Innovations in Local Government Service Delivery - Austin, TX

By Terry Gerton

When you think about Austin, Texas, you might think about Austin City Limits, or “Keep Austin Weird” signs, or the Texas Longhorns. When I think about Austin, I think innovation.  That’s why Austin was the perfect place to hold our second “Governing Across the Divide” event, focused on innovations in cities.  Following up on last month’s conversation about the changing role of states, we wanted to look closer at what enables some cities to develop innovative governing solutions, and what conditions might be holding some other cities back.

Our first panel reminded us that innovation is not just the application of technology to problems like traffic management or garbage pick-up, even though those applications can have significant impacts on citizen quality-of-life and cost reduction.  Sheryl Sculley, City Manager of San Antonio, pointed out that innovation has to be a strategic approach—she made it one of San Antonio’s four core values and established an office of innovation to combine new ideas with sustainable resourcing for long-term success.  Austin Deputy Police Chief Troy Gay noted that, while the Austin police force is deploying new technologies, innovation in community policing practices that increases trust and legitimacy is far more important to improving neighborhood relations and reducing crime than technology alone. 

Christy McFarland, Research Director for National League of Cities, reminded us that city fiscal health sets the foundation for innovation, and recent trends indicate that city budgets may be under stress.  Randy Reid, Southeast Regional Director for the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA), echoed Christy’s concerns.  Reporting on recent ICMA survey results, Randy noted that most city managers believed that they could only handle one big innovation project at a time given their resources, but that they highly valued the opportunity to share best-practices and learn from other cities, both in the U.S. and internationally.

Evan Smith, CEO and co-founder of the Texas Tribune, continued the theme of thinking beyond technology.  In addition to talking about his own innovations in political reporting, he reminded us that demographic change is driving public policy innovation in cities across Texas, and that, in its efforts to rebuild communities affected by Hurricane Harvey, Texas has the opportunity to fundamentally re-baseline much of its community infrastructure in new and exciting ways. 

Dustin Haisler, CIO of e-Republic, followed with a discussion about disruptive innovation in government.  While he did address the impacts of social media and artificial intelligence, he drove home two key points:  first, that technology is changing how work gets done, and that will have reverberating effects throughout our government, felt first by cities; and second, in the public sector, innovation is about finding new ways to use what we already have more effectively to serve our citizens better.

Julian Castro, former Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio, provided the lunchtime keynote address.  He noted that our national trend toward urbanization presents both opportunities and challenges, because city governments must be problem solvers on the front lines of service delivery, but they are being asked to do “more and more with less and less.”  He also challenged us to look across our governing silos to develop truly innovative solutions, to better measure and report results, and to broadly share those results so that public policy makers can make more effective decisions.

Our first afternoon panel explored challenges to innovation.  The Honorable Larry Gonzales, Chair of Sunset Commission and member of the Texas House of Representatives; Brenda Eivens, City Manager of Cedar Park, Texas and Adjunct Faculty, UT’s School of Public Affairs; The Honorable Jeff Travillion, Travis County Commissioner Precinct #1; and Alex Briseno, Professor of Public Service in Residence, Saint Mary’s University, NAPA Fellow and Former City Manager, of San Antonio, Texas shared their perspectives in a lively discussion. Economic growth, which is driving population growth but also accelerating demographic and income segregation, poses urgent problems for local transit, education, health care and zoning systems that are far outpacing the ability of Texas cities to deal with them. The urgency of the needs is complicated by increased political divisions that have trickled down from the national level through the state level to the city level, making compromise ever more difficult.  Every member of the panel emphasized the importance of having involved local government officials, elected or appointed, take the time to educate citizens face-to-face about issues and policy implications to build trust in, and consensus around, tough choices.

The day’s last panel tackled the challenges posed to city governments by rapidly advancing technology.  While there was agreement that technology is a major “force multiplier” for cities, the most important effect of the democratization of technology is that it is forcing cities to communicate in new and more effective ways.  Sherri Greenberg, Clinical Professor at UT LBJ School of Public Affairs, pointed out that “e-government is still just ‘government,’” and that new technologies provide new tools with which to deliver better and more transparent service.  Will Hampton, Director of Communications for Round Rock Texas, remarked that new technology tools require an emphasis on “what we say and how we say it” so that government officials establish and maintain trust and credibility through consistent communications. 

The volume of these communications, and the electronic records they generate, pose a new burden for local governments.  Alan Bojorquez, Attorney at Law and Principal with the Bojorquez Law Firm in Austin, pointed out that our laws are not keeping up with the technology impacts on open records, media policies, and most importantly, ethics.  Cities especially are challenged to manage the workload created by electronic records management, data privacy and information requests.

Summarizing a day of rich discussion like this is never easy, but for me, three key themes emerged.  First, we must think about innovation not just as new technology but also as improvements in process, sometimes enabled by new technology, that dramatically improve the effectiveness and trustworthiness of government.  Second, managers of cities and counties face extraordinary challenges from demographics, declining resources, weather, politics and more, that force them to be some of our most creative and effective problem solvers.  And third, there is no substitute for direct, face-to-face involvement between leaders and their citizens when it comes to building the trust and consensus so essential to the hard work of effective governing.

The importance of citizen engagement follows from our earlier conversation about the changing role of states, and I am guessing it will figure prominently in our next event, focused on The Future of Public Service, at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Service on October 4th.  I hope you’ll have an chance to join us for our wrap-up session at George Mason University on October 30th.

Terry Gerton is the President and CEO of the National Academy of Public Administration.