Neighborhood Watch

Citizens, volunteers and neighborhood groups join a program to identify and correct problems in neighborhoods and city areas.

by / October 31, 2003
The Citizen Initiated Performance Assessment (CIPA) has been pilot tested in nine Iowa cities, with the end goal of enhancing citizen participation and ensuring that performance measures are citizen-based, politically credible and used by policy-makers in decision-making.

"It seemed like an interesting way to engage citizens in a different way than we have before," said Michael Armstrong, CIO of Des Moines, Iowa. "It's very much a civic engagement project."

Cities in the project, which is based on similar systems already used in New York City and Hartford, Conn., use a blend of technologies, including handheld computers with built-in digital cameras, to complement more traditional methods of joining citizens and city officials in governance, such as town meetings, citizen committees and focus groups.

Organizations involved in the program include Iowa State University (ISU), which received a grant from the Sloan Foundation; the Fund for the City of New York, which allowed Des Moines to use its initial survey software for the handheld devices and conducted some training; the Iowa League of Cities, which is a sponsor statewide; and the Des Moines Neighbors, an umbrella organization that works with all neighborhood organizations.

"Des Moines Neighbors is kind of a central point of contact, and they're coordinating things on the neighborhood side," Armstrong said. "Rather than deal with 51 neighborhoods one-on-one, we can deal with one organization, which is always nice."

CIPA was also attractive to Des Moines government because it looked like a good way to test how citizen needs aligned with what government was providing, Armstrong said.


Defining Reality
"This is a porthole to what people really consider important," he said. "We're anxious to see how the items citizens identify as priorities match up with what we think is reality. Those are not always the same thing."

Community organizations establish lists of neighborhood problems they believe need attention from city government. Volunteers train to use handheld computers with built-in digital cameras, and then use the devices to survey pre-identified areas on foot. Volunteers record problems -- graffiti, broken sidewalks, potholes, drug activity, etc. -- and take photos.

"We're talking about 35 people in two hours covering 14 city blocks," Armstrong said of the overall CIPA process. "It's very focused."

Data from the handheld PCs is uploaded to a desktop PC in City Hall. In Des Moines, the data is directly incorporated into the city's CRM system. In Hartford, Conn., and New York City -- where CIPA began -- paper reports are given to the appropriate government agencies. CIPA also gives local governments a chance to re-evaluate their workloads and become more efficient.

"The information citizens collect [that goes] into our CRM system gets assigned back out as work orders," Armstrong said. "Now we tend to get clusters of work, rather than individual requests, which helps us manage the limited resources we have a little bit better."

In the project's first year -- fall 2001 to fall 2002 -- Alfred Ho, assistant professor of public policy and administration at Iowa State University; and Paul Coates, director of the Office of State and Local Government Programs at Iowa State University Extension, together with Norm Riggs, community development specialist at Iowa State University, sat through many meetings with citizens.

Concerns about public services and their perspectives on city government were discussed, and performance measures for "nuisance control" from a citizen's perspective were developed, Ho said.

"I think CIPA has changed some city officials' perspectives on how they view performance measures and public services," he said.


Bring on the HEAT
Now in its second year, CIPA is focused on collecting data in a variety of ways.

"The digital survey is one of the mechanisms," Ho said. "We also use the service request/complaint data collected by the city's [Helpdesk Expert Automation Tool] HEAT software to measure the responsiveness of city services."

Des Moines' HEAT software, purchased from FrontRange Solutions, records citizen complaints via phone or the city Web site, Ho said, adding that the data is not yet fully integrated into managerial decision-making to help plan departmental actions and make policies.

City staff will work with neighborhood leaders and citizens in Des Moines, get their help to do digital surveys of different infrastructural problems, then integrate the data into the HEAT system to generate responsive departmental actions, Ho said.

In the future, city officials will be able to use the data to evaluate how they should provide services more effectively, while citizens use the reports to understand community issues and hold government accountable, Ho said, noting that HEAT complaints are reported back to local communities.

"We are now organizing meetings with neighborhood leaders to discuss what has been found in the HEAT data records and digital surveys; what actions have been taken by the city to correct the problems; what actions will be taken in the future; and what actions should be taken by the neighborhoods themselves," he said. "Through these dialogs, we hope to generate better understanding and cooperation between citizens and city officials to resolve community issues."

Data from the pilot survey was dumped into the HEAT system, Armstrong said, and a work request for each item was generated during the data import process. In the future, he added, an additional step will report survey results back to the neighborhoods -- detailing which tasks won't be addressed, which will be referred to external agencies, and which will require consideration for future planning and funding.

"This will allow us to manage expectations on both sides, and provide some education to citizens about who is responsible for what," he said. "This will be done before the tasks become work assignments."

Two surveys have been conducted so far, and Armstrong said two more are ready to go. The frequency of surveys, however, depends more on the neighborhoods and their willingness to participate.

The first survey results were not surprising, because Des Moines officials have participated since the beginning -- they've been included in discussions about what citizens look for, and saw the performance measures they came up with before the survey was complete, Armstrong said.

"It was actually fairly predictable: these are very focused, and it's not like we go out and capture everything," he said. "You go out and look for 10 or 20 different things and you have a finite geographic area you go through, so we expect to find potholes, we expect to find graffiti. The value is knowing where they are and how much there is."

The initial survey had about 270 requests, which Armstrong said is a manageable load. "You'll have one or two neighborhoods at a time doing this, so it's not like you'll have 5,000 requests coming into your system and drive your public works director wacky," he said.


Bumps in the Road
Getting more citizens involved is difficult, Ho said, adding that so far, CIPA relies heavily on the neighborhood leaders already active in the Des Moines Neighbors association.

"We hope once we demonstrate the impact of CIPA on neighborhoods and local governance, there will be more citizens and neighborhoods that will join the project to make a difference," he said.

Another challenge is the pressure on staff time. Citizen participation takes time and patience, which Ho said the staff in Armstrong's office understand fully, and have put in a lot of effort and overtime to work closely with citizens on the project.

"While the results of the project have been very rewarding, the process has been quite draining on staff," Ho added. "Especially when they have many other projects with limited staff during tight budget times."

Another task is straightening out kinks in adding data to the CRM system, Armstrong said. "It hasn't been a showstopper -- there have been some quirks," he said. "But the next time it'll be a lot easier."

The program is fairly simple, he said. The department has 10 handheld PCs -- people go out in pairs, so each pair gets one handheld with built-in digital camera -- that are synced to a desktop PC, and the data is sent either by modem to the PC or burned onto a CD to be loaded into the PC.

"We import it into a SQL server database, and as that import goes on, a ticket for that problem is automatically generated. It becomes a work order as part of the import process."

Every time two different databases are matched up and are going through three different kinds of synchronizations, a few problems emerge, he added. "But it took us about a week to get those worked out," he said. "It wasn't bad. And we know more what to expect the next time we do it."


Exemplifying the Future
Armstrong said he hopes the CIPA program exemplifies the future of e-government, not because of the mechanics, but because of the idea -- where people want particular services with an increasingly limited set of resources.

"If we're going to provide what they think are good services, we have to know what they are," he said. "This is one of the ways people can let us know. There are other tools we can use, but this is very immediate, and it's very thoughtful."

CIPA also fosters a better sense of community, Armstrong said, because people actually participate on both the citizen side and the city staff side. Citizens stay current on happenings, health and safety in their neighborhoods.

"On the staff side, once people got over the initial idea of little old ladies running around taking pictures of everything in sight, they see the value of becoming engaged with the citizens and talking about these issues, and becoming part of a wider decision-making process," he said. "I think in a microcosm, this is one of the things that's going to have to happen, and we've got to look at both the measures of efficiency and effectiveness. We can't do that by ourselves.

"From an e-government perspective, it's a great program. It hits a lot of the things people really look for from government. It's going to be very successful."
Jessica Jones Managing Editor