When Palo Alto launched a business "registry" more than a year ago, the goal was to collect useful information about who was operating businesses in the city, facilitate communication with them and compile data that could inform city decision-making on transportation, parking and zoning strategies.
With only a modest annual fee of $50, it was intentionally not designed as a revenue-generating business-license tax, which quickly becomes complex and controversial, as evidenced by the 2009 ballot measure when 59 percent of Palo Alto voters defeated such a proposal.
One of the few cities without any business license or tax, Palo Alto sought instead to assemble information that could answer long-debated questions, such as the number of employees who work in our various commercial districts, the how many office employees work per square feet of office space and their parking and commute habits.
But the city quickly discovered that setting up even a limited data collection system was more difficult than expected, and it has struggled over the last year to achieve full participation and procure anything close to reliable information.
As the program enters its second year and with the recent release of some of the data compiled over the last year, it is clear the program needs help.
The data reveals inconsistent participation, with some long-standing businesses having not registered at all, some businesses registering twice and many errors in response to questions on square footage and parking. Tenants in multi-tenant buildings provided inconsistent answers, and there was no method of avoiding duplicate responses from building managers, owners or master tenants. The overall number of employees accounted for in the survey doesn't approach the number otherwise estimated to actually work in Palo Alto.
A city staff report claims 93 percent participation by Palo Alto businesses but seems to have achieved that level by continuously reducing its estimate of the number of businesses without explaining its methodology for doing so.
The city acknowledges the data is still in a "preliminary, raw state," but a more accurate characterization might be "garbage in, garbage out." There is virtually nothing in the available data that can be utilized with any confidence, and unless the city moves deliberately and quickly to address the problems, the registry will remain a near-useless exercise.
Many of the problems can be traced to the lack of preliminary outreach to businesses and the failure to conduct a pre-launch pilot program that could have uncovered issues before attempting to roll out the registry citywide. Had the staff worked with a cross-section of employers and property owners to develop the initial survey instrument, it would have quickly discovered the problems in its approach and the lack of clear thinking about the ultimate use of the data.
For example, while an owner-operator of a small, independent business might be able to answer the required questions, the form could easily flummox the local manager of a chain store, fast-food restaurant or Starbucks.
Asking for the square footage occupied by the business, the maximum number of employees that are at the location at any one time, the number of parking spaces on-site and the number of employee parking permits purchased by the business leads to unreliable self-reporting, particularly if an employer or a manager believes there could be negative repercussions by giving certain answers.
By combining the attempt to learn ownership and occupancy information with a series of more intrusive questions, the city confused some businesses, scared away others and was completely ignored by many. Requiring the information under penalty of perjury didn't help.
The business registry shows all the signs of a program that was never truly embraced by the city, was inadequately funded and poorly executed.
It is inevitable that some businesses will be missed with a program like this, as the comings and goings of small businesses and individual providers of professional services occur at a fast clip in Palo Alto. But it is sign of flawed process when, for example, a year into the program Midtown's largest employer, Safeway, and McDonald's on El Camino had not registered.
The origin of the registry dates back to early 2014, when then-councilmembers Marc Berman, Pat Burt and Karen Holman (along with former Councilman Larry Klein) proposed it to their colleagues as a means of developing reliable data to aid future policy decisions. They now need to take the lead in developing the rescue mission for this fledgling program.