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.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org? 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 email@example.com?” 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.”
Fernandez (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.”
“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.