Back to the future
Can an 18-year-old policy join forces with the Oregon Business Plan to develop a better mission for the state?
By Christina Williams
On Dec. 3, hundreds of business leaders will assemble at the Oregon Convention Center for the Oregon Business Plan’s sixth annual leadership summit.
They will talk about progress and the economy. And the conversation will sound familiar. Because as much progress as Oregon Business Plan has made in its efforts to rescue a lagging economy, there are aspects of the state’s problems that haven’t been touched by its efforts.
But starting this year, there’s an opportunity for bigger impact.
Consider this: What if Oregon had a plan for more than just the economy? What if its leaders could track, manage and improve its environment and the living standards of its citizens along with its economic progress? What if this plan had real benchmarks against which lawmakers could measure the outcomes of their policy, against which businesses could track the performance of the economy, against which anyone could see how well we’re doing and what still needs improvement?
Surprise: Oregon has that plan. And this year the two plans will have a chance to meet each other and, if the state is really serious about sustainability, start working together.
FLASHBACK: MAY 1989. Gov. Neil Goldschmidt unveils a set of policies under the lofty title Oregon Shines: An Economic Strategy for the Pacific Century. Its mission was an overhaul of the state’s economy, one that would involve social and environmental factors as contributors to a healthy situation.
“We are clear about what we want: well-paying, productive jobs for Oregonians, providing an economic base that enriches all aspects of Oregon life,” wrote Goldschmidt. It’s a rallying cry that sounds like the ones still heard today.
To execute the Oregon Shines plan, the state Legislature formed the Oregon Progress Board. The board was charged with establishing and tracking a set of benchmarks that would measure its progress toward the goal of better: better jobs, better quality of life.
Over the years, Oregon Shines and its benchmarks gained an air of celebrity in the wonkish ranks of public policy schools. It’s a case study. Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government recognized the policy with an award in 1994.
One could argue that Oregon Shines is better known outside the state than inside, where its ’70s-sounding name is all but forgotten.
That’s because, other than an enthusiastic overhaul in 1997 under Gov. John Kitzhaber, Oregon Shines has been pushed aside as the state’s lawmakers have dealt with more urgent matters, such as billion-dollar budget shortfalls. (Remember the first half of this decade?)
In 2002, the Oregon Business Plan was established with the stated goal of working together to build a stronger, more competitive state economy. Each year, the Business Plan publishes its Competitiveness Index, a booklet of benchmarks that puts the state’s economic performance in perspective. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
It’s no coincidence. The first executive director of the Oregon Progress Board was Duncan Wyse, who now heads up the Oregon Business Council and is champion of the Oregon Business Plan. “We did the original Oregon Business Plan with the Progress Board,” Wyse says. “They’re highly integrated.”
Last year at its leadership summit, the Oregon Business Plan leaders embraced sustainability as its organizing principle, as in: Oregon should stake its leadership claim in sustainability. There was much talk about woody biomass, wave energy and why green is good for business.
This year, the summit’s theme is “moving forward,” and on the agenda is the launch of initiatives “aimed at leveraging Oregon’s reputation as a ‘green’ leader to build sustainable environmental, economic and social vitality.”
FLASH FORWARD: 2008. There’s an opportunity this year for the Oregon Business Plan to join forces with the Oregon Progress Board and get focused on Oregon Shines 3 (name change optional).
Many agree that sustainability is good for Oregon and its businesses. But is Oregon ready to evolve beyond green practices and talk about an all-encompassing approach to sustainability? Sustainability, holistically defined, includes a healthy economy, a thriving population and a rescued environment in a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats continuum.
And, frankly, the Oregon that’s attracting all the young creatives to move here and look for scarce jobs, the Oregon that’s home to Silicon Forest and acres of actual forests and 36 counties each with a unique set of assets, skills and economic realities, needs a rising tide.
“A good plan is not enough,” says Rita Conrad, executive director of the Oregon Progress Board, who is spending the majority of her waking hours developing a plan for the next round of updates to Oregon Shines. “What we need is implementation.”
“There’s a buzz going on in Portland right now. It’s becoming known for all of its work on sustainability,” Conrad says. “But there are plenty of things Portland is weak on: homelessness, hunger, education. Based on our own grading system, when we compare the data, we’re not making our targets.”
Like the original version of Oregon Shines, the Oregon Business Plan has a sharp focus on jobs, and both Conrad and Wyse see it as a part of whatever the new larger policy will be.
“There are a series of issues we’re not going to take on,” Wyse says. “We’re one voice. This is the business perspective. There’s a chance for Oregon Shines 3 to bring a lot more folks in the room.”
Wyse admits that the Oregon Business Plan’s focus on sustainability, the holistic version, has been overshadowed by the state’s advantage in green business.
Gail Achterman, director of the Institute for Natural Resources at Oregon State University, agrees. “If we’re serious about sustainability, about the triple bottom line, then we need to have a framework, a plan. We won’t address the links without looking at the system.”
Achterman, who was Goldschmidt’s natural resources policy adviser when Oregon Shines was first introduced, spoke to the Oregon Progress Board’s directors in October and confessed to them that after reading over the first and second Oregon Shines, she was depressed.
“We haven’t made progress on some pretty key goals,” she said. “The report in 1989 was very silo-ed. That’s not the way the world works. Nobody has a forestry problem; it’s more complex than that. The historic silo approach isn’t working. Water and land-use planning: They’re completely disassociated now. It makes no sense.”
Is Oregon Shines a powerful enough framework to forge the links necessary to solve the state’s cross-silo problems and make true sustainability possible? As Achterman puts it: “It’s the only framework we’ve got.”
James Sager, Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s policy adviser for workforce and education, says the governor, who has so far been uninvolved in planning for Oregon Shines 3, plans to use his time at the Oregon Business Plan summit to talk up the plan.
“We will do what is necessary to promote the effort,” Sager says. “He sees this as being very important.”
But count Russell Dondero, adjunct professor at Portland State University and august expert on Oregon politics, among the skeptics. “I’m not convinced it’s a benchmark that legislators or the governor really pore over,” Dondero says. “I think it’s primarily something that policy wonks pay attention to in the academic community.”
“Given the data in front of us, it’s expensive to live in Oregon. There are haves and have-nots; 14% of the state lives below the poverty line,” Dondero says. “[Oregon Shines] will only be useful if the Legislature and the governor are willing to look at the data without preconceptions. In this state we’re so polarized. There’s no capacity for rational discussion.”
Conrad gets the challenge. “A good plan is not enough” has become her mantra. She’s working on a business plan for Oregon Shines 3 and talking to potential funding partners including the Meyer Memorial Trust, Oregon Community Foundation and the Ford Family Foundation.
She’s worried about launching the formal process for updating the state’s strategic plan too quickly. She wants it to bigger, and better, than previous versions of the initiative.
Perched at the edge of the next century, there may still be time for Oregon to get serious about a broader definition of sustainability — one for the haves and the have-nots — but it’s not going to be easy. It will require consensus on a common set of goals and a clear, widely broadcasted strategy for getting there.
“We need to include all voices, all business organizations,” Conrad says. “How do you include everyone? That’s an important question, and we’re working on that.”
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