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Council agrees on six ‘outcomes’ to work toward in 2017

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council wants to make 2017 all about outcomes.

During a two-day “retreat” led by a group of government management consultants at the AT&T Conference Center last week, Mayor Steve Adler and his 10 Council colleagues came up with six desired outcomes for Austinites that Council’s every move should aim to produce.

Council’s work should provide city residents with one of the following: security, economic opportunity, affordable and accessible transportation, physical and mental health, cultural or civic enrichment and, finally, confidence in their city government.

One of the most important ways the city can align its work with outcomes will be through the budget, explained Peter Hutchinson, a Minneapolis-based consultant with Accenture, a global consulting firm.

He explained that rather than crafting its budget by having department heads come to Council to say what they need to continue their existing operations, Council should decide first what outcomes it wants to produce and which existing or new city services could produce those outcomes.

“Start with the outcomes, not the departments,” Hutchinson said. “If you start with the departments you get parts and they may lead to an outcome,” but not necessarily.

Council Member Ellen Troxclair, who last year vocally opposed commitments to increase funding to social service contracts by a certain percentage every year, appeared to find a sympathetic ear in Hutchinson.

“Nobody deserves anything,” he said in response to her reference to expectations of annual budget increases. “It’s only about, ‘What am I going to get for the money?’”

Therefore, Hutchinson said, talks of “increases” and “cuts” are irrelevant. All that matters is whether the money being spent is producing a satisfactory service for city residents.

“(The funding) ought to be core to the outcome, not the department. The people of Austin don’t give a damn how you’re organized. They want services,” he said.

Hutchinson advised Council not to immediately adopt such a radical change to budgeting, however. It should nevertheless begin to more seriously probe the link between department programs and the city’s six core outcomes.

Council had already committed to a new approach to budgeting in 2017 in response to concerns voiced by Adler and Council members that the past two budgets have been too hastily crafted. As a result, Council will begin preliminary budget planning in the next few weeks, rather than waiting until summer to get budget requests from staff.

As a result of the retreat, Council has come to a consensus that, as part of the budget process, departments should identify how all of their activities are linked to one of the six major outcomes as well as identify activities that may not be linked to them, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo explained to the Austin Monitor.

“What there was not consensus on was to say … we want to spend 30 percent of our budget on this priority area and 40 percent on this and 5 percent on the others,” she said.

There were also different opinions about whether every agenda item presented to Council should include an explanation from city staff about how the item aligns with one of the outcomes.

Council Member Ann Kitchen worried that some of Council’s essential work – she gave zoning cases as an example – would not fall under one of the outcomes. Recently elected Council Member Jimmy Flannigan vehemently disagreed, saying that he thought requested zoning changes that could not be described as furthering one of the desired outcomes probably should not be granted.

Tovo said she believed that staff could find a way to describe most – if not all – of its activities as aligning with an outcome, but added that the work of doing that might be more effort than it’s worth. Hutchinson and Flannigan said they didn’t think it would amount to much work.

Asked at the end of the retreat to rate their satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 5 regarding what they had achieved during the two days, most Council members held up four or five fingers. Council Member Delia Garza raised only three, and in remarks to the Monitor afterward, it sounded like she was being generous.

“Frankly, I’ve never been a fan of these kinds of work sessions because I’ve never seen the outcomes that I want to see,” she said. “I’ve never participated in one of these things (after which) somehow the work flow has gotten better or anything like that.”

She added that she wasn’t convinced that making Council meetings shorter, as many of her colleagues have expressed a desire to do, is a good idea, although she does hope that CodeNEXT, the revamping of the city zoning code, could reduce the amount of time spent on zoning cases.

“This is our job,” Garza said. “We have to address these issues. It takes a long time sometimes.”

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons.

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