Local Government Needs are More Than Technological

Jan 13, 2019

Look, I know you’re ready to talk about data.1 About APIs. About open standards, tech policy, RFCs, PDFs, and all the other juicy stuff that goes into the technology part of public infrastructure. Heck, I’m ready to talk about it too, but first, I have one more place to take you:

Upper West Side, NYC: You are in the dingy, fluorescently lit basement of a community senior center. It was perhaps a school at one point, the type of place where motivational posters thrive and multiply, and despite the pair of belly-up cockroaches in the hallway and the age of the paint on the walls, that inspirational vibe and thrum of purpose still linger.

You arrived ten minutes late and the November meeting of Community Board 7 is just getting underway. Fifty or so people wait in the audience, aging from early 20s to early 90s, mostly white but including almost a dozen people of color. Many are browsing through the paper agendas and leaflets about housing rights workshops and neighborhood events they collected from the table at the entrance. The twenty-six board members currently present sit at tables at the front and sides of the room, while someone you can’t see calls roll. That person finally calls the meeting to order at 6:33pm, and you sit up taller in your straight-backed chair, eager to witness local government in action.

Okay, okay: by now you’ve probably realized we’re talking about me here. I was eager to witness local government in action that Wednesday evening, and to learn what community participation looks like in New York City. I had moved to the Upper West Side (UWS) from Colorado less than a year before, and while I’d gotten city-sponsored flyers from my landlord with beautiful illustrations on what and how to recycle, I had received zero information on my new neighborhood’s civic governance.

How did I find out about Community Boards and their role in my community? Through civic tech, of course. That summer I had attended the NYC School of Data, an event hosted by BetaNYC, the city’s major civic tech organization, where I listened to an impassioned talk about technology by Manhattan’s Borough President, met amazing people working on open data projects in the city, and learned about community boards.2 So, I looked up mine and finally a meeting happened on a night I could attend.

If you want to understand the riveting nature of municipal agency meetings – or you care about issues affecting your community – you should go experience it first-hand.3 If you’re having trouble finding your local council or board meeting info, reach out and I’ll do my best to help. If you want a taste of what you might encounter at these events, here are my three major takeaways from the November 7, 2018, meeting, including my favorite quotes from the night:

1. Context is everything and, for some reason, nothing.

“The Civic Engagement Commission is a ‘1984’ concept.”
– Community member during the Community Session

The agenda for the meeting had been posted a few days in advance, but the items either have zero context or a single sentence description. If you suspected that any of these items have been discussed in a previous meeting, or you wanted to understand better what those items entail, you were responsible for either digging through previous meeting minutes to find more information (and there are no links to the relevant sections) or searching the internet for more explanation. Understandably, there was no time during the meeting to offer more context behind each and every item, but there was also no help that I could see for community members to more easily discover that context on their own.

The conundrum is especially true for the Community Session, the first period in the meeting when community members are invited to speak about issues affecting them. That session spanned almost an hour, yet none of that time really included summaries or basic context for the issues covered. Luckily, the day before was Election Day and I’d done my research on my ballot and local issues before I came, so I wasn’t as lost as I would’ve been otherwise. I knew, for example, what the speaker was referring to in the above quote: the creation of a Civic Engagement Commission to promote civic participation had just been approved by NYC voters. I don’t agree that this initiative is something out of an Orwellian dystopia, but it is a gem of a quote, isn’t it?

I’d love to see more context and cross-referencing between agendas, meeting minutes, and other documents from the community board so that at future meetings (and outside of meetings), I can better follow and understand long-running issues or topics new to me.4 I know this is more logistically difficult, but it would also be great to have some mechanism to share context about updates brought to the meetings. Unfortunately a lot of people who give updates also leave afterwards, and there aren’t any breaks, making it difficult to ask for more details from these folks directly.

2. Community and Community Board members alike don’t fully understand meeting procedures.

“Are we voting for swapping the two items or moving item 12 to the second position and shifting everything down?”
“We should do the latter!”
“But the former motion was proposed first!”
“All in favor, raise your hands.”
“But what are we voting on?”
– My memory of some of the procedural mishaps during the meeting

I wish I’d captured the exact dialogue, but you get the gist. At this point, I couldn’t tell if board member were raising their hands to vote or throwing up their hands in exasperation. The most heated parts of the night were fueled by a lack of understanding or clear adherence to the process. I did Model UN in high school, so I’m familiar with parliamentary procedure, but I still can’t tell you if this board meeting was following (or attempting to follow) that set of rules or another. I also haven’t been able to find any information about meeting procedures on my Community Board’s website.

Another tense moment came when the board was about to decide to deny a business’s request to change their license to include outdoor seating and music, because the business owner hadn’t attended the “pre-meeting,” thirty minutes before the full board meeting. The business owner was in the audience by this point and made himself known; apparently, he had not known about the “pre-meeting.” It seemed like an honest mistake, especially if you saw how the agenda was laid out. The pre-meeting info and agenda was in the same document as the main agenda, but it was at the end of the agenda, not at the beginning as the prefix “pre” would suggest. The board ultimately denied the business owner’s request, after an argument in which some of the board members sided with the business. I understand both sides here, and I can’t help but think the confusion could’ve been mitigated by better information design and education for both the public and the board about how the meetings are run and why.

Like with links, I’m generally a proponent of well-established, well-designed protocols, but we can’t have rules of engagement and not explain them to anyone. When we do explain, the information should be clear, accessible (including multilingual), and discoverable.

3. “Our priorities should reflect our values.”

– Sheldon Fine, board member

I don’t have a better section heading than that quote itself, which was one of the most inspiring and validating moments of the night. It came during the discussion on 2020 fiscal priorities, and the proposed priority list originally had repairing the UWS kayak dock as the second highest priority. Many board members felt this placement didn’t represent the entire community’s needs, and it became clear that the board members, including the chairperson, didn’t feel they had had the opportunity to review and give input on the suggested priorities before that night.

After some heated debate, much of which was over procedure (see above) rather than the topic itself, the board finally voted to move the kayak dock repair item down in priorities and move the refurbishment of the Frederick Douglass playground up in the list. Listening to this self-admittedly mostly white community board not only address disparities within their own community, including acknowledging the need to advocate for the residents who are don’t attend these meetings and are not appointed to the board, but also take action on those disparities, was awesome and worth every minute of those 3 hours I spent in that basement.5

What’s next

I wanted to talk about this recent experience because it illustrates how so much of the work to be done isn’t technological. It’s about community education and outreach, information design, and clear and understandable processes. It’s about focusing on community values and, ultimately, people. In future posts I’m going to dive more into open data and standards, tech policy, digital infrastructure, and civic-focused software – and while those things are important, they’re only one layer of the stack.

1 Then again, I know nothing about you, internet.
2 BetaNYC published a report about the community boards’ technology needs. I encourage you to check it out and see what might be helpful for your own local governments. But also, notice how so much of what's identified isn't about advanced technology. Needs include lots of training, faster WiFi at meeting locations, adequate temperature control in offices (!), basic email software, and modern computer setups.
3 Seriously, attending one can be like watching a mashup of the Great British Bake-off, C-Span, and your high school yearbook committee meeting. It makes you feel good, gives you insight into the civic process and your community, and reminds you that we’re really all overgrown children trying to figure out how to play nice with each other.
4 In other words, I want more links. Those of you who know me know that I love links. Link all the things, please.
5 Full board meeting minutes are available here.