I presented the following in Nashville, Tennessee on May 6th, 2019
This article was originally published on Gotham Gazette on December 8, 2018
New York City and its neighbors have a problem. Unlike Los Angeles, Chicago, and the other major U.S. metropolitan areas that fit neatly within the standard city, county, and state political boundaries, our metropolitan area of over 22 million people does not. We’re spread out over four states and 26 counties, five of which are called “boroughs” and were integrated together to create our city over 100 years ago.
All these complex boundaries and jurisdictions have resulted in a metropolitan area that has been “divided and conquered” by the politics of patronage, enabling networks of political insiders and special interest groups to dominate New York City’s electorate, advancing their own interests at the expense of ours. This has resulted in our area’s city and state governments passing higher taxes and providing lower quality services, more corruption, and less infrastructure investment than comparable cities and regions around the world.
We deserve better.
People living in the New York Metropolitan Area (NYMETA) might live over 100 miles apart, but we still work at the same jobs and in the same industries, go to many of the same universities and hospitals, and root for (or at least have strong opinions about) the same sports teams. We often travel the same roads, ride the same train lines, use the same airports, drink from some of the same aquifers, eat the same foods, and get rained on from the same clouds.
With so much shared environment and infrastructure, you’d think that there would be powerful entities helping us align our shared interests, coordinate our actions, and deliver us results at a regional scale. Unfortunately, that isn’t happening.
There is no single entity or group responsible for systematic coordination within our metropolitan area. Instead, we have a hodgepodge of coordinating bodies spanning different sectors, areas and functions. Sometimes those bodies are prestigious nonprofit entities with relatively meager budgets like the Regional Planning Association, other times they’re multi-state authorities with huge budgets run by political elites like the Port Authority, and often it’s informal coordinating bodies that do little more than network individuals and hold annual meetings, and most commonly, there is just no coordination taking place at all.
What types of opportunities could a better coordinated region be generating? Here are some examples.
We’re experiencing a housing crunch in New York City, and there are a myriad of housing development opportunities in the Hudson River Valley and tons of New Yorkers who’d happily commute from a high rise in Poughkeepsie to a job in Midtown Manhattan if the commute could be done in under two hours and for a reasonable price. A coordinating body — let’s call it NYMETA — would be responsible for bringing all the players together: Metro North Railroad, town governments, real estate developers, and New York City to streamline regulatory processes, align incentives, and get deals made and buildings built.
Another example: New York City schools are feeding over a million kids a day, our regions small farms are looking for reliable consumers of their products, and the school system is looking for locally sourced healthy food, but their corporate contractors are trucking in frozen produce from hundreds of miles away. The city is also building programs that expose youth to nature, rural communities, and agricultural-based industries. NYMETA could work with rural counties to help them aggregate and organize food supply, and work with New York City to aggregate and organize school demand, and then build the relationships needed to get our kids eating healthy local food and empowering our regional farmers at the same time.
Beyond managing classic coordination challenges like road and rail linkages, we also need an entity that can represent our region on the national and global stages, where major cities and their regions are playing an increasingly important role in global affairs. Many leaders, including major CEOs, politicians, philanthropists, philosophers, and futurists have predicted that, over the course of the 21st century, nation-states will cede more and more political power to cities and metro-regional governments, and those governments will network together to coordinate policies at global scale.
Evidence of the rise this “municipalist” power structure is everywhere, from the United Nations HABITAT conference that brought cities together through the U.N. structure for the very first time in 2016, to various networks of city governments like the League of Cities and Networks of Cities, and through outcomes like the C40 process to tackle global warming. Places like Paris and Los Angeles have, through the luck of sensible political boundaries, entities that can, to some extent, represent their metro region at these events. NYMETA could perform this function for us, enabling our region to leverage our massive population and other resources when negotiating agreements and deals with other major global regions, not to mention what could be done within the U.S.
An important step towards any political organizing project is collecting and displaying the most basic information about geography and demographics. Who would fall within a metro regional government? What would its boundaries be? The new Metro Region Explorer website from New York City’s premier digital service organization, NYC Planning Labs, answers these questions with an open source software tool that mashes a bunch of datasets about our metro region together to provide data-driven stories about demographics, employment, housing, and other baseline statistics needed to understand our region.
Unlike many GIS tools with lots of confusing check boxes that you need to click off and on to get useful information, Metro Region Explorer does the work for you by giving you some stories you can toggle through and menu items that reveal the most important data. Click around the site and insights will likely pop into your head as they did mine: New Jersey is building tons of housing while western Nassau and eastern Westchester counties aren’t. Lots of jobs are moving out of Connecticut and into New York City and Long Island. Central Jersey has a huge immigrant population. Wow.
Metro Explorer isn’t just a cool mapping tool for planning nerds. As Gotham Gazette reported in its article “With New Data, City Takes First Step Toward Regional Planning,” its development indicates that the city is getting serious about improving our region’s capacity to understand itself and coordinate between and among jurisdictions.
As the largest government with the most capacity in the region, it’s up to New York City to begin the process of developing a more integrated regional coordinating body. But building a dedicated office to do this work is not enough. We need an entity accountable to the 22 million people, 900 municipalities, and 26 counties of NYMETA. Developing such an entity will produce tangible benefits in the short term and create a whole new set of opportunities over the long term.
It’s time to start envisioning NYMETA.
Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.
Photo: NYC City Planning
This article was originally published on Gotham Gazette on November 30, 2018
Smartphones are transforming transit in cities all over the world, and city governments are struggling to figure out how to best manage the change. If the world was looking to New York City’s recently enacted legislation affecting for-hire vehicle companies, then there will be disappointment given that, once again, the city’s political establishment decided to impose an outdated regulatory regime on innovative firms, making life harder for thousands of new taxi drivers while raising the price of rides for millions of New Yorkers and visitors to the city. The law, enacted this summer, caps the number of e-hail licenses in the city for a year and also enables the city to impose regulations on the type of compensation structures offered to drivers.
Who benefits? Politicians argue that it’s existing drivers who received their taxi registration before the one-year moratorium on new licenses was implemented, but if you think they’re the primary beneficiary then there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I’d like to sell you.
In reality, politicians got behind this legislation because they want to send a message to Silicon Valley, the startup community and their financiers: If you want access to the 8-plus million person New York City market, you’ll have to go through the local political class first, and that will cost you: in form of taxes, campaign contributions, lobbyists, and more.
True to form, the left and right have staked out their normal positions on this issue. For the left, it’s all about protecting the wages and rights of the less-than-10,000 existing drivers, even if that means higher costs for all New Yorkers and more obstacles for people who want to earn money by driving a car. For the right, it’s about protecting businesses and drivers from regulatory controls that will raise prices for consumers, even if that means facilitating the big business takeover of an industry that has been a source of wealth for independent individuals and small businesses in New York City for a century.
Like many issues involving new technology, we need to look beyond the left-wing or right-wing way to manage these technologies, and instead look to the “open source way.”
What do we want? Safe, convenient rides, with low prices for riders, high income for drivers, positive impacts on traffic, and data protection for everyone involved.
The best way to achieve these ends isn’t complex licensure regimes, quotas on new taxis, or putting more surveillance technologies in our cars or on our streets. Instead, New York City should do for its local cab industry the same thing successful industries do for themselves: standardize how information is formatted and exchanged between systems. This makes it possible for information from one app, like Uber, to be read, understood and interacted with by another app, like Lyft or Google Maps.
Making ride-hailing data more standardized and interoperable will have a number of benefits.
First, it aggregates supply and demand, which increases competition in the taxi market leading to lower prices for riders and more business for drivers.
Second, it gives riders and drivers more options, allowing them to use an app with the mission of benefiting New Yorkers instead of benefiting investors in giant tech corporations.
Third, it mitigates a threat many people fear: that Uber, Lyft, and other venture-backed ride-sharing apps are subsidizing their own cab rides to undermine the legacy taxi industry, and then once the legacy industry is dead, they’ll jack up prices. That strategy won’t work if New York City is committed to maintaining a system of its own.
The idea of establishing a “ride sharing” (or “e-hail”) standard isn’t new. It has been discussed and proposed by a number of people in New York City’s tech community for years, including Ben Kallos, a tech-aware City Council member who proposed it in a 2014 bill, and by Chris Whong, now the lead developer of NYC Planning Labs, who proposed it in a 2013 blog post.
Critics of this approach have claimed that the city doesn’t have the capacity to develop its own e-hailing systems, but that simply isn’t true. Generic apps similar to Lyft and Uber exist in hundreds of markets around the world. Even local cab companies in New York City have developed their own apps.
Creating an e-hailing system for New York City would likely involve a three-step process: (a) develop a “ride sharing data standards” body that would bring riders, drivers, city agencies, and app developers together to create specifications for how all taxi-hailing information should be formatted and exchanged; (b) develop and operate a basic, open source e-hail smartphone application that would use these data standards to, like any one of the dozens of ride-hailing apps available around the world, allow New Yorkers to request rides and drivers to fulfill those requests; and (c) create a city-administered server that not only processes information from the current city taxi app but also allows other ride-sharing apps to exchange their information with the server.
This approach would give Uber, Lyft, and other popular apps a choice: they can plug in to the city’s e-hail exchange server and share their rider and driver information with other apps – or go it alone and face the consequences of having less access to rider and driver information than their competitors.
This approach leverages the city’s considerable influence to produce a number of benefits:
By following established best practices from government digital service organizations and open source communities, this system could be produced quickly and inexpensively. And by open-sourcing an app and inviting other cities to use and modify the New York City code, we could join a small but growing community of cities around the world developing and sharing open source software (such as Madrid’s Consul project) that enables them to provide government services faster, better, cheaper, and in a more ethical manner.
The original meaning of “regulation” wasn’t the levying of taxes and fees to penalize innovation — it was to “make regular” through the implementation of transparent business practices and the adoption of standard operating procedures. That is precisely what New York City should be doing, and it can do so by modelling best practice behavior that challenges Silicon Valley (and its New York-based counterparts) to produce better products, for lower prices, in more responsible ways, with more respect for the rights of their users.
Any municipality can throw rocks at Silicon Valley by imposing taxes and creating obstacles to market entry, but few have the capacity and scale to challenge Silicon Valley by creating innovative products. New York City has that ability. Let’s use it.
Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.
Photo: Ed Reed/Mayor’s Office
This article originally appeared on Gotham Gazette on June 29th, 2018.
New Yorkers are constantly complaining about the two-party political system. Democratic domination of New York City politics means Democratic primary elections are more impactful than general elections. Republican domination of the national political system means New Yorkers’ progressive cultural values are rarely reflected in national politics. At the state level, Democrats and Republicans seem to have a stable alliance built on maintaining one of the most corrupt state governments in the country.
Clearly the two largest political parties aren’t working for us, so what about the third: the Libertarian Party, which is has over 500,000 members nationwide? The Libertarian Party is more than twice the size of the fourth largest party, the Green Party, and more than 10 times the size the Democratic Socialists of America. Around 20% of Americans self-identify as “libertarian.”
The strength of the National Libertarian Party and the popularity of libertarian sentiment is not reflected in New York politics, where the Libertarian Party has failed to achieve official party status, which requires getting 50,000 votes for its gubernatorial candidate. While it’s likely that Larry Sharpe’s gubernatorial campaign will earn the New York Libertarian Party official status this election cycle, the size of party in New York City will still be miniscule, at around 100 dues-paying members (which is approximately .01 percent of self-identified libertarians).
The lack of Libertarians in New York City presents New Yorkers with a massive opportunity: to build a new local political party that can have instant national reach, national operational infrastructure, and a rapidly growing base of support in increasingly relevant western battleground states. This party wouldn’t and shouldn’t look like Libertarian parties in suburban and rural communities but something new: culturally progressive with a can-do, data-driven, startup-style, open-source attitude towards solving our city’s biggest problems. If the rural Libertarians think we’re not “real” Libertarians, then they can move to New York City and defeat us in county elections.
I don’t say this as an outsider, but as the chair of the Brooklyn Libertarian Party and the 2017 Libertarian candidate for New York City Public Advocate who earned more votes than any other Libertarian candidate in that city election cycle.
My plan for a relevant Libertarian Party in New York City rests on three concepts: social tolerance, open and participatory governance, and municipalism.
Each of these concepts is consistent with National Libertarian Party ideology and with the interests of urban voters. If we can fuse the two together, we can create a new political coalition to challenge the authoritarianism coming out of Washington, D.C. and the corruption pervading our two party system.
Many people think that libertarian culture and big city culture are at odds because libertarianism is so often framed as a philosophy rooted in rugged self-reliance and individual autonomy, but that’s mostly myth. In reality, libertarians are much more interested in well-functioning markets and how complex, interdependent systems produce so much abundance. If you don’t believe me, read “I, Pencil.”
New Yorkers know better than anyone that people can successfully organize themselves through market activity because that’s how our lives are possible. We rely on complex systems for everything: food, water, transit, employment. Yes, that means we also rely on government-produced systems, and that’s fine because the “big city libertarianism” I’m arguing for respects regional autonomy. More on that later.
The single, unifying, core principle of libertarianism is that individuals should be free to do as they please as long as they don’t harm others. Sometimes this is called the non-aggression principle. Other times it’s referred to as just plain old “tolerance and acceptance.” New Yorkers embody this spirit more than any other place I’ve been in America. We love diversity and it’s myriad of benefits. We also can tolerate crowded, sweaty trains filled with strangers from all over world, and we’re constantly teaching visitors and new residents to do the same. That’s what becoming a New Yorker is all about: learning tolerance for (and even love of) diverse lifestyles, races, genders, ethnicities, cultures, philosophies, religions, et al, — because if we don’t have it our cities simply couldn’t function.
Everyone is tolerant when it’s popular, but people are surprised to learn that, at a national level, the Libertarian Party has walked the walk: nominating the first female presidential candidate in the 1970s, supporting gay rights in the 1980s, leading the fight against the drug war and mass incarceration in the 1990s, and opposing the war in Iraq in the 2000s, Obama’s drone wars in the 2010s, and Trump immigration policies today. The New York City Libertarians can and should lead on issues of mass incarceration and police militarization, and offer something no political party has yet — a powerful solution: ending the drug war.
Open and Participatory Governance
Our political and governmental operating systems are outdated, and need to be redeveloped for the era of the internet. Both the Democrats and the Republicans are too invested in the old system to be able to produce any substantial reforms. If we look around globally, we’ll find that some of the most aggressive and successful reforms came from the Occupy-style movements that spread throughout the world around 2010-2014. While Occupy was framed as a leftist movement in the United States, in other places it was much more obviously an anti-corruption movement that used anarchist organizing principles. In many places alumni of these movements have taken power.
Examples include Madrid, where movement activists won elections and embedded themselves in the city government and implemented an ambitious e-governance system that enables the public to control the legislature through a direct-democracy style app. Another example is in Taiwan, where activists took over the national parliament for a month during the “Sunflower” movement, won concessions from the government, and have implemented a nationwide participatory democracy program that is the envy of the world.
What these movements have shown is that there are solutions to the question of democracy: but those solutions will destroy the politics of patronage, where politicians acquire resources from taxpayers and distribute them to their constituents, and instead require a politics of participation, where politicians use technology to convene stakeholders, determine public sentiment and then perform the will of the people, even if that means suppressing their own opinions and interests. That’s a different job description for which many existing politicians would not apply.
The other major trend in internet-enabled government is the spread of “digital services organizations” and their uniquely effective method of bureaucracy reform. By using open source technologies, lean development principles, service design methodologies and other “startup-style” tools, DSOs are implementing technical systems that will, ultimately, radically transform how government is administered: reduce the need for certain types of skill sets, automating processes and making services faster, better, and cheaper.
The political establishment and agency bureaucracies have been extremely hesitant to resource these DSOs because their work is shifting power from closed bureaucracies to open systems. As such, neither establishment party can give DSOs the support they deserve. But Libertarians can! We want government to operate faster, better and cheaper — and if that means government workers lose their jobs in the process, that’s fine. Give them a universal basic income and let’s move on.
With Trump as president, many city residents have awoken to the fact that there are many layers of government — and these various layers don’t always agree or collaborate with each other. They’re realizing that they’d much prefer a structure where the federal government has less power and municipal governments have a lot more. This “municipalism” is entirely consistent with libertarianism for two reasons. First, it localizes power and decreases the number of people each politician represents, making politicians and government more accountable. Second, it reduces the size and scope of the federal government, which is something every Libertarian supports.
By advocating at the national level for more local control, we align ourselves with a political program that spans the nation: urban and rural, progressive and conservative. Local control shouldn’t simply mean more policies are determined at local levels (although this is obviously a part of it), but should result in restructuring the tax system to shift the destination of tax revenue from the federal government to state and local governments.
I call this “flipping the pyramid.”
Currently, the federal government gets most of the tax money, then states, and lastly municipalities. This status quo should be flipped on its head so that the federal government receives the least amount of tax revenue, allowing states and local governments to gain significantly more.
In circumstances where rural and suburban communities don’t want or need big local governments, they will pay significantly lower taxes. Meanwhile, people in cities who do want lots of government services can increase their local taxes to pay for those services, without increasing the total amount of taxes they pay. Don’t want to pay taxes? Leave the city! This act of voting with one’s feet is the oldest type of democracy, and the idea that people should actually get up and move from places that don’t share their values to places that do should be embraced (and maybe even subsidized).
We’ve seen what happens when we try a “one-size-fits all” model of federal policy: Washington, D.C. has been gridlocked for over a decade, the culture war is nastier than ever, Donald Trump is president, and it seems only the mega-rich are getting what they want from the political process. Instead, let’s allow for the “regional differentiation” that will naturally arise when localities have more power to determine their overall tax rate.
Maybe some cities will become hotbeds of socialist policy, and some rural communities will devolve into total anarchy. While that might sound drastic or raise the spectre of places becoming truly inhospitable to certain types of people in ways that they currently are not, we should recognize that (a) this process is already well underway for middle and upper class people who can afford to move, (b) our nation’s structural resistance to regional differentiation has led to our current political climate and (c) this approach will encourage and incentivize politically-minded people to shift their attention from the national political circus and get involved in local and state politics.
I am not advocating for the federal government to stop performing any of its constitutionally mandated or critical functions such as upholding the civil and human rights of U.S. citizens, investigating corruption of state and local officials, regulating interstate commerce, helping with disaster relief, and organizing national defense.
Rather, I’m advocating for a visioning process where we redraw the appropriate scope of local, city, regional, state, and federal powers.
While working to implement this new vision, we should also be investing our time and resources into upgrading the capacities of local, state, and regional governments so they’ll be able to absorb new responsibilities. Anyone involved with local politics knows that it can be just as corrupt as national politics, if not more so. That’s why our strategy must also include a movement to transform local governments into open, transparent and participatory institutions that good people want to lead. We can have that battle on our home turf instead of D.C.
New Yorkers, and urban residents throughout the country, deserve a culturally progressive, entrepreneur-friendly, open-source political party, and the Libertarian Party can be just that. There are no Libertarians in New York City interested in stopping us. I’m the chair of the Brooklyn Party, we’re collaborating actively with the Manhattan Party, and this weekend we’ll be taking our plan to the Libertarian National Convention in New Orleans to find allies and develop a more nuanced understanding of potential opposition to our plans.
In politics, opportunities can come from where you least expect them: maybe that’s the Libertarian Party in America’s big cities. Come find out by attending our monthly meeting in Brooklyn and the meetings of other chapters around the city.
Devin Balkind is the chair of the Brooklyn Libertarian Party. He was the 2017 Libertarian candidate for Public Advocate. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.
Photo: Benjamin Kanter/Mayoral Photo Office
This article originally appeared on Gotham Gazette on September 25, 2018
New York City is the world’s most popular city. We do lots of things exceptionally well here. But one thing we don’t do well is democracy. Voting rates within New York City are at historic lows, and corruption in Albany is at historic highs. Our politics is, in a word, an embarrassment.
But it’s not New Yorkers’ fault.
One of the oldest rules in politics is “divide and conquer,” and anyone who looks at a map of New York City and its metropolitan area, and compares it to a similarly scoped map of other big American cities, will see that we have been divided and conquered by our political boundaries. I’m not talking about gerrymandered districts, which are some of the most obscene in the nation, but something even more fundamental: the borders of our counties and our states.
The United States system of government is designed to operate with four layers: federal, state, county, and locality (city/town/village). This system works relatively well for most cities. Los Angeles, as a city, sits entirely within Los Angeles county, and it’s metropolitan area of 18 million people sits entirely within 4 counties, all of which are located in California. Chicago, as a city, like L.A., sits entirely within a single county: Cook County. It’s metro area of 10 million people inhabit 13 counties that extend into Indiana and Wisconsin, with the amount of “out of state” residents of “Chicagoland” numbering under a million in each state.
New York City simply doesn’t fit the U.S. model. Our city of over 8 million people is one of the only ones in the U.S. to extend beyond a single county: we have five. We call them boroughs here because…history. And each one has government appendages from a less integrated past: presidents, public administrators, courts, sheriffs, district attorneys, museums, and libraries. These institutions all cost taxpayer money to operate, and their opaque nature outside the normal purview of a city government makes them a great place for corruption to emerge. For example, longtime Brooklyn District Attorney Joe Hines was a master of using county level institutions to steal public money and punish opponents.
Zooming out to our metropolitan area (aka the “tri-state area,” “NYMetA,” etc.) and things get even more messy: a population of 23 million people spread over 25 counties and four states, with over 12 million living outside New York City and over 4 million living outside New York State. This creates lots of problems: people earning money in New York City and New York State can easily escape its taxes. It makes coordinating regional level solutions to housing and transit much more difficult. It means the municipalities and counties in our metro region can’t build the political clout needed to get things done at the state level because so many of us live in different states!
And what are the results? Our metro region’s tax dollars fund massive corruption. New York is, by some counts, the most corrupt state in the country. We also have the largest amount of debt per resident. New Jersey isn’t far behind when it comes to corruption or debt. Connecticut is, in the words of The Daily Beast, “collapsing.”
Many people blame badly drawn borders for the continued persistence of corrupt, authoritarian governments in the Middle East. (Tragically, misguided U.S. foreign policy hasn’t helped.) We can and should blame outdated political borders for our failing state and local politics here as well.
While that might seem depressing, it’s worth reminding that, over time, borders change, and so does their importance. New trade agreements, political institutions, forms of transit, financial systems, and political alliances have shifted the meaning of borders throughout history. We’re not stuck — but we do need to think outside our borders and build institutions that reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of regional collaboration. This type of activity is more important than ever because many policy-makers, business leaders, and futurists are predicting that, during the 21st century, networks of cities — not nation-states — will become the primary entities coordinating global political and economic activities. Some people are calling this new political philosophy “municipalism.”
If New Yorkers want to benefit from these new geopolitical trends, we need to build regional, democratic institutions that can represent the interests of all the residents of our metropolitan area.
Yes, we have the Regional Planning Association, the Port Authority, and dozens of other “regional” coordinating entities, but none of them have democratic representation of the public as their core mission: and that’s precisely what we need.
There are many questions to answer: who would New York Metropolitan Area (NYMetA) represent, and how does that representation work? Where and how could it derive economic, cultural, and political legitimacy? Where does it fit in a nation of towns, counties, and states? Could it become its own government layer with its own tax base? Or maybe it could live within civil society: as a political party, a social movement, or maybe a cooperatively run government public policy think tank?
While the idea of a legitimate NYMetA government might seem ridiculous and way off in the distance, the mere idea can be used to challenge the political status quo, which has fortified itself within the existing political borders and relies on our lack of political imagination to retain power.
Discussing and developing a plan for NYMetA enables us to imagine ways outside our antiquated political system that can’t seem to perform simple tasks like keeping the trains running, much less have them running on time.
If New York can’t do it, NYMetA can!
Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.
Photo: Department of City Planning
This article originally appeared in Gotham Gazette on June 5th, 2018
Many people are wondering whether rapid advances in communication technology will improve or degrade American democracy. Last decade, the answer seemed to be: improved! Wikipedia’s growth showed us the unimaginable “wisdom of the crowd,” WordPress made it possible for the world’s smartest people to share their thoughts with everyone for free, and Google was quickly “organizing the world’s information” for the benefit of all. Democratic utopia, here we come!
Now, the narrative has shifted and it appears to many that technology is degrading democracy. Twitter is an addictive cesspool of fake news, trolling, and hypocrisy. Facebook is selling user profiles to the highest bidder, who then use them to manipulate us in remarkably effective ways. Uber, Amazon and myriad other “startups” are automating away the economy we’ve known. To many in the United States, the future looks like some combination of Terminator, Idiocracy, and Wall-E.
Fortunately, the negative visions of today are just as myopic as the positive ones of yesterday, and the lucky few who’ve been invited to the upcoming vTaiwan Open Consultation & Participation Officers Training will shortly understand why. This unique two-day event, being held June 11 and 12 in Midtown, will be the first English-language training delivered by Audrey Tang and members of the team that successfully implemented radically effective participatory democracy programs at the federal level in Taiwan.
Invitations have been sent to New York City Council members, city employees deeply engaged in work related to citizen feedback generation and analysis, and nonprofit staff that do technology-enabled community organizing. The public is invited to attend a post-training afterparty where Tang and the vTaiwain team will be available for schmoozing.
To understand why Taiwan’s participatory democracy programs are so interesting we have to look at their history, which for the sake of this article begins in 2014 with the Sunflower Movement, an Occupy Wall Street-style social protest that fueled a movement for genuine, participatory democracy. The movement occupied the Taiwanese legislature, turned on livestreams, and showcased the type of consensus-based decision-making participants and supporters wanted the government to implement.
The public was captivated by the movement and supported participants’ demand for the creation of a “Digital Ministry” to facilitate and further develop the type of participatory decision-making systems they were using. After a month-long occupation of the Taiwanese legislature, the government capitulated and appointed a movement leader, Tang, as “Digital Minister” with the stated goal of “helping government agencies communicate policy goals and managing information published by the government, both via digital means,”
Over the last four years, a constellation of participatory democracy programs has emerged. vTaiwan is a public consultation process that uses a wide range of online and offline tools and techniques to bring the public through an ORID-style process that results in a clear directive to the Taiwanese government about what should be done.
To date, 25 national issues have been discussed through the vTaiwan open consultation process, and more than 80% have led to decisive government action. The Participation Officer’s Training Program helps civil servants within diverse departments leverage insights from the vTaiwain process, as well as from Digital Service Organizations from around the world, to make their government agencies more open, horizontal, transparent, and responsive to the public.
These two approaches: vTaiwain for public participatory and PO trainings for government employees, offer an increasingly holistic vision of a technology-enabled democratic future we can all be optimistic about. And it’s coming to New York City — and the English-speaking world — for the first time.
Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.
Balkind is the executive director of Sarapis, the nonprofit fiscal conduit for this event. Any profits from the event (none are anticipated) will be reinvested in participatory democracy work in New York City.
Photo: John McCarten/NY City Council
This piece was originally published on Gotham Gazette on March 28, 2018
Private sector innovations in information technologies are transforming virtually every industry, and the rate of change seems to be accelerating. A decade ago, Facebook was a website used almost exclusively by college students to keep in touch with each other; today it’s one of the world’s largest media distributors with the capability of swaying elections simply by tweaking its algorithms; and in ten years it’ll likely be directing a self-driving car to drop you off at your friend’s house.
The mindblowing rate of innovation taking place in the private sector is a stark contrast to the glacial pace of innovation in government bureaucracies. Indeed, to many people in the private and public sectors, government agencies appear, at best, frozen in time, and at worst, actually deteriorating before our very eyes. New York City’s beloved subway system is a case in point.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Government agencies can leverage new tools, techniques and technologies to improve their effectiveness and even delight their users, but doing so requires more than simply signing a fat contract with a vendor of high-tech wares. It requires government adopting the values of the “open source way”: open exchange, participation, rapid prototyping, meritocracy, and community building.
Doing so will change government agencies in significant ways: new roles, new skills, new trainings, new people, and new organizational structures.
It’s easy to see why wholesale reform of government agencies isn’t happening: people don’t want to lose their jobs. But piecemeal reform is taking place within government, and patterns are emerging that show how small teams within government that deliver “digital services” to other government units and agencies – things like websites, mapping systems, workflow management solutions and other high-tech products and services – are driving change.
The major factor that distinguishes these newly emergent “digital services organizations” (DSOs) from other technology groups within government is that their main job isn’t procuring software from large software companies, but instead to leverage open source software, peer to peer collaboration methodologies, and agile development approaches to build their own products.
The origins of the “digital service” concept can be traced back to 2010 when the government of the United Kingdom began a website redesign project that turned into something much more: a rethinking of the very nature of government. Mike Bracken, co-founder of the U.K.’s Government Digital Services (GDS), articulated “government as a platform” in his 2014 PDF talk. GDS has gone on to become a vocal advocate of the open source way in government and is responsible for saving the UK Government over £1 billion a year since its inception in 2013.
The United States federal government got serious about starting a GDS-style entity in 2013 when the Obama administration realized that its hallmark legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, could be jeopardized by its inability to successfully launch the HealthCare.gov website by the time the legislation came into effect.
Once it became clear that the project was massively mismanaged, the administration assembled a crack team of technologists from inside and outside government to get the website up and stable. To achieve this goal, the team used many open source and agile development methodologies popular in startup culture. Ultimately they got the site launched, and many of the people involved went on to create and lead high-tech units in the government such as the U.S. Digital Service in the White House, and “18F” within the General Services Administration.
18F “collaborates with other agencies to fix technical problems, build products, and improve how government serves the public through technology.” Its process relies on open source and startup-centric principles of “human centered design, agile methods and open technology.”
This approach is very different than the “monolithic procurement” approach that usually happens within government where “large, complex, multi-year contracts” are drawn up between government agencies and large corporations. “According to the Standish Report from 2003-2012, 94 percent of government software projects over $10 million are either over budget, over time, or just don’t work,” via the 18F website.
Instead of monolithic procurement, 18F and other DSO advocate for in-house open source development and modular procurement, which is “a strategy that breaks up large, complex procurements into multiple, tightly-scoped projects to implement technology systems in successive, interoperable increments.” By pairing this with open source software development and meticulous documentation, 18F can share the innovations they develop for one agency with others, reducing costs for everyone involved and allowing anyone in the world to use and contribute code to their projects.
This approach has been highly successful. In less than four years, 18F has grown to nearly 200 staff and completed hundreds of projects for over 25 federal agencies that range from building public websites (like FEC.gov) to backend infrastructure (like Cloud.gov) and a myriad of products that help other government workers build faster, more accessible, and more secure technology products. They’ve been successful to the point where for-profit software industry groups lodged an official complaint that 18F was hurting their businesses because they were saving the federal government too much money.
The significance of 18F’s accomplishments, along with the clarity of their message about how to reform government, has gone almost entirely unnoticed by nearly everyone, except for a small but very online group of people who self-identify as “civic technologists.” This community consists mostly of people who work as technologists for private enterprise by day, and try to use their technical skills to more broadly help people by night. Rarely do these people actually work within government, and if they do, it’s rarer still for them to have the freedom and support within government to perform the type of work that 18F does.
While there are a number of federal entities that have adopted the DSO model such as Defense Digital Service, which applies 18F-style approaches across the Department of Defense, at the municipal level there are very few: San Francisco has a small digital services team, and the teams managing websites in Boston and Philadelphia have some DSO characteristics, but New York City Department of City Planning’s Planning Labs follows the 18F model most closely.
Planning Labs is a nine-month-old, three-person unit within DCP that isn’t shy about borrowing from 18F’s playbook. Its site is built with 18F code, its published principles are nearly identical, and its members’ outspoken support for open source as the path forward for government is just as loud.
In its short existence, its already launched a half-dozen products, each of which uses open source approaches to deliver a standardized product. Looking through its portfolio of products – from its zoning tool, facilities directory, tax lot viewer, and statistical mapping tool – it becomes clear that Labs isn’t simply building products, but instead organizing the city’s information in an open, standardized, and future-friendly way that will benefit New Yorkers for generations. It’s not hard to imagine these various systems being weaved together along with other open source solutions such as David Moore’s City Council tracking system Councilmatic to create a comprehensive city information system like SimCity, but real, and in real-time.
For Chris Whong, Planning Lab’s founder, NYC Planning Labs “is responding to the need to create more functional and accessible tools for planners, practitioners, and the general public to use and analyze data. With a smaller team, human-centered design, agile processes, and open source software, we are delivering tech products better, faster, and cheaper in-house.”
Whether one thinks government is good or bad, or somewhere in between, almost everyone agrees that it should work effectively, operate transparently, and if it’s going to provide services to the public, they should be of decent quality and at a reasonable costs. The capacity for government to deliver services, and the public’s desire to pay taxes to fund government agencies to provide them, is heavily dependent on the effectiveness of government agencies and the civil servants that work within them.
In an age of rapid private sector innovation, those agencies and civil servants will need to be able to leverage technology effectively if they want to keep up with their private sector counterparts. If they don’t, the public will want to privatize these services. It’s that simple.
The “do or die” nature of this moment can’t be overstressed enough. If DSOs like 18F and Planning Labs aren’t given the resources and flexibility they need, their members will become dejected and find happier homes in a private sector that values their talents.
Anyone who is passionate about good government, anyone who thinks the public sector is important and worth preserving, should be studying and supporting DSOs and the principles that they follow. If they aren’t the future of government, it’s possible nothing is. Such is the sentiment of Matt Brackin, the co-founder of the U.K.’s GSA, who recently tweeted: “I hoped the internet era would revitalise our state. It’s just exposed its bankruptcy.”
Devin Balkind is a technologist and nonprofit executive who works on civic technology projects in New York City through Sarapis Foundation and on humanitarian projects around the world through Sahana Software Foundation. He was a candidate for New York City Public Advocate in 2017. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.
Photo: NYC City Planning’s Planning Labs