Strategic Coordination in Mannheim: Essential or expendable? - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Strategic Coordination in Mannheim: Essential or expendable?

Justin Keller’s 2019 tour with the American Council on Germany continued in Mannheim with an in-depth look at the impact of strategic oversight.

Between December 8-14, 2019, MPC's Justin Keller joined the Sustainable Urban Development Study Tour, hosted by the American Council on Germany (ACG). The tour included stops in Düsseldorf, Mannheim, and Heidelberg. Read the ACG’s summary here. (This is Part 2 of a three-part series; see Part 1 here.)

From an American perspective, the things Christian Hübel, Head of Mannheim's Strategic Controlling Office, was discussing sounded more within the wheelhouse of research institutions and nonprofit organizations. Advocating for equity and inclusion. Implementing sustainability goals. Increasing public participation. Defending fair housing and educational justice. For the past several decades, German municipalities have been in transition from bureaucratic and hierarchical systems of governance to developing engaged and participatory communities.

Mannheim's Strategic Controlling Office described a system where compromises between legal requirements and social goals can meet in the middle to achieve better outcomes. But there were mixed signals on the office’s effectiveness, and it is difficult to determine what percentage of outcomes (if any) is attributable to their work.

How they function: Repeated check-ins and frequent course corrections

Mannheim recognized the need for goals, indicators and metrics of success, and they committed to accepting a “culture of failure”. This amidst a larger German culture renowned (whether true or not) for precision and efficiency. They try things and scrap them if they don’t work, employing the “PDCA framework”: Plan-Do-Check-Act. For example, after allowing businesses to post advertisements around the city, they assessed whether the revenue was worth the city’s messy new appearance. (They decided it wasn’t, and there are now stricter regulations on ad placement.) According to Christian Hübel, after 20 years of limited results, Mannheim instituted the Strategic Controlling Office and has started seeing results on 60-70% of its short-term goals.

The Strategic Controlling Office is comprised of seven individuals, installed within the Mayor’s office and tasked with coordinating the activities of 34 departments. They have alignment meetings with all of the departments every two years and then meet with a steering committee every two months. For specific, short-term issues, it is common for them to be involved in the daily affairs of a department.

Over the course of two days in Mannheim, as I visited departments covering nearly every aspect of government, we explored the impact of the Strategic Controlling Office and how the Strategic Goals—attracting talent and strengthening enterprises, cultivating tolerance and enhancing equal educational opportunities, encouraging engagement and enhancing assets, and more—are instilled into every department.

But the narrative may be incomplete

Christian Hübel said the Strategic Controlling Office has directly influenced the success of many short-term goals, but Mannheim's Fachbereich Stadtplanung (Department of Urban Planning) painted a very different picture of their impact. In response to my question about the planning department's experience with the Strategic Controlling Office, they were less than enthused. The Strategy team feels like they're steering everything while the Planning team feels like they're pushing initiatives based on the well-known city strategy. And both believe they are having a larger impact on achieving the city's goals.

The planners discussed the difference between “administrative” versus “operative” management and concluded that, while it doesn't hurt to have metrics and a strategic umbrella, they do not feel the Strategy team helps solve the problems encountered in their day-to-day work.

With such a difference of opinion, let's look at some examples and decide for ourselves:

Diversity is a central goal of Manheim’s government

Mannheim’s Strategic Goal 4—Cultivating tolerance—was clearly evident in a presentation by Claus Preißler, Commissioner for Integration & Migration, whose department is focused on integration.

People come to Germany with different educational backgrounds, different work certifications, and different beliefs (ideological as well as religious). During the refugee crisis of the past decade, Germany welcomed more refugees than any other Western industrialized nation, and the expansion of the European Union has resulted in people from vastly different backgrounds coming together in Mannheim and other German cities.

The city is a signatory and member of the Mannheim Alliance, which is a binding commitment to take joint action on living together in diversity. One of their initiatives is something they call “diversity cooperations”, through which they facilitate two-day, face-to-face meetings between groups which do not normally speak to one another. For example, the first day might be held at a mosque and the second day at a police station. The purpose is to help participants recognize their common humanity which, they hope, will positively affect future interactions.

I can see implementation of the city’s strategic goals here, but it’s difficult to quantify the impact of the Strategic Controlling Office. Let’s look at some more examples.

Creation of new spaces to live together

Living together in diversity requires integration or, in other words, places to live together. In the next two examples, we see Mannheim creating spaces for people from different backgrounds to interact and be together. 

A. Multihalle: "an open space for an open culture"

The Multihalle is an award-winning structure built for the 1975 German National Garden Show. The structure has fallen into disrepair, but Creative Commission Mannheim is working to assemble funding to renovate the Multihalle as a public and cultural space, with the guiding pillar of making “an open space for an open culture”. This structure is currently enclosed within a park which visitors must to pay to enter, and the renovation will open it to the public for free and include new cultural programming.

B. Benjamin Franklin Village: creating a mixed community

Next on the itinerary was a visit to Benjamin Franklin Village, which has an ignominious connection to the refugee crisis. This former U.S. Army garrison was reclaimed by the city of Mannheim to house the refugees but was referred to as a ghetto by some. Since it is far from the city center—we took one tram to the end of the line and there transferred to another tram—critics accused the city of sequestering refugees away from the city and not staying true to their strategic goals.

New plans hope to rectify this situation with residential and commercial development, a new tram system, and better connections to the city center. The intent is to create a mixed community, both in terms of income level and national origin. To achieve that will require the city to actively engage with developers, a job likely to be handled by the Planning department with oversight from the Strategy team, but it's impossible to say at this point whether it will be a success.

Success through strategic oversight?

The examples above have been on the city’s commitment to diversity and integration, but other stops on my tour included presentations from the city’s start-up hub, a representative of the trendy Jungbusch arts district, the Bürgermeister of Education, Youth and Health, and others with the city government. Mannheim's eight Strategic Goals were on display in each of these meetings. But what part of that implementation is attributable to the Strategy team?

So who's right? There is a difference of opinions, and the results are hard to quantify. My take is that Mannheim's successful implementation of their strategic goals is the result of strong leadership, a commitment to their stated goals, and diligent efforts towards implementation. The power, if it exists, of the Strategic Controlling Office is an outgrowth of this, as evidenced by the office's location within the municipality’s organizational structure: not a lonely bureaucrat, far down in the hierarchy but, rather, directly under the aegis of the Mayor’s office with all of the institutional backing and endorsement that entails.

In any case, committing staff and resources to cultivate tolerance, enhance equal educational opportunities, encourage engagement and use metrics to track their impact can only be a good and worthwhile endeavor.

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