The Top Ten Problems of purpose and need statements

While we await the announced “vision, goals, and objectives” for the Southwest Corridor project, recently approved by the project’s steering committee, it is time to consider the Top Ten Problems of such documents.

The purpose of a purpose-and-need statement (I’m assuming that “vision, goals, and objectives” is the same thing) is to define, at a high level, what a project is and what a project is not. The comments following are only intended to apply to P&N statements–other types of planning and design documents may have different purposes, and thus different requirements. Blue-skying is perfectly appropriate in a long-term transportation plan; and detailed design information is expected in a DEIS. Broadly, a purpose and need ought to be documenting what and why, but not how.

Many such documents contain one or more examples of the following problems, which are enumerated after the jump in David Letterman fashion. For those of you who have been through MBA programs, project-management courses, or similar curricula, much of this will be old hat–this applies to private-sector projects as well. But it’s amazing how often public officials get this wrong.
10. Blank check of platitudes

Leading off the list is the P&N that doesn’t say anything, other than singing the praises of motherhood and apple pie, and whatever values the current political consensus holds dear. A good P&N will broadly (not narrowly) describe the solution space. Such documents don’t give any reasonable guidance to the team, nor do they sufficiently narrow the scope of the project so that more focused planning activities can proceed.

Instead:Include objectives which are quantifiable and testable. Saying that you want to “reduce greenhouse gases” or “increase ridership” is nice; it’s better, though, to say how much you want to do these things. If bus service is increased from one bus every thirty minutes to one every twenty-nine, is anyone better off?

9. Pie in the sky

A good P&N ought to have some understanding of the financial (and other) constraints that the project will be operating under, and be scoped appropriately. Considering different funding scenarios is great for strategic planning, but when a project is undertaken, project managers and sponsors should have some clue as to what resources are available, and the P&N should be consistent with that assessment. Refinement of scope (usually downwards) is often necessary as a project progresses (optimism bias is a problem even with experienced, conscientious teams). One of the many problems with the CRC seems to be wishful thinking concerning funding sources–and that the mere existence and importance of the project would force legislators in Salem and Olympia to fund it.

Instead: The P&N, or related documents, should address the issue of resources, and identify the political sponsors counted on for funding. A detailed budget is not necessary at this point, but some clue of where the money is coming from, is.

8. Fixing what isn’t broke

Part of justifying a project is documenting why you are doing it–and that “why” should include description of a problem, along with evidence that this really is a problem. And then the project primary goals should relate to fixing that problem. Some projects, unfortunately, attempt to fix what isn’t really broke: addressing traffic congestion that is only occurs occasionally, for instance (and could be instead addressed by time-shifting). Some projects, of course, are speculative in that they attempt to foresee and forestall future problems–the LO Streetcar and the CRC both spend a lot of time worrying about traffic levels fifteen years from now–with many of those predictions based on outdated or inaccurate data.

Instead: P&N statements should be able to identify a problem which is either existing or reasonably imminent, and one which is worthy of spending resources on. Long-term predictions should be justified with solid research, and even then, appropriate levels of future-discounting should occur.

7. Not fixing what is

The opposite of the prior problem is successfully identifying a problem or problems, then coming up with goals that don’t address them. If the problem is slow or unreliable transit, then project goals should include improvements in these things (and the actual proposed solution should address these goals head-on). Far too often, a problem is stated and then solutions are offered that don’t really address the problem, or only address it in an incremental fashion.

Instead: Stated goals, or the majority thereof, should be traceable to the overall problem statement.

6. Eyes OFF the prize

This is a specific instance of the prior issue. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m generally of the opinion that transit agencies ought to be primarily in the transit business–giving people access to places they can’t easily reach on foot, without having to use a motor vehicle. Many projects which are nominally transit projects include goals around things such as the environment, social equity/justice, economic development, land use, etc. These are important things, and land use in particular has an important and noticeable impact on transit outcomes, but sometimes what is nominally a “transportation” project becomes more about these other things than it does about improving people’s mobility and access. (And in some case, the mobility of existing customers is reduced in favor of speculative new ones).

I’m not against any of these other things, but if they are to be advanced, that should be stated up front, and funded appropriately. One good thing about Portland Streetcar, Inc. is that they make no bones about their land use and placemaking focus, and that the Streetcar is a development tool as much as anything else.

Instead: Projects shouldn’t place undue burdens on agencies by imposing unfunded (or underfunded) mandates to support goals other than their primary ones. Project development and execution should be carried out by agencies whose fundamental mission is aligned with the project goals.

5. Dictating the solution

Here’s another longstanding problem with the CRC–it’s P&N is tailor-made to essentially require a big new freeway bridge and exclude other alternatives such as a supplemental bridge. It was drafted, after all, by officials at the state DOTs who seem to want to do exactly that. The Sellwood Bridge is another project whose P&N constrains the design to essentially dictate the solution. Drafting a document which essentially excludes a whole range of reasonable alternatives, and “forces” the project team to only consider the desired solution, is a longstanding trick in project management.

Instead: P&Ns should dictate goals, not solutions or technology.

4. The gerrymandered bundle

Again, we turn to the CRC for an example, which defined a “project impact area” which included five miles of Interstate 5, but excluded areas close to the bridge but further distant from the freeway. (It also excluded parts of I-5 downstream, such as the Rose Quarter, which would clearly be impacted by a widening of I-5). This definition allowed a whole bunch of freeway enhancements only tangentially related to the Columbia River to be included in the project, and also helped to exclude non-freeway solutions from consideration.

Instead: If a corridor or impact area is to be defined, at this stage of planning it should be defined with fuzzy lines rather than with a scalpel, and shouldn’t show evidence of obvious gerrymandering.

3. The laundry list of conflicts

With this sin, a whole list of specific goals is presented, each one reasonable in isolation, but the combination of which is nigh impossible to satisfy–and results in an attempt to square the circle. A transit project that simultaneously calls for higher end-to-end speed and high stop density, for example, will have trouble satisfying both goals.

Some times, this is a result of the different demands of competing political constituencies, as was the case of the Lake Oswego Streetcar (which also had a significant technical constraint–an existing ROW that was necessary for the project). It can also be the result of a simple failure to prioritize, or it can lead to the next item.

Sometimes, it can even represent an attempt to strangle a project in its infancy, by making success impossible.

Instead: Prioritize. In addition to listing goals, their relative priorities should also be set, so in the event of a conflict, the project team and the community at large will have clear guidance as to how trade-offs ought to be made.

2. The sacrificial lamb

A specific problem with a failure to prioritize is that if a project needs to be de-scoped, goals can be discarded in an arbitrary fashion when it come time to implement, often on the grounds that they are contradictory and/or too expensive to support. Sometimes culling of project goals is done in a good-faith manner, but sometimes goals are advanced that are intended to broaden the support for a project (at least initially) but which are later cast aside–and you wonder whether the goal was ever given serious support in the first place. The transit elements of the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, recently jettisoned from the project, may be a good example of this phenomenon. Many critics of the project allege that the bridge is first and foremost a highway project, and the proposed dedicated transit infrastructure was little more than greenwashing.

Instead: Instead, prioritize. Make it clear up front what is really important to the project, and what is ancillary stuff that might be discarded should constraints dictate.

1. The Fourth Directive

The other issues are primarily sins of commission; this is a sin of omission. But in many ways it’s the most serious, as it invariably involves an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the public. In the film Robocop, the Fourth Directive was an unspoken rule that the titular cyborg policeman not harm executives of the corporation which created him. For purposes of this discussion, a “fourth directive” is any constraint or requirement which is NOT specified in the planning documents, but nonetheless is (usually) non-negotiable. Fourth directives may include demands by specific stakeholders (often contrary to the public interest) who can exercise veto power over the project, or may simply be the failure of planners to recognize the political environment. An example of the former is the seeming ability of merchants to stymie street projects that eliminate subsidized on-street parking. An example of the latter may be the Fourth Plain BRT project, whose purpose and need sang the praises of efficient BRT, but quickly ran against the political reality that Vancouver voters simply were not about to accept conversion of general-purpose auto lanes into bus-only lanes.

Sometimes, a fourth directive may be hidden from the project planners by an influential stakeholder, who saves his ransom demands for later (and goes to great lengths to keep his fingerprints out of the crime scene). Other times, the constraint may be known to the project team but unspeakable in public, because acknowledging the reality would cause a political backlash.

Instead: Political constraints should be documented up front. In case of constraints of public opinion, there’s no point in pretending otherwise–a project team should understand and document the political climate, and be prepared to address it head-on. In the case of ransom demands from stakeholders, secrecy is often an additional requirement; dealing with this may require deft political skills. The best option may be to lawyer up later on in the project–a FEIS which contains major requirements not tied back to a purpose-and-need may be grounds to challenge the project. Unfortunately, legal action is more likely to delay a project or kill it outright than it is to change it in a useful fashion.

One response to “The Top Ten Problems of purpose and need statements”

  1. The Visions, Goals, and Objectives for the SW Corridor are now available. However, this document is not the purpose and need statement.

    The VG&O document essentially describes a three-layer process: At the highest layer, the SW Corridor plan will describe what changes are desired for the corridor region. At the second layer, the SW Corridor Transportation Plan will focus on transportation links of all sorts, including transit. And beneath that, the Southwest Corridor Transit Alternatives Analysis will contain the P&N for the forthcoming transit project.

    The VG&S as written, then, isn’t very specific–it contains all the usual platitudes, and doesn’t say anything that really constrains the form of the SW corridor transit project–but as it proclaims that it is not the P&N, I won’t evaluate it using this criteria.

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