We’ve all heard the saying: “if you don’t care who gets the credit, great things can happen.”

Well, I’ve got a slightly different twist for modern, successful civic campaigns.  “If you can make it someone else’s idea, all the better.”  And if you can make it the idea of a key decision maker, then you’re already halfway to victory.

I’ll explain.

Let’s start with a bridge.  If you’ve ever been to Pittsburgh, you’re surely familiar with the Fort Pitt Bridge that enters the city from the west.  Pittsburghers refer to the bridge as the “doorway to our front yard.”  If you look left or right after coming through the tunnel, you see the beautiful Monongahela River stretching out on one side and the Ohio disappearing into the distance on the other, while the Allegheny splays dramatically in front of you.

But that iconic experience, one that has become so defining to our city’s identity, might have all been lost if some civic leaders hadn’t stepped in and “made it the other person’s idea” – which is exactly what happened twelve years ago via a civic campaign to save Pittsburgh’s “front door view.”

The Issue:  In 2000, the Fort Pitt Bridge was getting a major overhaul by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. The proposed work included replacing the old rail guards – the ones that allowed drivers a clear view of the river – with cement “Jersey” barriers, effectively walling off visitors’ first and best chance to see the city.

The Players:  The River Life Task Force, a Pittsburgh civic group, had just been formed.  It was co-chaired at the time by the editor of a leading newspaper and the president of one of the largest foundations in town. Other key players included the Pennsylvania Secretary of Transportation, the Governor’s Press Secretary and political adviser, the City Mayor, and an influential civic leader who had great political, business, civic and philanthropic relations – a civic leader who lives by the “not caring about credit” motto.

The Opposition:  For better or for worse, Departments of Transportation tend to view themselves as road builders, not community planners.  Even powerful, visionary Secretaries can have trouble streamlining entrenched bureaucracy and changing their Departments’ approach.

These constraints meant that PennDOT was not running to embrace new ideas like other, less obstructive barriers (which were being used just fine in other states), claiming they either weren’t appropriate for the Fort Pitt Bridge project or that they didn’t meet State and Federal standards.
The Solution:  Change some of the players – and make it their idea. In stepped the influential civic leader.  She instantly grasped the problem, and she knew all the players.  First, she gauged the political temperature through her ties with the Governor’s press staff. She then reached into the community treasure chest to get a highly respected university to develop a “Pennsylvania Barrier” that met the necessary safety standards and maintained the view.

After sharing the “Pennsylvania Barrier” solution with the foundation executive, she back-channeled the idea to the Governor’s Press Secretary and suggested that the administration encourage the Transportation Secretary to make this his idea – without mentioning that it was actually a homegrown solution from the Pittsburgh community itself.

After the long impasse, a new meeting was scheduled with the Secretary of Transportation and the foundation leader.  And guess what – the foundation leader rushed out of the meeting, called the civic leader, and announced that the Secretary had a terrific idea of creating his own barrier, which would satisfy everyone’s needs and be called the “Pennsylvania Barrier.”

In short, not caring about who got credit won the day.  So next time you come to Pittsburgh, drive across the Fort Pitt Bridge, and see the three beautiful rivers, ask yourself, “just who’s idea was this, anyway?”