PPF Blog

Proposal for NYC Office of Civic Engagement

Today, NYC Council member Brad Lander of Brooklyn – a longtime leader in open, responsive and ethical city government – took to the Daily News to propose an NYC Office of Civic Engagement.

Here’s the legislation page on NYC Councilmatic, for tracking & commenting. CM Lander’s entire piece is worth reading & sharing:

“What if we offered, or even expected, every young person in the five boroughs to give a year of civic service, for a not-for-profit community group, a settlement house, the Parks Department, or a government agency — military service would qualify, too — and then enabled them to go to CUNY for free, or to get real help finding a good first job?”

… CM Lander’s proposal sounds perfectly on-mission to me, well-observed and timely. Here are some takeaways for how progressive city initiatives are different, with the help of non-profit tech and community groups, heading into 2018:

First: in civic engagement projects, between various stakeholders (community groups, non-profits, civic tech startups, academic institutions, city Council offices) – it is widely realized that the last-mentioned player, NYC government entities, are the most long-term sustained in funding and impact. (Note, not necessarily the highest-capitalized at any given time, or largest-impact on a specific cause, or tech-and-data innovative, but the NYC Council should hopefully be operating for a very long time in this incredible city we call home.)

If some of #opengov tech’s mission is planned obsolescence, moving constituents’ expectations of transparency and accountability into the culture of official operations, then this looks to be a leading example of how NGO’s can collaborate with city government. We’re currently fortunate to be in a very productive era of coordination with NYC government, from NYC Council leadership’s “Council 2.0” initiative, to Mayor de Blasio’s executive branch work on city voter education and turnout, to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s longtime work on real-world-impactful open data and open community boards and more. Local non-profits such as our NYC Councilmatic can offer tools and resources to a future City Engagement office. Over the past ten years, our non-profit PPF has worked with partners to bring features of contemporary-tech-UX and open data to governments at the federal (OpenCongress), state (AskThem) and now city levels (Councilmatic) – help us continue our work on culture-building for wide accessibility.

Second: non-profit projects such as NYC Councilmatic make it possible, for the first time, to help advance this program collaboratively and even make it a funded, real program going forward from NYC. Using our free tools, NYC residents can track it over email as it gathers co-sponsors and moves through Committee hearings, then share its official full text with their communities and post comments that will be delivered to participating NYC Council offices (at least 10 of 51 city-wide, as of this writing). For-profit civic tech startups aren’t incentivized to provide these free participation features for the public benefit, because the expected potential for monetization is too low, but it’s this kind of open infrastructure for local engagement that will build volunteering and local election turnout.

NYC Councilmatic makes it easier to find this legislative Intro from search, using keywords “Office of Civic Engagement” – track its progress for free using our daily email digests. No other non- or for-profit project provides this advanced-search-tracking service to NYC residents – you can even get an email alert for the term “civic engagement” when used in NYC Council legislation. NYC residents can post comments with enthusiasm for the bill, even if they can’t make it to time-consuming official hearings held during the workday. This was the public-benefit need identified as a low-hanging engagement opportunity by expert Catherine Bracy during her 2015 PdF talk in NYC:

Third: NYC Councilmatic is unique in making #opendata available for all NYC Council legislation, in the Open Civic Data community standard. This means that more cities can easily access the official legislative data in machine-readable format and track its updates – more than simply copying-pasting the full bill text into a new word-processing .doc, it makes possible networked policymaking and best-practice-sharing between, for example, Local Progress members. This data can also be shared with local political media (such as Gotham Gazette) and even social media services (such as FB’s Town Hall) that seek “civic features” to scale awareness of community events.

Cities: bring open data and participation tools to your city Council, with the open-source Councilmatic app. PPF seeks charitable funding support to advance these impactful initiatives with community boards and neighborhood groups, both in NYC and with Code For America Brigades nationwide, where work is already ongoing from volunteer civic hackers with local credibility. To the perennial question of observers, “What’s the return on investment for open-source?”, this dynamic of outside-government leveraging inside-government – for increased trust in the political process – is a key answer.

In short, it’s a productive era for progressive government innovation in NYC, and supporters of a healthier & more-active U.S. city democracy can take advantage by building impactful programs.

Get in touch for a more detailed proposal for 2018 plans and unique features for city engagement, email us: info at councilmatic dooot org.

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