Innovation Profile: Sam Taylor on Transparency, Accountability, and Actions Much Louder Than Words

Sam Taylor, Deputy City Manager of Morro Bay

Sam Taylor, Deputy City Manager of Morro Bay

How did you get started in local government?

I spent almost a decade as a journalist. My passion was watchdog reporting on government and politics.

One day, I was writing a story about how the mayor and council of Ferndale, Washington had violated the Open Public Meetings Act. A few days later the mayor called me and said, “You keep writing these stories about us getting it wrong, why don’t you help us come fix it?”

They had an opening for city clerk, I thought that from there I could enhance their overall city communications—to be an internal champion for open and accountable governance.

The chance to take action and be a part of the solution was too good to pass up.

It’s easy for them to say that they wanted to change, but how receptive were they once you were hired?

From day one, I realized the mayor meant what he had said.

I challenged the team to be more transparent and the entire staff was incredibly open to change. I’m really proud of the communications systems we built to inform the public. We made a tangible difference helping the community understanding the impact of their government.

What holds governments back from being more transparent and open in the first place?

First off, the vast majority of local governments strive to be transparent and accountable.

Even in some of the most open municipalities, though, there are times where the public could be better engaged. One of the largest challenges is that municipal employees are often so passionate about what they do. They are often experts in their fields so it can be hard to take input from a less-informed public.

It’s not nefarious; we’re all human. We’re proud of the work we do and we want it done well. But public sector employees can become so focused on the day-to-day work that they lose sight of the larger goal: facilitating of the public process as a whole. That requires engagement from both sides.

How do we channel that passion while still including the public voice?

I’d like to issue a challenge: Let’s work harder to inform community members about the things we’re doing on their behalf, so that we can all have an educated and inspiring community conversation. We’re here to serve, not control. We should be facilitating dialogue.

This is not a black and white issue, of course. Often times we hold early informational meetings or seek feedback quickly in the public process, and few people show up. This leaves staff to devise policy or projects and only after the impacts are more fleshed out do we get people to speak up.

How can governments get the community involved earlier?

Try to make sure it’s clear to community members early on in the process what the topic means for them. How will it impact them? Why does the issue matter to the whole community? What happens if they don’t participate? If we can make it clear why the topic matters, we can work to get them engaged early. Take the topic to them and find novel ways to increase public engagement.


Innovation Profile: Julie Underwood of Emerging Local Government Leaders

Julie Underwood, Assistant City Manager of Daly City

Julie Underwood, Assistant City Manager of Daly City

We’re always always on the lookout for organizations who share our passion for modern local government. The first time we came across Emerging Local Government Leaders, we knew it was a match made in #LocalGov heaven.

To find out more, we spoke with Julie Underwood, Assistant City Manager of Daly City, about her involvement with ELGL and its work engaging the next generation of public servants.

How did you first get involved with Local Government?

I started out in Rockville, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC as an intern in the City Manager’s office; then I was promoted to Assistant to the City Manager. From there, I was appointed Assistant City Manager in Shoreline, Washington, a suburb of Seattle. I achieved a personal career goal when I was unanimously appointed City Manager for Shoreline in 2011. I served in that role for just under three years before moving to the Bay Area in 2013.

The first time I was introduced to ELGL was when they asked me to participate in their “nifty-fifty” profile just after I was appointed City Manager. I had a chance to become much more involved with ELGL after I moved to the Bay Area.

What is the mission of ELGL?

It’s not uncommon to see professional administrators take themselves very seriously. Of course, ELGL is serious about work, but it can still be fun, which is why you see us use a lot of Parks and Rec references, gifs, and memes. We want to capture the new generation coming into local government, and we recognize future leaders expect a different kind of workplace, and community.   

ELGL was founded by a husband/wife team — Kirsten & Kent Wyatt out of Portland — who met in the Masters of Public Administration program at UNC. They recognized it wasn’t easy for the the younger generation to connect and get their foot in the door in local government. Kirsten and Kent are not ones to say,”Well, here’s the problem as I see it, you should go do something about it.” They’re more like, “Here’s the problem, here’s what I think will fix it, want to help me fix it?” Two themes across our organization are: collaboration and action.

We have six chapters across the country that are entirely volunteer driven. We believe membership, trainings, social events, and conferences should be accessible and affordable. We love social media, which is another tool we use to make ourselves accessible.

How do you connect with members?

We’ve seen that the Millennial generation is very comfortable connecting online and remotely, so ELGL has focused on building an online community. Lots of Millennials are on social media, which resonates much more with them than just traditional conferences or networking.

We have an organic, collective problem-solving approach. We want to discuss what’s messed up in local government. We combine that with positive energy around what we can do about it. Anyone can complain, we want to take action and make a difference.

Do you do in-person events as well or only online?

We do it all! In fact, our annual conference is going on right now (October 22 & 23) in Portland.

We really want events to be accessible to everyone, which is why we do a lot of our engagement online. For in-person events, we don’t think you should have to pay $100s for a week-long conference.

Next year, around this time, we’ll be doing our first-ever pop-up conference in the Bay Area (the other five chapters will be doing their pop-up conferences in their areas on the exact same day). Stay tuned for more!

What resources do you provide to your members?

Beyond the community, we are helping the next generation build a full toolkit of skills. We provide networking and webinars; however, we don’t want to duplicate what is already provided by other organizations. For example, the Municipal Management Association of Northern California (MMANC) does lots of skill-building workshops, which is awesome. So we don’t need to focus there; we’ll focus on building and strengthening our digital community.

We are a group that embraces technology like you can’t imagine. Of course, every technology tool is not the answer, but we have to be constantly learning and evaluating new tools. The timeframe for innovation isn’t 5-10 years, it’s 12 months or even shorter. A real skill is an ability to adapt, and to adapt quickly, in a shorter, more compressed timeframe.

We also care about changing the way government functions and engages with its workforce. Millennials aren’t necessarily okay with the traditional 8-5 workday. Obviously, some positions need to be available during traditional business hours, but in other positions, we need to be open with a workforce that wants to access work anywhere anytime.

Lastly, we have a number of partnerships with private sector agencies. We don’t subscribe to a traditional sponsorship model. Companies, organizations, cities and counties that have a like-minded approach become organizational members. This allows them to get involved like everyone else. They become technical advisors for our members—over 1,000 across more than 30 states—by doing webinars and guest blogging for us. And sometimes they donate “swag” – we like “swag”!

How are you different from other organizations focused on government?

We’re a pretty edgy organization. We confront issues that range from sensitive, like what happened in Ferguson last year, to self-reflective, such as gender and racial/ethnic representation in local government  I believe we are more than willing to push the boundaries by raising diversity, gender, or LGBT issues.

For example, in my profession there are very few female CEOs-only 13%, or one in ten. To bring this issue into the frontview, we launched a social media campaign using the hashtag #13Percent. We received an overwhelming response.

We’ll be the first to say that local governments’ non-transparent ways won’t work today. To make positive change in local government you have to be willing to call a spade a spade. Engaging our members, our organizations, our communities in these difficult conversations is where change starts.

Over 15 years ago when I started as an intern in local government, I thought I would change the world! My membership with ELGL has re-inspired me to have the audacity to believe that I truly can.


Innovation Profile: The Future of 311 with Cory Flemming of ICMA

Cory Fleming, Program Director of 311 & CRM ICMA

Cory Fleming, Program Director of 311 & CRM ICMA

CRM and 311 systems are becoming pivotal to 21st century local governance. We wanted to know more about their history, evolution, and best practices.

For that, there is no one more knowledgeable than Cory Fleming, Program Director of 311/CRM Consulting Services at the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA). Cory joined ICMA in 2003, leading multiple grant-backed research studies into the effectiveness of 311 in local governments. She now works with local governments to find the best data management solutions for their needs.

We spoke with her about the emerging trends in local government data management and came away incredibly excited for the future!


How have cities’ use of CRMs evolved over the past five years?

311/CRM systems have definitely changed since 2009 in part because technology has continued to evolve. But when 311 was first introduced in mid-1990’s, it was to offload 911 calls. Non-emergency calls were interfering with the ability of police, fire service and EMS to respond to the real emergencies like fires and robberies. The role of 311 has evolved to focus on customer service and more. Many systems are now innovation hubs for local government. What needs will be addressed by a 311/CRM system depends largely what the jurisdiction needs. In South Carolina, for example, constituents will have questions about recovery assistance following hurricane Joaquin and that’s something a 311/CRM system can do.

Performance management is another way 311/CRMs systems have changed the way cities operate due to wealth of data they generate. Governments can now push out information needed by citizens as well as taking in information about work order requests. For example, we can notify citizens on our twitter feed about document shredding days at City Hall or the location of snow plows during a storm.  Cities are getting information out to citizens before they have to call in.

Are you seeing products built for all sizes of local government or generally just big cities?

The majority of the US population is covered by a 311 system. Especially in the larger cities — New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco — with a few notable holdouts. What we’ve seen over time is going from 311/CRMs being implemented only in larger cities to smaller and mid-sized cities and counties developing systems.  I’m seeing a lot of more inquiries in the population range of 40,000-250,000 lately.

With the great recession in 2008-09, cities didn’t think they could afford to build out new systems, but the opposite was actually true. The need was as great as ever. The most important thing about 311 systems: if you do business mapping and process analysis, you realize where you can eliminate inefficiency. That’s a cost savings that’s really helpful when you’re trying to cut back.

Another worry from the past couple of years are the retirement of Baby Boomers. When long-time staff members begin to retire, cities lose all of that collective knowledge of how and why processes and procedures were adopted. If that information isn’t captured and documented, cities have to start over from ground zero. That is a huge waste of staff time which CRMs can help mitigate this risk.

What are the biggest worries that you hear from potential adopters?

Cost is always one of them. And the cost depends largely  on what a city needs. What are their requirements from a system? When I speak with local government officials, this is how I put it: I can buy a VW or I can buy a Mercedes. It all depends on what their needs are.

Securing buy-in from other departments and staff is another important piece. Implementing a 311/CRM system is seen as just a technology initiative by many, but more importantly, it is a change management process. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll use. And if no one uses it, you’re not going to fix the problems that sold you on it in the first place.

What is your favorite success story of a local government adopting a new 311/CRM system?

Philadelphia is one of my personal favorites. They developed a community portal that can be used by neighborhood groups to schedule meetings and report problems. But they didn’t stop with the technology. They developed an active neighborhood liaison program, with over 1,000 volunteers, who were trained in this CRM to make requests on behalf of neighbors. It really opened up the local government to a much wider range of constituents. They thought, “Hey! I can get things done and not have to know someone in city hall.” That empowerment went a long way to getting citizens involved.

The inside story is just as interesting. Philadelphia hired their 311 director, Rosetta Carrington Lue,  in 2008. She believed that customer service has to be a focus and concern across local government.  It’s not the responsibility of one office, it’s the responsibility of all departments in local government.  She is now the city’s Chief Customer Service Officer for the city.  Her approach to tackling these problems, of getting buy-in across the city and from community leaders, has and continues to be innovative and creative.

What it really comes down to is leadership at the executive level. Someone — be that a mayor, council member or city manager — to champion the program and then follow through and continue to advocate that changes be made.They have to be at the forefront at all times. And beyond buy-in, educating staff on how to actually use the technology once it gets built is just as important. How do we use this system for better data management? That education starts before implementation. It starts with readiness assessments, with mapping out requirements, and setting expectations of what we want to get out of this.

San Antonio is another great example of efficiency gains from good data management. Several years back, I met with the then director of environmental services.  He told me about how he drilled into data on bulk item pickup requests. These are really costly for the city, to send out a truck and a crew to pick up huge items. Based on where the requests were most frequently occurring in a neighborhood, he organized quarterly pickup to centralize that work. Instead of going to someone’s house on Tuesday and then getting a call from their neighbor on Thursday, they have a quarterly pickup in the area.  They hosted education program with information packets to educate their constituents on the new program and it was a huge success for the city and the constituents.

What do you see as the biggest trend in the space over the next 5 years?

Two major trends that I would highlight:

First: a lot more communication. Nonprofits and neighborhood groups have lots of data, and combining their data with local governments means new types of analyses can be developed. From neighborhood issues to topical issues like public health, if we are not combining our data with others, we’re missing out on a massive opportunity.

The second is opinion polling. During the recession in 2008-09, Philadelphia had to implement budget cuts. The mayor wanted to gauge temperature of what was important to citizens, and asked residents to call Philly311 with their priorities. Polling residents helped drive decisions about where to make cuts in the budget.

“Data-driven decision making” is the phrase you hear a lot these days. It means not relying on just personal instinct to tell you what people care about, but rather using data to help make important decisions.

What resources does ICMA provide for city officials looking to explore or implement a 311/CRM platform?

ICMA has numerous reports and case studies that are easily accessible. You can download them for free straight from our website at

We’re kind of matchmakers, introducing new communities to those with established 311/CRM systems, which has been a tremendous asset for cities just getting started. For example, if you’re a city with 40,000 residents, we can pair you up with someone who has experience in a similar population range. Sharing that knowledge and experience is an important part of both education and getting buy-in.

We also provide a variety of consulting services, working with local government to develop a 311 governance structure and define the requirements needed from a system. We help communities with the vendor selection process and again connecting them with others who have done this before.

Has there been a shift towards/away cities implementing 311/CRMs themselves versus using external software?

San Antonio, Charlotte-Mecklenburg County, Los Alamos County in New Mexico, and a few others developed their own in-house systems before moving to an off-the-shelf solutions. Most of those systems have been replaced over the past five years.  It’s critical to use vendors who have experience in the field and understand how local government works. Customer service in the public sector is different than in the private sector. When considering a system,  think  configuration over customization.

How do you think CRM needs differ from elected officials to city employees (if any)?

Elected officials need the big picture data and what’s happening in their district or ward. The 311 center can prepare reports based on a geographic district, which helps officials focus the data they care about. For mayors or county judges, they want to see the whole picture.

The front line staff, those answering the phones and emails from constituents, have needs that are more day-to-day and operational in nature. Do we have enough staff to reach service level agreement (SLA) we have set for ourselves? What does it cost to fix a pothole and is there a better way to do that?

The department heads will then look at this information to see if there are different processes or procedures that could make things run more smoothly. For example, if we’re repaving your street next month, it doesn’t make sense to go out and fix a pothole this week.

What steps are cities taking to advance their technology while much of their staff proceeds into retirement?

They are starting to see it as a priority. Succession planning, with a retiring generation as we spoke about before, is at the top of their minds. They aren’t yet documenting how they do things, but most realize that they will have staff members retiring in the near future. It is generally a time problem: if you’re always putting out fires, you don’t have enough time to plan and rethink your systems.

What other organizations should local governments be aware of?

There are two organizations people should know about in addition to ICMA.

First is AGCCP — the Association of Government Contact Center Professionals. They are focused on helping improve the day-to-day service quality for your 311 team. The CS Week’s 311 Synergy Group is another great resource. They have a wealth of educational programming for professionals in the field.


Thank you Cory for taking the time to speak with us and share your unique insights into CRM and 311 technology in local government!