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Citizens Grading Government

by Gail Robinson, Aug 27, 2007
 

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As you wait for the subway one morning in the next few weeks, a transit employee may stop you and ask your opinion of the subway you are about to take to work. This spring, the Department of Education and an advocacy group both vied to find out what you think of the school your child attends. And 311 operators tally your complaints to find out whether, like most New Yorkers, you want a little peace and quiet.

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For decades, citizens had few opportunities to voice their complaints – or even praise. They could throw the rascals out at the voting both, write an irate letter or show up at a rare public hearing and hope to be called upon and, even less likely, listened to. But now the New York City government, various agencies and advocacy groups are asking citizens what they think and, with that information along with other data, are compiling report cards on everything from bathhouses at city beaches to the safety of city classrooms.

Leading this drive is an effort by the Bloomberg administration to conduct a “customer satisfaction” survey in the next several months to find out what New Yorkers think of their interactions with city agencies. “It’s something we should do,” said Jeffrey Kay, director of the mayor’s Office of Operations, who said the survey is part of a greater focus on customer satisfaction.

MEASURING PERFORMANCE

The surveys, by the government and others, represent a growing trend toward measuring and evaluating public services. This movement accelerated in the 1990s after Compstat, a program pinpointing crime and police efforts to combat it, was widely credited with playing a key role in reducing crime in New York. Since then, many cities have copied the idea – on crime and other issues as well. At the same time, advocacy groups, taking advantage of new technology, picked up on the trend, offering their own report cards and ratings.

The Bloomberg administration has already undertaken a number of steps to measure performance. Like previous administrations, it compiles a Mayor’s Management Report, grading government operations on a number of measures. Much of this information focuses on what social scientists call inputs – the amount of staff time or money spent on a service – and on outputs or easily quantified results. The data is far less likely to indicate the quality of the services offered. So a survey of a park might report that it has six working water fountains but it would not say that the water tastes funny.

The Office of Operations also tabulates the calls to the city’s 311 non-emergency hotline. That information, Kay said, is useful but, “it is complaint driven and not everyone calls.”

At the same time, various city agencies have embarked on their own measurement efforts (some of which are described below), and others distribute cards to New Yorkers who come into their offices, asking them how the visit went: Was the office clean, was the staff friendly and helpful and so on.

A number of experts, in and out of government, have wanted the city to do more. In the 1990s the Fund for the City of New York conducted 15 focus groups, with 151 people from all five boroughs and 29 different communities to find out their concerns about city services. They listed the condition of city streets as a top issue – something that few so-called experts might put so high on the list. Their views sparked the fund’s street smoothness project.

More recently, the Office of the Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum has been working on its own citizen satisfaction efforts. In fall 2006, her office and the Baruch College School of Public Affairs assembled a group of civic leaders to try to come up with topics and questions for a citizen survey. To get a sense of how such groups can fly in the face of conventional wisdom, they rated "safety from violent crime” only 24th on the “extremely important” list, far below other public safety issues such as police response times, drug abuse and drug dealing and police-community relations.

Now the city is moving forward on a project similar to that envisioned by Gotbaum. Although the administration has not yet worked out many of the details, it does promise that the survey will be part of a more comprehensive look at what citizens think. The idea, said Kay, is to come up with information that is useful to the agencies.

The city has put out a request for proposals, which Kay said was “pretty open” in terms of how the survey is conducted and other issues. For example the survey could be conducted on line, could be mailed or done by telephone.

In planning for a “citywide view of customer satisfaction,” Kay, said he has two key considerations. One, he said, is gathering information that will help agencies better serve their customers – the residents of New York City. And, he said, “we want to make sure we’re not doing anything political.” Partly to address that, he said he expects the public advocate’s office to play a continuing role in the surveys.

Once the survey results are available, sometime next year, the public will be able to learn what they themselves think. “It’s the public’s information,” Kay said.

Beyond the survey, the administration plans to step up the use of “comment cards” in city offices. Although some agencies already solicit feedback, Kay said the city has not had any uniform approach. That, he said, will change.

For its part, the public advocate’s office said it welcomes the opportunity to play a role in the survey. “We’re thrilled that there will finally be a citizens satisfaction survey in New York City being it’s an important tool for government,” said Gotbaum’s chief of staff, Anat Jacobson.

In addition, she said, the office will work with the Fund for the City of New York on another set of focus groups similar to what the fund did in the 1990s. Results of the satisfaction survey will help guide the topics of discussion for the focus groups. Then, Jacobson said, the groups will have discussions aimed at producing the kind of “information you need to make substantive policy recommendations.”

A ROUNDUP OF RATINGS

New Yorkers don’t have to wait until this winter’s results to get a sense of how some government agencies do their job. Already an array of government and advocacy groups are rating services and finding out what citizens think of them. Here is a guide to some of those surveys and ratings.

Who
What
Information
CITY SERVICES
Mayor’s Office Mayor’s Management Report
Statistical measure of the work done by every city agency
Mayor’s Office of Operations My Neighborhood Statistics Numbers on an array of issues from 311 complaints to fires – by address and community board
CLEANLINESS
Mayor’s Office of Operations Scorecard Street cleanliness ratings by community board
HEALTH
Health Department Community Health Profiles Health statistics on every neighborhood in the city
Health Department Take Care New York How well are New Yorkers doing on key health indicators
HOUSING
Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy

State of New York Neighborhoods A guide to key housing and
demographic information
PARKS
Parks Department Parks Inspection Program Based on thousands of park inspections a year, rates parks on cleanliness, landscape and structures
New Yorkers for Parks 2007 Report Card on Parks Rates small neighborhood parks on eight service areas

New Yorker for Parks
Report Card on Beaches

A report on conditions at the seven beaches managed by the parks department
SCHOOLS
Department of Education School Report Cards Statistics on every school. New ones, including survey data, will be released next month
Inside Schools Guide to NYC Public Schools An independent group’s report, with statistics and narratives on every public school
TRANSPORTATION
Metropolitan Transportation Authority Rider Report Cards The system is asking riders to rate their lines and expects results shortly
Straphangers Campaign State of the Subway Report Card Looks at six measures for all lines and issues overall ratings

City Services

The city has a number of guides to overall services.

-- Mayor’s Management Report: This annual amalgam of statistics is required under the City Charter. Broken down agency by agency, it sets some standards for city services and reports how well the agency has done in meeting those standards. But while the report contains lots of facts, critics often cite what it leaves out.

Commenting on the 2005 report, Glenn Pasanen wrote in Gotham Gazette, “It includes too many insignificant indicators, lacks any overview or sense of priorities, and says little or nothing about such major (and problematic) policies as the reorganization of city schools, big changes in homeless services, the costs of school construction and high levels of overtime among the city’s uniformed services.”

Part of this has to do with the nature of the report, which tends to lean toward information that can be added subtracted, multiplied and divided. Using cultural affairs as an example, Diana Fortuna of the Citizens Budget Commission has written, “The Mayor's Management Report lists payments made to the cultural institutions group and new capital projects initiated. But from the citizens' perspective you could have questions about overall satisfaction with cultural arts programs and whether people feel the city supports a diverse range of cultural programs.”

-- My Neighborhood Statistics: This annual report lets New Yorkers type in their address (or intersection) and get a wealth of data about their neighborhood. This includes a breakdown of 311 complaints, some basic mortality information, a few facts about education, the state of streets and parks and crime information. While not an in depth report, it does provide some intriguing numbers and a kind of statistical thumbnail of any city neighborhood.

Crime

The Police Department issues crime statistics every week. Its report – with city wide, borough and precinct numbers – provides figures on seven major crimes, the number of reports in the past week and how they compare with similar periods in the past.

Education

Perhaps no part of city government is as obsessed with grades and ratings as the Department of Education. Students, of course, have long received grades from teachers, but now students also get marked on a whole battery of standardized tests. Those scores—along with other measures, such as graduation rates, discipline reports and attendance – go into general school report cards and count toward the letter grade that every school will receive.

Now, though, the department will add another measure: the opinions of parents, teachers and students in grades six and up. The department distributed its questionnaires last school year and hopes to have the results available – both on a system wide and school basis – around the time school opens next month. Although the department has not released any preliminary data, School Chancellor Joel Klein has said he is pleased with the response, said Andrews Jacobs, a department spokesman.

Beyond counting toward the grade, the idea, said Jacobs, is to give individual schools “really specific suggestions on how they can improve.” And he added, “We think the people closest to school know best how they can improve.”

Like everything in education, the survey has not been without controversy. Class Size Matters, an advocacy group, in conjunction with the National Center for Schools and Communities at Fordham University issued their own survey. The group has gotten close to 1,000 responses, according to Leonie Haimson, head of Class Size Matters.

Haimson said the group decided to send out its own questions after she and some other education advocates participated in focus groups to help the city shape its questionnaire. In those discussions, Haimson said, parents wanted the survey to include queries on class size, test prep and how responsive principals were to their concerns. But she said, those topics did not make it to the final form. “If it impacts on the quallity of education on the class level, it should be on the survey,” Haimson said.

The city, which has frequently clashed with parents and other advocates over class size, did not include class size, Andrews said, because the department wanted to “put everything in the context of a specific school” rather than confront broader educational policy issues.

Meanwhile, Inside Schools, a private non-profit group, provides reports on all public schools in the city. The group’s reports do not provide a letter grade but include some basic numbers – size, racial breakdown, indicators of test scores and the like – as well as a narrative based on a staff member’s visit to the school. The write-ups, a mainstay for parents looking for schools for their children, also include comments by parents and students.

Health

With Michael Bloomberg having made a push to improve public health as a hallmark of his administration, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene offers a number of measures of New Yorkers’ well being and what the government is doing about it.

-- Take Care New York: This report outlines key health policy measures and reports on how well New Yorkers are meeting specific goals. Undergoing a colonoscopy screening is viewed as an important measure to improve health. So, the report lists how many New Yorkers have taken that step and finds that the number has increased by 44 percent in the last 10 years. Having a primary care physician also promotes health, the city believes, and it finds the number of New Yorkers with their own doctors has climbed slightly in recent years.

--Individual reports: The department also issues papers on specific health problems in New York and the city’s progress in confronting them. One recent paper described the “large and growing toll” taken by diabetes, while another found that cases of childhood lead poisoning have dropped sharply since 1995.

-- Community Health Profiles: These provide in depth information on health in every neighborhood throughout the city, featuring information from how many people in a given community have health insurance to the frequency of binge drinking in a given neighborhood.

Housing

In a city where real estate is an obsession, there is always a hunger for numbers on housing. The City Planning Department offers a number of tools on its site, including Community District Profiles, which are essentially portraits, about 35 pages long, of each community district in the city, based on the 2000 census.

NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy analyzes data from the city government and other sources to compile its yearly report on the State of New York City's Housing and Neighborhoods. This book shows how each of the city's communities has been changing and compares community districts, by ranking them on a number of indicators. It also interprets the data in interesting ways, devising, for example, an indicator of racial diversity and of income diversity.

Parks

-- Parks Inspection Program: The parks department publishes the results of its inspection of city facilities, giving cleanliness, landscaping and structures a grade of acceptable or unacceptable.

--2007 Report Card on Parks: This annual report by New Yorkers for Parks focuses on small neighborhood parks, reporting on conditions in spaces from one to 20 acres. This year the report card found that, “despite some areas of improvement, overall the parks are in worse shape than last year,” Anne Schwartz wrote in Gotham Gazette. The report card concluded that parks that have access to private funds tend to score high, while maintenance remains a problem at many parks that rely exclusively on private funding.

The parks department disputed those findings. The report card "flies in the face of reality, which is that parks continue to get better," parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe has said.

-- Report Card on Beaches 2007: Another project of New Yorkers for Parks, this report card rates conditions at the seven beaches run by the city parks department. In general, the report finds room for improvement.

Street Cleanliness

This report, compiled by the Mayor’s Office of Operations, rates all community boards on the cleanliness of their streets and sidewalks on a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being the cleanest, 3 the dirtiest and any place scoring above 1.5 not considered “acceptably clean.” The rating is based on public perception, inspection and looking at photographs. The ratings, though, are for an entire community board so if you cannot use it as ammunition against your slovenly neighbor.

This fall, though, the city will take this a step further, sending out teams on scooters to inspect every street in the city for potholes, litter and other irritants of life in the city.

Transit

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is going line by line, asking riders to grade their subways. Straphangers can award letter grades on 22 different measures, covering such areas as delays, cleanliness, announcements and graffiti. The report card form, issued in 14 different languages, is being distributed in subway stations on designated days (the MTA handed them out in Number 7 and L stations earlier this month) and can also be completed on line by clicking here. So far, the response has been larger than anticipated, according to the MTA.

“People are taking us up on the opportunity to open a dialogue,” said Paul Fleuranges, vice president for corporate communications for New York City Transit. “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain. It’s the same sentiment here.”

Fleuranges said the results will be released to the public. Perhaps more importantly to riders, though, the results of the survey will guide MTA decisions. “Asking riders what improvements they would like to see will allow us to invest scarce resources in areas that will contribute the most to an overall improvement in customer satisfaction,” NYC Transit President Howard H. Roberts, Jr. said in a written statement.

The private Straphangers Campaign has been rating subways for a number of years in its State of the Subways Report Card. Like the transit authority, Straphangers goes line by line, evaluating the trains on a variety of criteria. Much of this material comes from transit authority data and observations by Straphangers staff.  

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