Real Talk: How Austin is Becoming a Smarter City (it’s not about the tech!)

Marni Wilhite
Published in
8 min readMay 18, 2018


How we’re building living services that grow and adapt with user needs

Laura Trujillo leading a working session for

We hear and feel the chorus from around the world that cities are where we can solve problems. Working at the City of Austin, we totally agree. But before we’re able to move forward as the champions of change, it’s time for some real talk.

The same problems that exist in federal and state governments are present at the local level; in my short tenure with the city, I have multiple horror stories about systems built 15 years ago, of monolithic vendor solutions that — while they may have been the right investment at the time — create more problems than they solve and are feared as too big to replace. Even a shining tech hub like Austin isn’t immune.

There are plenty of examples of how *not* to do technology in government, like the recent IRS computer glitch or when the population of Hawaii spent 38 terrifying minutes thinking they were all going to die. In Austin, we have figured out a better path forward. Spoiler alert: it’s not just about the tech.

How we got here: Hardware revolution

The evolution of technology adoption from Pew Research Center — Note how Tablet usage went from 3% to 51% of the population in just 6 years

The Industrial Revolution is known for, among other things, creating radical shifts in how people work. During the last 20 years, we’ve seen more growth and change at a speed that surpasses what happened during the Industrial Revolution. The revolution of mobile devices — and how we use them is one example. The Pew Research Center analyzed technology adoption since 2001, and found that smartphone ownership jumped from 35% to 77% of US adults just over 5 years — that’s not even talking about the addition of tablets as a new platform.

Software revolution

While this explosion in hardware and broadband has been happening, a software revolution has occurred where companies can develop new businesses seemingly overnight. When Austin voted out Uber and Lyft in 2016, there was a vacuum in the market for ride-sharing. In less than 2.5 months, residents launched a non-profit alternative called RideAustin. Its mobile interface is quick and intuitive and even prompts users to consider giving back to other non-profit organizations. Successful applications are built in months rather than years, with an emphasis on ’delighting’ customers with a flick of their thumb so they keep coming back — this is no secret in private industry.

RideAustin took 2.5 months to develop and its mobile interface delights its customers

Stagnation in government digital services

This shift has not been seen in most government services. In test after test with the current, we’ve seen frustration from our residents as they try to find the information on a website that’s bloated and difficult to navigate, even for the most tech savvy.

Austinite Robert expressed disappointment when attempting to find information during our usability tests of the current “I don’t want to read alot. Can I find the information easily? Oh, I have to read through all of this first.”

This is an urgent problem, as our most underserved populations are among the most reliant on government services. The City of Austin has great programs like the Maternal and Infant Outreach Program, which serves our low income African American female population, and help women achieve healthy term births. Our Fall Prevention Program helps populations over the age of 65, where the leading cause of death is a fall.

Let’s imagine a low income parent who needs to get City Hall to fill out a form for one of these programs. They live far from downtown and use public transit to get around. In this instance it might take them 1.5 hours to get to City Hall. This seemingly simple task may take up to half a day, and most residents don’t have that luxury. We want to support and improve outcomes and right now the majority of people that find out about these programs is by word of mouth not the City website.

You wouldn’t guess this from looking at our current services. In an analysis of our current site ,we found that the majority of our content was at a college sophomore reading level. So even if a resident did find the right content, it’s not accessible for a huge proportion of our population.. And let’s be real: even if you have a PhD, do you really want to read college-level material just to sign up your kids for summer camp?

The majority of’s current content is written above the recommended maximum reading level to be inclusive of our local population. Ideally, content is written around the 4th-5th grade reading level with a max recommendation of 8th grade. We have some work to do, y’all.

We decided to do a trip back through time using the Way Back Machine (thanks,internet!) and boy were we surprised when we compared the freshly launched website for from 6 years ago to what it is today. What changed? The background color and a slight degradation of the menu options on mobile. We can do better.

Side by side comparison of shows minor changes in the 6 years since its launch.

Civil servants want to do more to support our residents

The stereotype that government employees aren’t trying to do their best is absolutely inaccurate. As we researched with staff across City departments, we heard time after time the reflection from city staff that they felt alone and siloed when it came to improving the service experience for residents. Every single one of them was devoted to serving residents but often felt helpless. They were frustrated with the barnacled software that they were forced to use. Why can’t we use something new? Why does it need to be so hard?

Image of Julia, a City of Austin Data Architect, talking to our research team about feeling silo’d and alone in her endeavor to serve Austin residents.

The web services team of five people maintaining the site over the last six years was just as frustrated. The team received feedback from our residents over the entirety of those six years letting them know that the site wasn’t meeting resident needs. They were frustrated. They were tired. And they were constantly told that they were failing.

Examples of the emails received by the support team with notes of frustration.

Why did this happen? How did government tech stall when there were huge leaps in technology among tech companies and start-ups? With such a large workforce committed to serving our community, why is it so hard for our City of Austin staff to meet our community’s needs?

Government is hard, y’all.

The hardest part is when the people inside government find themselves more committed to the processes and procedures of government than the residents that we’ve been hired to serve. You’re told that:

  • The system won’t change.
  • There’s no way something will get Council support.
  • It would be unfair to try a new approach with some departments and not others.

All of which paralyze decision-making, limit feedback from residents, and catalyze a culture of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. It is dangerously easy to drown in this whirlpool. As Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak, authors of The New Localism, point out in a recent piece, “There is a clear recognition that cities are increasingly on their own and are often without the tools and resources necessary to get stuff done.”

Government evolved this way based on a lot of good intentions. It’s not evil, just overdue for some iterative design.

Unlocking human potential

The truth is, providing residents with the a service experience that supports them isn’t actually about the technology.

Ashlee Harris and Laura Trujillo facilitating a city-wide Funshop where we put residents first.

Two years ago, we developed a new design and technology program at the City of Austin that focused on people. In 18 months we hired 35 design and technology specialists from the private sector to collaborate with expert civil servants. We sought to build living digital services that not only meet the needs of all Austinites but can grow and adapt with those needs. We structured our projects to work alongside City staff and build a network of collaborators that continues to grow on its own. We integrate their feedback so that our collaborations get stronger with each interaction. After every workshop, presentation, or project, we send out a feedback survey. We’re excited that we consistently receive an average satisfaction score of 9 out 10 from city staff.

The key here is to focus on your people first: understand what they’re seeing on the ground, what they think needs to change, and what’s blocking them from delivering the best possible services. Blockchain, AI, and that shiny vendor that promises you rainbows and unicorns via a technology solution is not going to get you anywhere if you don’t look at supporting and invigorating your staff. As Indy Johar asked during a recent panel discussing the future of working in government, if AI won’t be smarter than a human for at least 20 years, the real question for government leaders becomes “how do we unlock the full human potential of our people?”

City staff interacting at a Funshop where they simulated the current experience of Austinites attempting to find service information. This was followed by activities to help them write more human-centered content for our digital services with a bit of fun with Willie Nelson.

That’s what our teams are doing in Austin. We developed “Funshops” and “Nerdshops” where city staff don’t just sit and get lectured on new procedures but instead interact and take part in real-world scenarios on how to better support residents. We also help staff organize testing of new services with diverse sets of residents. It’s in these sessions that our participants consistently give a satisfaction score of 4 and 5 out of 5. Our colleagues feel inspired, empowered, and unlocked from the world of “no.”

A city web developer that participated in usability testing of one of his software products stated that the experience inspired him to push harder to include more features to help residents.

We’ve launched three products in 18 months –our latest being — and we’re made our platform decisions based on what languages and frameworks our developers actually want to use. We develop in the open with agile and iterative processes that actively include staff across city departments so that we can build up our communities of practice. We test directly with residents across the city and encourage all of our team members to attend and see the work as residents share feedback.

In our 18 months we partnered with city departments to improve the experience of residential permitting, deliver insights on recycling behaviors, and develop a modular scalable technology framework to support City services.

Helping humans help humans

At the heart of all of this is accessibility. It’s about our residents who can’t get to City Hall to fill out a form because they have a medical condition. It’s about our residents who would have to travel an hour and a half on a bus to get to City Hall to fill out a form, it’s about our residents who have to choose between taking an additional shift at their job to support their family and receiving a service from our City. It’s about residents who really want to follow the rules, but don’t understand the jargon when they try to apply for a city permit.

This work is never “done.” We need to shift our thinking to this reality, to start building services that grow and adapt and change based on the human needs of our residents. We need to unlock the human potential of our civil servants, and elevate what it means to be working in design and technology in government. This is the start of our new strategy and approach to digital services in the City of Austin, and we hope you join us on this journey.



Marni Wilhite

Head of Digital Transformation - Office of Design and Delivery - City of Austin