Gotham Gazette Thu, 01 Oct 2020 08:38:01 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Securing Two More Years as Public Advocate, Williams to Keep Pushing De Blasio on Housing, Policing ee7tqcgxsaevmo6

Jumaane Williams (photo: @nycpa)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, easily won his reelection bid on Tuesday, beating Republican Joseph Borelli, a City Council member from Staten Island, and Libertarian Party nominee Devin Balkind. With about 723,000 votes counted and 90% of election precincts reporting at midnight, Williams had received 78% of the vote (563,000 votes) to Borelli's 20% (144,400) and Balkind's 2% (14,500).

Williams previously represented Brooklyn in the New York City Council and was first elected to the public advocate’s office in a crowded February special election, replacing now-Attorney General Letitia James. Election law required him to defend his seat in the November election, and after emerging victorious, he will now serve out the remainder of the term which runs through 2021.

Though the public advocate’s office, with its annual budget of just under $4 million, has limited power, it is one of three citywide elected positions and gives its holder a bully pulpit to raise issues and to hold the mayoral administration to account. It is meant to act as an ombudsperson for the public, hearing and investigating complaints and advocating on New Yorkers’ behalf.

The public advocate can also introduce legislation in the City Council but cannot cast a vote on any bills. The office is also considered a launching pad to higher office. Before James was elected in 2013, the seat was held by de Blasio for one term. Williams, however, has repeatedly pledged that he will not run for mayor in 2021. If he chooses to, and barring any electoral setbacks, he could serve as public advocate for two full four-year terms through 2029.

As a community organizer before he joined the City Council, Williams touts his activist credentials and has been a frequent critic, as well as an ally at times, of Mayor Bill de Blasio and his administration. Williams has been particularly critical of de Blasio on the issues of housing affordability and police accountability.

"I know sometimes it feels like pushing the boulder up the hill. That the challenge is too great, the goals too difficult. At times like that, we need to think about the victories, and that's what we're recognizing here today," Williams said in his victory speech Tuesday night. "I've had the honor of serving as your Public Advocate for the last eight months, and as the people's advocate in City Government for the last ten years. In that time we've fought to end the abuses of stop question and frisk. We've passed affordable housing laws and tenant protections. We've put in place protections against discrimination based on military service and reproductive rights. We've given formerly incarcerated people a fair chance and many people a first chance. We've done all that because of the combined power of people inside and outside of government, demanding transformational change."

Considering Williams’ broad name recognition – he came close to winning the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor last year – and the overwhelming enrollment advantage that Democrats enjoy in the city, he had small odds of being deposed by Borelli or Balkind, both of whom readily acknowledged that fact.

Borelli’s rationale for the public advocate’s office was simple: either bolster its authority significantly or eliminate it entirely. He also cited the importance of having a public advocate from the opposite political party from the mayor, and said the city needed someone to pull de Blasio back toward the center. Balkind, a civic technologist who runs a nonprofit, ran on a five-point platform of technocratic solutions to improve city governance, provide better social services, and increase civic engagement.

Williams’ predecessor, James, was an experienced litigator and used the public advocate’s office to regularly take legal action – to varying degrees of success – against the de Blasio administration. But Williams has taken a different tact and is seeking to pull the mayor to the left on various issues where he believes the city has failed. Shortly after being elected in February, he restructured the office and appointed five new deputy public advocates with specific portfolios that cover housing, criminal justice, health, public safety, education, civic engagement, and more.

Over the last few months, he has increased his criticism of the city’s protocols for handling people with severe mental illnesses, several of whom have been killed in interactions with police officers. Williams has instead called for a comprehensive approach that eschews police involvement and emphasizes treatment and services.

Williams was one of the few City Council Members who opposed the de Blasio administration’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy, approved by the Council in 2016. MIH is meant to mandate that private developers build affordable housing in new developments that receive rezonings to allow more density. But it has proved controversial and critics say it does not go far enough to build housing for the lowest income New Yorkers who need it most.

Williams has called for a moratorium on all proposed neighborhood rezonings, and has also sponsored legislation that would mandate a racial impact study of rezonings prior to approval.

[WATCH: Public Advocate Jumaane Williams on his vision for the office and city.]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Securing Two More Years as Public Advocate, Williams to Keep Pushing De Blasio on Housing, Policing Tue, 05 Nov 2019 05:00:00 +0000
WATCH: 15 Minutes with Public Advocate Candidate Joe Borelli mnn borelli

Public Advocate candidate Joe Borelli talks with Ben Max on MNN

The race for New York City Public Advocate is one of the few elections on the ballot this fall, and it's only happening because former Public Advocate Letitia James was elected New York Attorney General, leading to a special election in February to replace her for the duration of this year, followed by an election this fall to see who will hold the citywide position for 2020 and 2021. Then-City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat like James, won the February election by a wide margin in a crowded field. He now seeks to hold the post against Republican challenger Joe Borelli, a City Council Member from Staten Island, and Libertarian Party nominee Devin Balkind, a civic technologist.

Borelli and Balkind each sat down with Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max on Manhattan Neighborhood Network for a 15-minute conversation about his platform and why he believes he should be the next public advocate. Watch the Borelli interview below; find the Balkind interview here. Early voting is ongoing through November 3; Election Day is November 5. Voters in New York City can vote in the public advocate race, a few other local elections, and the five charter revision questions on the back of the ballot.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

WATCH: 15 Minutes with Public Advocate Candidate Joe Borelli Wed, 30 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
WATCH: 15 Minutes with Public Advocate Candidate Devin Balkind mnn balkin

Public Advocate candidate Devin Balkind talks with Ben Max on MNN (photo: @MNN59)

The race for New York City Public Advocate is one of the few elections on the ballot this fall, and it's only happening because former Public Advocate Letitia James was elected New York Attorney General, leading to a special election in February to replace her for the duration of this year, followed by an election this fall to see who will hold the citywide position for 2020 and 2021. Then-City Council Member Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat like James, won the February election by a wide margin in a crowded field. He now seeks to hold the post against Republican challenger Joe Borelli, a City Council Member from Staten Island, and Libertarian Party nominee Devin Balkind, a civic technologist.

Borelli and Balkind each sat down with Gotham Gazette editor Ben Max on Manhattan Neighborhood Network for a 15-minute conversation about his platform and why he believes he should be the next public advocate. Watch the Balkind interview below; find the Borelli interview here. Early voting is ongoing through November 3; Election Day is November 5. Voters in New York City can vote in the public advocate race, a few other local elections, and the five charter revision questions on the back of the ballot.

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

WATCH: 15 Minutes with Public Advocate Candidate Devin Balkind Wed, 30 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: The Candidates for Public Advocate jw jb db

l-r: Jumaane Williams, Joe Borelli, and Devin Balkind (photo: William Alatriste & John McCarten/City Council)

October 21, 2019 - Max & Murphy Podcast: The Candidates for Public Advocate

Jumaane Williams, Joseph Borelli, Devin Balkind

There's an election for New York City Public Advocate this fall, and just ahead of the October 26 start of early voting and Election Day, November 5, we spoke with incumbent Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, a Democrat, and his challengers: City Council Member Joe Borelli, a Staten Island Republican, and Devin Balkind, a civic technologist who is the Libertarian Party nominee. Each of the three joined the show for about 15 minutes to discuss his platform.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy."

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Max & Murphy Podcast: The Candidates for Public Advocate Mon, 21 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
In Public Advocate Race, Three Very Different Visions for the Office jw jb db2

l-r: Devin Balkind, Jumaane Williams & Joseph Borelli

One of the few seats on the ballot this fall involves a citywide race, with Public Advocate Jumaane Williams defending his seat against two challengers in order to serve the remainder of the term, which runs through 2021, after he won a February special election. While the three candidates running have very different backgrounds and visions for the job of public advocate, Williams’ opponents, Republican City Council Member Joe Borelli and Libertarian Party nominee Devin Balkind, both concede that their chances of victory are slim and seem more intent on making a principled point about the position. 

Williams, a Democrat who previously represented parts of Brooklyn in the City Council, won the seat in a nonpartisan special election in February, triggered after Letitia James was elected New York State Attorney General. In a low turnout election and a crowded field of over a dozen candidates, Williams won with about 32% of the vote. Owing to quirks in election law, however, he must run again to serve out the rest of the term.

After facing no primary challenger, Williams heads into the general election the heavy favorite given how overwhelmingly Democratic the city electorate is. Turnout is again expected to be quite low, and little attention has been paid to the race. Borelli and Balkind have struggled to raise money and even Williams hasn’t hit the threshold to receive public matching funds, in part a sign of how little mind New Yorkers are paying the race, with most Democrats who are aware of the election likely assuming an easy Williams victory.

The public advocate functions as an ombudsperson for New Yorkers and is largely seen as a springboard for higher office, though the position does come with several important powers and a bully pulpit. Before James, the office was held by de Blasio, who used it successfully to elevate his profile before becoming mayor. The office’s budget for this fiscal year is only about $3.8 million and is currently subject to the whims of the mayoral administration, though that could change if a question on the ballot giving the office an independent budget is approved by voters. The public advocate can propose legislation before the City Council but does not get a vote.

Jumaane Williams
When he first ran for public advocate, Williams echoed his pitch from his unsuccessful bid for lieutenant governor last year, when he touted himself as an “activist elected official” who would transform the office he was seeking. He says the public advocate needs to be more than a “rubber stamp” for the mayoral administration and has taken a harder tack towards de Blasio than James did when she held the office.

Criminal justice reform and affordable housing have long been Williams’ top issues, as an organizer, advocate, and member of the City Council for nine years. One of his key achievements was the Community Safety Act of 2013, which sought to end the overuse of stop-and-frisk policing by the NYPD and created an independent monitor for the department. Williams was also one of the more prolific members of the legislative body, and has been successful in passing 57 bills he sponsored.

Williams came into office with a different approach than James, who, as a former Legal Aid attorney, had employed litigation as a major strategy in attempting to hold the mayoral administration and city agencies to account.

“I came in as a community organizer, so it makes sense that I have a slightly different lens,” Williams said. After four months in office, he announced a restructuring of the office, hiring five new deputy public advocates charged with focusing on select key issue areas: housing equity, justice, safety and health equity, education, civic and community empowerment, and infrastructure and environmental justice.

Williams says he wants to address the city’s affordable housing crisis, increase government transparency, and advocate for more gun violence prevention efforts. More recently, he’s been pushing the de Blasio administration and the NYPD to reform the city’s approach to how it responds to people in mental health crises who may be a danger to themselves and others, releasing a report last month that recommended investing more resources in treating rather than policing people in such moments.

“This has empowered me to do a lot of things that we couldn't do simply as a Council member,” Williams said in a Monday interview on the Max & Murphy podcast, referring to his ascension to the citywide office and citing the report as an example. He is also pushing legislation to place a moratorium on city-sponsored neighborhood rezonings and has sponsored another bill that would mandate a racial impact study before a rezoning.

Williams has repeatedly said that the city’s Mandatory Inclusionary Housing policy, touted by the mayor as essential to solving the housing affordability crisis, is a failure. “The mayor pushed for a failed proposal and the city passed a failed proposal,” said Williams, who was among the few who voted against it. On the other hand, he’s working with de Blasio to pass Williams’ bill to mandate that employers provide ten days of paid personal time each year, a cause de Blasio took up earlier this year after it had been sitting in the Council unmoved for several years.

Joseph Borelli
Council Member Borelli, one of three Republicans in the 51-member City Council, freely admits that he stands little chance of winning the race. But he’s using his candidacy to criticize the “remarkably useless” public advocate office itself, saying he would either see it strengthened dramatically through changes to the city charter or eliminated altogether.

“It still doesn't perform any serious function that warrants spending millions upon millions of dollars to elect and staff this office,” he said in a recent interview on the Max & Murphy podcast. He’s also used the race as a vehicle to oppose de Blasio and “his radical, backward agenda” that he says is leading to higher costs on the middle class and a deteriorating quality of life.

Borelli, who represents Staten Island’s South Shore and has previously been a state Assembly member, wants to see more powers for the office. He wants to place the Department of Investigation under the public advocate’s purview, which would be a major structural change and require an amendment to the charter. He also proposes giving the public advocate a position on the MTA board, which would need to be approved by the state Legislature. “That would make the office instantly worth something to the taxpayer,” he said.

Borelli is unlikely to receive broad support outside of the traditional Republican bastion of Staten Island and neighborhoods that skew convervative including those in Eastern Queens, South Brooklyn, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He’s also an outspoken supporter of President Donald Trump, which earns him significant scorn from outside his base and has provided fodder for Williams’ campaign.

Borelli nonetheless prides himself on being able to work with Democrats to get legislation passed. “I think a lot of people see this image of me as this Republican who likes to push people's buttons, which is certainly something I enjoy doing, but when it comes down to actually, you know, the brass tacks of governing New York City, I enjoy the work and I try to do it,” he said. He pointed to his work leading the Council’s Committee on Fire and Emergency Management. 

“The office works better when you have someone that has a fundamentally different view than the mayor, offering an alternative,” he said.

Devin Balkind
Balkind, a civic technologist who serves as president and director of the nonprofit Sahana Software Foundation, is the Liberatarian Party nominee, and is running on a five-point plan for the public advocate’s office centered around creating more resources for New Yorkers and organizing the city’s information.

He wants to strengthen the city’s social safety net and create central open source repositories of all services provided by the city and by the nonprofit sector; he would help city agencies create Digital Service Organizations to reform government access through technology and break inefficient bureaucracies; he would use the office to conduct oversight of civic engagement efforts, particularly the work of the new Civic Engagement Commission; he would launch an online metro-regional hub to coordinate and compile data from local and state agencies across the New York metropolitan region; and he would reconvene the Commission on Public Information and Communication to provide more information to the public about the working of city agencies.

“Those five solutions are real things that I think I could achieve as public advocate that will deliver real value as individual projects that people can understand, and that they can see the effects of,” Balkind said in an interview on the Max and Murphy podcast.

Balkind is pitching a “digital transformation” of city government and bureaucracy, deriving inspiration from best practices around the world. “Basically, you're creating an opportunity to rewrite how the bureaucracy works from a situation where the bureaucracy can actually be empowered,” he said. “[City agencies] don't have to ask IT vendors for permission to make changes in their operations. They can do it themselves.”

And he’s hoping he can prove that “you can get on the ballot in New York City as a pragmatic technocratic, I say in the good way, technocratic person who thinks that they have better ideas for how to deliver services faster, better and cheaper than anybody else,” he said.

Money and Debates
Besides the usual advantages of incumbency and of being a Democrat in New York City, Willams has expended far more campaign resources as well. At the last campaign finance filing, he had raised about $133,000 and spent nearly $139,000, leaving his campaign in debt. Borelli has only about $20,000 in cash on hand after raising about $43,000 and spending more than half of it. Balkind’s fundraising has barely made a scratch – he has raised less than $4,000 since joining the race and spent $1,313.

Williams and Borelli are participants in the Campaign Finance Board’s public matching funds program, but neither seems likely to meet the thresholds for public funds to be paid out. Thus, the candidates have limited means to make voters aware of the election taking place, where there is little on the ballot other than their race (there’s the Queens District Attorney general election, several judicial races across the city, and the ballot questions on proposed charter revisions).

Borelli and Balkind’s meager fundraising also means that the two official debates mandated by campaign finance law will not occur – the first scheduled debate was already cancelled and none of the candidates are on the way to qualify for the second, which has higher thresholds.

Instead, Williams and Borelli will face off in a live debate hosted by NY1 on Tuesday night. Balkind was not invited. “We invited candidates to participate in Spectrum News NY1’s debate based upon criteria including ballot eligibility, being enrolled in the city’s campaign finance program, and meeting fundraising thresholds,” said a spokesperson for Charter Communications, NY1’s parent company, in an email. “Devin Balkind does not currently meet the criteria to participate in our Public Advocate debate.”

[LISTEN: Max & Murphy Podcast: The Public Advocate Candidates]

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

In Public Advocate Race, Three Very Different Visions for the Office Mon, 21 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Williams Challengers Fail to Qualify for Official Public Advocate Debate, But Candidates May Spar Anyway jw jb db2

l-r: Devin Balkind, Jumaane Williams and Joe Borelli (photo: William Alatriste & John McCarten/City Council)

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, one of three citywide elected officials, is up for reelection this fall, but it looks like the Brooklyn Democrat won’t have to defend his (albeit short) tenure so far in a public forum with his two challengers. Neither Staten Island City Council Member Joe Borelli nor nonprofit leader Devin Balkind, the Republican and Libertarian nominees, respectively, seeking to unseat Williams, has qualified for the first of two official, televised debates scheduled in the public advocate race.

And from all indications, the second debate may also be out of the question, leaving it to Williams to decide whether to voluntarily debate his opponents in what is a special election to decide who is the public advocate for 2020 and 2021, the year of the next full city election cycle. Williams won the initial nonpartisan special election in February that decided the seat for the rest of this year after Letitia James stepped down after being elected New York Attorney General.

The New York City Campaign Finance Board hosts two mandatory debates before every citywide election for candidates who participate in the public matching funds program, which awards public money to match small dollar donations at either a 6-to-1 or 8-to-1 ratio, and meet the qualifying thresholds.

Those thresholds are meant to ensure that only viable candidates take the stage. For the first debate for this year’s public advocate election, set for this Thursday, October 10, candidates had to have raised and spent $113,875 by October 4, the latest campaign finance disclosure deadline.

Only Williams met the criteria, having raised $133,009 and spent $138,953 so far. Borelli, a former Assembly member popular in his deep red South Shore district, has raised $42,959 and spent $22,683 on his longshot bid to replace a Democrat in an overwhelmingly blue city. The Libertarian Party’s Balkind, who was also the party’s nominee for the same position in 2017, has raised just $3,825 and spent only $1,313.

Borelli and Balkind also don’t seem likely to qualify for the second debate, scheduled for October 29, which has higher qualifying thresholds including a raise-and-spend requirement of $136,650. Even Williams’ expenditure is just short of that mark at this point in what is shaping up to be a sleepy race for a citywide post first in line to the mayor. The candidates must also show either an endorsement from a local, state, or federal official representing the city or from a membership organization (such as a union) with 250 members who live in the city; or must have at least 750 small-dollar donors, who gave $250 or less, from the city in order to qualify.

Nonetheless, both challengers are pushing Williams to agree to debate them in other forums, but he has been noncommittal so far.

“Our campaign is moving full speed ahead leading up to the November 5th general election,” Williams said in a statement through a spokesperson. “We aren't taking anything for granted, so as we enter into the final stretch, we will be working aggressively to speak directly to voters to discuss the work we've done since entering office and plan moving forward to address some of the toughest challenges New Yorkers face today.”

Early voting, being implemented for the first time in New York this year, kicks off October 26 and runs through November 3. Election Day is November 5. There are few elections on the ballot this fall, but there are several ballot questions of proposals from the 2019 New York City Charter Revision Commission to change aspects of city elections and governance. While there are some local races, the public advocate special election is the only other citywide vote at hand.

Manhattan Neighborhood Network is attempting to organize a debate and both Borelli and Balkind have expressed a commitment to participating, pending scheduling and Williams’ participation. Williams’ spokesperson, when asked if the public advocate would participate, said the campaign is "working to lock in our participation for a separate debate soon." It is unclear at this point if NY1 will successfully host a debate that is not part of the official Campaign Finance Board program. A spokesperson for Spectrum News, NY1’s parent company, said in a statement, "We look forward to hosting a debate before the election with both candidates on NY1."

Borelli, who conceded that it’s doubtful he’ll qualify for the second debate, has for months been calling on Williams to do a series of podcast debates without a moderator that would be broadly accessible to members of the public. He made that request in a June 12 letter he sent to Williams, in which he freely acknowledged that the incumbent is the frontrunner and said neither of them should accept public funds from the CFB to reduce the cost of the election. “[I] am proposing a way to reach all New Yorkers in a novel, unique, and groundbreaking way,” he wrote.

“I asked him to do a weekly podcast on whatever topics he wanted to discuss, for a few weeks leading up to the election,” Borelli said in a text message on Monday. “I actually think it would be an entertaining show.” Williams has not accepted the invitation.

Borelli also said he didn’t want to attend debates limited to advocacy group members. “For example, I wouldn’t waste my time at a debate hosted by a ‘Close Rikers’ advocacy group. I’d chalk their support up to a loss before I waste a moment,” he said of the types of issue or community-based candidate forums that often dot campaigns, as they did ahead of the February public advocate special election, where more than 20 candidates appeared at many events to talk to voters. There were also two televised, officially-sanctioned debates in that special election, which Williams won in a runaway despite the crowded field including many sitting office-holders.

For Balkind, a public debate could potentially drum up some limited amount of support. “If I have a platform to share my solutions I'll prove there are more libertarians in this city than there are Trump supporters,” he said in an email, pointing to a rapid growth in the Libertarian Party’s membership. “We won official status in New York State for the first time in 2018. I'm the first candidate of the official party. The sky is the limit,” he said. Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Larry Sharpe won 95,033 votes in last fall’s election, coming in fourth, and therefore securing the party’s ballot line for four years.

Balkind also chided civic institutions for not organizing debates outside the official ones sponsored by the CFB and its partners. “With modern technology it's never been cheaper and easier to produce a video broadcast,” he said. “We need civic organizations to take more responsibility for the health of our city's democracy. Why are New Yorkers relying on a partnership between a government agencies (NYCCFB) and a for profit corporation (Spectrum Cable) to produce debates? We reap what we sow and this a reason why government bureaucracies and corporations are getting what they want from New York City's political class, but everyday New Yorkers aren't.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - this article has been updated to include a statement from a spokesperson for Spectrum News. 

Williams Challengers Fail to Qualify for Official Public Advocate Debate, But Candidates May Spar Anyway Mon, 07 Oct 2019 04:00:00 +0000
Taiwan’s Radical Participatory Democracy Training is Coming to New York rally city hall

(photo: John McCarten/NY City Council)

Many people are wondering whether rapid advances in communication technology will improve or degrade American democracy. Last decade, the answer seemed to be: improved! Wikipedia’s growth showed us the unimaginable “wisdom of the crowd,” WordPress made it possible for the world’s smartest people to share their thoughts with everyone for free, and Google was quickly “organizing the world’s information” for the benefit of all. Democratic utopia, here we come!

Now, the narrative has shifted and it appears to many that technology is degrading democracy. Twitter is an addictive cesspool of fake news, trolling, and hypocrisy. Facebook is selling user profiles to the highest bidder, who then use them to manipulate us in remarkably effective ways. Uber, Amazon and myriad other “startups” are automating away the economy we’ve known. To many in the United States, the future looks like some combination of Terminator, Idiocracy, and Wall-E.

Fortunately, the negative visions of today are just as myopic as the positive ones of yesterday, and the lucky few who’ve been invited to the upcoming vTaiwan Open Consultation & Participation Officers Training will shortly understand why. This unique two-day event, being held June 11 and 12 in Midtown, will be the first English-language training delivered by Audrey Tang and members of the team that successfully implemented radically effective participatory democracy programs at the federal level in Taiwan.

Invitations have been sent to New York City Council members, city employees deeply engaged in work related to citizen feedback generation and analysis, and nonprofit staff that do technology-enabled community organizing. The public is invited to attend a post-training afterparty where Tang and the vTaiwain team will be available for schmoozing.

To understand why Taiwan’s participatory democracy programs are so interesting we have to look at their history, which for the sake of this article begins in 2014 with the Sunflower Movement, an Occupy Wall Street-style social protest that fueled a movement for genuine, participatory democracy. The movement occupied the Taiwanese legislature, turned on livestreams, and showcased the type of consensus-based decision-making participants and supporters wanted the government to implement.

The public was captivated by the movement and supported participants’ demand for the creation of a “Digital Ministry” to facilitate and further develop the type of participatory decision-making systems they were using. After a month-long occupation of the Taiwanese legislature, the government capitulated and appointed a movement leader, Tang, as “Digital Minister” with the stated goal of “helping government agencies communicate policy goals and managing information published by the government, both via digital means,”

Over the last four years, a constellation of participatory democracy programs has emerged. vTaiwan is a public consultation process that uses a wide range of online and offline tools and techniques to bring the public through an ORID-style process that results in a clear directive to the Taiwanese government about what should be done.

To date, 25 national issues have been discussed through the vTaiwan open consultation process, and more than 80% have led to decisive government action. The Participation Officer’s Training Program helps civil servants within diverse departments leverage insights from the vTaiwain process, as well as from Digital Service Organizations from around the world, to make their government agencies more open, horizontal, transparent, and responsive to the public.

These two approaches: vTaiwain for public participatory and PO trainings for government employees, offer an increasingly holistic vision of a technology-enabled democratic future we can all be optimistic about. And it’s coming to New York City -- and the English-speaking world -- for the first time.

Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Balkind is the executive director of Sarapis, the nonprofit fiscal conduit for this event. Any profits from the event (none are anticipated) will be reinvested in participatory democracy work in New York City.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Taiwan’s Radical Participatory Democracy Training is Coming to New York Mon, 04 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
For Government, It's DSO or Die planning labs bx cd9 profile shot

City Planning's Planning Labs

Private sector innovations in information technologies are transforming virtually every industry, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. A decade ago, Facebook was a website used almost exclusively by college students to keep in touch with each other; today it’s one of the world’s largest media distributors with the capability of swaying elections simply by tweaking its algorithms; and in ten years it’ll likely be directing a self-driving car to drop you off at your friend’s house.

The mindblowing rate of innovation taking place in the private sector is a stark contrast to the glacial pace of innovation in government bureaucracies. Indeed, to many people in the private and public sectors, government agencies appear, at best, frozen in time, and at worst, actually deteriorating before our very eyes. New York City’s beloved subway system is a case in point.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Government agencies can leverage new tools, techniques and technologies to improve their effectiveness and even delight their users, but doing so requires more than simply signing a fat contract with a vendor of high-tech wares. It requires government adopting the values of the “open source way”: open exchange, participation, rapid prototyping, meritocracy, and community building.

Doing so will change government agencies in significant ways: new roles, new skills, new trainings, new people, and new organizational structures.

It’s easy to see why wholesale reform of government agencies isn’t happening: people don’t want to lose their jobs. But piecemeal reform is taking place within government, and patterns are emerging that show how small teams within government that deliver “digital services” to other government units and agencies - things like websites, mapping systems, workflow management solutions and other high-tech products and services - are driving change.

The major factor that distinguishes these newly emergent “digital services organizations” (DSOs) from other technology groups within government is that their main job isn’t procuring software from large software companies, but instead to leverage open source software, peer to peer collaboration methodologies, and agile development approaches to build their own products.

The origins of the “digital service” concept can be traced back to 2010 when the government of the United Kingdom began a website redesign project that turned into something much more: a rethinking of the very nature of government. Mike Bracken, co-founder of the U.K.’s Government Digital Services (GDS), articulated “government as a platform” in his 2014 PDF talk. GDS has gone on to become a vocal advocate of the open source way in government and is responsible for saving the UK Government over £1 billion a year since its inception in 2013.

The United States federal government got serious about starting a GDS-style entity in 2013 when the Obama administration realized that its hallmark legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, could be jeopardized by its inability to successfully launch the website by the time the legislation came into effect.

Once it became clear that the project was massively mismanaged, the administration assembled a crack team of technologists from inside and outside government to get the website up and stable. To achieve this goal, the team used many open source and agile development methodologies popular in startup culture. Ultimately they got the site launched, and many of the people involved went on to create and lead high-tech units in the government such as the U.S. Digital Service in the White House, and “18F” within the General Services Administration.

18F “collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology.” Its process relies on open source and startup-centric principles of “human centered design, agile methods and open technology.”

This approach is very different than the “monolithic procurement” approach that usually happens within government where “large, complex, multi-year contracts” are drawn up between government agencies and large corporations. “According to the Standish Report from 2003-2012, 94 percent of government software projects over $10 million are either over budget, over time, or just don’t work,” via the 18F website.

Instead of monolithic procurement, 18F and other DSO advocate for in-house open source development and modular procurement, which is “a strategy that breaks up large, complex procurements into multiple, tightly-scoped projects to implement technology systems in successive, interoperable increments.” By pairing this with open source software development and meticulous documentation, 18F can share the innovations they develop for one agency with others, reducing costs for everyone involved and allowing anyone in the world to use and contribute code to their projects.

This approach has been highly successful. In less than four years, 18F has grown to nearly 200 staff and completed hundreds of projects for over 25 federal agencies that range from building public websites (like to backend infrastructure (like and a myriad of products that help other government workers build faster, more accessible, and more secure technology products. They’ve been successful to the point where for-profit software industry groups lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the federal government too much money.

The significance of 18F’s accomplishments, along with the clarity of their message about how to reform government, has gone almost entirely unnoticed by nearly everyone, except for a small but very online group of people who self-identify as “civic technologists.” This community consists mostly of people who work as technologists for private enterprise by day, and try to use their technical skills to more broadly help people by night. Rarely do these people actually work within government, and if they do, it’s rarer still for them to have the freedom and support within government to perform the type of work that 18F does.

While there are a number of federal entities that have adopted the DSO model such as Defense Digital Service, which applies 18F-style approaches across the Department of Defense, at the municipal level there are very few: San Francisco has a small digital services team, and the teams managing websites in Boston and Philadelphia have some DSO characteristics, but New York City Department of City Planning’s Planning Labs follows the 18F model most closely.

Planning Labs is a nine-month-old, three-person unit within DCP that isn’t shy about borrowing from 18F’s playbook. Its site is built with 18F code, its published principles are nearly identical, and its members’ outspoken support for open source as the path forward for government is just as loud.

In its short existence, its already launched a half-dozen products, each of which uses open source approaches to deliver a standardized product. Looking through its portfolio of products - from its zoning tool, facilities directory, tax lot viewer, and statistical mapping tool - it becomes clear that Labs isn’t simply building products, but instead organizing the city’s information in an open, standardized, and future-friendly way that will benefit New Yorkers for generations. It’s not hard to imagine these various systems being weaved together along with other open source solutions such as David Moore’s City Council tracking system Councilmatic to create a comprehensive city information system like SimCity, but real, and in real-time.

For Chris Whong, Planning Lab’s founder, NYC Planning Labs “is responding to the need to create more functional and accessible tools for planners, practitioners, and the general public to use and analyze data. With a smaller team, human-centered design, agile processes, and open source software, we are delivering tech products better, faster, and cheaper in-house.”

Whether one thinks government is good or bad, or somewhere in between, almost everyone agrees that it should work effectively, operate transparently, and if it’s going to provide services to the public, they should be of decent quality and at a reasonable costs. The capacity for government to deliver services, and the public’s desire to pay taxes to fund government agencies to provide them, is heavily dependent on the effectiveness of government agencies and the civil servants that work within them.

In an age of rapid private sector innovation, those agencies and civil servants will need to be able to leverage technology effectively if they want to keep up with their private sector counterparts. If they don’t, the public will want to privatize these services. It’s that simple.

The “do or die” nature of this moment can’t be overstressed enough. If DSOs like 18F and Planning Labs aren’t given the resources and flexibility they need, their members will become dejected and find happier homes in a private sector that values their talents.

Anyone who is passionate about good government, anyone who thinks the public sector is important and worth preserving, should be studying and supporting DSOs and the principles that they follow. If they aren’t the future of government, it’s possible nothing is. Such is the sentiment of Matt Brackin, the co-founder of the U.K.’s GSA, who recently tweeted: “I hoped the internet era would revitalise our state. It's just exposed its bankruptcy.”

Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City through Sarapis Foundation and on humanitarian projects around the world through Sahana Software Foundation. He was a candidate for New York City Public Advocate in 2017. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

For Government, It's DSO or Die Tue, 27 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project capital project dbalkin

Construction in Corona Plaza (photo via DOT)

Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what I’ve done at, where you can now find a web page for every single capital project, organized by agency and sortable by project’s cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports - but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st - 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $20 million this year? Why isn’t the press reporting the over $120 million in renovations planned for the Brooklyn Detention Center (search BKDC)? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

Who has the power to make this information public? Certainly the Mayor's Office, but it's easy to see why it doesn't. The Mayor is responsible for directing the people and agencies leading  these projects, so creating more avenues for additional scrutiny, which could easily lead to bad press, is hardly a priority. Fortunately, New York City’s Public Advocate, which is an entirely independent office, has some statutory jurisdiction within the Capital Budget process and could force the city to better document the capital budget.

Section 216 of the New York City Charter states, “Upon the adoption of any such amendment by the council, it shall be certified by the mayor, the public advocate and the city clerk, and the capital budget shall be amended accordingly.” While I’m not a lawyer, it sounds like the Public Advocate could threaten to stop certifying amendments to the budget until the city releases a database of all capital projects with additional information to help New Yorkers better understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

That’s precisely what the Public Advocate should do, and as a candidate running for that position, I commit to making that demand when elected. It’s up to you, the public and the media, to ask other Public Advocate candidates how they’d use their oversight power over the Capital Budget. Will they also pledge to demand "A Page for Every Project"?

Until the city offers a page for every capital project, I’ll will keep updating so New Yorkers can learn more about what the city does with our money. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

combo capital project

(image of the city's capital commitment plan vs. our website) 

Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project Wed, 01 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Disaster Preparedness Requires a 211 System; New York City Still Doesn’t Have One Sandy devastation

After Sandy (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Over the last few weeks, New Yorkers have watched with great anxiety as Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico, among many other places, were pummeled by massive hurricanes. Whenever we see storm destruction, memories of Sandy re-enter our consciousness; as does the question: Is New York City significantly better prepared for the next big one? My answer is “No.”

As a technology professional in disaster management, I’m constantly on the lookout for better ways to use software tools and information management practices to improve a city’s resilience. With new technologies coming out all the time, there are many pathways for improvement, and selecting the right place to focus preparedness efforts is never easy. In New York City’s case, however, it’s pretty simple: one of the most impactful things we could do, and certainly the lowest hanging fruit, is to build a canonical directory of all the health, human, and social services available in New York City so people know where to go to get the services they need before, during, and after a disaster.

The directory system I’m proposing is often called a “211 system.” In almost every major U.S. city and in over 90% of counties, if you call 2-1-1, you’re connected to a directory assistance representative that can refer you to the health and social services that meet your needs. If you call 2-1-1 in New York City, you’re connected to our 311 system — which is good at providing basic information about government services, but isn’t able to refer you to the vast majority of nonprofit services available in the city.

211 systems are essential infrastructure for any coherent social safety net. Indeed, without them we don’t even know what the social safety net looks like! These systems enable people to find a huge array of help for a broad collection of things, including: housing, employment, food, children’s services, domestic violence counseling, and so much more.

Without a 211, social workers are left to solve this information problem on their own. Many create their own lists on paper and in Word documents that they share with each other. Some organizations maintain resource directories for certain kinds of people or neighborhoods. Well-funded institutions even pay for-profit companies to find this information and provide it to their clientele.

Our lack of a real 211 system is a hindrance to every nonprofit and government service provider, and an embarrassment to every politician who claims to care about New Yorkers in need. If they really cared, wouldn’t they make sure it was possible for every New Yorker to actually find the services they're entitled to receive?

Prosperous and powerful New Yorkers tend to be unaware that the city lacks a 211 system because they rarely, if ever, use nonprofit social services. But when a disaster like Sandy happens, many people who never before needed access to nonprofit services suddenly do. Because of this dynamic, 211 systems serve extremely important functions during disaster recovery by providing a canonical sources of information about services for survivors. They also tend to become the centers that convene and facilitate collaboration between government agencies, nonprofits and community groups.

211 systems in New Jersey and Long Island played this role after Sandy, and by most accounts their recoveries went much smoother than New York City’s. In New York City, no local entity took responsibility for organizing all the nonprofit service information, which led to a massive coordination crisis. Things got so bad that some intrepid FEMA staff created a 211-style services directory themselves, even though it was so far outside their traditional responsibilities that they had to pretend that other organizations had created it out of fear of political backlash. To this day, no one in city government or the nonprofit establishment has taken responsibility for these coordination failures. Nor has any agency or organization taken responsibility for ensuring that it never happens again.

While incremental improvements in disaster management and recovery processes have certainly been adopted over the last five years, one of the most important Sandy lessons is that New York City desperately needs a fully-funded and well-functioning 211 system. Until we have one, New York City cannot claim to be following even the most basic best practices in disaster preparedness.

Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

Have an op-ed idea or submission for Gotham Gazette? Email

Disaster Preparedness Requires a 211 System; New York City Still Doesn’t Have One Mon, 02 Oct 2017 04:00:00 +0000