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Lessons Learned on the Failed Boston Olympic Bid

Posted on July 31, 2015

Boston's bid to host the Olympic Games in 2024 is officially over. Mayor Marty Walsh threw in the towel this past Monday after saying he would not commit to a deal “that guarantees taxpayers dollars to pay” for the games. The head of the USOC quickly moved on and pulled Boston's bid. Already Los Angeles is being eyed as a possible American host city.

Mayor Walsh's press conference marked an unceremonious end to a questionable launch. The bid was doomed almost from the start - greeted with widespread public skepticism with a group No Boston Olympics springing up immediately to lead the resistance.

It didn't help matters that the Olympic bid was not put together by the citizens of the city or state, but by a private local organizing group called Boston 2024. Chaired by John Fish, CEO of a major construction company and named by Boston Magazine as the most powerful person in the city in 2012. The group was made up of a select group of insiders who created the bid proposal with almost no input from citizens, city, or state officials.

Why It Failed

The group was tone deaf in their response and caught flat-footed by the unanticipated resistance. Despite calling for $6 billion in state funds for improvements in transportation infrastructure, the group refused Walsh's pleas to be more transparent, release documents, scale back salaries, and make other adjustments.

Massachusetts residents were wary about potential cost overruns and being left holding the bag, something not unprecedented in big Boston projects. More than a few remember the initial price tag for the "Big Dig" was scheduled for completion in 1998 at a cost of $2.8 billion. The majority of the project was actually completed in December of 2008 for $22 billion and will not be fully paid off until 2038.

Further, if done poorly, buildings constructed for the games can become idle ghost towns, as they have in Greece. Countries rife with corruption and graft can pay a huge price in hosting the games. One report indicated of the fifty billion dollar budget for the Sochi Olympics in Russia, as much as thirty billion may have been effectively stolen.

The Necessity of Getting Public Buy-In

This whole debacle should make clear the new era in which we live. The old age where a select group of powerful insiders meet behind closed doors to discuss methods of ramming new legislation, projects, or budgets upon the public is long gone. The new age of instant communication makes mobilizing like-minded citizens much easier and enables resistance groups to form literally overnight.

This new era isn't limited to the public sphere either, it plays out just as often in private industry. Directives issued from executives without any collaboration or input from the rank-in-file often fail. According to studies by Kotter International and McKinsey, 70% of large-scale strategic initiatives fall short of their goal.

It should be clear pure top-down communication and insider guided initiatives just don't work. To be successful, projects and initiatives must meet in the middle with communication traveling openly and freely through vertical channels; both top-down and bottom-up.

Getting buy-in from the rank-and-file is more than just good public relations and “getting them to go along.” As James Surowiecki pointed out in his best-seller "The Wisdom of Crowds" - a collection of people always have more accumulated information in their heads than any single individual. Individuals in large, diverse groups are better at anticipating problems and, properly engaged, can offer surprisingly effective solutions. Toyota became the number one automaker by creating a corporate culture that encourages and implements employee suggestions while Detroit automakers, with a severely adversarial worker-executive culture, went bankrupt.

In hindsight, perhaps if the Boston Olympic organizing committee had been more transparent and willing to engage with the public, it would have been successful. A public that had been actively involved in the bid proposal process would have been much more receptive. It's a shame our city won't get this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but given the potential cost and secretive nature of the organizing committee, perhaps it was for the best.

And if your city or town is ready to revolutionize the way that it gains buy-in from citizens, it’s time to call the Vocoli team at 888.919.5300 and discuss our civic engagement features.

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