A More Transparent City, with a Page for Every Capital Project

This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on November 2, 2017

Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what I’ve done at projects.votedevin.com, where you can now find a web page for every single capital project, organized by agency and sortable by project’s cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports – but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st – 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $20 million this year? Why isn’t the press reporting the over $120 million in renovations planned for the Brooklyn Detention Center (search BKDC)? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

Who has the power to make this information public? Certainly the Mayor’s Office, but it’s easy to see why it doesn’t. The Mayor is responsible for directing the people and agencies leading  these projects, so creating more avenues for additional scrutiny, which could easily lead to bad press, is hardly a priority. Fortunately, New York City’s Public Advocate, which is an entirely independent office, has some statutory jurisdiction within the Capital Budget process and could force the city to better document the capital budget.

Section 216 of the New York City Charter states, “Upon the adoption of any such amendment by the council, it shall be certified by the mayor, the public advocate and the city clerk, and the capital budget shall be amended accordingly.” While I’m not a lawyer, it sounds like the Public Advocate could threaten to stop certifying amendments to the budget until the city releases a database of all capital projects with additional information to help New Yorkers better understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

That’s precisely what the Public Advocate should do, and as a candidate running for that position, I commit to making that demand when elected. It’s up to you, the public and the media, to ask other Public Advocate candidates how they’d use their oversight power over the Capital Budget. Will they also pledge to demand “A Page for Every Project”?

Until the city offers a page for every capital project, I’ll will keep updating projects.votedevin.com so New Yorkers can learn more about what the city does with our money. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

image of the city’s capital commitment plan vs. our website

Political Structure in 3D

Our society spends a lot of time talking about democracy but rarely defines it.  While the term comes from the Greek words “demos” (people) and “kratos” (power,) many political scientists have abandoned it due to widespread misuse and instead use the term “polyarchy”, which means ‘many rule.’  It was convincingly inserted into the academic lexicon by the the political scientist Robert Dahl in his 1971 book “Polyarchy.”

dahl2d

Dahl proposes that all political systems can be places on a graph with two axis: competitiveness and inclusiveness.  Competitiveness asks: who can compete for political office.  Inclusiveness asks: who can decide who wins the competition.  We can apply the concept of polyarchy by asking these questions of different political systems: for example: the America and Israel.

America has a two-party system which makes it less competitive than Israel, which has dozens of political parties in parliament, enabling more people with more diverse perspectives to compete.  This makes Israel a more “competitive” state than American. But, since Israel doesn’t allow Palestinians to vote, America is a more inclusive state.

Dahl’s definition of polyarchy is good, but it’s not complete.  His theory doesn’t account for the most powerful force in politics:  information distribution.  Those who control access to information have tremendous political power because they can amplify certain elements within society and silence others.

Including “openness” (defined as transparency and accessibility) into the model improved it because it allows us to address the issue of information distribution.  In a state with positive openness, information flows between government and society in an efficient manner that facilitates public participation in political processes.  In a state with negative transparency, misinformation flows between government and society, enabling a secretive ruling class to exploit the general public.

By adding openness to Dalh’s polyarchy graph as the third dimension,  one naturally wonders what the relationship between competitiveness and inclusiveness could be. Can we graph this relationship? After looking at dozens of possibilities, z=x^3 + y^3 looks compelling.  In this graph, a positively transparent society appears in the top left area of the plane while a negatively transparent society appears in the bottom right area one.

 

 

Let’s see what this relationship reveals:

  • A society that is inclusive but not competitive has a negative openness. This makes sense because, in this scenario, a lot of people are supporting a poor selection of leaders, making the construction of false realities essential to convince people the situation is acceptable.  Ex. the Soviet Union had a vast propaganda machine while the one-party political made competition virtually nonexistent.
  • A society that is competitive but not inclusive is highly transparent. This makes sense because each individual who can vote has an unusually high influence on their political system, so it makes sense for them to invest time and resources in information that makes selecting good leadership easier.  Ex. 19th century America had a very active, highly decentralized news and information distribution sector (newspapers) geared towards properties white men of voting age.
  • A society that is both competitive and inclusive would be extremely open. This makes sense because so many citizens would have both the ability select from a diverse set of potential candidates, which would prompt the public to engage in mass participation in the political process. Ex. More open societies statistically have higher levels of voter turnout.)

We’re in the early stages of “participatory” politics as new tools (ex. OpenCongress) are enabling the public to increase transparency and accessibility of information to levels impossible before the advent of networked technologies.  A tremendous increase in government transparency seems to be imminent.  We could watch this happen in real time if we turned our 3D graph into a 4D animation, allowing us to track different societies paths towards more participatory political processes over time.

We need a common, quantitative understanding of political imperative so our governments can create purposeful foreign policies that encourage competitiveness, inclusiveness and openness.  A simple way for national governments to advance a foreign policy based on quantitative principle would be to raise tariffs with closed nations and lower tariffs with closed ones.

Trust People, Not Words

If there is one thing I learned growing up the child of ‘branding professionals’ it’s that words can’t be trusted because clever people are willing to twist their meaning to meet their client’s demands.  I believe this simple fact is responsible for much confusion throughout human history.

There is a defense against the manipulation of meaning and it’s simply to stop trusting words and start trusting people.  This is a defense the Eastern masters have been practicing for thousands of years.

Before discounting this approach to life as impractical, ask yourself this question: how can people lie without using words?  All people can do is act.  Your only task is interpreting that action.  This becomes easier as you develop preferences.

I prefer people with the following qualities:

  1. Honest – Openness – Transparency: Are you willing to teach me what you do best?
  2. Dignity – Integrity – Localism: Are you acting voluntarily and with authenticity?
  3. Passion – Energy – Love: Do you feel like you’re exactly where you’re meant to be?

A person or brand can use whatever lovely language they like, but if their actions aren’t embodying these qualities, they’re wasting my time and their own.

Life is too short to be afraid of yourself.