Category Archives: Government 2.0

Inquiring Is Just The Beginning

Whenever information is put out by government agencies it’s a good thing, and as this information becomes easier to access through the internet, people should be asking about how the programs they are paying for are helping them live their lives. But it’s just as important to question the data itself.

The New York City’s Department of Education has taken a good step by implementing “customer service” surveys by asking parents, teachers, and students, how they feel about their schools. This is the third year they have conducted this survey and the results havestayed the same. Parents indicated a high level of satisfaction with their schools at 91 percent, and 94 percent of parents were satisfied with the level of education their children received. Student satisfaction was also high with 91 percent of students saying adults at the school were able to help them understand what they needed to do at school.

One area that should please administrators and parents is that 78 percent of teachers said the school leaders gave them regular and helpful feedback about their teaching. After the abrupt exit by Cathie Black, you would think New Yorkers would want better leadership, but only 5 percent of all respondents said more effective leadership was needed. Instead, the biggest issue they cited was class sizes with 23 percent believing they needed to be smaller.

This was the largest participation rate by these groups since the survey started in 2008. Instead of speculating what people think and the media running stories on a school failing, we see the majority of those participating in New York City’s education system are pleased with that they see. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking more questions or looking for a way to improve the system.

When academic studies show that only 1 for every 5 New York City high school graduates are ready for college, there is a clear disconnect between those within the system and those outside of it. Politics of course also plays a roll. Mayor Bloomberg would rather focus on the fact that more students in NYC are graduating high school while he has been in office.

The problem with any public opinion poll is that the people answering the questions can only refer to what they know or how they feel. Sometimes this can be a lot, but in most cases it’s not. In the world of education parents may not realize their children are behind because they have seen how their child has improved their reading, writing, and math skills. But they can’t compare it to other students in their school, other schools around the city, state, or country.

But people who study education policy may have a different take then those who were questioned here. Academics are the ones who have to know (or are supposed to know) all the stats, the studies, and ideas floating around on how we can improve America’s education system. If a thorough debate and analysis is to be taken they need to be brought into the discussion for the outside view.

That being said, there are a lot of good educators out there who know and are working to make improvements. While these survey’s are a good first step to open up the discussion, it is just the beginning.

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Filed under Education, Government 2.0, New York City, NY

Democracy At Work?

On Sunday, Eric Cantor announced the second round of his “You Cut” website, where people are given three options of federal programs they would like to see taken out of the budget. In general, I’m in favor of open government initiatives in hopes it gets people to pay more attention, and realize it’s not as simple as choosing which programs to cut. But Cantor goes about opening up the process entirely the wrong way.

Instead of having an honest discussion on how to balance the budget, You Cut lists three things the Majority Whip would probably like to see gone anyway, without any discussion. Besides voting which program they would like to see cut, the only other option people have is to submit another program to cut in a small box explaining why it should be eliminated. I’m also not a conspiracy theorist, but I seriously doubt those suggestions are taken seriously. As someone who just created and researched websites, small boxes indicate to people they don’t have a lot of room, and if you really want more thoughtful suggestions you want to make it clear to your viewers they can say as much as they want. Instead, there is only a biased blurb about each program and why it’s bad, and there is no room for people to discuss why one program should be cut over the other.

So let’s take a look at the options presented to us. The first is to reduce the number of federal employees by 10 percent, saving $139 billion. The first thing that stands out to me, and how you know Ryan is making the numbers up, is he doesn’t even list the number of employees that will be cut. Just because someone is retiring, doesn’t mean that their job wasn’t important. All the water treatment plants around the country need to be inspected, and if land is to be used to for new or growing businesses, their needs to be an assessment to make sure it is safe. If there are problems in the future in either of these areas, people will ask why no one was on top of the situation.

The second option is to eliminate the Economic Development Administration (EDA) within the Commerce Department. Yes, this is one of the recommendations by the Bowles-Simpson commission. One of the reasons for the EDA, and the blurb points out, was to build roads across the country that would create jobs. Well, the last time I checked the country’s infrastructure was graded a D. So instead of throwing out things we know have worked in the past, why don’t we try and use them again in a time we need more jobs?

The last item on the website is about the Department of Energy’s Weather Assistance Program (WAP). Cantor, without posting any links, says that “The program generated headlines for significant instances of waste, fraud, and abuse, including paying for shoddy and ineffective workmanship and payment for work not actually done.” But it doesn’t discuss news outlets in Mississippi telling its viewers about the program and how it can help them. Or in the winter when Chuck Schumer touts how this program is keeping residents in upstate New York warm. The truth is this program helps millions of people around the country stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter. By cutting it, Eric Cantor is telling all the people who apply to these grants, they should figure out how to pay for their energy bills themselves.

Obviously, as we have seen in recent events, there are ways politicians should and should not interact with their constituents. But the efforts people are taking to make the internet a platform where the government can interact with its people work long and hard hours figuring out ways to do so effectively. You Cut doesn’t accomplish any of the criteria those people are looking to accomplish. If Eric Cantor is serious about wanting to create a smart budget, he needs to figure out a better way to do it.

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Filed under Budget, budget ceiling, Congress, debt, economy, Eric Cantor, Government 2.0, Politics, Republicans

The World’s City is Becoming the Widest Net

Have you ever been stuck in the rain, in a rush, wet, miserable, and not sure what the quickest way to get to your destination is? Well, there’s an app for that! For the past few years Mayor Michael Bloomberg has joined Twitter, hired the city’s first Chief Digital Officer, and has made a push for New York City to become a major player in the online development community.

A conglomerate of businesses in the city called NYC Seed, has worked with the New York’s Economic Development Corporation to attract developers to the city. In a competition called SeedStart 2011, entrepreneurs competed to live in New York for a summer, plus a prize of $20,000 to work on their proposed project. Owen Davis, Managing Director of NYC Seed, told me they received hundreds of applications. When I asked him if New York could compete with the major companies in Silicon Valley, he said that it is a “silly” comparison and “New York has many substantial industries in it already “giving it an edge to attract start ups to work within the fashion, media, and advertizing industries. According to Davis, many developers are already doing so: “There’s a lot of startups coming to New York and it’s increasing so you have a good supporting system that is being built and will continue to be built.”

Many popular online features have already been created in the city such as Tweetdeck which was recently bought by Twitter for $50 billion. A lot of these start ups are located in the flatiron district where you can find large, open, spaces for $26 dollars per square foot. Tech companies are attracted to these types of offices because much of the work they do is collaborative and these areas make everyone in the office more accessible.

Under the title Government 2.0, a number of corporations and other entities have been trying to figure out ways office holders and public agencies can release information so it can be used to benefit the people they represent. Mayor Bloomberg has worked within this realm and initiated the BigApps competition. Over 350 data sets were released by city agencies for programmers to create smartphone applications. The prize was a dinner with the Mayor and $40 thousand dollars. The best part of the competition is that is has already solved the rainy day problem. In its second year, the top prize went to a iphone app called Roadify, which tells people the latest subway, bus, and driving conditions in real time.

There are other applications the city has put out, one of which is called Don’t Eat At. Using information from the city’s Department of Health’s grading system, you can check into a restaurant via Foursquare (also created in New York) and get an instant text message telling you whether the chef washes his hands before cooking. The MTA has also created an application where people can see where there are delays on the subway and bus routes, and in the future will tell people the exact time when a subway or bus will arrive.

As social media is slowly becoming a part of our everyday lives, it is important for office holders to enter this realm as a way to interact with their constituents and govern in a way where they are accessible. New York is already home to the largest amount of Twitter accounts with over 26 million people, making it only natural for the City’s mayor to get in on the game. “I think social media overall, especially Twitter, gives politicians a new and exciting way to connect to constituents in ways they weren’t able to do even a few years ago. And it has really changed the dynamic of how politicians are able to respond to the citizens.” Richard Robbins, the Marketing Director for Media Innovation at AT&T explained. But there is no filter for the internet, and being caught in a gaff online can be much worse than being committing one caught on TV. To conquer this problem, Robbins said politicians should think about social media as “a campaign event or a cocktail party where it’s an opportunity to go and meet with people. And the idea whether they’re running for office or in office, interacting with constituents, helping constituents bring their concerns, responding to them is all politics.”

Since creating his account, Bloomberg has held online town halls using the #askmike hashtag. While there were some serious questions about housing, crime, and other city matters, the Mayor was also asked to explain how magnets work. As an engineer he knew the answer, but probably did not know the question was actually referring to a song by the hip hop group Insane Clown Posse. Making yourself more accessible to constituents is of course important, but obviously some can pull it off better than others. As Microsoft’s Director of Innovative Social Engagement, Dr. Mark Drapeau emailed me “if the goal is to make government and its billionaire mayor seem more human and down-to-earth through Twitter, than Insane Clown Posse could be an appropriate discussion topic, even if the mayor doesn’t completely appreciate who they are. Some of his citizens do, and he’s doing his best to relate.”

When I told him about the BigApp competition Drapeau said “App contest are not strictly necessary, and many of them end up on the proverbial shelf not getting much use. But they also motivate the developer community into public service, show citizens and govies the art of the possible, and occasionally deliver a hit.” It can also be a good way to promote the start ups and build the community that will further drive New York’s economic engine into the future.

Robbins explained to me that all these efforts help grow the industry “there’s more capitol at the early stage, the city is behind supporting entrepreneurs, there’s very good investors who are experienced who are trying to deploy capitol. And all those things matter in terms of building a ecosystem, it’s not one beast that does it.”

But flip phones are going the way of the dinosaur and young people are some of the most computer literate people in the country. Having grown up with this technology, using new devices is more natural to them than their parents. But looking further, Facebook is not going to be all fun anymore. Not only do politicians need to go where their constituents are, but governments will have to upgrade their services to keep up with the increasing demand as this new technology becomes more prominent.

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Filed under applications, Apps, Government 2.0, Internet, NYC, Politics, smartphones

No Place Like Home

As the housing market continues to slog along, many American’s are facing foreclosure, unable to sell their homes, and recent reports have shown banks are not willing to help people lower their monthly payments. On top of that, the Washington Post completed a yearlong investigation into the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) showing many of the funds allocated have not been used.

According to the Post, $400 million dollars has been allocated for 700 projects across the country, but many of those projects have not been constructed because managers could not get funding from banks, land codes had been violated, or just plain old politics (Not In My Back Yard). Many of these grants were to be used to build developments for people living below the poverty line. This makes it a two edge problem; not having the money spent hurts the area it was supposed to be spent in, and it leaves people who need those homes looking for places to live.

The article described how HUD was having trouble enforcing their own rules because they did not have enough lawyers, and even while the majority of states tell HUD that the projects are not able to take off, the process is very slow because it goes through a lot of red tape. This left millions of dollars in accounts that have been sitting there for years. In the meantime, these funds could have been transferred for projects that are ready to be built, which would have created jobs and helped to keep the economy moving.

Some of this shouldn’t be that big of a surprise considering the state of the overall housing market. And enforcement has always been a problem when it comes to government programs, usually because agencies are understaffed. One way to raise revenue and lower the debt would be to hire more IRS agents. But if there is a lack of communication between local, state, and federal officials, there is an easy fix: the internet.

With all the work being done to make the federal government more transparent, and releasing data from within the agencies with data.gov, why not create a program that shows all the players involved within a project what step they are at? Agencies at HUD can look for the last time someone updated the project within the program, and if it has been a while they can get in touch with local authorities and ask for an update. There are plenty of programmers and companies that figure out how best to create these collaborations which, if done right, can make sure everyone is on the same page and build the projects that will benefit the families that need a roof over their heads.

The recent recent floods in the south have destroyed a number of houses, and even though the Post points out that some non-profits do not have the expertise to properly build them, there are plenty of organizations that do. In fact, many of them can be found working in New Orleans as I’m writing and you’re reading this post. Many of the houses being built are green houses where so family that lives in the house will save money on their heating and electric bills.

A major hurdle in this effort will be to get the banks to loan money to landlords and managers of these projects. But in a recent interview with housingfinance.com, Bob Simpson, Head of Fannie Mae’s Affordable Housing Unit said “As we look at our production on a month-to-month basis, we’re definitely very busy, and that’s probably the best sign that it’s working. We now have a dedicated affordable credit team, a dedicated production team, and a pricing team that just prices affordable transactions.” Translation: Since we were bailed out by the Federal Government, it gave us the ability to get rid of the loans we never should have made, and now we can start to create more loans that won’t bust.”

Last week, the major banks reported the amount of people who owed money on their mortgage was the lowest in 15 years, which could give them the confidence to start lending more money. Dorothy was right, there is no place like home, and building them can help America’s economy and families.

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Filed under Banks, finance, Government 2.0, Housing, HUD, poverty, Public Policy