April 15, 2013

In Travis County, Texas, “Each Election is an Opportunity to Test Something New”

This past week our research team traveled to Austin, Texas where we got a first-hand look at how Travis County runs its elections.

We spent time with the Travis County Tax Assessor’s Office, which oversees voter registration and districting activities. We also met with the Clerk’s Office, which is responsible for the implementation of elections. This quirky bureaucratic distinction is a relic of the days when Texas had a poll tax.

We arrived at an opportune time, coinciding with the announcement that Austin is soon to be the proud owner of high-speed internet, compliments of Google Fiber. The press was abuzz discussing the effects Google’s new technology will have on life and economy in this Texan city known largely for the annual SXSW conference.

We too got excited about Austin’s tech upgrade and its potential to impact local elections. But we were most excited about the human systems and processes we found in Travis County’s election administration. Travis County, we learned, is home to numerous organizational innovations in governance—and four in particular stood out to us.

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First, we found a strong organizational emphasis on staff training and exposure to elections work at the national level. Many county elections officials had crystal plaques on their desks, indicating that they had been trained, sometimes out-of-state, as certified elections/registration administrators through the National Association of Election Officials. A few managers even hold leadership positions within national associations, and use this birds-eye positioning to stay informed on relevant elections developments. The result is that staff members throughout the hierarchy know what is happening outside their county and are aware of how their work affects the bigger picture.

Second, we noted an impressive level of professional specialization. The county offices have succeeded in bringing in-house functions that other jurisdictions only dream about: a dedicated web designer who can maintain electronic engagement activities and develop new engagement tools; public information and legislative tracking capacity that offers situational awareness to the office on politics and the media in real-time; and business analysis capacity that exists to anticipate and implement a good blend of technological and human processes in the office.

Third, we saw a clear resourcefulness in staffing. Because of its large size (602,000 registered voters), Travis County relies heavily on temporary workers. These workers help to register new voters close to the deadline, prepare and test elections equipment ahead of voting day, and who support a variety of other critical functions during peak activity periods.

Instead of viewing temporary workers as a secondary inputs to the process, the county offices invest in their pool of temporaries. Most of these individuals have worked numerous election cycles. Many of the offices’ permanent employees started as temporary workers, indicating a talent pipeline that is carefully built and tapped effectively when new positions become available.

Finally, the Travis County Clerk convenes “study groups” from across academia, business, government, and civil society when the county seeks to innovate its own technology or processes. Consulting friends and foes alike, this allows the Clerk’s Office to source opinions and insights from a variety of perspectives and provides legitimacy for the eventual decisions. Based on a review of its needs and a survey of existing options, the Clerk’s Office has developed a prototype for a voting product it would like to see built, effectively guiding the market from the driver’s seat.

This kind of organizational innovation is the foundation for an effective use of resources, including technology. As Michael Winn, Director of Elections at the Clerk’s Office, aptly summed up for our team, “each election is an opportunity to test something new.” We are eager to track what happens in Travis County, especially as Google Fiber spreads from street to street.

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We are taking a breather this week to process our findings to date. But we’ll be back on the road next week.  Looking forward to spending some time with the Martin County elections team in Florida soon!

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