Gotham Gazette Fri, 24 Jan 2020 23:35:36 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Civic Engagement and Redistricting lander and hidalgo at crc

Council Member Lander and Noel Hidalgo testify

The charter revision commission convened by Mayor Bill de Blasio held its fourth and final issue-focused forum on Thursday afternoon at NYU, hearing testimony from experts on the city’s civic engagement efforts and hearing proposals for independent redistricting of City Council districts.

The central question before the commission on civic engagement was whether the city should create a new independent, nonpartisan Office of Civic Engagement. The proposal is the brainchild of New York City Council Member Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, who was among those who testified Thursday. If the commission decides to take up that and other proposals heard at previous hearings, they would be presented to voters as ballot referenda in November. The three previous issue-focused expert hearings were on voting and elections; campaign finance reform; and community boards and land use.

Panellists who spoke before the commission on Thursday sought to define civic engagement, its limits and challenges, and the mechanisms by which it is currently carried out by city agencies, nonprofit organizations, and community-based advocates, and comprehensive approaches to combining all those disparate elements.

Naomi Zauderer, chair of the NYC Voter Assistance Advisory Committee, informed the commission about VAAC’s continuing voter engagement and registration efforts, acknowledging a fact that the commissioners were familiar with: the city’s abysmally low voter turnout in recent elections. “[T]he real challenge in New York City is getting people to turn out to the polls,” she said, noting that a lack of information about elections and candidates serves to discourage voters.

Paula Gavin, chief service officer of NYC Service, the city agency charged with encouraging volunteering efforts, said a big challenge is New York City’s low volunteering rate -- only 14 percent, compared with the national average of 25 percent. She said increasing the city’s volunteering and civic participation rate through a “continuum” of agencies and elected officials working together with community-based organizations would also lead to an uptick in turnout. “It is shown that those who volunteer more, vote more. Those who vote more, volunteer more. So the tide will rise,” she said.

But Zauderer and Amy Loprest, executive director of the Campaign Finance Board, where VAAC operates, said voter engagement should continue to be housed under the CFB, which already has a well-established voter information and outreach operation that continues to be improved. They agreed that an Office of Civic Engagement is a laudable idea, but one that should coordinate with the VAAC’s existing efforts rather than subsume its role.

“I think we would support the idea that...any organization that’s called an Office of Civic Engagement be a nonpartisan and independent agency, because I think that insulates it from any kind of political pressures or the desire to follow any particular person’s priorities,” Loprest said.

She added, “There’s many, many aspects of civic engagement...and if we worked on the voter engagement and outreach work that we’re doing, we would work very closely with that office of service to collaborate.”Similarly, Gavin said it would be “unrealistic” to place all those agencies and initiatives at a lone, new agency but supported the idea of a coordinated umbrella of efforts. “I do feel strongly that a framework that brings together the various aspects of civic engagement would be very important,” she said. Citing her agency’s work across the city with other departments, in schools and communities, she said “I don’t know that it has to be everything working within the one framework. I think it’s more of a coordinating effort that would be valuable.”

Beyond the framework, panellists also pointed out blind spots in current civic engagement efforts that they said should be avoided under a newly empanelled agency. Underserved populations -- such as the disabled, low- and moderate-income communities of color, immigrants -- tend to be ignored by civic institutions, they said. Others stressed the need to inculcate a sense of civic duty in New Yorkers, particularly by starting at an early age in the city’s schools.

DeNora Getachew, New York executive director of Generation Citizen, a civics education provider, urged an emphasis on “action civics,” ensuring that young people can actually use the civic knowledge they’re given to enact change in their communities. “We know that too much emphasis is placed on voting as a way to be civically engaged and, rather, there is a spectrum of civic engagement opportunities that we need to be presenting to young people and also to adults,” she said. Getachew urged the commission to consider the OCE proposal, among other things, including allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in municipal elections and providing more government jobs to young people in city employment programs.

“It’s a two-way street,” said Elizabeth OuYang, a civil rights attorney and member of OCA-NY Asian Pacific American Advocates, insisting that immigrant communities are eager to contribute to the city’s civic life but must see their efforts reciprocated by city government. “If you’re to encourage volunteerism in the immigrant community, it has to be a comprehensive strategy that also includes their involvement in democratic policy decision-making.” The city’s outreach, she said, should occur through existing networks of religious institutions and neighborhood groups that immigrants trust.

Ifeoma Ike, founding partner of Think Rubix, a civic-action oriented think tank, echoed a similar point of caution, stressing the need for equitable, culturally relevant and ongoing outreach to communities of color, and not a “transactional” approach centered around an election that arrives every four years. “We must not dismiss these communities as apathetic,” she said.

Another significant issue that has long been ignored, said Susan Dooha, executive director of the Center for Independence of the Disabled in New York, is the city’s lack of disability access, which affects everything from voting and civic participation to employment and housing affordability.

“We find retrofitting efforts with accessibility concerns after the fact is a poor way of accomplishing inclusion,” she said of the city’s civic engagement efforts, emphasizing the need for disability literacy training and early phase consultation with disability advocates.

“[P]eople with disabilities feel that they’re being made invisible, We want to go out and vote in a public space like our neighbors because we want to be seen,” she later said, noting that the disabled community faces particular obstacles in accessing polling sites. “It’s terrible to tell people they have a duty to do something that you then prevent them from doing,” she said.

Noel HIdalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology organization, said the OCE could be a “digital steward” for new government services initiatives that he said should be designed in consultation with the people they are serving. He pushed for digital literacy programs, improving the city’s technology infrastructure starting at the community board level, something BetaNYC has been doing with Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and for an enhanced participatory budgeting system that employs technology that is broadly accessible.

Council Member Lander similarly pushed for a citywide participatory budgeting program that could be run by the OCE. “We’re really facing a crisis in our democracy in New York City,” he said of the city’s low turnout. “But it’s...part of this broader issue of decline in civic trust in all our institutions, in government especially but across the board. People just don’t think of reaching out to government as a way of getting issues resolved, even where those issues are government issues.”

Though most commissioners asked about how the OCE would work, only one commissioner, John Siegal, questioned why it was necessary. “I’m worried that if we do this...that it will atrophy,” he said, speculating that it would be left to the whims of each subsequent mayor. Siegal also struck a skeptical tone as he noted that none of the panellists had spoken to the role of the private sector in improving civic engagement.

Though civic engagement dominated most of the forum, the other focus issue, and one with a looming challenge, concluded its agenda: independent redistricting. The City Council’s 51 districts are redrawn every ten years after the federal census, which is due to take place in 2020. Currently, law stipulates that the mayor appoints seven members to a city districting commission and the City Council appoints eight members. The charter commission may propose changes to the system.

John Flateau, a professor at Medgar Evers College and a New York City Board of Elections commissioner, made a slew of suggestions at Thursday’s forum. He said the city could create as many as 70 Council districts of smaller sizes and stressed the need for proportional representation for the five boroughs based on populations.

Flateau and other panellists cited California redistricting model as one the city could follow, which prohibits incumbent elected officials from sitting on a redistricting commission and invites applications that are independently screened.

“Think of redistricting...that could be one of those triggers, one of those mass civic engagement exercises, figuring out how to set up this process going forward so that individuals, communities, neighborhoods feel ownership for wanting to participate in this process and learn more about their government,” he said.

Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause, testified on a video call to the commission. Among other ideas, she said there could be a robust list of conflicts of interest to limit who could serve on a redistricting commission, that districting commission members should be diverse and could be picked based on a set of qualifications, with the goal of ensuring the maximum public confidence in how maps are drawn. An application process like California’s, she said, would ensure that a commission attracts participants who are willing to commit their time to a laborious process. And she emphasized several transparency measures a commission should follow.

Flateau and the others did warn that any efforts at independent and equitable redistricting would be predicated on an accurate count in the 2020 census, which is threatened by the Trump Administration’s decision to include a citizenship question that could depress the count in immigrant communities. He also said that previous commissions fell under the preclearance mechanism of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act -- where the federal government would first approve any changes to local voting districts -- which was struck down by the Supreme Court in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In its absence, Flateau said the city could possibly set up its own preclearance system for municipal districts under the corporation counsel’s office.

James Hong, the former co-director of the MinKwon Center for Community Action, agreed that applicants should be screened and ideally, the commission would be made of “academics, demographers, people who are really into data and connected with their community, and community members,” and would prohibit past elected officials from serving.

“Redistricting from start to finish needs to be protected from partisan operatives,” he said.

Over the next month, the charter commission will hold another round of public hearings across the city. The commission’s proposals are due by September 7.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Mayoral Charter Revision Commission Hears Expert Testimony on Civic Engagement and Redistricting Thu, 21 Jun 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Bill Would Transform New Yorkers’ Digital Interaction with Government Kallos Lander Mark-Viverito Council

Council Member Ben Kallos, right, has a new API bill (photo: William Alatriste)

City Council Member Ben Kallos is always looking for ways to make government more efficient and accessible through technology and the use of data. To that end, Kallos, himself a programmer, introduced a bill last week that would require information generated or received by city agencies to be available through an interface that allows easy use of the data and, ideally, a streamlined experience for New Yorkers interacting with their city government.

This would occur through an Application Program Interface (API); essentially, Kallos explained, “a language dictionary so a piece of software can communicate with another software.” Such a system would facilitate the automatic availability of city data through mobile- or web-based applications, opening up opportunities for the private sector to create programs that interact with city government. A program that easily transmits permit and license applications, for example.

“As we modernize government and we’re building new systems,” Kallos said in a phone interview, “those systems would need to have an API.”

Kallos cited as an example the city’s 311 helpline system, and the constant complaints from users that either they have to wait too long on the phone when calling 311 or that the mobile application is often slow and inefficient. An API, Kallos insisted, would allow third parties to build tools to submit 311 requests directly, without users having to repeatedly provide their names, addresses, and other information. “Any time we’re requesting information from the public or giving out custom-tailored information, we could do this through an API.”

“We all love being able to order food or a car at the press of a button,” he added, emphasizing that applications would make it easier to access government services more efficiently.  “Government can work that way too.”

If the proposal is passed, city agencies would have to implement APIs for their services and require contracted vendors to do the same. The bill would also mandate that the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) create a central repository with information on how to utilize APIs and a list of applications that interact with city APIs.

Applied across the city government, Kallos’ proposal would have broad implications for efficiency. It would streamline, for instance, applications for permits and licenses, much like tax preparation software helps people file their taxes easily.

Kallos hopes that his bill will also encourage third-party developers to jump into the fray and help users navigate city government. Asked if this could raise potential privacy concerns, Kallos expressed confidence that protections currently in place in city law would prevent any misuse. Just as countless Americans use tax preparation software, he said, any applications would allow people to submit and request information securely. He also welcomed public input through the legislative process to address any of these concerns. “That’s why we go through the public process,” he said.

Ultimately, Kallos envisions a city where technology cuts through red tape at every level. His ideal city would be completely “seamless,” where, if a resident’s power goes out, a single tap of a button on their phone would notify their energy provider and the relevant city agencies to fix the issue. “I’d like to replace all the bureaucracy with an API that would allow the private sector to innovate and put the government in your pocket.”

What’s more, Kallos, a first-term Democrat from Manhattan who chairs the Council’s government operations committee, expects that the bill will lead to cost and labor savings at city agencies by streamlining information flow and data entry, as well as generate income by promoting growth in the private sector.

“This legislation, as I read it, mandates that the city produce a machine-readable infrastructure around data that isn’t contained in the city’s Open Data Portal,” said Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology group. “That means that anything that is designed and maintained as an information service needs to have some type of programmatic access. And that’s great. That’s something that in general should be a practice.”

Hidalgo emphasized that government systems designed to share public information on a webpage should be programmatically accessible to the general public. He’s “cautiously optimistic” about the bill’s implementation. “In an ideal world, this bill would force the city to move to API-driven services,” he said. “And that’s applaudable, but the concerns that exist are security and privacy.”

He insisted that proper APIs have “a lot of thought that goes into them,” and that the city doesn’t always have the necessary resources to allocate to the effort. He said the rollout, which the bill mandates would be a year after its passage, should be handled by “a municipal consultant,” along the lines of 18F, a digital services office within the federal General Services Administration, or the United States Digital Service, a White House initiative, to ensure that “these systems are adopted in a way that is forward thinking.”

And although he said that legislation is not always the answer, Hidalgo looks forward to weighing in through the public process. “The development of such a system requires iterative conversation and design,” he said. “I would love to see in this legislation accountability for user engagement, and reports in regards to usage of APIs. It’s a good start to discuss an API-driven government.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Bill Would Transform New Yorkers’ Digital Interaction with Government Mon, 15 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Praise, and Recommendations, for City's Open Data Progress vacca tech open data cropped

Council Member Vacca (photo: @JamesVacca13)

There are two years to go before the deadline set by the city’s 2012 Open Data Law, which requires city agencies identify and publish all their citywide aggregated public data online. At a Wednesday afternoon oversight hearing of the City Council’s Committee on Technology, open data and civic technology advocates offered praise for the city’s progress thus far and recommendations for the city to meet its goals.

Open data is considered a vital transparency tool that allows citizens and government to evaluate and improve city services. New York City, considered a trendsetter in this area, committed to this goal in 2012 by passing a law that would make data easily accessible and consumable by the public. Through the city’s Open Data Portal, New Yorkers can access a range of information such as the number and type of complaints made to the 311 helpline, real-time traffic speed data, or where the City Council spends discretionary funding.

The Open Data Portal hosts nearly 1,600 datasets across all city agencies.

Last year, in the annual progress report on the city’s implementation of the Open Data Law,  Mayor Bill de Blasio released a new open data plan, “Open Data For All,” which aims at making the Open Data Portal more user-friendly, making it easily visualized for those with little experience in data or programming, and pushes for more citywide engagement.

Following that, the City Council passed a package of legislation to enhance the existing law and improve access to information through the city’s Open Data Portal maintained by the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT).

This was the first year which saw some of the new amendments put into effect. These new laws, seven in total, deal with retention of data, building data dictionaries, standardizing geospatial data, establishing timelines for agencies to respond to public requests on the Open Data Portal, mandating timely updates for public data, requiring publication of datasets obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests, and examination and verification of agency compliance.

“One of the things we’ve been able to do is build an open data ecosystem,” testified Dr. Amen Ra Mashariki, director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA), who is also the chief analytics officer and chief open platform officer for the city. He said the new laws help “anchor the administration’s commitment to transparency and equitable uses of technology around open data.”

Ra Mashariki stressed that MODA’s focus has been on user research, feedback mechanisms, and technical standards, and he laid out the city’s progress on each while teasing updates that will be released later this year. These updates include a first-of-its-kind analysis with NYU Center for Urban Science and Progress on “data poverty” -- the lack of access or representation of communities in city data; a study with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on opportunities for community based organizations to utilize open data; and a new centralized mechanism for receiving feedback, with quicker responses and tracking.

Concluding his testimony, Ra Mashariki cited an important example of how open data can be useful to the public. He referenced Ben Wellington, a data scientist who runs the blog “I Quant NY.” Wellington examined parking violation data and found that the NYPD had been ticketing legally parked cars for millions of dollars. He took his analysis to the NYPD who confirmed it and took measures to prevent it in the future.

Testifying on behalf of DoITT, Albert Webber cited the city’s key accomplishments over the last year -- traffic on the Open Data Portal increased to more than 5 million hits; 116 datasets were made public, bringing the total to nearly 1,600; 100 new data sets are now automatically updated; and more than 40 unscheduled data sets were identified and published. He also said DoITT would soon fill three of four new dedicated positions for the Open Data Portal.

At the hearing, government transparency advocates and civic technology professionals wholeheartedly endorsed the city’s efforts, and also made a few recommendations for improvements.

John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany and co-chair of the New York City Transparency Working Group, emphasised “that City Council stay actively and energetically involved in pushing, cajoling and cheerleading for open data in this city,” without which the program can not be a success.

The Transparency Working Group is co-chaired by Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group, and its members include Common Cause New York and Citizens Union. “Open data and the idea behind open data is working in New York City,” Kaehny said, also stressing that city agencies will eventually save tens of millions of dollars by using open data.

He said the de Blasio administration has “started upping their game” in implementing open data but in his testimony Kaehny pointed out a number of outstanding issues. These included the need for a better process for remedying public complaints about data quality, more standardization of data, clearer agency criteria for publishing data, and publishing high-demand data sets, such as NYPD crime statistics or the Department of Transportation’s street paving schedule.

He also suggested other needed improvements to the overall system and the law. Currently, one of the new laws requires publishing the number of datasets requested under FOIL -- a method often used by advocates and journalists to examine city information. These, he said, should also be named. He said the city should also consider creating a data issues tracker to monitor errors in datasets reported by the public, similar to a tool used by the federal government.

Council Member James Vacca, chair of the technology committee, was generally satisfied with the administration although he raised a few concerns at the hearing. He was especially pleased that one dataset to be added soon will be of snowplow locations, updated every hour, which would give people quick answers during snowstorms when the city usually struggles to clear roads across the five boroughs. He did question the administration on whether certain agencies were fully complying with the law, particularly the New York Police Department.

Vacca also wondered later whether open data use was being taught to local community groups and Community Boards, which would then have a stronger ability to advocate for local issues. “I know communities that always say ‘We want more police, we want more traffic agents...but they don’t have the documentation, they don’t do the research,” he said. “Here it’s at their fingertips, here we can do the research.”

DoITT’s Webber said that agencies “have made strides across the board,” and that the NYPD had added a number of datasets to its website and the Open Data Portal links to them. “Overall I wouldn’t say any particular agency is not committed to doing what they’re supposed to do,” Webber said, adding that he would later follow up with the Council Member with specific NYPD datasets.

For civic technology advocates, the major concern is not only the availability of data but its usefulness to the public.

Noel Hidalgo, executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology and open government group, made this clear even as he praised the administration and the Council for their push on open data. “The seven pieces of legislation that were passed are taking us in the right direction and have really strengthened the city’s open data practice,” he said. But Hidalgo pointed out that one big weakness, echoing Vacca’s words, is figuring out how to teach community groups to access, understand and utilize open data. “Frustratingly, there are zero best practices out there on how to teach the city’s open data to itself,” Hidalgo said.

Hidalgo added that under the provisions of the new laws passed last year, the data dictionaries need to contain tutorials and that there needs to be easier access to bulk data downloading. Finally, he stressed the need for the city to create an open data legacy that can last through successive administrations and City Council classes, with a unit dedicated to leadership, standardization, development, and education.

There was also consensus at the hearing among advocates that the very infrastructure of the Open Data Portal could be modernized. Joel Natividad, director of open data at OpenGov Inc., said the portal, currently run by a contracted vendor, needs to be an open source platform that can “support innovation and experimentation” by universities, non-governmental organizations and the private sector. This will allow the city to “tap the genius of the crowd,” he said. Kaehn, of Reinvent Albany, agreed, saying the current platform has severe limitations.

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

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Praise, and Recommendations, for City's Open Data Progress Wed, 21 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000
Inside 311, the City’s ‘Front Door’ to Government 311 HQ pic 2013

311 in 2013 (photo via the Mayor's Office on Flickr)

The vast LED board updated in real-time: 36,529 calls since midnight, it said for a late-afternoon moment one August day. Perched in a high-ceilinged room in Lower Manhattan, the board tallied work done and signified work to be done, with numbers jumping every few seconds as the New York City 311 call center buzzed with the steady hum of staff members speaking into headsets.

“Hello, and thank you for calling NYC 311.”

“Did you have a question about bus schedules today?”

“One moment.”

It was a relatively slow day for the nation’s largest municipal contact center, Call Center Director Joe Morrisroe explained. And, at about 4 p.m. it was not “peak hours,” which are generally around 11 a.m., Morrisroe said. At NYC 311, which serves as a “front door” to city government for New Yorkers, an average of 58,000 calls come in daily, comprised of anything from noise complaints to inquiries about city agencies to requests for new trees to be planted.

“In 2015 we handled over 20 million phone calls,” Morrisroe said. “If you take all the other municipal contact centers in the U.S., they didn’t total 20 million phone calls. And every major city has one.”

In addition to being a national outlier by volume, NYC 311 is currently fulfilling unprecedented functions even within the city. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg frequently referred to 311 as a resource for New Yorkers to suggest improvements for their city, Mayor Bill de Blasio has added to that purpose, indicating that callers can - and should - seek information about new initiatives like the city’s municipal identification program, IDNYC, minimum wage requirements, and more.

Since it was founded by the Bloomberg administration in 2003, 311’s operation has expanded steadily with the addition of 311 Online in 2009; text message and social media support in 2011; and a mobile app that launched in 2013. In 2015, 311 fielded 13 million online requests and over one million requests through its app, a figure Morrisroe says is growing rapidly.

The agency, funded through the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, was allocated over $41 million in the new Fiscal Year 2017 adopted budget, which took effect July 1. NYC 311 staffs approximately 400 employees annually, which has remained constant for the past few years, according to the 2016 Preliminary Mayor’s Management Report.

“Historically, New York City wasn’t the first 311. When they first started in New York, they took cues from other cities,” said Morrisroe, who has been the call center director since 2008. “But right now we’re the benchmark, and as a matter of fact, other cities come to us.”

According to Morrisroe, 311 fits into de Blasio’s agenda of equity and financial mobility. In recent months, de Blasio has used press conferences to urge New Yorkers to call 311 for food stamps support, tenant concerns, and immigration services. De Blasio has repeatedly said New Yorkers should use 311 to find the nearest IDNYC center, reiterating this recommendation during an August 18 appearance on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. So far, 311 has already received over 500,000 total requests for information about IDNYC, a relatively new initiative, according to Morrisroe.

The three most common causes that lead New Yorkers to call 311 are noise complaints, complaints about inadequate heating in buildings, and requests for bus and subway information. But call center employees must be knowledgeable about each of the city’s agencies, and go through a 10-week training process at the start of employment.

“The customer doesn’t need to know how to ask their question or who to ask about,” Morrisroe said. “They just get to say, ‘Here’s what I need, can you help me?’”

When a customer first calls 311, they hear an automated message reminding them to hang up and dial 911 for emergencies. The automated message also lists whether alternate-side parking is in effect that day or the following day, which filters out a large share of callers, according to Morrisroe.

The average wait time to speak to a 311 responder is 14 seconds. In the call center, employees taking calls navigate two desktop computer monitors on which they record complaints, search for information on city agencies, and read results back to customers in real time. That afternoon, close to 100 employees monitored phones at the call center.

If callers have a complaint rather than a request for information, 311 operators will file it with the pertinent city agency and provide the customer with a tracking number. From there, the city agency is responsible for fixing the issue, and customers have the option of checking back with 311 on the progress of their complaint via phone, the 311 app, or the 311 website.

The agency also has a Twitter account, which responds to a constant flow of questions but does not file complaints. On one recent evening alone, the account directed a user to free city-funded sewing classes, listed steps to register a nonprofit, and fielded a complaint from a disgruntled library patron, who wrote, “just saw 3yr old boy pee n street cause rosedale library told him bathroom was broken then said it's 4staff only #smh.”

“Sorry to hear this. You can file a complaint about a NYC branch library/employee online,” 311 replied, along with a link to the appropriate complaint form.

This process is essentially non-stop. Complaints and requests flow into 311 24-hours-a-day, and the agency acts as a communication network between and among city agencies. Traffic is the heaviest on weekday mornings during the winter, when customers ask about travel conditions and government office closings, and on afternoons in the summer, when storm damage and heat concerns drive requests.

The number of employees in the call center reaches 400 during these peak hours and dwindles to about 20 late at night. The call center office also has a glassed-in manager’s office, which can act as a center of communications for the city during a crisis—two white phones are affixed to the wall; one a direct line to the city’s emergency management system, the other a direct line to the NYPD.

Although city crises are rare, Morrisroe said NYC 311 has played a crucial role during them. Throughout the duration of Hurricane Sandy, 311 employees slept in the call center on cots to provide overnight service. On the call center’s busiest day, during a 2011 blizzard, employees from other city agencies came in as backup to help field nearly 300,000 calls that came into the center in one 24-hour period.

“If there’s bad weather conditions and everything’s closed, that does not apply to 311 employees,” Morrisroe said. “We’re always here, we’re always open, and our employees are legendary for trudging through the snow if they need to in order to work.”

Despite this streamlined system, miscommunications still occur. While 311 is well-equipped to handle day-to-day complaints, there appears to be a lack of clarity for New Yorkers about when an issue should be directed to 311 or directly to another agency. It has also become clear that city agencies don’t take complaints or red flags and enter them into the 311 system.

Notably, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito exemplified these issues in August when she tweeted a picture of a broken crosswalk sign to the NYC Department of Transportation and asked them to “take care of it.” A few hours later, the DOT account responded that crews had been notified, and added, “For fastest response, pedestrian or traffic signal issues should always be reported immediately by calling 311.”

Mark-Viverito responded with a tweet of incredulity, starting with “I'm sorry...whaaaat???” and told Gotham Gazette in a recent interview that the incident has made her consider a Council oversight hearing on how the city takes complaints. It is indeed a common refrain from city agencies on social media: call 311 with your issue.

While most agencies outside of NYC 311 do not have a mechanism for filing complaints or connecting customers to 311 directly, Morrisroe said 311 has an Agency Relations department that works to exchange information about trends and public awareness with other city agencies. Other departments do not, however, directly transfer complaints to 311—instead, those with complaints are usually instructed to call 311 directly.

This is an imperfect model, according to Noel Hidalgo, the executive director of BetaNYC, a civic technology movement. Following the Twitter exchange between Mark-Viverito and DOT, Hidalgo expressed frustration that Council members, community boards, and other agencies—like DOT—must refer customers to 311 to file complaints, rather than being able to quickly file the complaints themselves.

“How can we have a 21st century government when #govtech uses 20th century workflow?” Hidalgo tweeted, adding, “Let us not pave a cow path. Let us use service design & open source tech to build better.”

Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, had a similar thought after her experience. “I think the other issue here was, and that’s where we’ll probably do a hearing, is: how are complaints being logged from different city agencies,” Mark-Viverito told Gotham Gazette. “People use social media very aggressively these days. Other cities have been able to really incorporate that as a way of logging complaints. It seems like we may have some deficiencies in that.”

Despite an occasional run-in and perhaps the need for a rethinking of the overall system, the city’s ability to provide information and address complaints has been met with consistently high approval from customers - something likely to be touted at a Council hearing, if there is one. A 2015 customer satisfaction survey conducted by CFI Group, Inc., a private consultant, found that 85 percent of callers were satisfied with NYC 311, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Morrisroe lauds his staff as the reason for such high ratings.

“It’s the dedication of the women and men who work here are,” Morrisroe said. “They live in New York City and they know the person on the other end of the phone is their neighbor, their fellow New Yorker. And I think that does something, I think that allows them to give better quality service than if you’re in the for-profit world.”

by Aaron Holmes, Gotham Gazette

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Inside 311, the City’s ‘Front Door’ to Government Mon, 12 Sep 2016 04:00:00 +0000