PDRD and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Zucker Report

The Zucker Report is an analysis of the city of Austin’s Planning and Development Department performed by consultancy Zucker Systems. The document is truly scathing. Highlighted on the very first page of the Executive Summary is this message:

Austin must decide if it really is serious this time. If so, some dramatic actions as outlined in this report will be necessary.It can’t be overstated how negative, almost exasperated, this report is.  Some flavor:

[S]taff [in one division] indicated that management does not function as a cohesive, dependable management team. Decision-making is reportedly inconsistent, slow and non-existent in some cases. For example, it was widely reported that staff is often unable to obtain timely management direction on critical issues, which delays problem-solving or forces staff to take decision-making risks, which can lead to errors.


In discussing [a recommendation] with PDRD staff, [the staff] raised the following points to be considered:

“Austin’s processes are so complex that it takes a year to understand or get
proficient in the process.” It was even suggested that for some of the engineering
and environmental positions it may take as much as three years. To the extent that
this is true, it is a real indictment of Austin’s codes, policies, procedures, and
rules. In our current study, we found much of this to be true.  [emphasis and formatting added for clarity]


We note that the negative responses we received in this survey are the worst we have seen in our national studies including many Texas communities [emphasis in original].

It quotes a 1987 report by development experts, including the same Paul Zucker:

The so called “Austin Way” contains an unhealthy dose of suspicion. This lack of trust became evident in the desire by both staff and citizens to over-document everything, to dot every “i” and cross every “t”, the tendency to create new commissions along with each new ordinance, unwillingness to delegate more decisions to staff and staff’s feelings that if they make a mistake, they may be crucified. In the long run every detail cannot be documented. This kind of system will break down and sink of its own weight.

The 2015 report goes on in the same exasperated tone. (I should note that most of its exasperation was directed at management for failure to lead/organize, rather than at staff.) Like most people in Austin, I have never filed a building permit. But just reading about this process is enough to get me second-hand mad.

For example, the report says that there is a culture in PDRD of gaming time performance measurements by conducting cursory reviews of permits, then when the issues that have been identified have been resolved, identifying new issues on resubmission. While this of course reduces the amount of time it takes that individual filing to be returned, it adds layers and layers of extra work, extra delays, and extra costs to construction in Austin. If I were making an addition to my home or building a backhouse, it would be infuriating to fix a problem only to have two more pop up.

The report is a draft, which includes comments from members of PDRD. One comment in particular gives almost a perfect insight into both the broad dysfunction and a culture of blame-deflection. In a section in which the Zucker team writes up suggestions for improving PDRD’s culture, one reviewer from the Department made this comment:

Comment: This is not exclusively the culture of PDRD but reflective of the
culture within the Austin community. In fact, in your Executive Summary under the History section, you reference your 1987 report and the “Austin Way” which seems to contradict the “existing culture of PDRD” you have just stated- contradiction.

Congratulations! You are not alone in your dysfunction!  And the Zucker Report seems to agree.  Back on the subject of delays, but this time not from staff, but from City Council and Boards and Commissions:

We received feedback from interviewees that postponements are excessive and create significant processing delays. For example, we were made aware of an existing case that has been postponed 8 times and another cases that have almost a dozen council actions and several years to complete.

Interaction with the code

While focusing on management issues within the department, the report did touch on code. The city of Austin’s code is very complex, and this not only makes for more complicated development, it makes it hard to make changes to the code:

We have to be careful about being too aggressive with performance standards because their existing code is onerous (has 100’s of zoning classifications).

Why we should care

These issues are outside the normal purview of my blog; I don’t usually cover management issues. But the Zucker Report leaves little doubt that it’s not just the complexity of the code that hinders development, it’s the entire inefficient bureaucracy. Every extra month of delay that a developer has to spend waiting for a permit to clear is a month that somebody’s future home remains unbuilt. Every extra hour and dollar a developer spends on each project is an hour and dollar that can’t be spent on building more needed housing.

But beyond that, it also has an effect on the mix of buildings that we see. By adding a bureaucracy cost to each new development, it makes smaller projects harder to get built–if you’re going to have to deal with PDRD, you might as well get a lot of bang for your buck and build a big project. Very small projects, of the type overseen by non-professionals, like secondary units or small additions to homes, may simply not get done at all.

What’s Next

Already, PDRD has begun to slowly enact some of the recommendations. Many reporters couldn’t figure out whether this press release implementing one of the Zucker Report’s many remedial recommendations (replacing pagers with cell phones) was an April Fool’s joke. Five Council Members have placed an item on the City Council agenda for Thursday, April 2, directing city staff to create timelines for implementing the report.