ARC chief explains the transformative goals for his final months on the jobA 2015 gathering of the Atlanta Regional Commission's Millennial Advisory Panel, which was part of an effort to expand the type of community input into the agency's planning efforts. The ARC is now considering other ways to improve input and engagement. Special: ARC
By John Ruch
With roughly seven months left on the job, Atlanta Regional Commission Executive Director Doug Hooker is working to accomplish a list of final-year goals intended to expand the definitions of and participation in the ARC’s regional programs.
“Suffice it to say that I am not trying to ‘coast to the end,’” Hooker wrote in a June staff memo outlining his plans and seeking input. “My goals and hopes are perhaps a bit ambitious, but as they say, I’d rather reach for the stars and hit the moon, than to not try at all.”
Hooker has led the 11-county metro planning agency for a decade. In April, he made an unusual retirement announcement nearly a full year ahead of time, setting his last day as March 31, 2022 — his 68th birthday.
Hooker says he gave the lengthy notice so the ARC’s board would have plenty of time to replace him with someone who could shadow him for at least a month, including through the end of the next legislative session. The board had its first meeting with an executive search firm last week and could make a hire by early 2022.
For Hooker, the new programming and organizational initiatives should position the ARC to better tackle looming issues like racial equity, education, workforce development and “housing stability, let alone affordability.” And, he said in a recent interview, they should put his successor in a place to say they “have a few new tools at my fingertips” for such work.
“My hope is that what I am transitioning to my successor, whoever she or he might be, is a group of colleagues who are very clear-eyed on what makes our contribution to this community valuable and very passionate about continuing that work and tradition,” he said. “I hope I’m leaving them with a smooth on-ramp to continue to be a leading voice in this region.”
In the interview, Hooker walked me through those final-year goals to elaborate on their meaning, intent and status. (Besides those described below, the ARC is also considering endowments to fund increased inclusion in surveys and leadership training programs.)
IDEA & Regional Equity Summit
“IDEA” is the ARC’s internal Inclusion, Equity, Diversity and Antiracism initiative, launched this year, that is reviewing “everything, soup to nuts, A to Z, in our work,” Hooker said.
He said the ARC was already exploring ways to better address racial equity, but the effort was turbocharged by last year’s racial justice protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. “And we had an internal listening session where we just invited all the staff to say, ‘Speak what’s on your heart,’” Hooker said. That turned into five “very powerful listening sessions.”
“That was very cathartic, but if we do nothing else, it will just be seen as a gimme and not a sincere effort on our part to do something around equity,” he said.
Working under the tagline “What’s the big IDEA?”, the new initiative is an employee-led steering committee — “it doesn’t have bosses” — that is “leading us on an exploration of what we need to do to make our work more obstacle-free, more bias-free, and more accessible,” says Hooker.
One example that came out of early discussions, he said, is that typical planning grants require a 20% funding match from local governments, many of which, include those with large minority populations, may not be able to afford. On the community input level, lower-income people may be unable to take time off to go to a public planning meeting. On the latter issue, Hooker said, the ARC is looking at ways to “offer to pay people something to participate with us… We don’t want economic status to be a reason not to participate in the process.”
The specific idea of a “regional equity summit” that might be held next year is still in a discussion phase with its potential partners: the Metro Atlanta Chamber, the United Way of Greater Atlanta, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, and the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
“[email protected]” is an attempt to revamp and “demystify” the region’s multiple workforce training programs. It’s a huge effort, involving more than 120 experts and a partnership with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, the Metro Atlanta Chamber and the United Way of Greater Atlanta. It happened to launch a week before the pandemic lockdowns and is now gearing back up.
The goal is to address a “very fragmented” workforce development scene where technical colleges and hundreds of nonprofit and for-profit organizations offer programs, but lack an easy way for would-be trainees or employers to learn about or access them. Also lacking are “widely accepted metrics” for whether a training program is “worth anything,” Hooker said.
As a first step, ARC got a private grant for some basic administrative work and the launch of a portal-style website called “WorkSourceGa” at atlworks.org. Now the ARC is working with a nonprofit called Career Rise in effort to hire two full-time employees for the initiative with the goal to “launch an organization that’s basically the table-setter, the convener” on workforce development.
Emerging Technologies Roundtable
In this new initiative, the ARC would assemble a panel of “futurists and/or technology experts” to advise on technology trends that could significantly affect the region in both the near-term (meaning five to 10 years) and the long term. The idea is for it to produce a report that could be circulated among local partners, and for the panel to reconvene annually or once every two years to update the report. Hooker has tapped Chattahoochee Hills Mayor Tom Reed as the external chair for the effort.
“My thought was, our job as an agency is to look on the horizon of change and help community leaders… understand our understanding of how those things that are the horizon affect how we work, how we move, [and] how we play as a region,” said Hooker.
But the ARC is constrained in the scope of its studies by its funding sources. The ARC can look at transportation-related tech all day, since that type of planning is one of its organizational mandates. But it can’t use such funding directly on other technology, like healthcare or financial tech, even though it “might change how we socialize and interact with other people,” and thus affect transportation and other issues in ARC’s wheelhouse. So the roundtable would be a way to get some input on such potential impacts.
Evolution Strategy Refresh
The “Evolution Strategy” is an approach to running the ARC that Hooker introduced early on after hearing board complaints that the agency had lost relevance to local communities and staff communication problems between departments. “What we need is a culture change,” Hooker said at the time. That meant reorganizing to be more interdisciplinary and with programs that are more holistic in their approach and aimed at action rather than a plan sitting on a shelf. An ethic of colleagues supporting each other rather the previous environment where some would “snipe” was another principle. Last year, equity was added as a priority to the strategy as well.
“The Evolution Strategy is kind of foundational to my tenure here. … I think most people would say it was successful.” says Hooker. But it also needs to adapt and change with the times, so it’s being reviewed internally and, eventually, by ARC partners.
Hooker says that successful groups — from nations to organizations — “pay attention to culture and they tell their stories and retell their stories. So we have to tell our story to ourselves and remind ourselves who we’re about, what we’re about, why we’re about, and how do we continue to reinforce that as part of our organizational DNA. So this is a major time to kind of do a remembrance of who’ve we’ve been, but also not standing still on our laurels, and thinking about, ‘Who do we need to be out in the future?’”
Reimagining Community Engagement/Community Listening
This is also a refresh of sorts, expanding on the ARC’s efforts to get “qualitative data” about the “lived experience” of local communities and governments. “The old, ad hoc public hearing has gone beyond its useful life, but we still do it,” Hooker said of planning processes, but the ARC is also working on other ways to make sure people are “respectfully heard.”
He pointed to recent initiatives for such alternative community input. In recent years, ARC pioneered local use of Civic Dinners, a private platform where people gather for dinner (in-person and now virtually as well) to discuss a certain topic in an atmosphere more like a social event than a government meeting. The ARC also formed advisory panels focused on Millennials and on immigrants and refugees to “better reflect their perspectives in our work.”
The future could involve reaching out to other underrepresented audiences or using other novel methods. Or it could involve minor tweaks to existing processes. Or both. “I want it to be an organic process, not me dictating,” says Hooker. “We’re not trying to predetermine what comes next.”