Over a two-day period, students with the Center for Law, Engagement, And Politics (LEAP) heard from some of the brightest minds around. Mayors Annise Parker (Houston) and Harry LaRosiliere (Plano) talked local government with Councilmembers Bill Spelman (Austin) and Jungus Jordan (Fort Worth); Representative Larry Gonzalez talked the state legislature with Senator John Whitmire; and a host of policy experts explored corrections, privacy, human resources, public administration, and health care. The conference was presented by Governing Magazine, and the discussions served to trumpet many of the “best practices” used by government leaders across the country. Below, the students who attended discuss the panel each found most interesting.
Jake Rivera: “Deploying Data & Performance Metrics to Achieve Results”
This panel featured Brian Anderson (Information Security Officer at Texas A&M-San Antonio), Bill Bott (Consulting Partner, Change & Innovation Agency), and Jerry Madden, for the Representative in the Texas Legislature; and the moderator, Dustin Haisler (Governing Magazine). These men discussed the difficulties that public officials have of evaluating their own programs, a fact compounded by concerns about privacy and even foreign espionage. They also discussed some interesting new technologies (e.g., an app that points drivers to empty parking spots) that could make governance more efficient and customer oriented.
Jessica Rodriguez: “The Local Perspective”
How do you spark connections between elected officials and their constituents? You couldn’t do better than to ask Harry LaRosiliere (Mayor of Plano), Annise Parker (Mayor of Houston), Bill Spelman (City Council, Austin), and Jungus Jordan (City Council, Fort Worth). Although unrehearsed, they each emphasized infrastructure—from basics such as the roads to cutting-edge innovations designed to bring citizens closer to each other and to those that represent them. Perhaps the most intriguing example of these types of connections is the “Food 4 Kids” program in Plano, Texas, in which the City partners with the North Texas Food Bank and local businesses to provide lunches on the weekends for children. The panelists also seemed to be in agreement that local government, while not the most glamorous of the elected positions in the country, was the closest to the people: “If you want to be a [local] official,” noted Mayor Parker, “you have to care about the potholes in the streets, whose trash didn’t get picked up, and toilets being able to flush properly.”
All: “The Legislative Perspective:Empowering Reform in Service Delivery.”
In this panel, Senator John Whitmire and Representative Larry Gonzales had a free-wheeling and far-ranging discussion of issues facing Texas: crime, transportation, mental health, and education.
This was probably the most invigorating of the discussions, with the experts on the stage being given time to explore fully various alternatives. Nothing was off the table. How about an income tax? How about legalizing marijuana? The panel didn’t necessarily try to answer some of those questions, but they raised a number of intriguing possibilities, offering discussions that lingered with us beyond the conference.
Ariel Traub: “Workforce and Management Strategies:”
Featuring star panelists Joyce Wilson (CEO of Workforce Solutions, Upper Rio Grande Valley; former City Manager of El Paso), Bob Lavigna (Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin), and John Keel (Texas State Auditor), this session brought to light numerous intriguing ideas for attracting, training, and retaining professional employees in government. Citing the difficulties government has competing with private businesses on salary, the panelists suggested combining the following strategies to sweeten the deal for potential and current employees:
- Offering school loan forgiveness
- Providing tuition flex time or work-at-home days
- Ensuring fair evaluation methods
- Promoting workforce morale through reward and recognition programs
- Working with working mothers and fathers to provide flexible leave programs for workers with children
Although many of these programs have been published elsewhere, the panelists offered interesting twists. Joyce Wilson, for example, noted that it was difficult for many employees to pay for tuition up front and wait to be reimbursed. She suggested that companies bear the up-front costs rather than reimbursing employees. Moreover, all of the panelists noted that, in addition to offering specific benefits to individuals, the proposals also had community-wide salutary effects. Flex-time and work-at-home opportunities, for example, not only provide flexibility to employees, but these policies also cut down on traffic and pollution. Leave programs for mothers and fathers promote strong and stable families. Tuition programs promote greater productivity and employee self-actualization. And so on.
Although the panel was specific to HR strategies, it offered an example of strong approaches to build a stronger organization across all departments.
Tara Cobler: “Investing in Talent: Developing the Workforce to Sustain and Grow Texas’s Economy.”
This panel took a more macro look at the workforce, discussing the outlook on Texas employment. The panelists were well qualified, featuring Betty Harvey (Manager, Texas Workforce Development, Fort Worth Chamber), Alan Miller (Executive Director, Workforce Solutions Capital Area Workforce Board), Bill Purcell (former Mayor of Nashville and lawyer at Jones, Hawkins, and Farmer), and Dr. Mark Funkhouser moderating (Publisher of Governing Magazine and former Mayor of Kansas City).
Any discussion of future employment opportunities has to involve in training and education, and these panelists covered these topics thoroughly. One interesting problem that was broached by an audience member was the issue of Texas’s large prison population. Texas prisons hold more than 150,000 people, the largest prison population in the United States. Accordingly, there is also a large population of ex-inmates, and even more relevant, many people convicted of lesser crimes who were not actually sent to prison. These previous convictions are huge impediments to gaining employment. Some former offenders go through extensive training programs (many of them state funded), only to find that they cannot be licensed in their field with a conviction. The result is a triple loss: (1) the prospective employee remains unemployed, (2) taxpayers have spent thousands of dollars on training to no avail, and (3) the prospective employee is often left dependent on other forms of public assistance.
The panel suggested that criminal histories should be contextualized more fully, giving more ex-offenders the opportunity to gain employment, when appropriate. The program was not only enlightening, but it was also important because it illuminates how public officials can gain knowledge and sympathy to the plights encountered by those who are most affected by public policy.
Alan Garcia: “Closing Remarks: Adrian Garcia”
As a citizen who grew up in Harris County, I expected a great speech from Sheriff Adrian Garcia–and he delivered. He did an excellent job with his closing remarks, tying together the themes of previous speakers and providing an inspirational coda to the day’s panels.
Echoing the sentiments of previous speakers, Sheriff Garcia noted the importance of electing officials who truly care about citizens. Slick candidates may be able to appeal more effectively to voters, but the day-to-day governing activities require dedicated and devoted public servants. Similarly, Garcia reiterated the importance of community institutions such as family, non-profits, and public-private partnerships (“P3s”). Garcia drew on his personal experiences and background to illuminate the different factors that led to his success, and it provided a microcosm for community success. Like Sheriff Garcia, I am a first-generation American, the youngest child in my family, and–like Sheriff Garcia–I hope to be a successful public figure in the United States while also honoring my Mexican-American heritage.
The conference was a wonderful learning opportunities for us, and we are grateful to Governing Magazine for this opportunity. In addition to hearing from the panelists, we had numerous opportunities to speak with professionals from across the state. This is a wonderful program for current professionals and a great opportunity for aspiring professionals, and we are grateful to both Governing and SHSU for providing this opportunity for us.