The New York City government has nearly 300,000 employees and a budget of $89 billion, and is responsible for performing vital functions to serve its diverse population of 8.6 million people, 4.5 million workers, and 61 million annual visitors. But with an aging workforce, the strict regulations and constraints of public sector work, and a hodgepodge of systems some of which are decades old, the City faces significant challenges in adapting to an increasingly digital and fast-paced world. As residents become used to the speed and convenience of app-enabled services from Uber to Seamless, and increasingly sophisticated consumer systems from online banking to watch-anywhere TV streaming, the expectations for City services ratchet up.
The challenges the City faces in adapting to digital transformation are compounded by what you could consider the City’s competitive position—who they choose to serve and how. While companies can select their customers strategically, price discriminate, and limit the adaptations provided in edge cases, City services must be available to all, and in many cases must indeed be targeted to those hardest to reach and serve, such as the 49% of New Yorkers speaking languages other than English at home, the City’s 63,000 homeless people, or its 60,000 blind residents.
Mayor de Blasio frames many of these challenges as opportunities. “The ‘good old days’ weren’t so good for a lot of people. In the analog age, too many voices weren’t heard… We must do better than that in the digital age. In fact, our job is to use digital tools to create more fairness, freedom, and opportunity than ever existed before.”
But how can New York City seize that opportunity to improve equity and access while delivering excellent services to New Yorkers and bringing the interactions between the government and residents into the 21st century? Within such a large organization, leadership from the top, consistent drive throughout all levels, and a large number of dispersed initiatives are necessary to make digital transformation a reality.
Leadership from the top
In addition to Mayor de Blasio’s comments and a consistent push from Mayor Bloomberg before him to professionalize and modernize government, there are several teams and initiatives in City Hall pushing for a more modern approach to technology and data. The Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, established in 2013, has a team of data scientists and experts focused on aggregating data across agencies, making data openly available to the public, and working with individual agencies to use data to drive better problem solving. The Chief Technology Officer and his team focus on big, cross-cutting initiatives to keep the City at the forefront of urban technologies, from the rollout of the LinkNYC broadband kiosks across the city to NYCx, which challenges entrepreneurs and technologists to address urgent priorities faced by communities in the city.
Consistent drive throughout all levels
In 2015, the Chief Digital Officer launched a project to build a Digital Playbook for the City, which laid out a series of principles and strategies for designing digital services and experience with the diversity of New York City’s residents in mind. Drawing upon human-centered design principles and a process to engage with New York City residents on how they use technology and what they expect of government, the Playbook emphasized six principles:
- Welcome All New Yorkers
- Make Government Simple
- Listen and Respond
- Reach People Where They Are
- Protect New Yorkers’ Trust
- Build Collaboration
Building upon that initial push, the City has since expanded the Digital Playbook into a Blueprint that individual civil servants across the City’s agencies can use when developing new apps and websites, from who to contact in the City to ask for support and guide them in the process to how to define target users and needs and standard design guidelines including logos, fonts, and user experience principles. To be successful, the City will need to constantly remind and reinforce these principles and standards, and create the expectation of better digital performances across agencies.
Beyond the approaches to spread information and capability on delivering better digital experiences throughout the City’s workforce, there are also a number of individual initiatives the City is using to push its work forward. In an organization this large, there can never be enough of these efforts for individuals and agencies to identify opportunities and go after them relentlessly. To support this, City and agency leadership must celebrate and elevate what’s working, and provide space for the experimentation that may lead to occasional failures.
Two examples of initiatives to improve the perception of innovation and access to technology talent in the City are the annual BigApps competition run by the NYC Economic Development Corporation and the Tech Talent Pipeline run out of the Department of Small Business Services.
BigApps is an annual competition started during the Bloomberg administration to improve the tech entrepreneurial ecosystem in the city and at the same time encourage developers to focus on problems facing the City and its residents. By providing City datasets and data streams and guidance on opportunities for impact—as well as a substantial prize for the winning team—the City has been able, year after year, to get significant energy around the competition and the growing tech and civic tech communities.
Tech Talent Pipeline is a workforce development initiative designed to improve the talent available to support the city’s growing tech sector, while improving the opportunities for graduates of the City’s schools and universities. A partnership between the tech industry, the City government, and the City’s educational institutions, Tech Talent Pipeline works to understand the skills needed by tech companies, build programs in schools that will provide those skills, and build connections between employers and schools. Those industry partnerships seek to provide on-ramps into careers through internships, apprenticeship programs, and other jobs designed to diversify the tech workforce while providing opportunity to those who have traditionally been shut out of the industry. While mainly intended to focus on private sector jobs, Tech Talent Pipeline also has spillover effects for a City government hungry for skilled technologists—the more effective educational pipeline and tech-savvy workforce the initiative can create, the more options the City will have when looking to improve the skills of its workforce.
In an organization as large and complex as the New York City government, there’s no silver bullet to digital innovation and transformation. It will take a combination of leadership, consistent work and execution at all levels, and a widely dispersed set of efforts to drive change. The City has been on this path for years, and is seeing a growing civic tech scene both inside the government and in well-aligned partner organizations like Civic Hall to further the development of a community of technologists and urbanists focused on using technology to make people’s lives better in cities.
 J. David Goodman, “With Largest Staff Ever, New York City Reimagines How It Works,” New York Times, June 15, 2017, accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/15/nyregion/high-number-city-employees-bill-deblasio.html
“Fact Sheet: Mayor de Blasio Releases Executive Budget for Fiscal Year 2019,” Press Office, City of New York, April 26, 2018, accessed April 27, 2018, http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/223-18/fact-sheet-mayor-de-blasio-releases-executive-budget-fiscal-year-2019#/0
“NYC Travel & Tourism Overview,” NYC&Company, December, 2017, accessed April 27, 2018, https://business.nycgo.com/research/
 Arun Venugopal, “The Many Languages of NYC,” WNYC, Dec 7, 2012, accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.wnyc.org/story/255668-blog-census-languages-new-yorkers-speak/
Coalition for the Homeless, “Basic Facts About Homelessness: New York City,” http://www.coalitionforthehomeless.org/basic-facts-about-homelessness-new-york-city/
Matt Flegenheimer, “With Changes in New York’s Streets, More Hurdles for the City’s Blind Pedestrians,” New York Times, July 29, 2012, accessed April 27, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/30/nyregion/with-changes-in-new-yorks-streets-more-hurdles-for-the-citys-blind-pedestrians.html
 NYC Digital Playbook, “About,” accessed April 27, 2018, https://playbook.cityofnewyork.us/about/
 City of New York, “NYC Digital Playbook,” accessed April 27, 2018, https://playbook.cityofnewyork.us/principles/
 City of New York, “NYC Digital Blueprint,” accessed April 27, 2018, https://blueprint.cityofnewyork.us/