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Progressive Voice: Smart Counties Do Smart Things

by Progressive Voice December 8, 2016 at 11:30 am 0

Gillian BurgessProgressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

By: Gillian Burgess

2016 has been a tough year and as it draws to a close, many are looking for hope for the future. Arlington County is in a tough position: we continue to grow, have excellent schools and County services and live near the center of the dynamic capital region. Yet growth is also straining public services and transportation systems; and winds of political change bring uncertainty to our 26 square miles.

But in this season of hope, Arlington has reason for hope. We have informed, engaged residents and hard-working, intelligent County and Schools staffs. To tackle the challenges ahead, Arlington needs to embrace its inner nerd and live by a mantra (paraphrased from Richmond): smart counties do smart things.

We do many smart things already, but there are three areas where we need to get smarter: defragmenting planning and public service; performance measurement; and communications and engagement. Arlington has a lot of potential to tackle these challenges. We need committed leadership to make it happen.

De-fragment Planning and Public Service

As with most localities, the County organizes itself into separate departments to streamline delivery of services to constituents. However, this fragmentation can lead to sub-optimal outcomes, particularly when similar services are spread among departments or when it inhibits inclusive long-term planning.

For example, at least three different County departments build small sidewalk and trail projects: neighborhood conservation; parks; and environmental services. All have reported problems finding contractors who can do the work efficiently and effectively because individual projects are too small to be attractive. The County should look to bundle these small projects to make them attractive to contractors or evaluate whether these should be in-house projects.

The biggest divide in providing services in Arlington is the separation of the County and the Schools. For example, if you think your child’s school bus stop is unsafe, the solution depends on whether you call APS Transportation, which may move the stop, or the County’s Department of Environmental Services, which could install a crosswalk to make the original stop safer. But neither department seems set up together to figure out the optimal neighborhood solution.

This area has great potential. APS and the County are establishing the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to coordinate long range planning for facilities and capital improvement plans. The County and Schools should also prioritize establishing a joint transportation commission to follow-up on the Multimodal Transportation and Student Safety Special Committee’s efforts.

Smart Performance Measurement

Arlington’s big investments in data systems makes it well positioned to be a performance management leader. But data is most helpful when it tracks performance measures that matter to residents.

For example, the Department of Environmental Services measures number of potholes repaired annually, but I am more interested in wait time between when a pothole is reported and when it is repaired.

Fortunately, Arlington has a network of involved residents eager to improve these performance measures. The County could take advantage of the numerous advisory groups to quickly gather suggestions on what outputs matter most to residents and how those could be measured.

Modern Communication and Engagement

Advisory groups are emblematic of “the Arlington Way,” emphasizing public opportunities to discuss, debate and shape local policy. The biggest downside of advisory groups is that they are not completely representative of the County.

We need to figure out a model for community engagement that works in our modern world so neighbors who don’t have the luxury of attending weeknight meetings or weekend charrettes still have a voice and are heard.

Arlington already relies on online surveys and makes a concerted effort to hold community meetings at different locations around the County at various times of the day and week. The biggest challenge is bringing people together to hear each other, even when we can’t physically get everyone in the same room.

There are no obvious answers or models to simply follow. But that means that Arlington has the opportunity to be national leader in developing a modern model of community engagement. The County Board has expressed interest in developing the Arlington Way 2.0 and the County recently hired a dynamic communications professional, Bryna Helfer, as Assistant County Manager and Director of Communications and Public Engagement. I’m excited to see what she develops.

Arlington has some big challenges on the horizon, but we can be a smart national leader. Remembering that smart counties do smart things, we can and should get to work.

Gillian Burgess is the current chair of Arlington County’s Bicycle Advisory Committee, the founder of Kidical Mass Arlington, and the former vice chair of APS’s Multimodal Transportation and Student Safety Special Committee. She lives in Cherrydale with her husband and three children.

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