The Houston Controller Debate on Technology took place early this October at the Houston Technology Center, which was hosted by The League of Women Voters. The topic of discussion was how technology could be used to bring the city’s controller office out of the 90’s and make spending transparent for the citizens of Houston. The city controller is similar to a chief financial officer for city government. The current city controller, Ronald Green, is not seeking re-election due to term limitations. There are currently 6 candidates running to take his place.
— Black Sheep (@ShearCreativity) October 8, 2015
The room is filled with an array of people and there is a clear mix of older professionals and younger technologists. The candidates are all seated along a long table, facing outwards to the audience. This group is all male and appear to be ranging in age and experience. From left to right they start to answer questions posed from the moderator.
The first to respond is Jew Don Boney. He has a history of working on the Houston City Council and seems clear on how to integrate new technology into the system. Boney also served as mayor pro-tem under Mayor Lee Brown and represented District D, a predominantly African-American district. Currently he is an administrator at Texas Southern University.
The next candidate is Chris Brown. He is currently Deputy City Controller for Houston. Brown, the son of former City Councilman and mayoral candidate Peter Brown, has stated that his experience in the private sector working for an investment bank and his 11 years of service at the City of Houston make him the right person for the job.
Next to speak is Bill Frazer. He is a past President of the Houston CPA Society and has served on the Board of Directors of the Texas Society of CPAs for the past 20 years. Frazer is concerned with making sure that the controller’s actions are transparent and easy for the public to understand. He is interested in cleaning up the budget and making sure that the controller’s office is orderly and functioning as any accountant would.
Seated next to Frazer is MJ Khan. As a councilman, Khan proposed “Zero-Based Budgeting” for All city departments. He focused on unfunded liabilities in Houston’s Pension Systems and Retirees’ Health Benefits. Khan is also focusing on fighting for more efficiency in city government.
The next candidate to speak is Dwight Jefferson. Mr. Jefferson left his position at METRO to run for city council. He is a former district court judge with a long history of working in city government and with Metro.
The last on the panel to speak is Carroll Robinson. Mr. Robinson is an associate professor at Texas Southern University. Mr. Robinson, like many others on the panel has a long history working on the Houston City Council.
Although many issues are brought up, it always comes back to the current financial problems the city is facing, and how this can be avoided in the future. The city has a big deficit, and this has caused problems with making pension payments and beneficial spending. Several of the candidates bring up ways that the city’s website can be improved to make spending more transparent. According to the panel of candidates, the public needs an easy way to see the current status of the budget. Should the website updates an online check to allow the public to keep track of spending? Maybe the site should use a dynamic spreadsheet? Several solutions are posed by the candidates, but none are detailed enough to truly envision implementing.
@ardouglass yes! What cities are good models for checkbook transparency? Will they learn from those lessons?
— Jeff Reichman (@fileunderjeff) October 8, 2015
This begs the question, how can the public get more involved? Houston is the not first major city that has needed to find innovative ways to bring in more technology to their processes. New York City created a new position of CTO (chief technology officer) who runs the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation. The sole purpose of this office is citywide collaboration on technology issues. The city of Chicago has a Department of Innovation and Technology who looks for ways to bring in innovation to their government system. Even the White House is embracing innovation through technology. They made headlines when the nation’s first Chief Data Scientist was announced.
Jayson White from Harvard’s Kennedy School says that the focus of innovation positions in government started with education reform and sustainability. But, once the recession hit, that focus shifted to budgets, economic development, and job creation. The true benefit of having Chief Technology Officers and Chief Innovation Officers is the data driven management that they employ. One example is Louisville-Jefferson County, Kentucky. By incorporating innovation and information officers into the city government, problem solving starts with rounding up data. In turn, they have come up with interesting solutions, such as cutting down on 911 emergency trips by having nurses in the dispatch room to help determine if there is really a medical emergency or if the caller may need to go to the drug store. Now the city is accessing the data on non-emergency calls to determine if there is a market for private-sector transportation service to drive people who call 911 for non emergency transportation.
Starting with the Houston Hackathon, technology innovation is beginning to become a reality. The opportunity to bring innovation to city government structures gives the public a chance to get involved directly with the local government. The City of Houston has created an open hackathon to get citizens involved in creating solutions to government problems. Groups like Open Houston have been putting on hackathons to bring out developers, designers, marketers and others to get unique solutions to some of our city’s problems. Houston’s Mayor, Annise Parker, has made data more open to the public to encourage citizen innovation.
During the Q&A, the audience seemed interested in bridging the gap between citizens and government. Although all the candidates have amazing depth of experience and knowledge of local government, none are experienced technologists. This election is an opportunity for Houston voters to make technology an important issue. So far, a clear plan has not been established for the city to incorporate new technologies that will solve finance and transparency problems. This leaves a huge opportunity for citizens to come up with their own solution. Make sure that you vote for Houston Controller on Tuesday, November 3rd.
Photo via Justin Conception