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Revitalizing and Revamping City Hall

Jorge Elorza’s Five-Point Plan for Improving City Services and Investing in Innovation

The overarching motivation behind our One Providence campaign is to make Providence a city that works for everyone. Paying taxes means our citizens have a right to demand high-level government services; that begins with making City services as effective and accessible as possible. I believe City Hall should have a “customer service” attitude and that City government should address concerns like repairing potholes and plowing snow as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

That’s why I’m proposing a five-point plan that focuses on innovation, community access, technological improvements, communication, and accountability.

1. Appoint a Chief Innovation Officer

The Chief Innovation Officer (CINO) will be a cabinet-level “solution broker” for the City. The CINO will have the authority and responsibility to oversee the administrative functions of every department in the City. The CINO will prepare reports on both the performance of City departments and departmental needs, as well as engage City workers to propose solutions and to find efficiencies.

Here’s what a Chief Innovation Officer will do:
– Bring together department heads and agencies. For example, our fire department, waste removal, and neighborhood services divisions need to work together to address issues before they become emergencies. Being proactive not only makes life better for everyone, but also saves the City money over the long term.
– Be an advocate and guide for business people at City Hall. In some cities, either the mayor or another high level official will be present in meetings with developers and business people to ensure that they are being properly and effectively shepherded through all of the departments and processes required to achieve results. The CINO will be a cabinet-level presence in such meetings.
– Track effectiveness. Technological improvements will result in the collection of data that can be analyzed to establish best practices and improve the functioning of City services. In order to truly leverage those benefits, it is necessary to have a CINO focused specifically on this task. For example, snow removal and pothole repair are high priorities for all citizens. The CINO can not only monitor the progress of such work to ensure that it’s done in a timely and fiscally responsible fashion, but also track the effectiveness of various efforts around the city to establish a set of best practices. It’s important not only that the job gets done, but that it gets done correctly.
– Give citizens easy, real-time access to the data behind big decisions. We will begin by enacting the City Hall reforms outlined by the Open Providence Commission for Accountability and Transparency.
– Increase engagement at the neighborhood level. The CINO will work with the Office of Neighborhood Services to participate in regular “office hours” with the Mayor in all 15 of Providence’s wards, and address complex challenges by expanding “cross-sector” initiatives like the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet. A Community Cabinet will be established that reports back to the neighborhoods through these channels of interconnectivity.

2. Move ONS into the community

The stated mission of the Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Services (ONS) is to link the greater community to City services and programs, provide an opportunity to voice concerns, and resolve complaints. The best way to fulfill this mission is to move ONS back into the neighborhoods and make it more accessible within City Hall.

Here’s what we will do:
– Continue “My Time with the Mayor.” Once a month, any resident will have the opportunity for a one-on-one audience with me to address any concern. This is an important tradition that I will carry on.
– Create new opportunities for direct engagement. City officials must listen to community concerns by being regularly present at libraries, recreation centers, senior centers, parks, and community meetings. We can partner with local businesses, grocery stores, and other community agencies to connect with more members of the community, get feedback, and improve services.
– Create an ONS “help desk” on the first floor of City Hall. This will provide an opportunity to greet residents and help them take care of their City Hall business in a quick and pleasant manner.

3. Create a direct 3-1-1 hotline

Residents need a direct line to the City, and communication between the City and its residents needs to be both proactive and responsive. The Mayor’s Office currently has a main line (401-421-2489) residents can call to log requests and retrieve information. Many other cities, however, simplify this with a 3-1-1 hotline.

Here’s what we will do:
– Change the number. By establishing a short and easy to remember number, it is more likely that the hotline will be utilized.
– Create a campaign to advertise the number. We need to get the word out to encourage citizens to use this hotline.
– Build upon the existing framework of ProvConnex and 401-421-2489 to offer additional services. For instance, New York City’s 3-1-1 number allows residents to pay a parking ticket, find critical benefits or food stamp assistance information, obtain vital records, or report noise from a neighbor. Providence already has a fantastic network infrastructure in place, but there is room for technological improvement and expansion of services.

4. Bring City Hall functions into the 21st century

Engaging with City offices can often be a frustrating and time-consuming experience, requiring citizens to appear in person to conduct business that could easily be done online and forcing them to navigate processes that don’t take into account either the expectations or the technological advantages of the modern world. The Board of Licenses and the Office of Vital Statistics, for example, are jointly responsible for the processing of licenses, the regulation of distributed licenses, and the maintenance of records of birth, death, and marriage. These offices’ current procedures are outdated, unable to meet constituent needs, and inconsistent with our changing technological world. Many of the most basic City licenses require paying by check or money order and appearing in person to complete the entirety of the application. A few simple fixes can make it easier for residents to start a business, obtain an entertainment license, get an overnight parking pass, and access other services without spending unnecessary time in line or on hold.

Here’s what we will do:
– Digitize payments and records. I will bring Square credit card readers into the offices and online payment options to the website to offer citizens more options and greater convenience in accessing City services.
– Invest in a modern cash register at City Hall that accepts credit cards. This makes services more accessible and produces valuable data for City staff to analyze trends and track progress. For example, our current system requires manual counting to discover how many licenses have been given out per day, hour, or week.
– Put licensing applications online. This makes them easier to submit, and better enables people to know what opportunities exist. This makes the customer service experience better, and frees up staff to focus on more important things than paperwork.
– Continue to improve and update our permitting processes. The relatively new ProvSmart infrastructure allowed the City to move plan-review and permit-application processes online. This was an important first step, but we need to continue making progress. For example, neither the ProvSmart system nor the City’s permitting guide are available in Spanish, which makes it difficult for thousands of our residents to do business. The CINO will be responsible for monitoring this system, tracking its effectiveness through data collection, and recommending and implementing improvements.

5. Create a more flexible car tax payment system

Currently, the car tax is administered quarterly, which creates budgeting issues for citizens who have difficulty planning for four infrequent, but larger, payments per year. This system is difficult for residents, particularly for seniors, and it is inefficient for the City, as it receives payments less frequently. We can remedy this problem simply by creating a system under which payments can be made monthly. Both the City and its residents will enjoy a greater degree of financial flexibility by having the option to pay on a monthly basis.

Here’s what we will do:
– Create a monthly payment system. This will better allow citizens to budget for their payments.
– Create a new EFT (Electronic Funds Transfer) system. Residents will be able to both pay their bill online and set up an automatic monthly payment. Online and automatic bill pay conveniences are commonplace in this day and age – why not extend these amenities to our hardworking taxpayers?
– Use the stability and predictability offered by the new payment system to fund other improvements. The new system will make taxpayer dollars go further. Costs of implementing this EFT system will be offset by the investing potential that monthly payments will create for the City. The City will invest the tax money coming in every month, rather than every four months, in order to earn more interest. This interest will be paid forward to the taxpayers by helping to fund the improvements to the accessibility and accountability of City services prescribed in this proposal.

Creating One Providence means making the technological and administrative changes necessary to deliver more effective and efficient City services and making those services available to every resident of Providence. As Mayor, making City Hall more responsive, improving the customer service experience in our departments, and aggregating data that can be analyzed to deliver more effective solutions will be top priorities for me.

Ultimately, I know that City government is about the nuts and bolts that make up the system. We can’t invest in the larger economic development ideas unless we are running an effective administration that is able to accomplish the daily business of our City and citizens. To strengthen our economy, City Hall must be an advocate for business. One simple way to accomplish this is to make City services more accessible, transparent, and easier to navigate. We simply cannot afford to make potential business owners, developers, and investors jump through hoops in order to do business here. My plan for City services will make City Hall more proactive and responsive. This is the low-hanging fruit of economic development.

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