How bold can government be? That was the question posed by the Transforming Local Government conference I had the opportunity to attend last week in Clearwater, Florida. Organized by Knowledge Network partner the Alliance for Innovation together with the Florida City and County Management Association, the conference brought together hundreds of local government professionals from across the country to share stories of innovation in response to the many challenges facing today’s local governments. Here's just a quick glimpse of some the stories I heard.
From top: Austin citizen planning, Vancouver's community center, Virginia Beach's Sportsplex, A Jacksonville sidewalk trip hazard, Hillsborough's code enforcement team, the Decatur Beach Party
Two cities that have taken new approaches to getting more than the usual suspects to participate in city planning exercises are Austin, Texas and Winnipeg, Man. With a grassroots marketing campaign, face-to-face engagement tools, and the interactive SpeakUpWinnipeg website, Winnipeg city officials were able to engage residents in a conversation about the future of their city that was more collaborative and more comprehensive than traditional feedback tools. Similarly, Austin didn’t want to simply inform the public about a decision, but to truly collaborate with and empower citizens at an increased level of public impact, as depicted on the Spectrum of Public Participation. To involve the public in a long-term city vision, Austin enabled involvement with their ImagineAustin website, used a wide range of innovative in-person engagement tools, and sent city officials directly to citizens rather than waiting for them to come to city hall.
In managing a new community center, West Vancouver, B.C. went beyond citizen input and involved citizens directly in the operation of the 83,000 square foot facility that hosts a range of community, health, recreation, and social activities. A non-profit society comprises 16 community residents who are responsible for the operation and budgeting oversight of all community services and programs in the facility according to a governance model established in partnership with the municipality. By empowering this citizen group, tapping local expertise, and making all decisions transparent to the community, West Vancouver enjoys more innovative community programs and greater levels of citizen trust.
Partnerships of all kinds were a common topic of the conference as jurisdictions increasingly look to leverage other players in the community to help them do more with limited resources. Virginia Beach, Va. shared the story of its public-private partnership to build and operate a city athletic facility that both serves community recreation needs and attracts visitors from across the region to its state-of-the-art field hockey facility. By using private-sector investment for the construction and contracting private operation of the facility, Virginia Beach was able to provide its citizens with a new venue, share a portion of the facility’s revenue, and grow its tax base.
The public-private partnerships in Fairfax County, Va. cover a wide range of activities in the community, from wildlife restoration to adult education to sports. The dedicated Office of Public-Private Partnerships works with both private corporations and community non-profits to address county priorities in ways that are mutually beneficial. These innovative partnerships have leveraged expertise and resources that the county couldn’t have provided itself, and improved community relations in the process.
Jacksonville, Fla. used an innovative private contractor to reduce public works expenses and improve compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA has specific requirements for vertical changes in level and overall slope, and sidewalks frequently become non-compliant as roots and erosion shift panels and create hazards. Jacksonville’s department of public works engaged Precision Sidewalk Safety to use their patented horizontal cutting method to bring city sidewalks into compliance with less disruption and less cost than traditional methods.
Three stories of partnerships around public safety relied not on private partners, but on inter-agency agreements and direct community involvement. Recognizing the link between code violations and criminal activity, Hillsborough County, Fla. created a grant-funded team of code enforcement and law enforcement officials to prevent crime by enforcing property maintenance requirements. To address an uptick in crime coinciding with the foreclosure crisis, Wellington, Fla. drew on community policing officers and neighborhood advocates in its Safe Neighborhoods Initiative, which deterred crime on a limited budget. Finally, Philadelphia’s PhillyRising Collaborative is a neighborhood-focused initiative built on empowering the local community rather than treating residents as passive recipients of city services. By listening to residents, taking a long-term approach to building community trust, and negotiating the maze of city services, the initiative has improved infrastructure, provided after-school activities, and reduced crime in a pilot neighborhood.
Finally, Decatur, Ga. reminded participants of local government’s responsibility to have fun by showing how its full calendar of festivals have driven economic development and quality of life in the community. This small city near Atlanta attracts festival-goers from the city, the metro area, and beyond to events like an annual beach party, a blues and barbecue festival, a craft beer festival, and the country’s largest independet book festival. While the city facilitates the events, the festivals are organizaed in collaboration with local business associations and non-profits. After making these festivals a regular part the city, the result is not only local business development, but a stronger community character and a unique sense of place.
Thanks to the Alliance for Innovation and FCCMA for putting together this conference to show the many ways local governments can be bold and innovative when taking on today’s many challenges. Thanks especially to the presenters I heard from:
- Austin: Community Engagement Consultant Larry Schooler
- Winnipeg: Strategic Support Services Manager Gary Holmes, Environmental Coordinator Ian Hall
- West Vancouver: Mayor Pam Goldsmith-Jones, Executive Director Sue Ketler
- Virginia Beach: Acting Deputy City Manager Cindy Curtis; Planning, Design & Development Administrator Brian Solis, facility owner John Wack
- Fairfax: Partnership Developer Karen Walz-Fuentes, Executive Director Patricia Stevens
- Jacksonville: Chief of Right of Way and Grounds Maintenance Terry Theriault, Precision Sidewalk Safety Corp. CEO Wendy MacMurray
- Hillsborough: Code Enforcement Director Dexter Barge, Community Relations Coordinator Carol Michel, Code Enforcement Officer Jonathan Williams
- Wellington: Village Manager Paul Schofield, Assistant Village Manager Francine Ramaglia, Director of Operations Jim Barnes, Neighborhood Advocate Meredith Tuckwood
- Philadelphia: Captain Michael Cram, Deputy Managing Director John Farrell, Officer Michele Winkis
- Decatur: City Manager Peggy Merriss, Director of Community and Economic Development Lyn Menne, Assistant Director or Community and Economic Development Linda Harris, Fire Chief Toni Dixon, Decatur Book Festival Executive Director Daren Wang