Committee of onions and failure

Politics and other mistakes
By AL DIAMON  |  January 2, 2008

To help me decide on a topic for this week’s column, I assembled a blue-ribbon commission. For members, I drew upon every sector of Maine’s diverse population (if, by diverse, you mean mostly white, male, and old), choosing artists, scientists, educators, economists, business leaders, business followers, convenience-store clerks, TV-game-show hosts, people who bought me drinks in bars, and one guy selected because of his impressive growth of nose hair. I even convinced former US senator George Mitchell to chair the group, although he later had to be dismissed after insisting everyone submit a urine sample.

During two years of intense study, the panel interviewed hundreds of Mainers about what they wanted to read in a political column (most frequent answer: “more sex”) and ordered out for thousands of meals (“steak and onions, with extra onions”). After lengthy deliberations, the members produced an 800-page report, including 300 charts, 14 appendices, and a centerfold nude photo of Maine’s first lady, Karen Baldacci, her modesty protected only by stacks of discarded versions of her husband’s budgets.

Eat your heart out, Brookings Institution.

Unfortunately, the report suffered from a failing common to such undertakings: It contained no conclusion. But the effort was hardly wasted. The document included an 84-point action plan for finding a subject for my next column (“Point 49: Send out for more beer. Point 50: And this time, don’t get that crappy light stuff. Point 51: And how about some onions on this steak”), as well as a recommendation that the panel continue to meet to review progress (“at a location with an open bar and full menu”).

By the time I’d finished reading all that, I was 130 weeks overdue with this column, and my liquor cabinet and refrigerator were both empty. Also, there were naked people in my shower. But at least this commission had been more productive than any similar group assembled in the state in the past 30 years.

For one thing, I could actually understand what it wrote (“We’re out of bourbon. Also, onions”), as opposed to some other prestigious documents produced by similar assemblages of prominent policy wonks.

Take the aforementioned Brookings Institution’s “Charting Maine’s Future,” which was issued in 2006 and contains this actual suggestion: “Invest in building a place-based, innovation-focused economy.”

I think Mitchell might have been right about the urine testing.

Brookings’ tome was hardly the only such effort to suffer from what a blue-ribbon commission on effective communication might dub non-focused, word-based jargonizing. In 2004, the Maine Arts Commission issued a study called “The Creative Economy In Maine,” which contained these recommendations:

“Strengthen the creative cluster by enhancing interrelationships.”

“Encourage asset mapping.”

Oh, and that creative economy thing — the report’s authors weren’t exactly sure how to define it. As one of them told the Bangor Daily News, “What we were asked to do was begin to build a methodology that cuts across jurisdictions and states.”

Good to know these people talk the same way they write.

In December 2007, the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place (GCMQP, an acronym chosen because it mimics the mating cry of the yellow-nose vole) issued a report called “People, Place and Prosperity,” which called for “an asset-based development strategy.” Can’t understand that simple phrase? GCMQP thoughtfully included this definition: “Asset-based development refers to initiatives that build upon regional strengths and capacities that stand out from the norm and have the potential to attract economic opportunities.”

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