In a closely watched shift, New Jersey has effectively eliminated cash bail for people accused of low-level crimes and replaced it with a system that weighs detainment after a crime based upon risk assessments. Under the traditional bail system, low-income defendants can get stuck in the equivalent of a debtor’s prison as they await trial, which can create a spiraling effect whereby they lose their job, then their housing, and potentially contact with their family. A 2013 study found that nearly 40 percent of people in New Jersey jails were only there because they could not afford to pay their bail. Judges will be guided by a risk-assessment tool to decide if a potentially dangerous defendant is likely to flee or commit another crime, and will have the discretion to hold them without bail, or to place them under curfew or with a GPS monitor.
San Diego is launching a new “operational excellence” academy to help its workers learn how to cut costs and streamline operations in order to reduce the need for layoffs or service cuts and to improve service delivery. Building on a 2015 program where hundreds of city employees suggested ideas that now save the city around $1.3 million a year, the academy will help employees not only to generate ideas but will also teach them how to implement those ideas independently. The voluntary instruction will also provide employees with the tools to analyze every step that goes into completing a task, to search for ways to compress or eliminate some, and to educate them about common inefficiencies that can occur in agencies. Officials’ initial goal is to have 1 percent of the city workforce charter at least one efficiency project each year.
In a unique move, Philadelphia will assist its residents who are behind on their water bills by tying water rates to income level. Under the Tiered Assistance Program (TAP), participating customers will pay a fixed amount for their water bill, starting at $12 per month, based upon income. To encourage participation in the program, existing debt will be indefinitely suspended upon entry to the program and the penalties and interest on that debt will be forgiven after two years of on-time payments. Officials hope to enroll tens of thousands of households in the new program and will be monitoring the effects on the water department’s budget.
Delaware is closing in on the adoption of blockchain technology to assist companies doing business in the state to better handle their corporate documents. Blockchain, touted for its security and low costs, is the open technology employed by Bitcoin, which allows users to make and verify transactions automatically, encrypting data as network users share information from an open digital ledger. The state is working on using the technology to distribute, share, and save corporate documents such as ledgers and contracts, allowing more ease of access to these materials for a company’s constituents, shareholders, and employees as well as allowing for longer retention periods. The Delaware Public Archives will use the technology to archive and encrypt government archives later this year.
In Amsterdam, city officials are working on an upcoming project that has been described as an Airbnb for municipal buildings. The pilot would allow residents to sign up and use city-owned, underused meeting rooms for various functions. To ensure that there would be no competition with companies that provide office space, usage would be limited to groups working for a social purpose. Depending upon the success of the project, the city may also offer idle cars and tools for citizens to borrow.
To encourage greater civic engagement, the Georgia city of Brookhaven will start offering supervised recreational activities for children while their parents attend city council or other city business meetings. Believed to be one of the first such initiatives in the public sector, the Kids Night In program will feature Parks and Recreation Department staff who will be on hand to supervise as children play games or watch movies, and to assist with homework, no matter how long the meeting lasts. The city will pilot the program for six months to determine if it should become permanent.
San Francisco is joining a growing number of government units experimenting with “basic income” to assure that its residents can pay for daily essentials. San Francisco will focus its pilot on families with children, and will used evidence-based research to compare those children in families that are receiving basic income with children in families receiving other social services. As automation and artificial intelligence disrupt industries and economies, national and international policymakers are taking a close look at the effectiveness of measures such as basic income to strengthen the social safety net and to prevent those in need from slipping further into poverty. Similar programs are being tested in Oakland, Finland, and parts of India.
Las Vegas will soon become the first place in the country to have vending machines that dispense free needles to drug users as part of an effort to reduce the transmission of diseases like HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. The vending machines will dispense kits that contain a box of sterile syringes and needles, along with a compartment for used needles that can be disposed of safely at the machines. In addition, an information sheet about treatment options will be included. The cost of each kit is under $10, but will be free for users. Organizers note that providing free and easy access to clean needles will reduce both the spread of infectious diseases and health-care costs. The effectiveness of traditional needle exchange programs has been widely documented.
Ready or not, driverless cars are coming, and Bloomberg Philanthropies in partnership with 10 cities is working to ensure that all are prepared for what will be an urban planning reformation. Austin, Los Angeles, Nashville, Buenos Aires, and Paris will serve as the first five participants in conversations to forge policy recommendations concerning how cities maintain their roads, tackle pedestrian safety, train their workers, plan their use of land, and even address economic mobility as vehicle automation becomes a part of city life.
Ramsey County, Minnesota, is part of a growing movement that is reevaluating how to measure success in welfare-to-work programs. Rather than client meetings best summed up as detached compliance checks and timesheet audits, employment counselors are helping clients to critically self-assess their circumstances, draft long-term plans, and chart their own career paths. This holistic approach employs over 20 nuanced indicators of success in categories related to job retention, educational attainment, and engagement with workforce development resources — not just whether the clients are employed. Counselors are also working with their clients to learn about and address the particular background issues that may be preventing them from staying employed. Further, the state has created a “self-support index” that studies how people are doing three years after first receiving assistance. The county is still studying whether their approach is more effective than traditional welfare counseling, but initial results look promising.
To maximize available public resources and reduce reliance on outsourcing of tasks to external consultants, Singapore’s government has launched a program to encourage its public employees to share their skills across various departments within the agencies in which they work. Under an internal Facebook-based platform, users can request assistance for tasks such as document translation, video production, corporate planning, and organizational development. After a task is completed, users and the departments that “hosted” them can mutually rate each other according to performance in a manner similar to Airbnb and Uber. Officials hope the move will encourage government employees to explore freelance opportunities within their own agencies, and help to empower and motivate them. The initiative began in October and the pilot is running for six months.
An increasing number of cities are exploring a shift to open-source voting projects to increase the transparency and the integrity of the vote-count system. San Francisco, for example, is looking to develop its own open source software that it would own and share. Supporters of these efforts observe that unlike private vendors’ systems, open source technology is cheaper, runs on off-the-shelf hardware, and the code is viewable by anyone, thereby increasing the confidence of citizens that their votes are being accurately counted. San Francisco’s Elections Commission wants the technology in place by the 2020 elections.
Over the past year, Albuquerque, New Mexico, has created a program designed to both curb panhandling and give those in need the chance to earn money. Under “There’s a Better Way,” the city hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city. Several days a week, a van is dispatched around the city to pick up those panhandlers (about ten per day) interested in working for $9 an hour plus lunch. Overnight shelter services are provided as needed at the end of the shift. The city estimates that it has not only provided over 900 jobs clearing tens of thousands of pounds of litter and weeds, but that the program has connected people to permanent employment as well as other services. Other cities have reached out to Albuquerque officials to learn more about the program.
New York City’s residential organics collection program, already the largest in the country, is slated to further expand, with officials planning for all city residents to have a way to recycle their food scraps as well as leaf and yard waste by the end of next year. Aside from transforming these tons of organic matter into compost, the city will soon be converting a significant portion of the waste into biogas. New York’s rollout will also serve as a proving ground for other cities looking to implement their own ambitious food scrap recycling and organic waste diversion process.
Innisfil, Ontario, has become the first town to partner with ride-hailing service Uber to provide full on-demand transit service. Residents of the town with a population of 36,000 will be able to book trips anytime, with certain destinations having a flat rate. The town, which has set aside $100,000 Canadian dollars for the six-month pilot, will subsidize the fares. The move responds in part to the potential costs of adding formal transportation to the town — estimated to be around $1 million for purchasing two buses, hiring drivers, and putting in bus stops. Critics note that ride-sharing services may decrease public transit usage and resources and increase rush-hour congestion.