De Blasio administration announces much sought after “NYC Digital Service” a few days before Adams takes over

New York Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications Github Profile

New York City’s civic tech community has for many years called on the city government to create a Digital Services Organization (DSO). DSOs are organized technology groups within government agencies that use open source software to build their own technology solutions instead of purchasing proprietary services from vendors like IBM, ESRI, and Microsoft. The DSO organizational model is about 10 years old and has been adopted by cities (eg Boston), regions (eg Ontario) and national governments (eg 18F) all over the world with great success.

Inexplicably, New York City has failed to organize its own DSO. So, while governments around the world have operational DSOs with tens, if not hundreds of employees who effectively build and deploy modern websites and applications, and rebuild critical technical infrastructures to modernize service delivery, the New York City chief technology officer, with less than a month left in Blasio’s administration, just set up his first job offers seeks “founding member[s] of the New York digital service! “

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From the outside, it looks like the administration and its CTO want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to claim that they “founded” the New York DSO without having to ruffle the feathers by operationalizing it. And DSOs ruffle a lot of feathers. This is something the administration and CTO know well because when diligent officials within city agencies organized DSO-style units on their own, these units were mostly ignored by the technological leadership of the city. city ​​and left to fend for themselves against legions of bureaucrats indifferent to the implementation of the DSO. style reforms. Here are some examples:

The Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunities Screening and Benefits API team has done a tremendous job implementing a solution to automate the screening of people for city benefits. Their pioneering work provided a functional technical solution, but a system without users is not very useful. They need municipal agencies to work with them both to document selection criteria and to use their selection tools.

Without the support of key leaders pressuring agencies to work with them to implement their system, what could have been a hugely successful program to modernize the way the city delivers benefits turned into a not incrementally in the right direction. And that direction leads directly to Eric Adam’s “MyCity” app concept, which he mentioned frequently during his successful campaign for mayor.

The story of Planning Labs of the New York City Department of Planning is another good example of the failed technological leadership of this administration. Planning Labs was created within City Planning explicitly as a DSO. During its two years of activity, its members have created a dozen innovative and popular applications such as the ZoLa land use map system and the Population Fact Finder statistical research tool.

But its success and aggressive DSO-like approach to IT reform has aroused the wrath of New York’s tech bureaucracy, who would rather sign multi-million dollar contracts with Microsoft than spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on it. organize their own software teams. And so… NYC Planning Labs still exists but hasn’t released a new open source product for almost two years, and none of the original team members are working for the city anymore.

To understand why the city’s tech bureaucracy is so fearful of DSOs, you need to understand that today’s tech leaders, not just in New York City but in governments around the world, are typically not engineers and product managers, but techies. businessmen. and public administrators. The way they are trained to produce technology is through procurement processes, not construction. This approach made sense.

Twenty years ago, software was much more difficult to create than it is today, so governments had to hire specialist software development companies to do it. But not anymore. There are now open source components for virtually everything. DSOs unite them to create solutions. Often times, they do this with flexible teams of five or six: two software developers, two graphic / content / experience designers, and two project / product managers.

Great news is that it has never been easier to create complex information management systems to make government service delivery faster, better and cheaper. But it’s also frightening for the old guard tech establishment and their young cronies. They don’t know how to organize productive software development teams and would much prefer to outsource this work to the giant companies they most likely worked for and / or, most likely, plan to work again after their government. the service is terminated. Why would they, as city employees, want to spend their time organizing software teams for the government when they could spend it organizing lucrative contracts for potential future employers?

Moreover, creating software in city government is difficult! The city’s obscure civil service designations make it difficult to hire skilled software developers and pay them at competitive rates. The city’s archaic IT infrastructure, from its slow internet and firewalls to government-supplied computers, make it difficult for development teams to use the best tools for their jobs. That’s why leadership is essential to push through the kind of coordinated reform New York City needs to modernize its technology infrastructure and service delivery. We need City Administrative Services Department (DCAS) to update civil service roles, Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) to update network configurations and hardware , the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other agencies to update their practical contracts, and much more.

Without the leadership leading the reform, most people follow the path of least resistance and business continues as usual. During the good times, it just means more waste, inefficiency, and poor service that so many New Yorkers now expect from their city government. But during bad times, it means general embarrassment.

Most of us remember TurboVax, a website created by an unaffiliated volunteer software developer working in a spirit of mutual aid. This site did what the city’s CTO, DoITT, DOHMH, Health + Hospitals, Emergency Management and others with a combined budget of tens of billions of dollars could not: create a map in line showing people where they can get vaccinated. The New York Times headline: “NY Vaccine Websites Won’t Work.” He built a new one for $ 50 ”. If this story couldn’t awaken the administration’s technological leadership to the reality of their failure, nothing could.

If the city had had a DSO, I have no doubt that they would have had a website before the vaccine was released, and they probably would have solved a hundred other issues as well: from rebuilding the infamous DOBNow system, to improving the usability of the city’s ten-year-old central website ( to unify user connections between city websites, providing New Yorkers with the experience improved civic engagement that we, in a sense, voted for in the last referendum cycle, making it easier to access benefits and more.

The good thing about being late is that you can catch up by using the best practices established by others instead of having to invent these best practices yourself. As such, the new Adams administration is perfectly positioned to modernize the city. There are tons of former DSOs they can hire, Playbooks they can follow, and even established federal partnership paths designed explicitly to support DSO-powered reform.

And Blasio’s administration can say it started it all!

I guess everyone wins.

Devin Balkind is a civic technologist. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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