How Will de Blasio Impact New York Technology?

As Bloomberg's 12-year reign caps off a period that began with people using flip phones and signing up for DSL, many wonder if New York City's new leader will take technology in a different direction.

by / November 22, 2013

On Jan. 1, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will begin revealing exactly what he meant in his campaign when he called for “progressive change” in New York City. How his promises translate to actions and the effects he will have on the city’s technology policies are yet to be seen. Opponents of de Blasio say his politics could jeopardize both Bloomberg’s progress in reducing crime and his advances in leveraging technology, while de Blasio supporters emphasize his stance on progressive social policy and a crucial end to the controversial stop-and-frisk program.

Bloomberg’s 12 years overseeing New York City will provide an easy measuring stick for pundits to back de Blasio against. Bloomberg reshaped the city’s physical landscape, placing emphasis on making New York a more pleasant, livable city – a policy that sounds agreeable enough, but that was controversial nonetheless. Creating new parks, bike lanes and places for people to walk were decisions by Bloomberg that residents will either hope to see continued by de Blasio or slowed down as he allocates resources for what some see as more important policy areas.

A 284-page data report released earlier this year showcased Bloomberg’s performance in office, covering every facet of the city’s governance. Under Bloomberg, felony crime dropped 36 percent, civilian fire casualties dropped 22 percent, and the average police response time is one minute and 18 seconds faster. There are also 124 percent more citizens receiving food stamps and 18 percent more people living in homeless shelters. Bloomberg oversaw the deployment of increased 311 services and encouraged the use of technology in supporting his social programs, such as Opportunity NYC.

Whether people agree or disagree with his decisions and politics, Bloomberg is generally recognized as having embraced technology to achieve his and the city’s goals, evidenced by programs like the New York Digital Health Accelerator, a startup incubator focused around medical software development. Also noteworthy was the collection of digital initiatives captured in the 2011 Digital Roadmap document. The multi-faceted plan focused on initiatives around Internet connectivity, STEM education, open government, online engagement and support and outreach to the technology industry, and was spearheaded by the city's first chief digital officer, Rachel Haot (then Rachel Sterne), appointed by Bloomberg.

Some worry that de Blasio, in contrast, won’t be a help to the tech community, as some of his policies could undermine technological development.

Significant Tech Legacy

Bloomberg has been the most successful modern mayor and the mayor most supportive of technology, said Salvatore Salamone, former CIO of New York City. Salamone is now retired, having served in New York City government for more than 40 years. For de Blasio to succeed as Bloomberg did, he will need to find ways to make a different kind of governance structure work and also not get sidetracked, Salamone said.

Salamone pointed to former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who did not embrace technology strongly, he said, and in fact held the city back for several years as he hesitated to bring the city online for fear of security problems. Bloomberg, on the other hand, was aggressive with technology and made funds available because he saw the value in it, according to Salamone.

The crucial difference between Bloomberg and de Blasio when it comes to technology, however, will be in how their organizations are structured. Bloomberg had strong commissioners, Salamone said, which meant powerful, well-run organizations that weren’t especially well-coordinated with one another. De Blasio, he said, is unlikely to use that same approach and will probably go back to the strong deputy mayor model.

The critical element in any government is competent executive leadership, Salamone said, and within a couple of months, it will be clear whether de Blasio’s approach of pursuing progressive female and minority officials for city leadership positions has paid off. De Blasio must also take care that his emphasis on progressive social reform does not take resources away from technology, Salamone said, a move akin to killing the golden goose.

Governance Structure Critical

Avi Duvdevani, a mostly retired IT executive who worked for New York City for almost 40 years and played a central role in creating the city’s first technology agency, agreed with Salamone that governance structure will be a deciding factor in how the city’s technology is run under de Blasio. De Blasio’s decision to only hire progressives is “totally unnecessary,” Duvdevani said.

“We’ve seen over the past 20 years, regardless of the political views of either Mayor Bloomberg or Mayor Giuliani, they’ve had opposing political people do good work because they’re able to do good work, not because they have a particular ideology,” he said. “To govern, you have to govern from the center, not from the left or the right and you have to be inclusive to get the kind of policies you want. ‘I want people who only think like me’ is a very bad mistake, I think.”

To succeed, de Blasio will need to build on the city’s existing technology strengths, Duvdevani added. That will include running a “credible governance process” supported from the top, not from commissioners that continually fight with one another, because that’s what commissioners do, he said.

“They’re facing a multi-billion dollar budget deficit over the coming years,” he said. “The way to attack that is to drive the cost of business down and doing that without reducing services means leveraging technology to improve the business processes.”

When asked if he liked de Blasio’s chances of doing a good job with technology in New York, Duvdevani did not have many supportive things to say. One good thing, he said, is that there are some women in the city’s IT structure now who are acting as change agents and if they manage to keep their positions, it will be good for the city. The bad side of de Blasio’s election, Duvdevani said, is that he got elected with the help of special interests like unions, to which he will now be beholden. That’s not encouraging, based on the historical impact of unions on technological progress, he said.

“I wish I was optimistic,” Duvdevani said.

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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