A one-year model doesn’t make sense

The city of Austin, TX, has been iterating their tech and innovation hiring practices and has just completed a restructure that moves from a fellowship model to one that will integrate technologists into city positions. We sent The Commons co-editor Sara Hudson to learn more about how they hire and get buy-in from city agencies.

 

Like many who wind up problem-solving within government, Courtney Jacinic found her way to the City of Austin through equal parts random happenstance and service-minded inclination. A Texas native, Courtney had spent her whole life in different parts of the state, settling in Austin in 2009.

Seven years later, Courtney’s then fiancé, now wife, Ginger Jacinic, a social worker, was working in City Hall one day when she overheard someone say, “We need to find a content strategist.”

“Wait!” replied Ginger. “My fiancé is a content strategist!”

At that time, Courtney worked in the advertising industry but missing the impact she found in social advocacy work she did on her own time. She and Ginger talked over the position. Working for government would wouldn’t pay anything near private sector. But it was only a year. (Spoiler alert: or so she thought.) “I would get to give back to my city,” Courtney remembers saying. “I love Austin. And I see so many issues that I want to help fix.’” She hopped online and filled out an application.

Two weeks later, she was hired as the newest member of the City of Austin’s Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows Program. Over its first 18 months, it would hire 35 engineers, designers, user researchers, and project managers, all working full time as employees of the City of Austin, managed through a central team, and paid through partnership contracts with individual departments facing specific challenges.

Two weeks to hire? 35 hires in 18 months? All working full-time as city hall employees? How?

A homemade recipe for civic hiring umami: find local talent, apply human-centered rigor to hiring, build true agency buy-in, prioritize a culture of learning, and keep a healthy side of civiqueso handy. (Because everything is better with queso.)

“When we first started talking about a fellows program, the known model was San Francisco and Boston,” said Ben Guhin, the founder of the Fellows Program. He wanted to hire local people for projects that the city couldn’t do otherwise, while also introducing design and open source development, and amplifying a creative culture to inspire people to join.

A common existential struggle civic tech tackles when hiring is “fighting fires or culture change?” (ie: hire for short-term crisis response or for long-term system change?) Rather than choose, the civiqueso sherpas partnered with agencies to put out specific fires, while also teaching human-centered designing of fire pits to anyone who wanted to learn. Their approach combined pieces of models from other places, including Ben’s time at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, where he’d seen a cohort of fellows transform the agency’s approach and capacity.

With departments, the team sat down down with leadership, defined desired outcomes, and built contracts for Fellows’ support to solve problems, running between $100,000 and $400,000. The model centered on partnership: the Fellows program did hiring and project management, and departments paid for salaries and coordinated with internal and external stakeholders. That allowed fellows to become part of department teams, while keeping a central support system.

At the same time, Fellows fanned across City Hall, offering presentations and workshops, trainings and playbooks, “nerdshops” for developers and “funshops” to learn accessible writing. Hillary Berquist, a Business Analyst in EMS, learned about their approach when the Fellows invited her to a brainstorming session. “They wanted to do some user testing, so I went through the whole process with them,” Hillary recalled. “It was the first time I really got to do that.”

Months later, Hillary partnered with Courtney and two other fellows on an EMS project. “EMS is about to work on another project,” Hilary said. “Now, I can recreate that innovation and improvement without having to hire fellow.” This kind of permanence and capacity-building rooted the program. It didn’t want “innovation” to happen only when a Fellow was in the room.

As it approached its two year mark, Austin assessed its hiring structure. Fellows like Courtney had hit the one year mark and weren’t going anywhere. No one wanted to be precious about the fellowship model. Was it fitting their user needs, their staff needs, the increasingly innovative spaces of city hall civil service?

No, they decided. Time for an upgrade. Last month, Austin phased out the Design, Technology, and Innovation Fellows Program. In its place, it created a new Office of Design & Delivery, led by Head of Product Marni Wilhite, fellows taking on civil service roles, titles, and ideally, benefits, and Ben focusing on policy work across departments, initiatives, and other cities.

“It made sense,” said Marni. “It creates a path to FTE [Full Time Employee] slots. People can also reclassify as “content strategists” or “user researchers” or “engineers,” which gives us a better foundation for growth.”

“Was the ‘fellowship’ branding helpful for recruiting and hiring? Yes, absolutely,” Ben added. “But we learned it also caused problems. First, people see ‘fellow’ and hear ‘intern.’ Second, it sounds temporary. Civic tech 1.0 built some really cool stuff to prove it’s possible. It was cool, but they were proofs of concept and weren’t built with sustainability in mind.  We’re past that. And a one-year model doesn’t make sense. Government works slowly. And people want to stay. We needed to start carving the way to do that.”

As for Courtney? After making a year in April, she remains a temporary exempt employee. To become permanent employee and collect full benefits requires new job descriptions. That backlog can be a year to a year-and-a-half.

But Courtney isn’t cowed by the challenge. “When I was in private sector, I was turned off by the ethos of our ideas and our thoughts being proprietary,” she said. “I wanted to share. I wanted help. So something that is really cool about this team is that people are having fun, and they are doing good work, and they are sharing what they are learning. I remember seeing that and I was like… ‘This is exactly what I want.’”

Looking to learn from Austin on how you, too, can hire smart, share knowledge, engage community, and grow? Check out these tactical resources to start:

Want more great info? Check out more of ODD’s publicly available resources here.

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