In a move resembling the private sector’s “secret shopper” program to monitor its customer service, the city of Somerville, Massachusetts, has launched a “Secret Resident” program that will use resident volunteers to provide feedback on the city’s interactions with the public. After volunteers complete customer service training, they will engage with city departments to assess and evaluate the accuracy, efficiency, and ease of customer service. Assignments include trips to department offices to ask about filing permits, calls to the city’s 311 hotline, and engagement with parking enforcement.
To help alleviate hunger in the community by delivering nutritious food to those who need it, sheriff’s deputies in Minneapolis have teamed up with the nonprofit “Matter” to distribute healthful food boxes. Taking advantage of the daily patrols that officers make through their communities, the nonprofit is loading orange boxes filled with oatmeal and fruit as well as full, shelf-stable meals into patrol cars for distribution. Organizers hope that this alternative distribution network will not only help ease short-term food security issues, but also strengthen community engagement. A similar partnership with local schools and a hospital might also occur.
Sometimes called the world’s most humane maximum-security prison, Norway’s Halden Fengsel (Halden Prison) has been studied internationally for its focus on rehabilitation that is reflected in its design — from ambient vegetation to regular furniture — all in service of simulating normal life outside the prison. The prison promotes “dynamic security,” which stresses interpersonal relationships with the staff to create a sense of community and preserve safety. And the prison hosts several activities that vary from cooking certification courses, sports leagues, and music endeavors. Some observers note that figures on the effectiveness of the prison, which has only operated since 2010, remain incomplete.
The city of Detroit has launched a new program that will pair owners of vacant buildings with small business entrepreneurs, as well as provide funding to help these businesses get off the ground. Under the new five-year Motor City Match program, Detroit will award up to $500,000 in funding on a quarterly basis from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and philanthropic groups to entrepreneurs, matching them with property owners in strategic commercial areas where the city is looking to redevelop. The program has the twin goals of encouraging energetic budding business leaders to come or remain in Detroit while helping to populate long-vacant storefronts. Businesses best-positioned to receive funding will be those with strong business plans, economic demand, and leadership teams with good track records.
France is mandating that all rooftops on new commercial buildings be partially covered in plants or solar panels. Green roofs offer a host of benefits, from improving air quality, retaining rainwater to reduce runoff, helping reduce the amount of energy needed to heat a building in winter and cool it in summer, and providing nesting grounds for birds. Toronto, Canada, and Basel, Switzerland, also require rooftop vegetation for some buildings.
In Bexar County, Texas, a small pilot program allowing deployed soldiers in combat zones to vote by e-mail is being touted as a success. Although soldiers stationed overseas can already request a ballot electronically, they then must print them out, complete their votes, and send them in via regular mail — actions that are not always practical given their circumstances. The state is poised to expand the pilot program to other areas. Eighteen states currently allow military voters to submit absentee ballots through e-mail, and several other states allow it in limited circumstances.