‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’: CouncilStat Fails at Increasing Transparency

Want to know how well your councilmember responds to constituent requests? Good luck finding out.

‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’: CouncilStat Fails at Increasing Transparency

Bed-Stuy Councilmember Chi Ossé's office has handled over 1,000 constituent cases so far this year, said Elijah Fox, Ossé's communications manager. Requests range from food stamps to green cards.

"We have 1,000s of success stories," Fox said.

On CouncilStat, the publicly available reporting system for city councilors' constituent service cases, Ossé's account only has 58 filed for the first half of 2022. Outside of the data published online, Fox said, the rest is tracked internally within the councilmember's office.

Six months into the year, staff for the 16 Brooklyn councilmembers has filed just over 4,000 constituent service requests into the system, almost half from just one office. Many councilmembers and their staff say that most of their constituent service cases are not filed into the 'flawed' CouncilStat, leading some to use non-public and potentially unsecured alternatives to collect data, which is what CouncilStat was created to fix.

The 2015 city council reinforced the current iteration of CouncilStat through the "Council 2.0" plan, looking to increase accountability and inclusion for the city council. The dataset aims to "increase transparency (and) improve understanding," the City wrote.

"CouncilStat is a good effort," said Councilmember Crystal Hudson. "I think it's an attempt to centralize information from all council offices, but I think it's outdated. I don't think it's as efficient as it could be. I don't think it's very reliable."

Hudson's account on CouncilStat lists only 219 cases for the first half of the year, while she said the office has handled "at least" 500.

Michael Whiteside, Councilmember Shahana Hanif's communications director, told Bklyner in an email that the office has dealt with a few hundred cases so far this year. CouncilStat only lists 47.

"This number also isn't an accurate reflection of the constituent work we do," Whiteside added in the email. "Not only do our case managers speak to dozens of people a day, but many cases also require multiple meetings and follow-ups over weeks to ensure a good resolution."

In Brooklyn, Councilmember Inna Vernikov had the highest number of cases entered into CouncilStat, listing 1,550 in the first six months of the year, followed by Councilmember Mercedes Narcisse. Vernikov's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Councilmember Justin Brannan had the sixth highest recorded number of cases in Brooklyn so far this year, which he attributed to his experienced staff.

But he, too, said that "CouncilStat is more of like a dinosaur at this point."

This means that the map below, based on official data, is likely misleading.

NYC OpenData acknowledges that many councilmembers collect data differently, making it difficult to utilize CouncilStat to compare different districts, and notes that "Not all offices use the program." Within Councilmember Alexa Avilés' office, her Communications Manager James Neimeister explained that shorter interactions are uploaded as "contacts" and do not appear within CouncilStat's public-facing data.

The office only migrated to CouncilStat in April, Neimeister said, leading CouncilStat to only display 281 cases for the first half of the year despite the dozens of people they talk to daily.

If councilmembers and their staff are not using the public system, a staffer who wished to remain anonymous wondered, "How is the public supposed to know we're even doing our jobs?"

"We are, and we're trying to use CouncilStat, but we're not happy," the staff member continued. "When the process isn't standardized, you have flawed inputs that are leading to flawed outputs, and that's called 'garbage in, garbage out.'"

The amount of information entered into the system has dropped over the past five years, with the number of constituent service requests for Brooklyn councilmembers plummeting from 9,062 in the first six months of 2017 to 1,762 in the first half of 2021.

The offices of councilmembers Hanif and Hudson, along with Ossé, all told Bklyner that they also keep track of constituent service information outside of the public CouncilStat system.

Such recordkeeping raises concerns over the data's security, but councilmembers Ossé and Hanif assured us the data is securely stored on the city council's servers.

"We work with Council IT to ensure this data is always secure," Whiteside added in an email statement.

Most councilmembers and their staff to whom we spoke blamed the unintuitive, clunky and unreliable system for the large amounts of data missing from the publicly available database.

Hudson said her office gets constituent service requests from various untraditional avenues, such as direct messages over social media and people sometimes asking her staff and herself questions on the street. She said collecting all this information from various sources makes it difficult to keep CouncilStat updated.

Some staff in district offices may be unfamiliar with how to use the database, and there may be too few of them.

"Unfortunately, there was one or two training sessions for it at the very beginning of the term and then never again as far as I know," Fox said. [ed. The current council term started on January 1, 2022.] Ossé's office is adding a new member to their staff who will focus primarily on constituent services, and according to Fox, the new hire will help his office handle more cases and upload them to CouncilStat.

"The fact that that is only open data if it's in (CouncilStat) is unfortunate," Fox said. "We would love for everyone to know just how many cases we're handling, how many folks we're helping."