Candidates Start Coding City Hall 2.0

City Hall should let you video-chat with downtown workers and license your dog (like Justin Elicker’s pooch Captain, pictured) via home computer. City Hall should come to your neighborhood so you can file forms there. City Hall should enable you to file the forms through your cell phone, the way you already pay bills.

Those three visions of 21st century city government came from three people who want to run it.

Elicker, one of five Democrats running for mayor, included his dog-licensing scenario as part of a new three-prong “21st century” plan for city government. (He also provided the video of him teaching Captain how to beg.)

Elicker was also presenting an alternative to the idea of mini-City Halls operated out of neighborhood substations, floated by another Democratic candidate Toni Harp. Harp Friday said Elicker’s plan, unlike hers, would exacerbate the “digital divide” between wealthier and poorer New Haveners.

Meanwhile, candidate Henry Fernandez praised Elicker for suggesting bringing city government into the modern technological age—then offered a different take on how best to connect citizens to the government given the direction of digital gizmo consumption. Candidate Kermit Carolina said he agrees with the search for new ways to reach out to citizens in new ways; he said he would review “best practices” from around the country if he becomes mayor.

Thomas MacMillan Photo

Email LOL

The plan Elicker (pictured at a recent soup kitchen visit) released has three parts: relying more on text-messaging; modernizing city government’s information technology (IT) systems; and enabling citizens to interact with government workers more easily from either home computers or library computer centers. (Read the plan here.)

In the plan, Elicker, one of five Democrats running for mayor, promised to “fix our indecipherable municipal email system.” “Who would ever guess that our current mayor’s email address is” he asked.

But more importantly, he said, he would rely on shorter, more immediate text-messaging to people’s cell phones more than on longer emails to get emergency information out quickly to citizens. People get to texts sooner than to emails, he noted.

“A surprisingly large percentage of New Haveners do not have regular internet access,” Elicker said. “This is especially true of historically-disadvantaged groups—the poor, immigrants, ethnic minorities, and so on. Yet these are exactly the groups that City Hall needs to communicate with most frequently, as they are often the groups most reliant on government services. Fortunately, most citizens who fall into these groups do own cell phones, and can usually receive texts for free.”

“Using technology to make City Hall more accessible is certainly an important issue to raise,” said candidate Fernandez, who praised Elicker for raising it. “Opening the conversation about using these tools and using them in new ways and giving new ways for the public to engage with City Hall is a good thing. We need to have a more sophisticated understanding of all of these tools and use them for their unique nature.”

Paul Bass PhotoFernandez (pictured in Fair Haven receiving the endorsements of Latino activists) also said he can see value in adding text-messaging as another outlet for communicating with constituents. But he cautioned that text-messaging has limited potential, based on his experience building a 200,000-member text-messaging list for a progressive political organization.

“People have to opt in to this,” Fernandez observed. “You have to build the list based on people actually wanting messages being delivered to their cell phone and give you their cell phone number. It’s a much harder list to build.” City Hall will never reach as many people with text-messaging as it will with, say, email or Facebook.

Also, he said, text-messaging prevents two-way communication. Facebook or similar networks offer a better opportunity both to send out and to receive and share crucial information, even during emergencies, Fernandez argued.

“Not only do we want you to know there is flooding coming. We want you to let us know where you’re seeing flooding. It’s a two-way conversation,” Fernandez said. “In addition to me hearing it, the rest of the public also hears it.”

Real, Or Virtual, City Halls?

In terms of modernizing government IT, Elicker vowed in his new plan to “locate a customer service desk right inside the front door of City Hall”; come up with a clearer protocol for email addresses; and redesign the city website to make it easier for people to find basic information and answers to questions. “At present, some of the website’s drop-down menus are so long that certain browsers don’t allow visitors to access the pages they need. At the very least, New Haveners shouldn’t have to install a new piece of software just to visit the voter registration page—especially when the menu is so long only because it includes entries both for ‘Registrar of Voters’ and ‘Voter Registration.’”

Lastly, Elicker called for “remote service stations—but not “mini-City Halls.” His opponent Harp proposed recently (at this event) that government set up “mini-City Halls,” perhaps at neighborhood police substations, where people could pay tickets and get questions answered. Elicker argued that staffing such centers, or remodeling them to make room for more services, would cost too much. ” We certainly cannot afford to hire an entire city bureaucracy for each neighborhood. Substations should remain focused on public safety—that’s what they are for, and we can’t afford to make them anything else.”

Elicker proposed an alternative: enabling people to submit more paperwork online and video-chat with workers in existing government offices.

He gave an example: His wife Natalie had to go downtown to submit paperwork for a license and rabies-vaccination certificate for Captain, the Elicker family pooch. (Captain’s a “mystery mix,” an adoptee who may be part boxer and part hound, according to the candidate.)

Elicker described how the process would work under his proposal: “If Natalie had a question, clicking a button would queue her up to video-chat, face-to-face, with a city employee in the department responsible for dog registration. A few days later, Captain’s license would come in the mail. And for those residents without a computer, I would set up remote service stations in libraries or just inside the front door of public schools in our neighborhoods. These stations would have computers, a scanner, and a printer all linked up to City Hall. Such remote computer stations would provide more functionality at far less cost to overburdened taxpayers that adding more mini City Halls would.”

Thomas MacMillan Photo“It’s great for people who already don’t have barriers [to accessing government]. It doesn’t really help people who don’t,” Harp responded Friday.

Harp (pictured above at a Dixwell neighborhood event where she floated the mini-City Hall idea) agreed with Elicker that many people in poorer neighborhoods lack computers. She disagreed about how readily they can make use of library computer terminals in large numbers to conduct government business. She spoke of how, on her way to work in the mornings at the Hill Health Center, she sees lines of people waiting to get into the Wilson Branch Library to use the computers.

“The digital divide is real,” Harp said. “Libraries help. They’re really not as as accessible as one would think.” She sits on the board of a Science Park-based not-for-profit, Concepts for Adaptive Learning, that retrofits used computers for poorer families and trains parents how to use them. That helps too, she said. “That’s still not enough.”

And while lots of people have cell phones, they don’t always have enough money to pay for expensive data plans, Harp said. That’s why she’d like to see City Hall outposts—especially in neighborhoods like Newhallville—where people can walk or park their cars easily and interact with government.

For his part, Fernandez cited a Pew Research Center study showing that people of color have led the trend toward using mobile phones, rather than personal computers, to access the Internet. Lots of people of all backgrounds already bank and pay bills online through their phones, he noted. He called for making it easier for citizens to file government forms and pay bills that way, tasks often simpler than routine transactions already conducted in the private sector.

“If people don’t have to go either to City Hall to find parking, or to a neighborhood institution, but instead are able to do everything they need to do via cell phone, we don’t even need to have that debate,” Fernandez argued.

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posted by: Noteworthy on July 8, 2013  9:07am

Digital Notes:

1. Just because people do not have computers at home, or a data plan on their phone which is growing less likely by the day, does not mean you need to grossly expand the hard costs by opening mini-city halls. People can use the library computers or do it the old fashioned way - mail it or visit in person on Church Street.

2. From her car as she drives by, Harp has no idea how many people are waiting for computers. Maybe they don’t have air conditioning.

3. The digital divide may be real but it is not bridged by bricks and mortar and more expense.

4. Other cities our size have allowed citizens to interact with government online for decades. Their demographics are a mirror image of ours. From ordering garbage cans to filing building permits, lodging a police complaint for internal affairs or seeing the result of that investigation - it’s all online.

5. A “digital divide” is just an excuse to stay old school - and follow DeStefano’s practice of more buildings, more staff, more expense - and the same old result.

posted by: Gretchen Pritchard on July 8, 2013  10:41am

Oh for heaven’s sake; you renew your dog license by mail.  (We just did, so I’m not making this up.) You don’t have to go downtown.  Some things are a solution in search of a problem.  Video chat?  Why not a plain old phone call?  Geez.

The problem with most bureaucracy is getting hold of a live human being who is knowledgeable enough to answer your particular question or at least to refer you to the right person who can.  Well-trained, intelligent, sympathetic staff who are easily reachable without an electronic run-around of punching menu buttons, who know how to listen and figure out what you need, and then know how to help you get it, should be the gold standard here, not adding more and different layers of electronic interface.

posted by: Amityboy on July 8, 2013  11:12am

Great story, Paul. I’d really like to hear how Harp intends to pay for her mini city halls, even if they would be better than Elicker’s public school service stations (which I rather doubt).

posted by: HhE on July 8, 2013  11:16am

Amityboy, magic money, just like Henry’s plan for youth centers that would not cost the tax payer a dime.

posted by: Amityboy on July 8, 2013  11:22am

Gretchen, that may be true, but I think the point also applies to other bureaucratic hassles which you do have to go downtown for right now.

I also think the video chat idea is much less important than the printer-scanner setup, which would make things much more efficient. Snail mail is the worst.

posted by: Wikus van de Merwe on July 8, 2013  11:33am

I prefer to execute transactions online, however when I went to pay my car tax this year the fee for using the online service was $5 per transaction.  I decided to just mail checks, which I’m sure costs the city $5 in overhead just to process.

Computers are nearly free these days.  Businesses replace fully depreciated machines regularly and even schools have stopped taking them.  They usually get bundled up and sent for recycling.  A small city program could refurbish and distribute free computers on an as needed basis pretty easily and cheaply; it would certainly be cheaper than maintaining a staff to process physical paperwork.  You could even use high school kids to do the refurbishing so they get some hands on skills in IT.

And even if increased electronic serviceability is only more available for people who have money, that still frees some time and parking spaces downtown for the less-well-off individuals who would still have to make the trek to a bricks and mortar office.

posted by: HhE on July 8, 2013  12:42pm

Well said, Quinn Meadows.

When I worked a Southington High School, the students there rebuilt and refurbished donated computers for the school as part of the advanced electronic course.

posted by: Indigo on July 8, 2013  12:51pm

Thank you, Justin, for keeping your focus on solutions to the priority problems that you have heard expressed from residents for years—rather than propping up whichever issue seems politically expedient at the moment (a la keno).

Getting business done at city hall is a byzantine maze. I have wasted days upon days of my life shuttling between various offices to resolve simple issues. Totally unnecessary and eminently solvable. I am all for multiple avenues of access, in order to enable the widest number of people to access services and get their business done in the way that is most efficient and convenient FOR THEM. More options=more people solving their problems and transacting business=more efficient government. A no brainer.

I fail to see how adding online options would exacerbate the digital divide, as Harp alleges. If anything, making City Hall access points available in schools etc (a GREAT idea), should help to bridge that divide. Toni: if you’re so concerned about the digital divide, what’s your big idea to address it?

posted by: HewNaven on July 8, 2013  1:05pm

Quinn Meadows,

That is the most concrete, sensible plan I’ve heard from anyone regarding future mitigation of the “digital divide.” Not to mention it would prevent the computers from ending up in the waste stream!

Why aren’t you running for Mayor?!

posted by: robn on July 8, 2013  2:35pm

Hill Health Center opens at 8:30 a.m. The Wilson Library branch opens at 10:00 a.m.
Is Sen. Harp telling us that people are waiting in line for up to two hours for access to library computers??? I suggest that this level of enthusiasm for access to anything is rarely seen in this city.

posted by: anonymous on July 8, 2013  3:09pm

Senator Harp is throwing out one terrible and out of touch plan after another. First it was the Nemerson Dream: 10,000 new apartment units on the “waterfront,” in a flood zone next to a heavy oil facility, backing up to DeStefano’s new 10-story-high flyover off-ramp. Really great plan.

Then it was voting for the crack cocaine of gambling, to raise money for the State at the expense of the poorest, justifying her vote by saying that it doesn’t matter what form gambling takes if people are already addicted.

Then at the debate, saying that we already spend too much on early childhood education, after Gary said it should be a priority.

Now it’s miniature permit offices in a place that already has more government workers and tax exempt property per person than just about any other town on the planet.  Of course, at the rate that the State is taking our transportation money and using it for other purposes, it is becoming more and more difficult for people to get to City Hall.

What’s next on Harp’s list after cutting transit, not investing in preschoolers, and building useless boondoggles? Saving money by turning the street lights off at night?

posted by: HhE on July 8, 2013  4:27pm

Well robn, there is Peppi’s Apizza.  People will line up for that.  (Now there is an idea, open a mini city hall there, and people can wait for two things at once.)

Well said, anonymous.  The other day, while canvassing for Justin Elicker, I met a woman who was “learning towards Toni Harp, because of her experience.”  I’m getting the feeling it is the new code word for Big D Democrat or such. 

Increased staffing costs, inappropriate development, keno… Can someone name one good idea she has put forward?  I must have missed it. 

Politics ought to be about The Good.  It has become about The Deal.

posted by: streever on July 9, 2013  1:27pm

I have encountered incredible, mind-numbing problems trying to do anything at City Hall.

Elicker knows about the incredible challenges that residents face (odd hours that you can do business, inability to accept payment beside certified cheques, in-person forms that could easily be filled out at your neighborhood library on a computer if you don’t have access to one at home, etc).

His proposal—to get better computer access in libraries and more electronic ways of doing business with city hall—is the smart and cost-effective form of Harp’s “mini city halls”.

Does anyone know what it would cost to operate 5 mini city-halls across the city that offer services in every department? Anyone? Bueller?

Using the existing buildings—libraries—and a smart training program for the librarians could easily net us “double duty” from an existing asset if we set up city hall to accept more forms and payments online.

Elicker has proposed an intelligent re-use of an existing asset, which can be better funded if this proposal goes through, as it will accomplish more goals.

The libraries are currently suffering. Giving them additional use makes them more relevant, more used, and more likely to prosper—and will improve the situation for everyone in New Haven.