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Austin City Limits: What's Holding Back Government Innovation in Austin, Texas?

BY Nick Judd | Friday, March 4 2011

Hordes of technologists flock to Austin, Texas every year for SXSW, and the town has a thriving tech community of its own. So why can't its government operate like a real 21st-century municipality? Photo: Doc Searls / Flickr

The year was 2007 and the City of Austin was losing its edge.

Widely known as a hub for the technology industry and one of the nation's music meccas, Austin's government had not kept up with the city's reputation as a tech-savvy, forward-thinking, creative community. Austin's web presence was last touched up in 2002 and its city services online were a growing mishmash of unrelated parts. City Council Member Lee Leffingwell, who is now the mayor, called for a change.

"Redesigning the Web site makes government more open to the residents of Austin, and that's a priority for me," Leffingwell said at the time in a press release. "By enlisting public input in the redesign of the Web site, I know we can create one of the best municipal Web sites in the nation."

"No city in the nation boasts a more technologically adept and creative group of residents than Austin," his colleague on the council, Mike Martinez, added. "We want the community to actively participate in this effort to truly make the City's Web site everyone's Web site."

It's been four years, and the home of the SXSW media, technology and culture festival is only now preparing to implement a post-2002 web design and a modern content management system. But there's a more worrisome issue for city geeks: Not long after Austin techies started following the city's efforts to update its website, they started to wonder if the city could present any information there worth finding. They now say that the city's data — which should include information on liquor licenses, building permits, crime, trash pickup and so on — is stored in such a sprawling and decentralized mishmash of systems that even the best-designed site would not offer the kind of utility that residents of other cities might expect. Some of Austin's geeks now say the city must make a fundamental shift in the way it operates in order to share more information with the public — and they fear that a lack of strong leadership on the issue will make their goal impossible to reach.

The city has an inspired and motivated community of technologists who want to help, but the ongoing effort to bring Austin's city government into the 21st century has left a trail of frustrated volunteers for want, they say, of reciprocal action from city leaders.

"They're all good people," Brownell Chalstrom, a longtime technologist who was the general manager of Lotus Notes, among other things, and now backs a company making mobile apps, told me recently. "Nobody's acting evil. Everybody's got their heart in the right place, there just isn't the werewithal to get things done."

Keeping Austin In Austin

The length of Austin's struggle with contemporary technology is partly the result of political action by techies like Chalstrom. In 2009, when the city announced that it was set to award a $700,000-plus redesign contract for its website to a California firm, the Austin tech community staged a revolt.

During this fracas, an open source advocate and web design guru named William Hurley created a group called OpenAustin to advocate for participation from Austin geeks in decisions about how the city should use technology. He set up an Ideascale site for people to submit and collectively vote on elements that should be included in a new city website. Easier access to information on items like trash pickup and paying bills online feature prominently in the suggestions still visible there.

"This isn't an anti-city government movement," Hurley told the blog Geek Austin at the time. "It is a community movement based on some very simple principles. One of these is that it's simply not right to design web-based application services or content without involving the very people who are not only using it on a daily basis, but are also your source of funding."

The city eventually spiked that contract, and awarded announced a discovery and design contract to a local firm at the end of that year. The findings of the firm, SteelSMBology, were released as part of a City Council committee report just last month — nearly two years after the contract was awarded. The city has not yet named the firm that will pick up where SteelSMBology left off but must be very close. (UPDATE: The contract was formally awarded in early 2010 and completed in October 2010.)

Thus began the city's engagement with OpenAustin, which Hurley would later leave in the hands of Chalstrom and other members. (When I reached out to Hurley for this piece, he didn't respond to emailed questions and said he hadn't been involved with OpenAustin for a while as he was "traveling around the world.") While the relationship was initially an adversarial one, OpenAustin and the city formed a formal strategic partnership.

And the city has taken steps to improve community engagement. Austin now has a special web portal, AustinGO, for people who want to track the progress of its website redesign or to get involved. City officials experiment with collaborative tools, like a BangTheTable-powered "budget allocator", and maintain a separate portal for citizen engagement.

But there is still turbulence in their public-private partnership. As OpenAustin members became more and more vocal about working with the city to improve the way it stores and presents data, the city didn't seem capable of acting on their recommendations.

"We had regular meetings and were providing advice," Chalstrom told me, "and also acting as a conduit to what was going on in other cities and introducing information into the city, and different standards that were developing, like Open311 and so on. But it mostly was not being adopted or listened to."

Data Sprawl

OpenAustin "wanted to do data apps," another member of OpenAustin, Dan Pattyn, a former Motorola engineer, told me. "And the data is just not there."

Unifying the city's data architecture would be a sisyphean task, Pattyn and others say. The public utilities, for instance, are both locked in to separate implementations of IBM WebSphere. Pattyn's concern is that every agency has their own standards for storing data. Without someone capable of "knocking heads," as he put it, and deciding whose standards to keep and whose to drop, it seems there's little hope of the kind of architecture for a data portal that the city's old heads of tech would consider up to snuff.

"A data portal is in the works," is all Matthew Esquibel, an IT staffer moved into collaborating with the public information office to work on the web design project, told me when I asked via email. "It is aligned with the redesign project but not dependent on it. The goal would be to get it going as soon as possible."

OpenAustin members had high praise for Esquibel and others in government who are trying to move this project forward. Listening to them and to others around Austin, it sounds like the problem is there just isn't enough interest yet in the City Council and the upper echelons of city government to combat the default inertia of a bureaucracy.

"Data portal efforts are not doing so well," Chip Rosenthal, the vice-chairman of the city's Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission, told me via email. "I think the problem is that the departments that would build the portal are committed, but don't actually have the public data. It's going to take some upper-level city management direction to get this moving."

Revolving Door

That leadership may be hard to come by. In the four years since the city started its website redesign, its tech leadership has constantly been in flux. Austin CIO Pete Collins resigned amidst an investigation in 2008 after accusations that he used city property for personal use. Austin next hired Gail Roper from Raleigh, North Carolina, who stuck around for seven months and then went back to Raleigh in 2009. The website relaunch project is now the domain of the Communications and Public Information Office. And even if it wasn't, it's not clear if Austin's government structure has a place for someone who can really direct IT deployment across agencies and public utilities.

"It's unclear if the chief information officer, chief technology officer for the city would be able to compel the utilities to participate in open government," said Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, another OpenAustin member who is a management consultant by trade. "And I don't mean if there's a law, I'm saying it more that culturally they are distinct entities that operate distinctly and have distinct decision making."

The people in government who are involved are listening — it's just not clear how much they can do alone.

"The problem the City of Austin has is not fixable by the community except as by voters," Chalstrom says.

Altamirano is proposing to his fellow OpenAustin members that they become a more political entity, advocating for specific city policies — and to elect the candidates that will support those policies. Absent the strong leadership they're calling for, some of Austin's geeks have decided to go and elect some themselves.

Meanwhile, the mayor, Leffingwell, and other city officials are enjoying the fruits of a different kind of transparency. The Austin American-Statesman released a trove of their emails to one another, obtained through public records laws, in which they discuss their reservations with various legislation and development projects, political maneuvering at City Council meetings, and their colleagues. In one email, according to the Statesman, Martinez calls the city manager and assistant city manager "jokes." In another, a council member, Randi Shade, says one of her colleagues' "wonkiness is genetic."

The Statesman reports that there is an investigation into whether or not City Council members violated the law by reaching consensus behind closed doors and in one-on-one meetings, away from public view.

"We've sort of come full circle to, hey, it is really all about politics and power," Chalstrom explained. "It's not about technology and ideas."