Tuesday, January 14, 2014

January 2014 ENGAGE Recap

Guest post from 2013-14 ENGAGE Breakfast Series guest blogger Alicia Dietrich. Alicia is a public affairs representative at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin. See the end of this post for the podcast from the breakfast.

The January installment of Leadership Austin’s ENGAGE breakfast series explored the best ways for leaders to move Austin forward during this period of tremendous growth and change. Panelists Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe and University of Texas at Austin Professor Jeremi Suri sat down with moderator Shannon Wolfson of KXAN to discuss the challenges Austin faces as it grows, and what it will take for leaders to address those issues.

Suri outlined what he believes to be the three greatest leadership challenges facing Austin: the challenge of success and how to lead beyond that, diverse groups in Austin not living in integrated ways, and the uneven growth of the economy and lack of opportunities for upward mobility.

January 2014 ENGAGE breakfast at the Long Center

To address Austin’s greatest challenges, Biscoe advocated for better collaboration between the city, government agencies, nonprofits, and community leaders. He noted the improved state of mental health care in the city after local hospitals worked with the county jail to make sure that patients were getting appropriate treatment instead of jail time.

However, he said that while the city has high aspirations for cooperation, we often fall short on implementation.

"We've always done a good job of studying and putting together reports and plans," he said. It's the next step that’s key, though.

He explained that government tends to respond to issues and problems, and if you have a problem you want solved, you need to get it in front of the right person and work to build consensus.

"We respond, by and large, to specific issues that we try to fix," he said. "I don’t know if we as a county ever sit down and think, 'What kind of Travis County do we want?'"

He noted that building consensus and compromise are crucial: "If you have five persons responsible for a decision, you'll see that often what we approve wasn't what was brought to us. But you'll see what got consensus and what we had resources to back up."

KXAN's Kate Weidaw interviews
panelist Judge Sam Biscoe
Suri noted that it was important that people learn that compromise is necessary and that they shouldn’t feel shut out of the process if they don’t get everything they want. "When people come to believe it's a process where the decision of today isn't the last decision—if they only got 20 percent of what they wanted today, maybe tomorrow they'll get something more. When it's a process and you have credibility, that's what works."

Suri also discussed the importance of crossing lines in politics to get things done. "We need to talk to people who think differently and see things differently. We need to make a conscious effort to cross lines because you can't [create change] if you're only talking to people who already agree with you. You need to make a conscious effort to cross lines, and the beauty of Austin is that we have such an intellectual diversity here all around us."

As Austin moves toward a new City Council structure next year with single-member districts, both panelists stressed the importance of asking tough questions of potential leaders to make sure they can articulate a vision for the city’s future and how they will include everyone in that vision.

"As an elected official, your attitude should be 'I represent all county residents,'" said Biscoe. "From the neighborhood association level on up, inclusion should be part of everything we do. If we err, it should be that we included too many people."

Suri said, "We desperately need people in this city now who can continue to talk to groups who have been dominating dialog but are also able to bring other people in and connect them. Successful politicians are connectors. Second, I think it’s time we ask our politicians to say not just what they promise to do about a problem, but what they envision the city looking like. I think we do need a vision. I don’t mean a visionary in terms of pie in the sky, but an ability to articulate, to tell us a story about how you see our city with all these changes, institutionally and economically, growing in the next five to 10 years and how we can all be part of making that kind of city."

Both panelists also emphasized the importance of mentoring and incubating future leaders, through encouraging students to pursue public service and by implementing permanent succession strategies at the government level.

"We need to remind people at all age levels, but particularly young people, that public service is a noble calling," said Suri. "Leadership has to involve politics in your organization and in your city."

Full Audio from the Event

Download this audio file (MP3)

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