So, where’s my computer?
It was my first visit to city hall since being elected Mayor of Bradenton. And, looking around the friendly, well-lit office I’d soon occupy, I quickly knew the answer to my question: The Mayor didn’t have a computer.
I’d campaigned on moving our city into the twenty-first century. Looking at the uncluttered, computer-less desk, I knew where to start.
Since being elected in 2000, I’ve watched the City of Bradenton grow, change and withstand the effects of the worst recession in my lifetime. During the go-go years, Bradenton boasted one of hottest real estate markets in the country. Then, the bottom fell out. Nationally, these events seem to have pulled us farther apart. Locally, they’ve brought us closer together.
In Bradenton, we’re elected on a nonpartisan ballot—even though we’re often from different parties. However, we work together, because we all believe local government isn’t about partisanship. It’s about getting things done. We don’t print money or run deficits. We don’t suspend services or shut down. We argue, but we govern. We don’t have—or want—any other choice.
I’ll never forget my first visit to Utility Billing, where many citizens have their first, and sometimes only, direct contact with their city. I told all the front desk workers, who also answer the phone when customers call, that I wanted them to solve problems immediately. They were smart enough, I said, to solve problems on their own, even with irate customers.
Solve the customer’s problem, I told them, and you can make the decision without asking your supervisor first. Tell your supervisor the actions you took, but help the customer first.
They looked skeptical.
I checked back about three hours later. As I approached the desk, one of our clerks had her back to me as she talked on the phone to a customer.
I stood behind her, to hear what she had to say. “Yes sir, I understand your problem, she said, “and I’ll fix it for you. You’re lucky you got me today.”
Problem solved. But I just can’t imagine a problem like that being noticed (let alone fixed) by a politician in Washington. That’s just not the way “big” is built. It’s not the way distant governments operate.
At the local level, we’re elected by our neighbors. And we’re accountable to them. That’s the way it should be. And it’s why local communities across America have weathered the declining trust in public institutions far better than distant governments seated in faraway capitols.
While Washington has dithered, Bradenton has pioneered countless new economic development opportunities, building a performing arts center and renovating a Major League Baseball stadium for spring training. We’ve seen new hotels and local microbreweries spring up downtown. We’ve trained 1,500 people for new jobs, first with a focus in healthcare, and now, manufacturing—which is slowly returning after decades of decline. We even completed an ambitious public-private partnership to expand Bradenton’s popular downtown Riverwalk, directly involving more than 4,800 local residents in the planning process.
At the local level, things “just work,” as Steve Jobs once said, because we’ve got our priorities straight: Local government serves the people. It isn’t great because it’s government—it’s great because it’s local.
In Bradenton, we’re embracing “local.” We’re redesigning the way government works by keeping it simple, accessible, transparent and online.
And around here, the Mayor finally has a computer.