Quiet Excellence: Good Government Is in the Details
City Manager, city of Austin, Texas
A couple of years back, a retired Austin, Texas, schoolteacher named Elta Smith set out to build a child care center using her family’s savings. But after buying a one-acre tract and hiring the engineers and experts she needed to shepherd the project through the municipal bureaucracy, Smith ran up against a flat “no” from the city: The center’s stormwater runoff, officials told her, would be too much for that particular watershed to handle.
In the end, Smith did get her license. She got it because City Manager Jesus Garza did some research of his own, decided that the city’s staff could have done more to help Smith out, and acknowledged it in public. “When you stub your toe,” he says, “you need to admit it.” Garza didn’t stop there. He also realized that the city needed a new agreement with local water control agencies if other businesses were going to avoid the same problems Smith had run into. And so he wasted no time in negotiating one.
It was a typical Garza reaction, lacking any trace of defensiveness, full of determination to make city government run a little more smoothly. In the words of Richard Oppel, editor of the Austin American-Statesman, “his professionalism is a model for city workers.... Check the facts, understand the issue and take action.”
Garza, who is 48, became city manager in 1994. He had one of the hardest acts in his profession to follow, that of Camille Cates Barnett, the iron-willed, highly visible manager who instilled performance measurement values in Austin city government. Yet Garza, in his quiet and modest way, has worked just as hard to make Austin run well — so much so that Governing’s Government Performance Project earlier this year ranked it second only to Phoenix among the country’s best-managed cities.
This is due, in part, to Garza’s insistence that Austin get the basics right. The city pays attention to long-range fiscal forecasts, and ties its budgets to what it sees coming down the road. It knows what its work-force needs will be, fights hard to retain employees in a hyper-competitive market — even, in some cases, countering offers from the private sector — and trains its workers well. Austin has a handle on capital planning, and where it’s fallen short — as in coordination among departments — Garza has reacted quickly to fix the problem.
While the city has long been a leader in performance measurement, Garza has gone beyond the obvious to make sure that his measurements are meaningful to the people who work for him. He brings his department directors in each year to figure out how to link individual employee evaluations to overall departmental goals.
“In government,” Garza says, “there’s this belief that you build a project and therefore you’re a success. But there’s more to it. Did it cost you what you said? Did you build it when you said you would? Did you provide the service when you said you would, and if not, why not? Where are there costs in the system you didn’t anticipate or plan well for, so that next year you can improve?”
Garza’s restlessness about improving city government is not limited to its mechanics. Austin is growing rapidly as it becomes a high-tech center, and that has put great strain not only on its infrastructure but also on its middle- and lower-income residents. And so, among other things, the city manager is pushing to speed up approval of affordable housing projects, and was a key player in creating a “Sustainability Fund,” designed to sock money away to pay for long-term road improvements, day care services and an affordable housing trust fund. “The only way we can succeed in terms of quality of life, equal opportunity and the precious resources we love here,” he says, “is to make sure that we invest in them.”
— Rob Gurwitt
Photos by Chris Coxwell