by Council.”)  The staff report described the sole bidder, CivicMakers, as a “local, Bay Area‑based team that serves local governments by providing strategic planning, community engagement, professional development and program design.”

Who is paying for these strategic plans?  Occasionally, the City has tapped outside sources to cover the consultants’ fees.  For example, according to the staff reports, Alameda County sales tax funds (Measures B and BB) were used to pay a portion of the costs of the Transportation Choices Plan, the Active Transportation Plan, and the Vision Zero Action Plan.  “Local discretionary grant funds” from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission also were used for the latter two.

But the City also spent Alameda taxpayers’ money on the plans as well.  For the Transportation Choices Plan, $195,000 of the cost came from the General Fund.  The General Fund also appears to have paid all of the cost of the DEI plan, and it will pick up the entire tab for the Citywide Strategic Plan.  In addition, the City has used funds from other municipal accounts to pay a portion of the consultants’ fees for other plans ($100,000 from the Base Reuse Fund for the Transportation Choices Plan and $50,000 from the Tidelands Fund for the CARP.)

Now, we have to confess that we never have put a lot of trust in consultants.  (No fancy‑pants “jury consultant” is going to tell us how to pick a jury.)  So naturally it occurred to us to wonder whether the City has gotten its money’s worth from the $1.4 million it has paid to consultants since 2018.  And we decided to go right to the top to look for the answer.

In response to our inquiry, City Manager Jennifer Ott gave us a reasoned argument for the value of strategic planning for a city like Alameda.  It was, she told us, “a best practice in local government for managing limited staff and financial resources effectively, especially on challenging priority areas, such as traffic congestion, climate action and homelessness that require significant expertise and community engagement.”  Specifically, she added, strategic planning:   

  1. Creates a vision and workplan that conveys to outside funders that the City is organized, thoughtful and will expend their resources wisely, resulting in more successful grant applications;

  2. Obtains upfront feedback from the community and technical stakeholders before implementing individual policies, programs and projects;

  3. Leverages the expertise of an outside consultant, who is a professional expert with experience in the best practices in the field throughout the region, State and possibly nation;

  4. Gains Council feedback and approval on a vision and plan, making future implementation more streamlined; and

  5. Ultimately, focuses scarce staff and financial capacity in a more efficient and effective manner.

Ms. Ott, of course, only assumed the role of City Manager a few weeks ago.  (She previously worked for the City from 2005 through 2018, overseeing development planning for Alameda Point.)  But Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft has sat on the dais since she was elected as a Council member in 2012, and she voted for all six of the strategic plans approved to date by Council.  Her views echo Ms. Ott’s:

Strategic planning initiatives that align with Council and community priorities are crucial to guiding staff and financial resources efficiently and effectively.  The planning efforts outlined in your spreadsheet address the City’s most pressing community needs, such as traffic congestion and safety, alternative transportation, climate action, and homelessness, and we have used these documents to help secure millions of dollars in regional, State and federal funding and to direct hundreds of hours of City staff time.

The alternative is that staff acts in an ad hoc manner without upfront direction from the Council and community on some of the most important and challenging policy issues facing the City, which would increase the chances of delays, inefficiencies, and redundancies.  As Mayor of Alameda, I want to lead our City in a strategic and an innovative way so that we can make great strides tackling our toughest problems.

Having looked at the six strategic plans listed above, we came up with a few thoughts of our own about what constitutes a valuable strategic plan.  Not surprisingly, our ideas are more prosaic, and perhaps more ornery, than those expressed by our City leaders.

First, the document needs to be run through a jargon checker before it’s published.  Snatches of rhetoric are fine; barrages of buzzwords have got to go.  We’d have cut, for example, sentences like this one from the Climate Action and Resiliency Plan: “From young students to retirees, renters to homeowners’ associations (HOAs), businesses and agency stakeholders to environmental and community groups, we all have a stake in ensuring that Alameda remains sustainable, resilient, equitable, and vibrant for generations to come.”  (What, not “robust,” too?)

Second, the document doesn’t need to contain a lot of pretty pictures.  Tables and charts generally are useful – as long as the source of the data is clearly identified; artwork often just takes up space.  For example, the Active Transportation Plan contains multiple photos of people riding bicycles or walking down (or across) the street.  We’re pretty sure we already know what biking and walking look like. 

(This view, we admit, may reflect an inculcated bias.  Perhaps we’ve been reading the Wall Street Journal for so long that a page filled with text and no photos looks just right to us.)

Third, and most important, the document should set measurable goals, recommend concrete actions with quantifiable objectives, and establish priorities and timelines.  In addition to providing guidance to those charged with making and implementing decisions, this approach will enable the public to evaluate how well the plan is working.

A few of the six strategic plans adopted to date come close to our “ideal” model; others fall short.

The Transportation Choices Plan satisfies our standard for goal-setting.  Its two stated goals are quite exact:  to “decrease drive‑alone trips across the estuary in the morning peak by increasing non‑drive alone trips by twelve percentage points from 27 percent to 39 percent” by 2030 (i.e., an increase of 2,500 additional walking, bicycling, transit, and carpool morning peak‑hour person trips at estuary crossings), and to “increase the share of walking, bicycling, transit, and carpooling trips in Alameda by increasing non‑drive alone trips by five percentage points from 37 percent to 42 percent” by 2030 (i.e., an increase of 3,300 walking, bicycling, transit, and carpool person trips in Alameda throughout the day).

Thanks to this degree of specificity, when staff (or – yikes – a consultant) collects the trip data in 2030, the public will know whether the TCP is hitting its target.

The CARP offers an example of a plan proposing to achieve a measurable goal – reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Alameda by 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – by recommending concrete actions with quantifiable objectives.  For example, the plan urges the City to “expand [the] Easy Passes program” – and then says that requires handing out an additional 5,000 passes by 2030.  Likewise, it urges the City to “further develop the urban forest” – and then says that requires planting 350 new trees per year from 2020 to 2030. 

“The Road Home,” the homelessness plan, provides another, if less comprehensive, example.  For each of its three broadly worded goals, it includes “metrics” for the short‑ and medium‑term.  For example, the goal of “increas[ing] access to homeless emergency response services” sounds pretty squishy, but the associated metrics are not:  The City should expand shelter capacity to serve an additional 10 individuals by the end of 2022 and 30 additional individuals by 2026.  It also should double the cap on one‑time “flexible funding” grants from $750 to $1,500 “without reducing the number of individuals served.”

This degree of precision gives Council and staff what amounts to a to‑do list:  hand out 5,000 more Easy Passes; plant 350 new trees; boost shelter capacity by 10 (or 30) people; and increase the size of a “flexible” grant by $750.  It also gives the public a straightforward way to measure performance.

Finally, most of the plans break down their recommendations by priority, time frame, or both.  For example, the TCP lists action items as high‑, medium‑, and low‑priority, and schedules their completion in periods of one‑to‑two, three‑to‑eight, and eight‑plus years.  Similarly, the CARP groups action items into “milestones” to be accomplished in three phases (one‑to‑two, three‑to‑five, and five‑plus years).  This kind of segmentation not only tells Council and staff what to do first; it also allows the public to judge progress by date.

We’ll be eager to see how the DEI plan, whenever it is eventually released (SEED Collaborative was hired in January 2022), stacks up against our criteria for an “ideal” strategic plan.  The consultants drafting that plan face challenges different from those confronted by previous strategic plan preparers.  Simply stating “equity” as a goal, without defining how to measure it, won’t be enough.  Moreover, recommending concrete actions with quantifiable objectives may not be easy.  And to the extent the DEI plan contains any explicitly or implicitly race‑conscious measures, the courts are sure to look at it carefully.

As long as Ms. Ott and Ms. Ashcraft remain in charge, we probably can count on there being more plans down the line.  But we suppose that’s a better way of making public policy than deferring to a self‑anointed influencer to tell the rest of us what Everyone Knows.

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in Budget, City Hall and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sounds like a plan

  1. Tom Charron says:


    When are you going to research the current grant to study construction of a bicycle and pedestrian estuary crossing near JLS? We already have a bridge, currently unused, that could be easily used for bicycle crossings…..the railroad bridge (owned by–i think–USACE) is in place crossing just west of the Miller/Sweeney (Fruitvale) bridge.

    Thanks for all you research in our fair city,

    Tom Charron

  2. Carole Winkler says:

    I so love this blog. Good strategic plans are very practical, very specific, short, and quantitative.

    I love this blog.

  3. Alameda voter says:

    Weird how so many of these expensive plans written by out of town consultants aren’t “appreciated “ by the taxpayers. A good example is the Grand Street project which was opposed by 150 residents.

    And a homeless plan should NOT be based on accommodating more homeless but in ending homelessness in Alameda.

    • BWA says:

      “Opposed by 150 residents” but widely supported by the hundreds throughout Alameda who are in desperate need of a safer north-south route through the middle part of town, and Grand Street is the only one that fits the bill. The 150 residents do not own Grand Street, the Alameda taxpayers do.

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