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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Governing? There's an app for that

The de Blasio administration has launched a new

The de Blasio administration has launched a new city website, NYC Digital Playbook. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s “NYC Digital Playbook” is a blueprint for how city agencies should use technology to be more efficient and effective.

This simple goal is fairly buried in a blizzard of buzz words and jargon.

To paraphrase the city's announcement: The evolving, iterative blueprint was developed with human-centered research and design methods; stakeholders are encouraged to to develop and share data and platforms; and be transparent about information collected.

The somewhat dizzying array of strategies and instructions is “an internal vision and strategy document that we will immediately begin to implement across government,” de Blasio announced yesterday in a post on Medium.

So beneath all that, what does the Playbook mean for you?
What can tech do for you?
According to de Blasio's post, the idea for the Playbook grew out of his universal pre-k initiative, one of the mayor’s signature achievements.

In the first year of universal pre-k there was no simple way for parents to apply online. The solution was the administration's “Pre-K Finder” tool, which helps parents find the most convenient pre-k and apply.

While the resulting website isn’t exactly Amazon one-click shopping, it attempts to streamline a necessary city service, and make it somewhat more accessible on a mobile device, which technology experts say can be the main point of entry to the Internet for low-income New Yorkers. The tool is one of four "case studies" included in the Digital Playbook. (It doesn't, of course, make sure those parents get the pre-k they want, given high demand.)

There’s a long ignoble list of government stumbles with technology, from to the Bloomberg administration's disastrous rollout of the employee timekeeping system CityTime.

Viewed generously, the Playbook hopes to nudge moribund city bureaucracies towards the shiny principles of the digital age — speedily developing projects out in the open and adjusting them as you go along without waiting for perfection. The digital tools would be available in many languages (the Playbook itself is available in 13). Utility and ease would be the goals, even if it meant slashing through old boundaries between different fiefdoms of city services.

At the moment these are just shiny principles, but in the next few weeks the city will be testing an online prototype that will streamline how New Yorkers accomplish three popular tasks — paying a parking ticket, finding a job and getting an NYC ID, according to Jessica Singleton, the city’s chief digital officer.

Digital government
The Playbook is part of a larger movement to use technology to facilitate better government. In Washington, the federal government’s “18F” group tries to attack some government IT issues with the zeal of a startup.

In the city, there’s plenty to do, from making permit applications accessible online to tackling potholes with digital smarts.

There is “a lot of information that individual citizens have that often stays with them,” says Arun Sundararajan, professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University and author of “The Sharing Economy.”

That information, from potholes to trash pick-up, can be funneled to local government. Other easy uses of a digital mentality, says Sundararajan, could include digitally-enabled ridesharing that would allow people to share NYC taxis a la UberPool, saving time and reducing road-hours.

The idea of “organizing around needs” of constituents would make government even more responsive, and the customers (citizens) even more happy.

Of course, government shouldn’t be exactly like a business, since it should think bigger than customer satisfaction. The true digital revolution would enlarge the possibilities of democracy, increasing engagement in city functions, not just streamlining them: grow the city’s participatory budgeting program, for example, which allows voters to have a say in what projects get funded. It could include an even further commitment to open data, or increased input in city council hearings and mayoral decisions.

That might be more “R&D” than “bottom-line”; more difficult than buzzy pronouncements, and harder to accomplish. But then, who said playbooks have to be all play?

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