Cultural Cynicism

Cultural Cynicism

To say that the public building sector in Los Angeles is overrun with corruption is the understatement of the year.

Last month the Los Angeles Times ran a series of devastating investigative articles revealing a staggering amount of foul play at the LA Community College District’s building program, from conflicts of interest to an egregious lack of oversight. The exposé was followed shortly by the firing of the head of the program, Larry Eisenberg. Not long after that, James Sohn, the relatively new chief of the LA Unified School District’s construction program abruptly resigned as well under a cloud of suspicion for various conflicts of interest. And in early April, two members of the LA Building Department were arrested on allegations of taking bribes.

The list of offenses goes on and on. And the side effects are just as extensive from undermining the quality of the city’s major construction projects to relegating quality public architecture to the realm of an afterthought, behind greed and incompetence. Something must be done. But what?

Officials at the LA Department of Building and Safety recently called for the agency to electronically track its employees whereabouts via GPS. Another idea came from the AIA/LA, who suggested that the LAUSD and the LACCD each hire a district architect to oversee capital improvement programs: “Those who manage the facilities capital investment program require the skills, technical capabilities, construction-management experience, equilibrium in judgment, values and interests that only those with training and experience in the real world of planning, design and construction can offer—in short, an architect,” said the AIA’s statement.

While keeping track of employees is always a good idea, GPS tagging seems to grossly violate civil liberties. Of course I agree that architects have the valuable skills needed to oversee construction management projects, but hiring an architect doesn’t overcome the corruption problem. Any professional is susceptible to misdeeds.

The answer comes from where it usually does: the top. Don’t just blame individual employees, or even department chiefs, for taking bribes. Blame the organizations themselves for not fostering a culture of responsibility, for not catching misdeeds before they get out of control, and for not setting up a suitable system for carrying out deeds fraught with temptation.

A few good steps can be gleaned from the Corruption Fighters Toolkit from Transparency International, a group that terms itself a “global coalition against corruption.” (The group largely fights Third World corruption, but many of the same issues are at play here). Some of that kit’s key insights include: “raising awareness of corruption within an organization; providing clear and transparent information to employees and to the public; streamlining and improving the organization; establishing strict codes of business ethics; strengthening diagnostics of all activities; strengthening anti-corruption rules and penalties.”

This and similar groups demand in short that organizations take clear responsibility for promoting an ethical culture with clear policies against corruption and clear methods for fighting it. From what I can tell LA’s building programs have done precious little to this effect. In March 2010, for instance, the LACCD touted a new Office of Inspector General and whistle-blower program. Both apparently failed.

The results not only damage the agencies and the city, but also the physical world we inhabit. Some results of the egregious construction errors found in the LA Times series on LACCD read as pure travesty: Concrete steps were uneven; heating and cooling units were installed upside down; floors were cracked, and windows were loosely attached. Architects were sometimes fired without proper notice or asked to radically change their plans at the last minute. Meanwhile overpaying for fixes ultimately results in less money to make a good product.

Why shouldn’t public agencies be held to higher standards? Instead the laxity in their culture is whitewashed with a few firings and a return to corruption. This culture permeates the city of Los Angeles. And until we see true reform not only will taxpayers be hurt but the quality of architecture and design will suffer as well.