Introducing civiqueso

Austin’s unique brand of civic innovation

Photo by Ben Guhin, who often considers this to be a perfectly acceptable breakfast.
“A meal in Austin simply isn’t complete without a thick, creamy queso set to be emptied with more tortilla chips than anyone should reasonably consume.” — Thrillist
“Queso is the Tex-Mex fuel that Austinites run on.” —
“…queso is Austin’s liquid gold.” — Austinot (they also taunt that you’re not a real Austinite until you’ve tried it.)

In Austin, there’s queso of every type for every person — chile queso, queso con carne, and even vegan queso. Austin has a wealth of strong opinions about the “best” versions in the city, which makes for a perfect segue to the “civic” part of our portmanteau. In the civic space, the public right-of-way, we need to take into consideration the needs and perspectives of the entire community. Civiqueso means creating lots of different kinds of delicious, cheesy goodness together.

How we’re approaching civic innovation

Like in any good kitchen, we’ve got tools and teams coming together in unique ways to create Austin’s unique menu of civic innovation. We focus on co-creation, complexity navigation, and iterative, human-centered design to make our civiqueso. It’s taken us about two years since the Innovation Office got off the ground to set up the kitchen environment for creating our brand of civic goodness. If you’re interested in the journey of how we got to now, check out the briefing below. If you’re more of a destination person, read on.

After building human capital for creative problem solving since the office’s inception, we shifted our focus this summer to a portfolio of projects. Working with Ben Guhin as the City’s Senior Advisor for Design and Technology, we launched the City’s Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows Program to bring in outside experts to serve as City employees for one-year terms. The program aims to:

  1. Address increasing volume of needs for design, technology, and innovation initiatives;
  2. Introduce and standardize practices for user-centered design;
  3. Introduce and integrate open technology platforms and processes; and
  4. Develop a creative culture that will inspire additional designers, developers, and other technologists to work for the city.

Staff from across the City are working with Fellows on the following projects:

Improving the Permitting Process: working with Development Services and other City departments, this project will illustrate the permitting experience from a user’s perspective and identify how technology can help us meet increasing demands. The team is currently interviewing residents, architects, builders, and other groups that interact with the city’s permitting systems. Anyone interested in providing feedback can visit or call 512–766–4379 to leave a message about their experience and sign up to participate in additional interviews.

Redesigning the Austin Convention Center Web Presence: this project will result in 1) a new web presence for the Convention Center and Palmer Events Center and 2) an improved the experience for event planners, vendors, and attendees. The team is designing and building in the open, which means that members of the public can follow their progress online:

Understanding Recycling and Composting Behaviors: working with staff at Austin Resource Recovery, this project will research behaviors around recycling and composting and design, and test new solutions that can help us reach our zero-waste goals. Austin residents can sign up to participate in user interviews at

Upcoming projects for the Fellows program will include creating online tools to improve the permitting process, designing improvements for ATXFloods, and establishing new development standards for technology projects across the city.

Not just technology. Not just government.

There are many ways in which civiqueso represents the old fable of stone soup. Starting with a pot and some water, where everyone contributes a spice, meat, or vegetable, we create something tastier together than we might have alone.

Take, for example, the [Re]Verse Pitch competition. We help organizations pitch their waste materials, such as spent grain from breweries, as valuable raw materials. The entrepreneur with the best business idea for repurposing one of Austin’s high-volume byproducts wins $10,000. This competition helps advance our zero waste goals while supporting the foundation of new social enterprises. Read more about this project and the winning idea in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. See last year’s results at, and follow along the current competition at Sign up for updates at

We support all kinds of social innovators. Borrowing from the practices of agile software development, we are facilitating the Homelessness Outreach Street Team, a new collaborative initiative to address proactively the needs of people living on the streets. HOST brings together the expertise of police officers, behavioral health specialists, a paramedic, and outreach social workers to bridge the gaps between social services and public safety where hard-to-reach populations get stuck in the revolving door of emergency shelters, justice systems, and emergency services.

This initiative arrives in the context of Austin reaching functional zero in ending Veteran’s Homelessness, receiving a grant for a 100 day push to end Youth Homelessness, and the August 2015 U.S. Department of Justice statement of interest arguing that actions that have the outcome of criminalizing homelessness are unconstitutional. These imperatives necessitate creative, multi-sector strategies to create sustainable results to end homelessness.

In April, Austin became the only U.S. city to join the international Open Government Partnership. Membership means committing to co-create 3–5 commitments with civil society to make government more open, accountable, transparent, participatory, and innovative. Leadership Austin, Open Austin, and Vision Zero ATX have joined us in the kitchen. Stay tuned for updates, and find our resource library here.

Standing on the shoulders of other civic innovators

In the City of Austin Innovation Office, we stand on the shoulders of the civic chefs who have come before us — from Code for America, Boston and Philadelphia’s Offices of New Urban Mechanics, NYC TechJobs, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Design & Technology Fellows, the UK and US Digital Services, 18F, among others. We’ve been tracking your awesomeness in our Civic Innovation Community of Practice.

We thank you for your inspiration.

Follow us on Twitter and Medium to see what we’re cooking up on our civic kitchen.

And if you’re cooking up civic awesome in Austin and would like to write for civiqueso, drop us a line to let us know.

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