So the unit applies what it calls “campaign tactics” to policy implementation, proactively engaging with New Yorkers through door knocking, phone banking, text messages, emails, and public events to share information about city services like rent assistance, public transportation subsidies, and—of course—health care and help people sign up for them.
“My goal and my team’s goal is to limit the technical complexity and, as much as possible, also minimize the amount of times that you have to provide the same piece of information.”
Matt Fraser, NYC chief technology officer
The specific outreach approach depends on the population involved. For young people in the city, texts alone might do the trick. If the unit wants to target seniors, it might also start with a mass text campaign, since most people are comfortable with cell phones, and quickly move on to door knocking and in-person support for those who don’t respond to texts. To reach those who are not accessible by phone or at home, staffers work with community-based organizations and in public spaces like libraries to meet people in person.
I recently tested the PEU’s system, texting the unit to ask for help with my health insurance options. I received an immediate text back and two follow-up calls the same day. When I didn’t reply, I continued to get texts and calls consistently throughout the week until I informed them that I did not need help any longer. It was almost annoying, but it was effective.
The PEU has seen that people are significantly more likely to sign up for government programs when the city comes to them, whether it’s through texts, calls, or some other approach. In one study of a campaign to enroll New Yorkers in the Fair Fares program, the PEU targeted people already registered in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), since the eligibility requirements are similar. It found that people it texted were 46% more likely to sign up for Fair Fares than those it didn’t reach out to. And eligible New Yorkers who texted back were 168% more likely to enroll.
Avoiding techno-solutionist traps
The PEU is proving that more, or more complicated, tech is not always the answer. Shiny tech-savvy government projects touted by politicians can prove to be radical letdowns. Take blockchain voting, which West Virginia briefly piloted during the 2020 election; after much media attention, the experiment was abandoned once it was clear the technology couldn’t provide any increased security for electronic voting.
Or consider the rise, and rapid fall, of education technology programs during the pandemic; at first, Zoom and personalized online lessons seemed like a great way to replace in-person teaching, but core learning metrics dipped dramatically across the country.
In many cases, advances in technology meant to help implement public policy have actually harmed people they were supposed to help. Think of electronic health records, which have led to infringements on patient privacy, and even deaths, caused by data errors. Or the use of facial recognition in policing, which is less accurate for Black and brown people, leading to false arrests and actually decreasing public safety for large swaths of the population.
But this hasn’t stopped political leaders from pinning their administrations’ fates on new technology, even in New York City.
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