California Should Be More Like the Rose Parade

The State’s Greatest Public Event Delivers Every Year—Which Is More Than You Can Say for Sacramento

Sometimes I wish the state of California were run more like the Rose Parade.

It’s not just how nice it’d be to have all the surfaces in Capitol offices covered in flowers (legislators produce more than 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 resulting cultural 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 the Rose Parade runs deep, but so does my experience. I grew up in Pasadena, five blocks south of the parade’s Colorado Boulevard route, and today I reside in the town next door, a short walk from where the floats line up on New Year’s Eve. So I know for a fact that January 1 is the most important day of any year, when the world’s attention is focused on our sunny Southern California.

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 and new float designs in January. Float construction begins in the spring; the summer sees float testing and, in some years, the naming of a grand marshal; and in the fall, we pick six Rose princesses and a queen.

And this Pasadena kid knows the holidays are coming not by any change in the weather (it’s always warm here) but when the temporary parade stands go up at the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado. Then, there’s the glorious week between Christmas and New Year’s, when we greet the bands and the equestrians and football teams and stay up all night gluing flowers to floats.

This 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 master plans and legislation are routinely pushed back for months or years. But the Rose Parade can’t be pushed back. Preparations for the 2016 edition are already underway, and float design for next year will begin as In-N-Out burgers are being handed out to weary marchers at the end of this year’s parade.

Today’s California keeps adding all kinds of new tolls and fees—for bags at the grocery store, for certain lanes on the freeway—and it’s become routine for the powerful and the rich to buy special access. But while the Rose Parade does sell some grandstand tickets, anyone who can find a spot to stand or sit along the 5 ½ mile parade route can watch for free. Of the estimated half million 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 legislators and aides, and where staffers often lack knowledge about the policy areas they are supposed to tackle. In Pasadena, the 935 volunteer members of the Tournament of Roses are assigned to specific committees that each govern a different aspect of the event, and develop deep expertise. And while state government often lacks accountability, parade volunteers are graded on their work.

A parade volunteer—or “White Suiter” (named for the required uniform)—ascends to an executive position 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.

The wisdom of this approach became apparent five years ago when my friend Gary DiSano died during his presidency, after his years of apprenticeship and a few months before his parade. It was tragic, but the Tournament was full of people who were fully prepared to pull off Gary’s plans.

Tournament volunteers are assisted by a small full-time staff (and, as in the Capitol, there is sometimes grumbling that staffers are too powerful) and a host of float designers and builders and flower brokers and even glue makers whose deep knowledge of parade details is honored and valued. (Just let Silicon Valley try to disrupt this business.)

These people are prepared for anything. While the state has dawdled on replacing outdated infrastructure and quake-proofing public buildings, 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. One executive, by cheeky tradition, is even tasked with making sure it doesn’t rain on the parade.

California is a mismatched mix of regions, and our government is overstuffed with agencies and commissions 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 fan, I have my complaints. The parade leadership, despite some improvements, still doesn’t come close to reflecting the diversity of the San Gabriel Valley. 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 maybe I’m getting curmudgeonly, but haven’t some of those corporate logos on the floats gotten a little 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.


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