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Council approves plan aimed at holding city programs accountable

Friday, March 9, 2018 by Jack Craver

City Council approved a wide-ranging plan on Thursday aimed at forcing city programs to prove their worth.

The Austin Strategic Direction 2023 Plan has been in the works since the beginning of 2017, when Council began exploring the concept of “outcome-based” budgeting, which is based on the simple premise that Council should not fund programs that do not further the city’s overarching goals relating to affordability, mobility, public safety, health and environmental protection, good governance, and the arts.

On its face, the idea is inoffensive and intuitive. Indeed, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan acknowledged in an interview with the Austin Monitor that just about any city program could be described as furthering one of the six desirable outcomes that Council has established.

“That’s not an accident,” said Flannigan.

The more meaningful part of the policy, he explained, is far more specific “indicators” and “metrics” that are aligned with the outcomes.

For instance, there are dozens of metrics that the city has identified as key measures of whether the city is achieving its health and environmental goals, such as percentage of residents without health insurance, percentage of residents who don’t live within a quarter-mile of a park and the obesity rate, among dozens of others.

From now on, existing city programs and proposed ones will have to justify themselves by explaining, preferably through evidence, that they will have an impact on those metrics. This year will be the first where the budget is crafted based on outcome-based budgeting principles.

Council Member Greg Casar asked to add a couple of new metrics to the document at the last moment, saying that he would like to see more focus on economic segregation in the city.

“We aren’t measuring segregation and integration very much,” he said, adding that while there had been a lot of justifiable concerns about low-income people being displaced in historically poor or working-class areas of the city, there had not been enough focus on the question, “How do we integrate stubbornly high-income areas?”

Although he’d originally planned on asking for the city to use a measure of economic segregation developed by urban theorist Richard Florida, he found out that that was a proprietary measure. Instead, Casar proposed that staff monitor the percentage of low-income people living in Austin compared to the percentage living outside the city limits.

Casar also asked that the incarceration rate be monitored.

“I’m really excited to see where this leads us,” said Council Member Alison Alter. “I see this as the beginning, not the end.”

Mayor Steve Adler asked that all of the city staffers involved in crafting the document stand up for a round of applause.

As is often the case, Council Member Ellen Troxclair was the only voice of dissent on the dais. While emphasizing her appreciation for staff’s work and expressing hope that the new approach would lead to more “data-driven decisions,” Council’s lone conservative was disappointed that there was little in the plan aimed at reducing city spending and lowering taxes.

Only a few weeks into his new job, City Manager Spencer Cronk expressed enthusiasm for the plan, calling it a “big step forward.”

Cronk also responded to Troxclair’s concerns, saying that the plan was a “living document” that could change in the future.

“This is something that will evolve,” he said. “We’ll have regular checkpoints and milestones.”

Photo by John Flynn.

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