BetaNYC’s Testimony to NYC Charter Revision Commission Civic Engagement Hearing – June 2018

To: NYC Charter Revision Commission
From: Noel Hidalgo, Executive Director of BetaNYC
Subject: Civic Engagement and Independent Redistricting

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Where we are now:

The 1989 Charter revision created COPIC, the Commission on Public Information and Communication. Its ideals were virtuous:

  • educate the public about the availability and potential usefulness of city produced or maintained information and assist the public in obtaining access to such information
  • Review policies regarding public access to government information
  • assist city agencies in facilitating public access to their meetings, transcripts, records, and other information, and monitor compliance
  • on the request of any member of the public, elected official, or city agency, render advisory opinions
  • make recommendations regarding: (i) the application of new communications technology to improve public access to city produced or maintained information; (ii) the distribution of information to the public about the purposes and locations of the city’s service delivery facilities; and (iii) programming for the municipal cable channels and broadcasting system.

Nearly 30 years later, there are many shortcomings of COPIC.

  • Resources have been scarce. There is no dedicated staff nor budget to run this commission.
  • This commission has hardly met the Charter mandated requirement to meet once per year.
  • There is no mention of this commission on the Public Advocate’s website. Its twitter account was last active 24 March 2016.
  • Several of COPIC”s Charter mandated responsibilities are superseded by the City’s open data law, Mayoral offices, and advances in technology.
  • Lastly, “73% of New Yorkers earning less than $10K a year own a smartphone. This means every single municipal service needs to be accessible and usable regardless of internet device. Cell phones, tablets, and LinkNYC kiosks use mobile browsers and municipal interfaces need to be redesigned for the 21st century.

Over the last ten years, the charter, laws, and rules have brought about various participatory digital government practices. Many of them are under resourced, poorly advertised and promoted.

Where we should be:

We live in the 21st Century. Every other sector is creating efficiencies through design, data, and technology. The future of New York City’s government services are through design, technology, and data. These tools make government more agile, accessible, and can operate with greater efficiencies.

To reiterate my first three issues:

  • Government should be digital.
  • Digital and data literacy are core elements to a 21st century democracy.
  • We need active civic participation beyond the ballot box.

How to foster civic engagement in the 21st century:

First and foremost, we need to place value on engagement. We need agencies to remove their fear, uncertainty and doubt by building up constructive design practices. I’m not talking about how things look, I’m talking about how things work. Agencies need to invest in design practices and open source tools. We need software code and algorithms to be as open and accountable as the people we elected and the people they hire to run these programs.

This is a long term investment that must begin now. If I’m wearing my corporate suit, I am talking about our business processes and workflows — they need to be agile, efficient and responsive. Fundamentally, we need agencies to adequately resource service design teams that meld policy and technology. NYC’s Civic Service Design tools and tactics is the first place to start.

Second, we need municipal hearing & events that are accessible in person and online. This means, physical venues that are accessible, have high speed internet & projectors, that proceedings are resourced to be live streamed / recorded, and content is accessible regardless if you are in the room or not.

Moonshots are fantastic ideas for future endeavors, but we need to realize that websites and their content still matters! We need the City’s websites to break from archaic tools, and move to open sources tools that enable greater security and flexibility.

NYC Planning Labs is an excellent example of how to work efficiently, securely, and in the open. The next big step starts with investments in better community board websites, improved municipal data, and literacy classes on how to use these tools. Community information should be accurate, in our pocket, and we should know when events are happening, what is discussed, and who is leading the discussion.

Lastly, New Yorkers do need a central touch-point on how they can engage with their municipal government. NYC 311 and NYC Service do great jobs at connecting residents with volunteer opportunities, but what about our concerns, opinions, and petitions?

In 2013, BetaNYC called for a “We the People” for New York City. This tool would amend Charter Section 1043 and provide residents an online and offline tool to petition the Mayor, Agencies, the Public Advocate, Comptroller, Council Speaker, and all Council Members. Residents would have the ability to provide feedback on how to improve municipal operations. This tool must exist in conjunction with participatory budgeting and within a framework of tools, authority, and resources.

Advice on for the Charter Revision Commission:

We can use digital communications tools for more than collecting petition signatures and raising money. We can actually make a new kind of self-government flourish, one that blends old democratic forms like petitioning, voting and facilitated deliberation with new digital forms like dynamic surveys, real-time open question platforms, 360-degree virtual reality views of face-to-face public engagement encounters, and radical transparency to engender trust.” – Micah Sifry in Civicist on the vTaiwan process

I highly recommend a New York City’s charter revision process to re-think the following charter components:

  • The Commission on Public Information and Communication
  • Petitioning provisions within chapter 45, the City’s Administrative Procedure Act

Council Member Lander’s Office of Civic Engagement seems like a logical extension of COPIC for the 21st century. The Office of Civic Engagement should be the stewarts of public information and participation. To that end, this office must have the authority to listen, convene, advise, and act. Additionally, this office needs resources and independence to work across elected officials, policies, and work with nonprofits that provide municipal services.

In addition to “promoting social services offered by city agencies or not-for-profit organizations, facilitating community service, volunteer, and student internship opportunities, and establishing programs that enable direct public input and participation in the repurposing of public space and infrastructure for collaborative community use.”

The Office of Civic Engagement should be the steward of digital civic engagement in New York City. In addition to what the Council Member has outlined, the office should facilitate three fundamental resources.

OneParticipation Officers — these people would convene and foster online/offline best practices around petitioning and digital feedback. This would ensure that agencies and community boards have civic engagement mentors that know and understand 21st century tools. Additionally, participation officers can see where ideas need to flow into the participatory budgeting process or into a rules/regulatory review process. Within the vTawian process, these participation officers focus on finding solutions.

TwoParticipatory Budgeting — this office should be the steward of our city’s participatory budgeting practice. Our municipal participatory budgeting practice should start to administer 1% of the capital budget and 1% of the discretionary budget. Again, participation officers would help foster community needs, and find alignment with municipal resources to address these needs.

Three — Service Design Studio / Policy & Technology Lab — To ensure that there that all of this works together, policy, design and technology need to work in conjunction. To ensure that this office has adequate capacity for cross municipal innovation, it will need to have a modern service design studio and technology team. Building on top of international best practices that are embodied in NYC Opportunity’s Service Design Studio and NYC Planning Labs, the Office of Civic Engagement should have the resources to bring in the world’s best design and technical talent to improve our municipal practices.