Op-Ed: Is San Francisco changing for better or going back to ‘smelly’ normal



After years of bad headlines across the country, San Francisco finally had some good news: The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit was coming to town, bringing with it $500 million in hotel and other travel money. Even better for locals, the city was finally cleaning up its act (and the streets).

Except much like the oft-cited lipstick on a pig, San Francisco’s impressive-looking pre-conference clean-up was just spit and polish for the bigshots. And while Joe Biden and Xi Jinping probably appreciated not seeing potholes or streets filled with human feces, it’s all a slap in the face to the taxpayers, who will see that nothing has changed now that the conference has ended.

You’d think having a “human feces” problem would be bad enough, but now San Francisco has something worse: a trust deficit, which it could easily have avoided with simple principles of effective governance.

The first principle is always investing in the community for which you are responsible. Policing high-crime neighborhoods is good – but it should be done all the time, not just when world leaders are in town. Quality roads should be a given, not a treat citizens enjoy only when the “important” people fly in. And transforming dilapidated buildings into value-add locations should be done as a matter of course.

The second principle is transparency. Reasonable people understand that there are trade-offs in a world with scarce resources. You can have a great transportation infrastructure or low taxes – not both. You can choose between limiting the number of houses that can be built or high prices, but you cannot square the circle of violating the laws of supply and demand. And you can’t let major problems linger for years…then suddenly find the resources to “fix” everything in the course of a few months.

The third principle is accountability to the stakeholders. In business, this would be the investors, but in government, it’s the citizenry and taxpayers. Politicians are notorious for making promises they later forget about or compromise away. In San Francisco’s case, the city’s managers promised a utopia that turned into streets full of garbage – less “city on the hill” and more “landfill around the corner.”

Great leaders – political or otherwise – know that it’s far better to be transparent about challenges, solutions, and obstacles. People will forgive errors of judgment, but they will generally punish actual or perceived neglect, incompetence, and/or malfeasance. Unfortunately, San Francisco’s officials seem to have forgotten that your core audience is the most important one. $500 million is a lot of money – but for a city with over $14 billion in expenditures, it’s a drop in the bucket, especially compared to the money locals and small-time tourists will spend over the course of years if they see the city as a place in which to invest.

San Francisco was once a beacon of the future for the rest of the United States. City leaders now have a choice: will they use the conference as a long-overdue starting point to return the city to that grand status? Or will they, as many seem to expect, simply let things go back to the smelly, unsafe normal?

Dustin Siggins is founder of Proven Media Solutions, and a business and media writer whose work has been published by USA TODAY, The Washington Post, and Business Insider.

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