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New York City’s Big Bet on Customer Focus

In bringing its technology functions together, the city is trying to deal with goals often at tension with each other, while finding better ways to serve its residents at an enterprise level. There will be much to learn from this effort.

New York City skyline
In bringing New York City’s technology functions together, Mayor Eric Adams aims to move agencies’ focus to enterprise-level efficiency. (Shutterstock)
Government innovation can mean many things, especially when it involves the application of new technologies. And for an agency or other unit charged with driving innovation, semantics matter as much as does its technical approach.

In New York City, Matt Fraser, the city’s chief technology officer, has a newly expanded portfolio that now includes innovation as well as a host of other technology responsibilities. At its heart, it’s an effort to define innovation as finding ways to better serve the city’s ultimate customers — its residents and businesses — while bringing new efficiencies across the multiple agencies that deliver services to them. It’s an experiment that bears watching by local governments everywhere.

Last year, Mayor Eric Adams reorganized the city’s tech portfolio under a new Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI), bringing together formerly independent agencies including the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), NYC Cyber Command, the Office of Information Privacy, the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics, NYC311 and the city’s algorithms management and policy officer.

Yet neither OTI’s new size nor scope will ensure that the hoped-for innovations come easily. The Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, for instance, has long straddled somewhat inconsistent missions: to provide services to other agencies, viewing them as customers, while also ensuring that tech decisions benefit the city as a whole. Fraser is working to overcome the long-standing bureaucratic tension that occurs when a group sets both the standards and protocols necessary for consistency across agencies while at the same time treating each of those agencies as customers.

Providing support while imposing consistency is no easy task. I remember a decade ago, as deputy mayor of operations for Mayor Mike Bloomberg, working to change the city’s Microsoft contract from one that gave individual departments control of contract terms and business-process services to one that consolidated that authority across agencies. What surfaced during those negotiations was a wide range of agency-level modifications that suited their needs but increased pricing and reduced transformation opportunities at the enterprise level.

Ensuring consistency and interoperability raises these inevitable tensions. Fraser noted that “previous tech investments were often scattershot,” meaning that each agency made a determination on what was in its own best interest. Now, Fraser said, “we take a step back and say, ‘All right, how is this particular department-level effort going to work with everything else that's going on in the city?’”

Assisting departments in conducting their daily functions, including providing employees the data and analytic tools they need for more effective decision-making, remains a core function of the newly consolidated IT effort. Fraser’s department provides a wide-ranging set of those services internally through its call center management, the NYCStat performance system, NYC Data and the Office of Data Analytics, long one of the country’s preeminent examples of a public-sector internal data service.

But while these functions are important, too often the application of technology in a city agency focuses on helping employees perform their daily functions more efficiently without having a direct impact on residents. That exclusive focus on internal work misses the ultimate point: Government exists for the purpose of improving residents’ quality of life. Reforms should be focused on service standards, not bureaucratic accomplishments.

For Fraser, balance means that anything that evolves from the innovation work must focus on the needs of the resident, not the agency. He provided the example of the Department of Buildings (DoB), which, although not a large agency, affects the financial health of the city. It interacts with more than a dozen other departments and has been the subject of reform efforts for a long time, but too many of these efficiency efforts have been defined at the agency level and not at the enterprise level. Fraser explained that agencies have built their positions around the normal tendency to view reform from the perspective of the agency’s identity. Unfortunately, that filter can mean that a department improves its processes without improving the customer’s results.

“We hear it takes forever to get through the DoB process,” Fraser added, “but because of the way things are disjointed now, [DoB’s work] may be done but still waiting for the fire sprinkler inspection or other sign offs.” This created frustration for applicants who didn’t understand the steps, the delays or who was responsible. It was clear that residents needed more transparency, to be able to see the number of days from submission to approval for each step. “We are actively working toward the goal of being able to see how long it takes a person to go to another agency that has a codependency from an approval perspective,” Fraser said, “and we and the applicant can actually follow the job and make improvements in that overall workflow.”

Fraser’s focus on the ultimate customer, with the strong backing of the mayor and broad authority to combine a set of functions, should provide him with the foundation necessary for change. However, in a system as large as New York’s he will need to push these innovations while resolving the tensions that span oversight, security, privacy and day-to-day activities. There will be valuable lessons in how this ambitious experiment in technology-driven innovation evolves.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He can be reached at
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