What California can learn from the Rose Parade

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Photo via Flickr by Prayitno / Creative Commons

It’s not just how nice it’d be to have all the surfaces in Capitol offices covered in flowers (legislators produce enough manure to make such a project sustainable). Or how much more fun it would be to visit government offices if you could bring a barbecue and camp out the night before your appointment (imagine the change at the DMV). It’s that the Rose Parade is governed with the accountability, focus, planning, and public participation that are so hard to find in California governments.

My bias on the subject of Rose Parade runs deep. I grew up in Pasadena, five blocks south of the parade’s Colorado Boulevard route, and today I reside in the town next door. So I know for a fact that January 1 is the most important day of any year—and that special things happen when enough people spend an entire year getting ready for just one day.

You can talk all you want about living for the moment, but the Rose Parade teaches that nothing allows you to appreciate today’s little moments like always keeping an eye on next year. I can mark the calendar by parade preparations. There’s the selection of an annual theme in January; float construction in the spring; the selection of a Rose court in the fall. This Pasadena kid knows the holidays are coming when the temporary parade stands go up. Then, there’s the glorious week between Christmas and New Year’s, when we greet the bands and equestrians and football teams and glue flowers to floats.

The parade’s never-ending planning around fixed deadlines forces all sorts of good habits that the rest of California could learn from. In state government, endless delays are the status quo; environmental reviews and legislation are routinely pushed back for months. But the Rose Parade can’t be pushed back. Indeed, preparations for the 2016 edition are already underway.

Today’s California keeps adding all kinds of new tolls and fees—for bags at the grocery store, for certain lanes on the freeway. But while the Rose Parade sells grandstand tickets, anyone who can find a place to sit or stand along the 5 ½ mile parade route can watch for free. Of the estimated 500,000 people who attend the parade each year, only about one in 10 are ticketholders.

The Tournament of Roses Association, which has been running the New Year’s Day parade since 1895, is also a model of efficient, dedicated public service—at least compared to Sacramento, where you find a high turnover of paid legislators and aides, who often know little about the topics upon which they legislate. The 935 volunteer members of the Tournament of Roses, however, are assigned to specific committees that each govern a different aspect of the event, and develop intimate knowledge as a result. While state government often lacks accountability, parade volunteers are graded on their work.

A parade volunteer ascends to higher position within the group only after many years of successful service. And for those named to the association’s executive committee, there’s an apprenticeship of eight years before they serve as president for one parade and game. The future president does a different job each year in order to develop full command of the organization.

Parade volunteers, who are assisted by a full-time staff as well as professional float-building companies, are prepared for anything. While the state has dawdled on replacing outdated infrastructure and seismic retrofitting, the Rose Parade never stints on safety. There are constant float tests and fire drills; everyone must be able to evacuate every float in 45 seconds.

California is a mismatched mix of regions, and our government is overstuffed with agencies that work at cross-purposes. But the Rose Parade pulls off an event that satisfies floral designers and those who can’t tell a tulip from a tiger lily. It manages simultaneously to serve as our community’s homegrown gathering of the year and a global TV spectacle watched by tens of millions. Parade participants themselves are a blend of locals and people from the far corners of the world.

Like any local parade watcher, I have complaints. The parade leadership still doesn’t come close to reflecting our region’s diversity. The parade has gotten shorter (down to 45 floats from 60), in part to accommodate TV’s desire for a shorter, two-hour parade. And it seems to me the corporate logos on the floats have gotten too big.

But these problems pale in comparison to the value of the parade’s message: No excuses and no slow starts. If you plan ahead, you can be in full bloom right from the very start of a new year.

Joe Mathews is California and Innovation editor for Zocalo Public Square, for which he wrote this Connecting California column.