By Karen Huber, Travis County Commissioner, Precinct 3
The much talked-about graduation speech by David McCullough where he delivers the message that “you are not special” to this year’s graduates hits home in several profound ways but it has been pointed out that the value of learning from “failure” is missing in the speech. So my message to graduates is there are good things to learn from failure whether it is your own or that of others.
Taking this a step further, there are widespread concerns across our nation, right now, that governments are failing us. I say, “learn more about your government”- the structures, operations, services, constraints and excesses are critical to your future. Likewise, it is important to differentiate between federal, state and local government. I would advise a particular focus on local governments, even if they lack the high emotion of a national campaign. The local level is where the important policy decisions are made which affect our daily lives. They directly impact taxation, transportation, health, public safety and natural resources. Few decisions at the local level are ideological but rather are grounded in good managerial decisions and achieving consensus.
Every graduate greets a changing world, as technology advances and populations grow. Businesses that do not adapt to change generally fail. Governments are no different, though historically, their structures are slower to change. In the past, the tradeoff for inertia was thoroughly vetted changes. But, our world seems to have speeded up. Change often needs to happen faster. Solid leadership and sound management can make a difference but it is important to understand what is required for leaders to make desired changes – what actually must happen, how long it takes, etc.
Local elected officials often find it slow-going (and frustrating!) to affect changes important to their constituency. The older more entrenched the bureaucracy, the slower the change. By way of comparison, a new house comes without a history and can be built the way the “owners” want to build it – with everything mostly new. Travis County is like a 172-year-old beautiful and historic house that also has “old plumbing and wiring” and may have “structural issues” that need addressing. Working with historic houses takes time, continuous maintenance and often comes with high costs.
Quality change takes longer than our instant-gratification society wants it to take, because it requires systemic or organizational change and the input of citizens who often don’t agree. Understanding this is key to many changes we would like to see locally. It is important to understand what can be quickly changed and what cannot. It is important to know who is positioned to respond to the need(s) and what help is needed from the public to make it happen.
We can tell elected officials – don’t raise our taxes, but in the next breath we expect improved law enforcement, better schools and timely solutions to congestion. These are complex and often conflicting demands, and they often require more than one elected official in the decision-making process.
I believe more active engagement between government and citizens is the solution. New graduates are special, and we need their help. Communication technology can be their greatest asset. Governments generally do not communicate efficiently with their residents and the county can always do better. Often, the methods are archaic and lacking in the most current technology. Many perceive a lack of “transparency” but to the extent this is true, it is a result of outmoded and entrenched processes rather than intent. The county is working to employ more social media to better spread the word, but it is slow going. New graduates know how to research issues online and how to communicate ideas and suggestions via social media or even email. Improvements to our governing bodies should be dynamic and on-going. I highly encourage new graduates to engage. After all, it is their future. Please do contact me with your questions, ideas, and suggestions.
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