Vying for the Democratic nomination to replace term-limited Michael Nelson in the City Council’s 48th District, Natraj Bhushan is making technology the cornerstone of his platform, saying that a councilman’s office should be a hub for information and innovation.
The 27-year-old Brighton Beach native, son of an Indian father and Pakistani mother, has provided legal assistance to constituents in Nelson’s office during and after Superstorm Sandy. He later moved on to providing services at Councilmember Leory Comerie’s office. His experience in those roles, he said, has inspired him to conceive of software to better empower residents through adding transparency and efficiency to constituent services.
“I believe, if you empower the community to solve its own problems, you don’t need us [elected officials]. We’re in the background. I want to de-emphasize the individual and emphasize the community,” he told Sheepshead Bites. “And I think the way you do that is to give everybody the resources. Give them the information.”
To begin with, Bhushan said he would develop a website as simple to use as Google or Craigslist that would allow people to ask questions, find resources to solve their problems, and keep track of ongoing issues.
“Something real basic that constituents could just hop onto their phone, type in some of their issues, and if they’ve been addressed already the FAQs of that particular problem would say if you have this problem, here’s what you need to do,” he said.
He noted that City Councilmembers already have a version of this tool available, called CouncilStat. Staffers for councilmembers log complaints from the community, and track them as they work through City government. But the program is only for members of the Council and does not share data with the public – or with similar services like 311.
Bhushan envisions a public-facing system, allowing constituents to see the problems their neighbors are having, and adding a layer of accountability.
“What’s there for the community? How do we follow up on our own issues? There’s stuff on there that’s two years old,” he said. “I think if we had a website where we could actually keep track of the issues that would lead us to pass better legislation. Constituents could visually see where everything’s going on and hold our feet to the fire.”
Time and time again, he said, he and his colleagues working constituent services frequently found themselves answering the same problems. Solving that by creating a clearing house for common issues, and using technology to reach constituents with those solutions, would also free up staffers to work on other priorities.
“If 50 people have an issue with streetlights on the boardwalk, I don’t see the need to make 50 phone calls. I think if you simply have an e-mail list-serv that addresses all those constituents in one shot, in frees up our time and our resources, too. The problem is that [the current system] is very antiquated.”
He began to see a stronger incentive to build out local technological infrastructure after Superstorm Sandy swept into the neighborhood, and relief efforts were marred by a lack of organization and cooperation among responding agencies.
“When I lost power for 18 days after the hurricane, it was an article on [Sheepshead] Bites that told me about the Con Ed certification process. And I’m telling you this as an attorney working in Councilman Nelson’s office,” he said. “And obviously upon learning this information, I was the one going around to my neighbors and saying ‘Look, I found this, there’s all these rebates.'”
The website Bhushan envisions would also play a pivotal role in disaster response, and he has touted it at local candidates’ forums as part of his plan for future storm preparations.
“I would study the blueprint laid out by organizations like Occupy Sandy; they used social media to organize all these efforts and procure all these resources for the district. I would take that as a blueprint,” he said at the Manhattan Beach Community Group forum last week. “No one really knows what kind of resources we have, and we have plenty of them. I would organize them. I would setup a website that lists all the district’s resources. It’s not sufficient to say that, as public servants, we don’t have access to our phones and we can’t help you. We’ve got to do better than that.”
Such solutions, Bhushan said, would also help increase participation among younger portions of the electorate. Not only can they report and solve problems in a way that they’re more familiar with than telephones and letter-writing, but the website would help steer them towards volunteer and career opportunities.
That’s not to say, though, that Bhushan would do away with traditional means of constituent services and information delivery. Instead, they would grow the percentage of people engaged in their community by opening up new venues of communication.
“These things would be complements; they wouldn’t be replacing what’s already there. These seniors depend on phone calls. But we need to be doing a better job to get info out there,” he said.
He added that more and more seniors are using smartphones and other devices every day, and some might find this more convenient.
To pay for the development, he said he’d draw from his office’s operating and staffing budget, rather than a separate allocation. He’d keep costs down by using already available solutions, as well as partnering with local colleges to leverage the knowledge of computer science students.
“We’re not talking about rocket science, we’re talking about people interested in applying what they’ve learned,” he said.
But the City is not new to technological development – and the ensuing boondoggles.
Technological innovation has been a cornerstone of the Bloomberg administration, to mixed success. Services like 311 are seen as a black hole for complaints, while the new 911 system has been accused of increasing emergency response times. CityTime, which was intended to save the city money by digitizing payroll services, instead caused more than $600 million in cost overruns. Furthermore, 311 does not share data with local stakeholders, like the Community Board or local councilmembers, nor does it integrate with parallel systems like CouncilStat.
Bhushan said the key to avoiding the mess is in the public-facing transparency and keeping to a philosophy of simplicity. By involving the community in the development process, and sharing all data with the public, Bhushan said such problems could be avoided.
“If we were to involve the community in this process, getting students involved, getting the community, that’s how we ensure these systems are actually accountable and reliable and actually doing what they were intended to do,” he said. “We have to have some sort of link to what’s currently there so everyone has access to the same information … What I want is the entire community working for all of us. There will be a customer service component to it, and that’s the accountability that 311 lacks.”
Regardless of whether or not he wins the primary on September 10 – when he faces off against Community Board 15 Chair Theresa Scavo, fellow Nelson aide Chaim Deutsch, attorney Igor Oberman, and activist Ari Kagan – he said he’ll still be pushing for innovation in information delivery to the community.
“I think it’s necessary. I think the community wants it. So this concept, if I have to use my own money to do it, I definitely will. If one of the other candidates gets elected, they can rely on my support. I think that’s what it takes, I think we all have to work together,” he said.