#13 Fifty Years Late for Everything

After 50 years, blind people in Chicago are still waiting for safe street crossings. It is part of a pattern, of how good ideas are rejected for the benefit of nobody. A look at how government spends money, offers clues to what's broken. And how the Slow Lane can fix things.

#13 Fifty Years Late for Everything

Here is what it takes to cross a street without eye-sight. Find the crossing; align yourself correctly; fix your bearings; learn what the traffic signal does; trust that no straggling vehicles are making a run; calculate how much time you will have to make the crossing; hope for the best. That’s why in 1971 Marburg, a city in Germany, started to install audible traffic signals. Sounds provide useful cues to help blind, and visually impaired people make a crossing. In 2021, a full fifty years after Marburg, Chicago, Illinois, had equipped just eleven out of its 2,672 traffic signals with such audible aids.

By 2021, Marburg had become "Blindenstadt Marburg" ("Marburg, city for the blind"). Experts consider it the most blind-friendly city in the world. Once all traffic signals were audible, the city began to systematically break down other barriers. Visually impaired people found ever more access, as well as experiences of joy, and new opportunities for personal growth. In Marburg, bus stops are audible; special pavement textures help navigation; walking tours and tactile models of historic sights help exploration; buildings offer tactile floor plans in their entrance area; and planners designed the award-winning renovation of the central station around the needs of the visually impaired. Local leaders continue to push new boundaries, aiming to grow the number of blind and visually impaired students in natural science courses at the university, including chemistry. It is not surprising, then, that a third of all blind students in Germany, choose to study at the University of Marburg.

Tactile model of Marburg's historic church. Source: Patricia Grähling / City of Marburg 

You don't need a lot more information to see how differently visually impaired people in Marburg, and Chicago have experienced these fifty years. The differences in personal freedoms, or the level of stress in completing daily routines. How these cities dealt with traffic signals had a direct impact on the life prospects, and opportunities of thousands of people. Why did Chicago fall fifty years behind Marburg? Those fifty years held back not just the prospects of 36,000 visually impaired Chicagoans, but also weighed heavily on family members, volunteers, and government services, who all had to step up top fill the gaps. What happened?

How did Chicago miss three thousand opportunities to install better traffic signals?

It wasn't a lack of money. Chicago is wealthier than Marburg, where GDP per person is $38,000 per year, compared to $61,000 in Chicago. Budget-wise, Chicago spends eleven billion dollars a year —about the same per resident as Marburg – and the cost of upgrading 2,672 signalized traffic intersections would amount to just fifteen million dollars. That’s 0.1% of the city budget in a year, or $5 per Chicagoan. Invented already in the 1920s, the technology has been widely known to traffic engineers since the 1960s. Over fifty years, the upgrade would have cost just a dime per resident per year. And it would have been easy to do, since all of Chicago's traffic signals were installed, or replaced, during this period. How, then, did the city miss almost three thousand opportunities to do the right thing, to install better traffic signals?

A Trip Down the Rabbit Hole

When I began to investigate this question, I had a simple assumption. Governments of major cities know how to make good plans, and they have a lot of capacity. Chicago, for instance, employs 35,000 people, of which 4,000 people work in the departments of streets, sanitation, and transportation. That's a lot of design, engineering, and project management capacity. And the leadership was supportive. In 2003, Mayor Daley of Chicago called for more rights for people with disabilities, and for more people with disabilities to be hired into the city government. I doubt that anyone at city hall was opposed to helping visually impaired people thrive. Something must have stopped them from doing what was so evidently right.

What appeared to be a scandalous exception for the visually impaired in Chicago, was actually the norm.

Interviews with officials got me nowhere, and I began to collect more stories. I wanted to find out what happens in other areas of public service, and how this played out in other cities. A surprising new pattern emerged: This shocking fifty-year delay happened wherever I looked: in education, transport, social care, workforce development, energy, construction, public safety, technology. What appeared to be a scandalous exception for the visually impaired in Chicago, was actually the norm. It seems to take fifty years to adopt what was proven to work elsewhere. Putting my Sherlock cap on, I took note of my new assumptions:

1/ Governments mostly have the right intentions;

2/ They have (a lot of) money and capacity;

3/ They have good people;

4/ But, many public services are fifty years behind what works;

5/ I could not find a single government that did not have this problem;

6/ Nothing seems to stop cities from not doing the right thing.

Who Checks for What Works?

That last point on the list really puzzled me. How could we run all these governments with no safeguard against not upgrading to what works? Talking to officials, I learned mostly about rules and regulations to stop these bureaucracies from doing something wrong. But nothing seemed to demand what is right. It took a lawsuit by visually impaired people and the Department of Justice to force change in 2019, leading to a commitment by Mayor Lightfoot to begin upgrading traffic signals. Chicago wasn't alone. None of the cities I studied had controls in place to make sure they do the right thing.

"Follow the money." That's what people say in detective stories. So, I, too, followed the money because all governments spend money on traffic signals and everything else. When a government spends public money, it through a highly regulated process called public procurement. I was hoping to find some answers by looking at how that actually works.

Please stay with me, this is where we get to the zombies!

How They Spend Six Trillion Dollars

Every government relies on external providers to deliver its services. They buy meals, schoolbooks, security services, cleaning services, cars and trucks, software, construction works, planning and engineering services, childcare, social care, probation services, and traffic signals. Taken together, the world's cities and towns spend about six trillion dollars a year to procure such goods and services. That's almost a tenth of all money going around in our economy. Without procurement, we would have no public service. And governments have created a universal set of principles to select who wins business with the city: The process has to be open to competition, meaning that any business or organization should be able to present a proposal for a contract opportunity. It has to be fair, meaning that you cannot discriminate against anyone who presents a good proposal. And it has to be transparent, meaning that all information is available to everyone, with a clear process to guide decisions. This is how government spending works everywhere.

The Misunderstanding that Revealed the Zombie

I stumbled into the zombie hidden in public procurement by way of a simple misunderstanding. In my mind, the principles of competition, fairness, and transparency meant that procurement is trying to not just get the lowest price, but also the best idea. Or, explained in the language of traffic signals: A city can learn about the benefits of audible signals when they run a competition to buy traffic signals. The reason I believed that things work this way, was my background in architecture. In my field, governments don't simply buy buildings, but they run design competitions to find the best solution for their needs. Architecture competitions use the procurement principles to often quite wonderful effect. Teams present different designs responding to a brief. You can see the results of such competitions all over the world. Sydney's iconic Opera House, was procured through a design competition in 1957. Two hundred architects from around the world presented their ideas. A jury selected the iconic design of a young Danish architect, Jørn Utzon, to be the winner. It was a complex decision, weighing the risks of building a technically complicated project against the public benefit of gaining a landmark, acoustic qualities, and costs involved. The images below give you a sense of how different the ideas were that teams presented at the time. In my amateur's mind, if this is how cities spend their money, it was a good way to formally study different ideas as they take decisions about things like traffic signals and other public services.

Sydney Harbor, with the Opera House designed by Jørn Utzon, winner of a public procurement competition
Procurement turned out to be a bureaucracy with the purpose of protecting the bureaucracy. Sadly, it did nothing to find ways to better serve the public.

Soon enough, people taught me about how public procurement actually worked. In reality, cities did not use the way they spend their money to improve services. Instead, procurement was a bureaucracy with the purpose of protecting the bureaucracy. Here is what that means. Whenever a government spends money, it is afraid of breaking a law, or causing a scandal. If you have heard about public procurement, it is usually because of a scandal: In Germany, where I live, everyone has heard about the cost overruns of the Hamburg Philharmonic (it ended up costing twenty times more than planned); and the delays opening the Berlin airport (a decade late, costing three times more than planned); in the US everyone remembers the collapse of healthcare.gov, the flagship online marketplace of Obamacare; or more recently the corruption and cronyism involved in buying urgent supplies during the Covid-19 pandemic. With time, governments have tried to protect themselves against these embarrassing and costly scandals by creating tighter rules for procurement. Sadly, these rules focus entirely on avoiding scandal, and say nothing about finding ways to better serve the public. As a result, the principles of transparency, fairness, and open competition are mere boxes to be checked, and not a source of improvement.

When Buying Frankenstein Outcomes is the Norm

A bureaucracy that has no other purpose than to protect itself, cannot be effective in serving the public. In Chicago, the procurement of traffic signals may have succeeded at protecting the bureaucracy. But for visually impaired people, the outcomes were simply terrible. For fifty years, despite the best intentions to support people with disabilities, no one seems to have noticed. It was only when the Department of Justice joined a legal case presented by the visually impaired people of Chicago that things began to change.

It is less a matter of how much governments spend, than how they spend, that determines our quality of life.

What happened to the visually impaired in Chicago is just a tiny facet of a much bigger problem. Cities provide hundreds of public services, of which making street crossings work for everyone is only one. Public procurement touches almost everything important we experience in our lives. It is less a matter of how much governments spend, than how they spend, that determines our quality of life. Procurement can make your air cleaner, let you learn better at school, give you safer streets, provide clean water, and put services within your reach. It can give you a fair chance in life.

All this brokenness is the norm. Procurement causes the same pain in Marburg as it does in Chicago. Marburg achieved remarkable results for visually impaired people not because it runs a superior government. Instead, it was a kink of history that led to blista, Germany's first educational institute for the blind, opening in Marburg a hundred years ago. blista pushed Marburg to become a hotbed of advocacy and innovation for the blind. Reports show that the city lags decades behind in many other areas, like digitization, and school children are protesting to demand better schooling.

First, Spot the Zombie

In my last story (see Story #12), I wrote that zombie systems undermine even the best-intentioned public leader. Procurement is one such system. Zombie systems are power structures in government that reliably produce unintended outcomes. They have no real purpose or oversight, but wield huge influence over all kinds of important public goods -- like health, safety, mobility, housing, education, air quality, water, social care, opportunity, equality. I refer to them as zombies because they aren’t behaving in line with a mission. Our governments can want something quite different from what they produce. We can find such zombie systems whenever we look beyond a single story, and discover the root causes for why so much social change isn’t happening.

Zombie systems are power structures in government that reliably produce unintended outcomes. It is like throwing in a game of dice in a process of social change.

Public procurement ticks all these boxes. People had become so accustomed to how public procurement worked, that they stopped asking why. Blinded by big scandals, they missed a much bigger problem: Governments miss countless opportunities to improve things. Fifty years is a lifetime. And if procurement could have bettered the lives of visually impaired people decades ago, it could have done so with all other needs. It might have turned around the UK's doomed criminal justice reform, by insisting they consider the viable proposal presented by User Voice (see Story #12). But instead of correcting mistakes, procurement kept replicating them for decades.

Then Tame It

I want to end on an upbeat note. Yes, zombie systems can be fixed. Systems like public procurement must be given a meaningful purpose. In my next story, I will share my experience in following my dream, of turning public procurement into a creative force for good. It is a prototype of how we can breathe new meaning into a zombie system.

Yes, zombie systems are complicated. Often they aren't sexy, and removed from the real needs of people. And yet, they are worth fixing, to open the path for many other Slow Lane movements.

Thank you for reading. In my next story, I will share my experience in trying to flip the switch on public procurement from zombie system to Slow Lane mode. If you are interested in going deeper on public procurement, check out my report "Serving the Citizens, Not the Bureaucracy" for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.