The Evolution of the City of Spokane’s Complete Street Policy Agenda Setting: An Examination of Players, Institutions and Structural Impact on Policy Formation
Humans and democratic governments are often problem solvers. Many of the social and technological advances made throughout history are solutions to problems: food and drug administration policies were meant to be a solution to incidence of fake and counterfeit drugs. At the same time, there remain many social problems that people believe should be “solved” or, made better. These social problems require government action be taken because services required to alleviate public problems become “public goods” that can only be provided by government actors (Birkland, 2005, p. 125).
Description of Policy Problem
Occasionally, the solution established in one arena, over time may create problems in another sphere which in turn require unique solutions. One of such instance is the complete street policy. Current streets policies are geared primarily to cater for automobiles; this creates concerns for pedestrians, and cyclists with problems such as traffic safety, traffic congestion, and public’s accessibility to services, and businesses. The confluence of businesses, citizens, and institutions, gave voice to the problem of automobile-centric streets policies and led to the agitation for complete streets.
While no singular definition exists, the most popular elements of complete streets include: sidewalks, bike lanes, special bus lanes, modified medians, transit stop improvements, pedestrian signals, and curb extensions (National Complete Streets Coalition, 2009). On April 5, 2010 Spokane City Council passed a resolution (City of Spokane Ordinance # 2010-0018), expressing support for the complete street concept and requesting that a complete street ordinance be drafted as component for the street standards (Appendix A). The ordinance formally sets complete streets on the City’s institutional agenda. This paper analyzed the evolution of the policy process, by identifying the players, institutions and structures that made significant impact on the policy formulation, formation, and agenda setting.
Myriads of literature provide a wide variety of theories for understanding how communities and societies formulate their public policies (Luton, 1996). Each theory provides unique insight into aspects of the complex dynamics involved in policy formulation and development, but none provides a perfect and complete explanation of those dynamics. Since no theory can be identified as perfect, it is incumbent that I review major theories I used with the hope of highlighting their strengths and weaknesses and to provide a rationale for the theoretical foundation I chose.
The primary theoretical foundation for this paper is the pluralistic model. Pluralism is defined as a “concept referring to a society as composed of diverse interests and groups which compete to achieve their social and political objectives and share in the exercise of political power” (Luton, 1996, p. 41). Truman (1971) defines the term “interest group “as a shared-attitude group that makes certain claims upon other groups in the society” (In Theodolou & Cahn ed. 1995, p.41).
Both group theory (propounded by Truman) and Robert Dahl’s (1967) pluralism explains public policy by focusing on the manner in which interest groups drive its formulation and substance (In Theodolou & Cahn ed. 1995). Competition among interest groups results in some kind of compromise, accommodation, or victorious coalition. This is clearly evident in the many groups that coalesced to push for the passage of the complete street ordinance. Diverse groups such as downtown business interest, Northwest cycling league, Spokane realtors association all came together to push for the passage of the ordinance (Appendix B). As self explanatory and descriptive as pluralism may appear, it does have some limitations.
Miliband (1969) suggests what is wrong with pluralist-democratic theory is not its insistence on the fact of competition but its claim that none of the major organized “interest”, is able to achieve a decisive and permanent advantage in the process of competition” (In Theodolou & Cahn ed., 1995, p. 59). As Schattschneider (1960) famously put it, “the flaw in pluralist heaven is that the heavenly chorus sings with a strong upper-class accent” (In Theodolou & Cahn ed., 1995, p. 417). Luton argued that the pluralist position that government acts as a neutral referee is dubious, “government takes sides through its structures, its rules and laws, and through a systematic consensus about what does or does not legitimately fall within its purview” (1996, p. 44). My observation of the complete street policy ordinance process highlighted the forceful influence of public institutional players like Spokane Transit Authority (STA), Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD), City Engineering Services Department (CESD). Some, if not all of these institutions organized symposia, seminars, and lectures favorable to the policy. They also stand to gain from the adoption of the policy in terms of budgetary increase and visibility. In one of the seminar hosted by STA & SRHD at YMCA, it was clear to all attendees whose side the government was on. Presentations by public administrators were all pro-complete streets. As Salisbury points out, “the relationship between interests and government institutions is dynamic and protean. As interests gain or lose clout, the institutions through which they seek to wield their influence change in structure and mission” (quoted in Luton, 1996, p. 44). When the relationship between institutions and interest groups become so intertwined that they become codependent, the subgovernment process theorists call it the “Iron Triangle” (Birkland, 2005, p. 61). In the complete street policy process, it will be foolhardy for anyone to imagine that Northwest Cycling League has the same influence as the Spokane Realtors Association.
However, faulty the logic of pluralism may appear, its main problem is not lack of structure or descriptive references within the policy cycle, its “political problem result from its defense of the existence of true democracy as distinct from pure democracy” (Luton, 1996, p. 45). As a panacea to this particular pluralist limitation, Heclo, (1978) came up with issue network theory. He argued that it is not so much that the notions of “iron triangles” and “subgovernments” were wrong but that they are “disastrously incomplete” (in Theodolou & Cahn, p. 47). He said, “Looking for a few who are powerful, we tend to overlook the many whose webs of influence provoke and guide the exercise of power” (In Theodolou & Cahn ed., 1995, p. 47, see also note*1). Pluralism may not have addressed all the objections of the elite theory, but the fact that its theories are fluid and open represent advancement from the conspiratorial approach of the elitist theory and this is why I choose it as the theoretical foundation for this paper.
Political systems theory has the potential to incorporate insights from all of the theories discussed above.
David Easton defines political system as all those activities and institutions involved in the formulation and execution of social policies that are binding upon society-the authoritative allocations of values (cited in Luton, 1996, p. 47). This is why the model depicted in Appendix B, includes both the micro-community public institutional players as well as micro-community private players. Political system theory like the other theories of public policy making has its problems. One of its problems is also its main strength: Linearity. It often “innately” depicts a conservatively static set of interrelationships in a way that appears to freeze them into a particular configuration (Theodolou, In Theodolou & Cahn ed., 1995, p. 4). Appendix B shows that my model is diametrically different and distinct from Easton’s system model principally because I seek to describe a local rather than a national political system. These changes are not significant departures, because as Luton (1996) explained “all systems are constructs of the mind and the tests of a system construct are whether it coheres and whether it assists understanding” (p. 49). Another advantage of my theoretical foundation is that it is easier to follow the complex web of interactions reflected in Appendix B. Neither the pluralistic model I adopted nor its local application to the peculiar Spokane system leaves the political system as some kind of black box containing unnamed authorities that make binding allocation of values in conspiracy and secrecy.
As part of the theoretical foundation of this paper, I deployed a version of abstract process theory as Luton (1996) did, particularly the version that focus on a more microscopic level of policy making called “Incrementalism”. Luton described incrementalism as “decision making involving minor adjustments of the status quo that arise from the application of rational thinking limited by the human capacity for rational thinking, time and cost constraints, and the need for compromise, bargaining, and adjustments among a diverse set of participants” (1996, p. 37). Unlike the wholesale approach adopted by the city of Tacoma, Washington (National Complete Street Coalition), the city of Spokane opted for an incremental adoption of the complete street policy. This is due to the unique Western and Moralistic political culture evident in Eastern Washington. By Western, I meant the distinctive regional political culture that has evolved in the American West. Populist and progressive traditions have shaped this culture.
In Spokane, the public sector is viewed both as a marketplace (individualistic) and as a commonwealth (moralistic). It is expected to both respond efficiently to demands and take positive action to improve the community. Citizens of Eastern Washington abhor taxes and excessive government spending and yet they want good streets and first class developmental projects. This conundrum often forces elected officials and public administrators to an uncomfortable compromise where most developmental project is done through incrementalism. Beginning from the late twentieth century onwards, Spokane’s local government structure shows signs of a moralistic political culture, reflected in the professional management of government and non-partisan leadership for city government (Luton, 1996). As I made manifest in this paper, the adoption of the ordinance to develop the complete street policy was minimalistic and gradual in approach largely because of this unique political culture. In short, the process fits perfectly into Lindblom's (1959) "science of muddling through" (in Theodolou & Cahn ed., 1995, p. 113). Concerns over cost split the city council into two camps, and at the end two of the council members voted against the resolution setting the policy on institutional agenda, even though the ordinance is merely symbolic (Snyder I, 2010).
Murray Edelman (1964) views policy as being either material or symbolic. “Symbolic policies can be used to either divert public attention or to satisfy public demand when no substantive benefits are being provided” (In Theodolou & Cahn ed., 1995, p. 7). One could argue that the complete street ordinance in Appendix A is merely symbolic and that it is meant to satisfy public demand evidenced by the community of private, public, and institutional players itemized in Appendix B. This could also be explained in terms of the unique moralistic culture of the West.
General Survey of the Players and Their Roles
Appendix B contains micro-community public institutional players who played key roles in putting the city of Spokane complete street public policy on the institutional agenda. The local government institutions of greatest importance are the Spokane City Council and the City of Spokane Mayoral office. Unlike the times when Luton wrote his book on the politics of garbage, the city government now operates a strong mayor form of government, but the city council still wields considerable influence over policy decisions. This may be due to the fact that the current mayor rose from their rank to the mayor’s office. She often defers to the city council than any of her predecessors ever did. Prior to Mayor Mary Verner’s election, the city is often known for the bitter rivalry between the city council and the mayor’s office. The second strong mayor, late Jim West, brought a lot of hubris and persona to the office that almost dwarfed the influence of the city council. He was replaced in a recall election following a personal scandal; and the then city council chairman stepped in as interim mayor for two years before the election of Mary Verner.
As Birkland (2005) argues, the actors in the policy process can and must interact with each other to advance policy proposals. This explains the dynamic relations between the City Council, and the Mayor’s office on the one hand, as well as the public advocacy groups, community activist, and other stakeholders before the passage of the ordinance. To understand how these interactions work, an understanding of a policy domain and policy community is important (Birkland, 2005). In this case, Spokane City Council is of course the primary actor, but there were no obvious consensus among the members of the city council, as the council voted 5-2 to pass the ordinance. Spokane citizens played a key role and will continue to play a key role in the next phase, and implementation stages of the process, chiefly through attendance at community workshops, and making comment at city council meetings. During the city council discussion on the policy, the two council members who voted against the policy requested seven different amendments to the resolution (Snyder I, 2010, ¶ 1).
The policy community involved in the passage of this ordinance consists principally of mutually reinforcing relationships between related interests (Birkland, p.97). These includes “institutional actors” (Cahn, In Theodolou & Cahn, 1995, p. 201), such as the City Council, and Mayor’s office; agencies i.e. Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD), Spokane Regional Transportation Council (SRTC), Spokane Transit Authority (STA), City of Spokane Engineering Services Department (CSESD); and private interest groups such as, the YMCA, AARP, and consultants- Futurewise (a nonprofit planning and environmental public policy interest group). They all came together to develop the initiative (Snyder II, 2010). All of these players made deft use of old and new media to move the complete street issue from the systemic agenda to the institutional agenda.
The influence of Mark Fenton in rallying all the disparate groups together during his visit to Spokane in the fall of 2009 helped focus the issue in the community, attendees left the talk energized and ready to make a difference. Two micro-community players- Jon Snyder- he ran for his council seat on the platform of better and complete streets, and John Prosser, Spokane’s plan commissioner, played key roles. Snyder introduced the bill at the council meeting and John Prosser's membership of the SRTC ensures that the issue of complete street was brought up in every board meeting. The important contribution of Kitty Klitz, an online campaigner and supporter of complete streets was crucial; she was also instrumental in rallying youth votes that brought Snyder into office (Spokane Complete Streets on Facebook, n.d.).
Key Players and Influences: Their Relations and Impacts
A thorough understanding of key player’s relations, influences, and impacts on the Spokane complete street policy should start with an appreciation of the importance of agenda setting to the policy process. John W. Kingdon (1984) asked two important questions: “Why do some subjects rise on the agendas, while others are neglected? Why do some alternatives receive more attention than others?” (In Theodolou & Cahn ed., 1995, p. 105). The answer to this as it relates to the complete streets policy lies in a deep understanding of “agenda setting” and what Birkland (2005) calls “window of opportunity’ (p. 116). The reason being that an agenda is a collection of problems, understandings of causes, symbols, solutions, and other elements of public problems that comes to the attention of members of the public and their governmental officials (Birkland, p. 110). Issues usually move from the largest level of the agenda called “the agenda universe” to the systemic agenda which consists of all issues that are commonly perceived by members of the political community as meriting public attention and as involving matters within the legitimate jurisdiction of existing governmental authority (Luton, 1996). And from there to the institutional agenda, which contains the “list of items explicitly up for the active and serious consideration of authoritative decision makers” (Birkland, p. 111).
The issue of complete street has always been on agenda universe of Spokane city council every time the street department comes up for consideration. What elevates the complete streets issue from agenda universe to the systemic agenda was the visit to Spokane by Mark Fenton, a street activist, pedestrian advocate and PBS host in September 2009 to promote pedestrian walking in Spokane (Outthere, 2009). In an interview with “Outthere” monthly for the event, Mark challenged his listeners to “be a change agent in the community. And that would mean step up and ask city council, policy makers, county commission, neighborhood organization to continue to build our walkways and bikeways. That may be the shove the planning commission needs” (Outthere, 2009, p.10). After the event, the staff, volunteers and listeners of Spokane public radio who had thronged the event, resolved to organize a well publicized bike to walk the same month. Public radio in Spokane is well known for their public advocacy and progressive approach to community issues. Their alliance with the publisher of Outthere monthly, Jon Snyder, galvanized the issue from agenda universe to the systemic agenda. The election of Jon Snyder on the platform of complete streets with unanimous support of cyclist association, private citizens and business community provided the fillip for this elevation.
The shocking death of Stephen W. Shockley on December 18, 2009 on the corner of Elm/Cannon and Francis Avenue in North Spokane however brought the issue onto the institutional agenda. Shockley was walking his dog around 6:15 pm that fateful evening when he was struck by an automobile on notorious Francis Avenue. His death, according to the Spokesman review newspaper, was the seventh fatal automobile-pedestrian crash in Spokane that year. “A year when traffic deaths in Washington State reached a 50 year low except in Spokane County” (Spokesmanreview.com, 2009).
Kingdon’s (1984) streams metaphor of agenda change listed three ways in which groups pursue strategies to gain attention for issues when “windows of opportunity” opens (Birkland, p. 116). The first is through electoral change which can lead to reform movements. The 2008 national elections that brought Barak Obama to the white house in the United States unleashed an unprecedented progressive to Spokane City Council. Complete streets issues is a progressive ideas pursued mainly by Democratic leaning interest group. Snyder says “I feel that that progressive wave has always been there in the city [but] it hasn’t always been represented by the folks on City Council. (Appendix D).
Kingdon’s second stream is what he calls “changes in our perception of problems” (Birkland, 2005, p. 116). In his analysis, there is a difference between a condition and a problem. “We put up with all kinds of condition every day and conditions do not rise to prominent places on policy agendas” (In Theodolou & Cahn ed., p. 106). Citizens of Spokane had a different view of automobile accidents following the television report about the untimely death of Stephen Shockley. The old media which consists mainly of local televisions stations and newspapers such as the Inlanders Newspapers, a democratic and progressive leaning free newspaper, particularly highlighted the statistic on the automobile deaths (Excerpts in Appendix D). Edelman (1988) argues, “The spectacle constituted by news reporting continuously constructs and reconstructs social problems, crises, enemies, and leaders and so creates a succession of threats and reassurances” (in Thedolou & Cahn ed., p. 382). This also confirms Iyengar & Kinder (1987) experiments that the position of a story in a television broadcast affects agenda-setting (In Theodolou & Cahn ed., p. 297). All the local television news broadcast started their lead story with another angle on the death of Mr. Shockley. The reinforcing impact of perception on agenda is also highlighted by the fact that micro-institutional players like SRTC, simply regurgitated the news stories on their website. SRTC is a federally designated Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for Spokane County. Urbanized areas with populations exceeding 50,000 people are required to have an MPO. SRTC was formed to address the county's transportation planning needs. MPOs provide coordination in planning between the public, cities, the county, the state, and transit providers (SRTCblog, 2009).
Perhaps, the most significant impact is the influence of new media through the use of blogs, Facebooks, Myspace. A citizen, by the name Kitty Klitz, created most of these sites and used them to maximum effect. An online Google search today yields a total of 26,400 hits, all of which were created either by her or citizens acting on her leads (Google.com results, 2010). She is also the brain behind the involvement of Futurewise, an environmental public interest group based in Seattle. She convinced them to open offices in Spokane and got involved. The news of Shockley’s death went viral online moments after the accident. Photographs of Francis streets with billboards obstructing traffic went up on every interest group website including democracyinaction.org, completestreet.org. On most of these websites the death of Shockley was not only attributed to automobile accident but incomplete street. The National Complete Street Coalition (NCSC) included it in its compilation titled “The Consequences of Incomplete streets: death” series (NCSC, 2009). These documents were in turn forwarded to macro-community players like congresswoman Cathy Rodger McMorris, who represents Eastern Washington in Congress as well as Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray.
The third stream in Kingdon metaphor refers to changes in the policy stream that can influence the opening of window. The election of Jon Snyder to Spokane city council by a coalition of outdoor enthusiasts, conservationist and upscale South Hill residents represented by listeners of Spokane public radio fits this stream. Prior to his election, Jon Snyder was the editor and publisher of Outthere monthly, an outdoor publication that co-sponsored the visit of Mark Fenton to Spokane in September, 2009. After his election he publicly made complete street his primary reform agenda (Appendix C). One of his campaign fliers has since been included in all promo fliers used by complete street advocates even after his election (Appendix D). He started a blog during his campaign which he has maintained to this day. He posted information on the voting process by the city council on his website during council consideration of the matter.
Perhaps, the most important micro-community private player with considerable influence is the citizens of the city of Spokane. Many of them participated in public workshops, speaking out at meetings, city council hearings, Facebooks comments, providing spoken and/or written comments on the scope and extent of complete streets. The diversity of comments on the financial involvement of the city explained the decision to opt for incremental implementation of the policy. Spiegel (1968) contends that “no other issue is as vital to the success of solving America’s urban crisis than the viable participation of urban residents in planning the neighborhoods and cities in which they live and the social programs which directly affect them” (cited in Luton, 1996, p.193-4). Luton suggest three model typology of citizen participation: a “co-opted participation” model where citizens, administrators and public officials maintain good relations and support each other to work for the agenda of officials, “prudent participation” where citizens and government officials maintain good relations but are willing to conflict openly when circumstances warrant it; and “confrontational participation” where none of the parties expect good relations on a definite substantive agenda (Luton, 1996, p. 195). Citizens’ involvement before the passage of the ordinance generally fell under the co-opted participation typology.
The Micro-community public institutional players like SRTC and SRHD depicted in Appendix B, were willing to accommodate citizens input. They work with YMCA and other micro-community private players to organize workshops and seminars where complete streets policy and fiscal implications were thoroughly explained to attendees. Selznick (1949) identified formal cooptation as a common strategy used by public administrators to ensure that citizen participation supported administrative goals. Camilla Stivers (1990) believes that citizens are improved through meaningful participation and that public administrators have an obligation to society to encourage that improvement. As Luton (1996) argued, “no matter which flag is flown, a common element emphasizes serving the customer- and, in the context of government, to a significant degree that means the citizens” (p. 200). Scholars however suggested that citizens regard themselves as owners of government and not customers (a useful summary appears in Luton, 1996).
Conclusion: Who or What Determines the Complete Streets Policy
The study of agenda setting is a fruitful way to begin to understand how groups, power, and agenda interact to set the boundaries of political policy debate (Birkland, 2005). This paper shows that agenda setting, like all other stages of the policy process, does not occur in a vacuum. What the complete street process shows is that citizen’s opinions do count, especially in an era of new media where mass mobilization of population is “a click away” through the internet (Notes*2).
Most of the actors agreed that citizens led initiatives like the complete streets experiment are where the future of public policy agenda setting lies. My examination of citizen participation suggests that public officials and administrators often underestimate their impact at their own perils. If the coopted, prudent, confrontive models of citizens’ participation have any relationship to practical reality then government officials would be wise to identify which participants fit which model and relate to each differently. The benefits gained by meaningful citizen participation may come at some cost in efficiency and community cohesiveness where a confrontive model prevails. Overall however, communities almost certainly will benefit from the energies, and skills enlightened citizen participants contribute in informing and advising government officials.
In sum, Councilman Jon Snyder may have contributed more than any other elected officials given his readiness to follow through with the implementations of the policy even before substantive ordinance is enacted by the council. He has since required CSED and streets departments to provide evidence of compliance with elements of complete streets before passage of their departmental budget (Brunt, 2010). In the end, what determines the passage of the ordinance is the “window of opportunity” created by the death of Mr. Shockley and the attendant media attention, as well as the democratic and moralistic culture prevailing at the time. Looking back now, the policy may not have passed if tabled today given the current budgetary woes the city is facing. Additionally the fact that both the citizens’ agitators and institutional actors are willing to considerably scale back their expectation and its fiscal impact helped the easy passage of the complete street ordinance.