Fort Worth’s newest planning leader says city is at an ‘inflection point’ 

dfwnewsa | January 10, 2024 | 0 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth’s newest planning leader says city is at an ‘inflection point’ 

Chief Transformation Officer Christianne Simmons will lead Fort Worth’s newly created FWLab, focused on data and planning. She returned to work for the city in 2023 to oversee its operating budget and was hired to a new role in December 2023. (Courtesy photo | City of Fort Worth)
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FWLab, Fort Worth’s newly reimagined budget department, has been led by interim department heads since its creation in February 2023. Now, the key department has an official leader.

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Christianne Simmons was hired to lead the new department in December. Her title: chief transformation officer. The unique title reflects an “inflection point” in the city’s approach to planning, Simmons said. She will focus on shepherding the city into a more data-driven, collaborative approach to planning.

Simmons previously worked for five years on budgeting for the Fort Worth Police Department before leaving to work for Sundance Square. She returned to work for Fort Worth after City Manager David Cook announced the creation of the FWLab, which aims to use data and public input to inform short- and long-range planning. That includes annual budgets, bond programs and the city’s comprehensive plan. 

Last year, Simmons was responsible for the city’s nearly $2.6 billion operating budget. The city’s budgeting and planning processes are the primary ways the public can observe city policy and influence it in real time, Simmons said. 

“I want the lab to represent the defense of the taxpayer, standing in the gap and making sure that we’re asking the right questions about whether we are keeping our promises,” Simmons said. “Are we doing what we said we would do? In the budget and the long range plans? Are there good accountability tools?”

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The department will update the city’s planning and data processes in multiple ways. First, the city plans to use priority-based budgeting to create its annual budget. The goal of priority-based budgeting is to make local government more responsive to residents, Shayne Kavanagh, senior manager of research for Government Finance Officers Association, previously told the Report. 

When implemented over the next couple of years, priority-based budgeting will take the priorities identified by council members and use them as a framework for the upcoming budget. Every expenditure will be tied back to those priorities. 

At the same time, the Lab wants to take data collected by departments, clean it and use it to drive decision making — publishing it on the city’s website for the general public to see.

“Through our national search to fill the position, Christianne demonstrated her passion for public service and the opportunities and challenges ahead for our retooled department,” Cooke said in a statement.

In the city’s current budget process, departments present what resources they need or want in the upcoming fiscal year. City management either selects or declines those requests before going to the City Council for final approval. Often, the city’s final decisions are not totally data driven.

“I haven’t really worked in an organization that was successfully leveraging data to drive decisions across the whole enterprise,” Simmons said. 

The city collects a lot of data; however, it isn’t always ready to use it, Simmons said. She hopes the FWLab will house city data and turn it around to create public dashboards. The city plans to work with three departments — police, human resources, and transportation and public works — to gather and clean data for public consumption this year. 

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Six more of the city’s 27 departments will use priority-based budgeting when building the fiscal year 2025 budget. The new approach to budgeting will make it easier for the public to track whether the city is following through on its commitments, Simmons said. 

“The budget is a public accountability tool; you’re putting your money where your mouth is and where your priorities are,” Simmons said. “That’s why I want to make it super consumable for people to see.” 

Simmons expects the city to streamline public engagement efforts, seeking public engagement and then incorporating public feedback into all the city’s planning processes. 

“Rather than doing a big public engagement that’s robust for the bond, and then a big build engagement that’s robust for the budget, we’re trying to streamline,” Simmons said. 

Simmons isn’t the only new leader that will impact the FWLab. The city of Fort Worth recently hired former interim Chief Transformation Officer Mark McDaniel to serve as deputy city manager and oversee the FWLab, Information Technology and intergovernmental relations departments as well as the Good Natured greenspace initiative. 

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“I just want to be put in the places where I can make the biggest impact, where the needs are, put me in those places,” McDaniel said. 

McDaniel previously worked for the city as a consultant; he will officially start his full-time role next week. He is the first deputy city manager hired by the city since Jay Chapa resigned from the position in 2022. As the No. 2 leader under Cooke, he will also focus on special projects such as the city’s relationship with EMS provider MedStar.

Simmons received funding for 13 new employees in the city’s recently approved budget. Over the next 60 days, Simmons hopes to fill those vacancies and set the department up for success as it takes on planning for next year’s budget, the city’s comprehensive plan and the 2026 bond. 

“My first year is really focused on the culture within the lab, because we can’t really be a model for other departments or a nationwide model … without working on our culture, staying really curious, and really collaborative,” Simmons said. 

Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at rachel.behrndt@fortworthreport.org or @BehrndtRachel. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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