There are several city government policies that can help move a municipality forward. These policies tend to involve public engagement and the ability to adjust on the fly. City governments that are versatile are almost always better when it comes to fully achieving their stated objectives. The city of Houston has a city government that has mostly been functional, but could improve. The city government of Houston has many overlaps, with various departments doing largely the same thing. Likewise, the city spends a lot of money on things like courts, which hurt the bottom line for the company in a major way. This paper assesses what it means to be a good city government. It provides insights on how the city could improve in its effort to provide citizens with the best possible form of government.
Local or municipal government can often lag behind when it comes to best practices. Because of the way local politics can work, there is often little incentive associated with improving. With this in mind, the city of Houston does many things right in its local government, but there are many ways in which it can improve and modernize. This report will focus on identifying best practices that could help improve the future of modern government in Houston, allowing its leaders to better meet objectives.
Benchmarking Best Practices
Significant data exists to explain what constitutes good performance in local government. As mayors and other city leaders have looked to become more effective at responding to the challenges in their cities, they have looked to other cities of similar size to determine what approach might lead to long-term success. With this in mind, there are many general best practices that could be used by the Houston city government to modernize its operation.
The first is flexibility in government funding. One of the advantages of small governments is that they are small and nimble. They have the ability to adjust on the fly if things are not going as needed. Because of the relatively small nature of city councils and the like in comparison with the soul-crushing gridlock that can be experienced at the national level, local governments possess a serious advantage. In cities in North Carolina that have had success, the ability to shift the fiscal and tax plan mid-fiscal year has been one of the demonstrated best practices . This is especially true in regard to property taxation . The value of property in a place can shift rapidly with movements in the market. What might constitute a very valuable property early in the year may be much less valuable by the middle of the year. Modernized city governments have responded to these shifts by instituting changes in tax policy mid-year rather than waiting until the end of the year to make the changes.
Another best practice includes the willingness and commitment to civic engagement on the part of the public . While government has a role, especially at the local level, it should embrace potential partnerships not only with individuals, but with groups. Contracting with specific groups to help fix some of the problems facing a municipality has been a demonstrated way not only to have success in fixing that specific problem, but also to increasing faith in local government and enhancing the perception of the ability of local governments.
Regional governance is another best practice benchmark for cities that are currently getting it right. In Arizona, localities like Chandler and Flagstaff have been recognized as some of the best-run in the world, and they are achieving those accolades largely because they are not doing things alone. Regional governance is a new trend because some of the problems that plague municipalities are not purely local.
Homelessness, for instance, is a prevailing problem, and the city of Houston must work with its regional partners so the cities are not simply bussing homeless people back and forth in an effort to move the problem from out of their own backyard. True solutions are being developed in cities by those municipalities working closely with regional partners to pool their resources and their knowledge.
Analysis and Evaluation of Houston’s City Government
The city of Houston features a bloated organizational structure that should be reformed in accordance with best practices from other municipalities. Municipalities currently succeeding are doing so, at least in part, because of the simplicity of their structure, and because they have departments working with synergy toward common goals.
There are many examples of departments in Houston that work toward the same goals but fail to properly work together. For instance, the Houston Emergency Center and the city’s Fire and Police Departments all operate under separate departments. These organizations have similar goals and could be governed under a single department. This, too, may improve Houston’s community policing, another best practice for local government that has been explored in cities around the country to improve outcomes and reduce the costs of running a city.
In addition, Houston has three separate departments for Housing and Community Development, Neighborhoods, and Planning and Development. Each of these departments does something similar, and although their focus may be a bit different, they have the opportunity to work together to both come up with more cogent approaches to city planning and reduce the size and cost of government. There is no reason why the Housing and Community Development Department cannot oversee the management of Houston’s neighborhoods, which are important to the character of the city for sure.
Lastly, the city has a less than optimal approach to its regulatory structure. The city has a separate legal department, HR department, and “regulatory affairs” department. Each of these is an administrative function that could be rolled into a single department to modernize the operation. Modern local governments are all about resource sharing, information sharing, and cross-disciplinary knowledge being brought to the table. Because Houston has segmented its city government in a way, slicing up the functions into little pieces that all work on their own island, it has missed out on the ability to reap the benefits of a more functional, integrative government structure.
Looking at the city’s budget, there is one way to modernize the city in accordance with best practices all around. Specifically, cities that have done well with their budget have done so, at least in part, because they have reduced the total expenditures on city courts. Currently, Houston spends around $33 million on its city courts. It collects less than a percent of its revenue through fines and forfeitures, and even when it does make money in this way, it is simply shuffling around money from citizens that could have been invested in other ways. While much of the criminal prosecution takes place in courts funded by the county and the state, the city handles things known as “Class C Misdemeanors.” This includes traffic tickets, which are a legitimate function of the city, but it also includes things like citations for small amounts of drugs, public intoxication, and some forms of assault. There are also tickets written to children in schools for misbehavior that quality as Class C Misdemeanors. Decriminalizing much of this behavior, including anything to do with marijuana and any act of mild misbehavior in school, would relieve the city of much of its court burden while also bringing the city in line with what many of the major cities around the country are doing currently to have long-term success in helping their citizens.
Houston’s capital improvement plan currently lacks the public-private partnerships that might help to make the plan come to fruition. The city has a number of groups that have the knowledge and desire to provide upkeep and construction on things like the city’s parks, but the city government has not developed effective working relationships that would allow for those partnerships to provide value. This is an area where certain improvement could be made moving forward if Houston wants to become more like the modern cities around the country that are having success at moving into the new era for their citizens.
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- Vogt, A. John, and William C. Rivenbark. “Budget Preparation and Enactment.” (2007).