This blog is part of the civic engagement blog series released in tandem with the "Building Civic Capacity in a Time of Democratic Crisis" white paper. To read the rest of the series, click here.
The 2016 Presidential election demonstrated the divide between the federal government and citizens. The electorate voted for a president who pledged to cut back federal programs, and he proposed a budget that did just that; diminishing the services designed to most help those that voted for him.
Local governments have a unique opportunity to bridge the divide between government and citizens by executing effective government, building positive relationships with their constituents, and encouraging them to make their voices heard in government decisions.
In New York City, the municipal government’s Public Engagement Unit (PEU) is addressing this issue by meeting residents where they are—at their homes—with grassroots tactics like phone calls and door knocks. The PEU proactively connects vulnerable people with benefit programs, including health insurance, anti-eviction legal counsel, homelessness financial assistance, workforce training, rent freeze programs and more, so they can stay in their homes and thrive in the city they love. When new issues arise that affect New Yorkers, the administration leverages its PEU as a frontline unit to get the word out about issues like public health awareness, new Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) renewal deadlines, free summer meals and more.
The PEU builds relationships between New Yorkers and their government. It gives vulnerable, often disconnected constituents a personal access point to the city with someone who is often from their neighborhood and speaks their language. In short, the PEU specialist acts as an entry point to the city. Specialists leave their contact information with the people they speak to and—in addition to case managing New Yorkers through a range of specific city services—take incoming calls from community members, and encourage them to make their voices heard at community events like town hall meetings.
The program combats constituents’ feeling that “government doesn’t work for me” and provides them a relationship with government—many called the PEU after Donald Trump was elected to talk to someone they trusted about what it meant for them. A by-product of effective government is hopefully the building of a constituency that wants to invest in their relationship with government, participate proactively, and generate a virtuous cycle of engagement.
Because the Public Engagement Unit is the first of its kind, it offers a new model for municipal innovation in civic outreach. Its director, Regina Schwartz sat down with Elena Souris to explain more about the PEU model, how it’s different, where it fits into the city ecosystem, its limitations, and its successes.
How would you describe what your organization does if you ran into a random New Yorker on the street?
“Well, there’s what we actually say when we knock on a New Yorker’s door. If it’s our Tenant Support Unit we say: 'Hi, I’m Gina, a Tenant Support Specialist with the City of New York. I’m here to provide support to tenants in the community by connecting them with resources and services created by the City.' We go on to ask them if they are having issues with repairs or with eviction, if they need rental assistance. Our GetCoveredNYC team asks if they need health insurance. Once we begin to have a dialogue, we form a connection and help them with a range of issues.
If you want to know what we do at the Public Engagement Unit as a whole, I would say the PEU is a new type of outreach team whose job it is to reach New Yorkers who are often disconnected from their government and make sure they have the resources and support they need to live in the city we all love. We do that by forming personal connections with those who are most likely to need assistance, helping them understand what they are eligible for, and making sure they are enrolled in those city services. We then open up an avenue for dialogue to improve their lives and their community. By using data and investing in technology and tools, PEU makes our outreach and service delivery more efficient and effective.”
How is that different from the way cities usually do outreach?
“Usually people get connected to city services either through a community organization that they’re a member of or at an administrative agency office in their area when they know what service they need. These pathways work well for people who are connected in their communities and are aware of what services to seek out themselves. What PEU does that is unique is that we proactively meet people where they are: we knock on their door, call them, or approach them in their communities so that even those who can’t or who don’t connect on their own can get access to services from the city before they end up in a situation that makes them vulnerable.”
What space does your organization occupy in the ecosystem of civic engagement in New York?
“We serve as a connector and a case manager. If we meet you at your door, or at an elected official’s office hours and you’re about to be evicted, we’ll connect you with a legal service provider to help you fight your case in court. If you need health insurance, we’ll schedule an in-person appointment with a certified enroller and help you go through the process of collecting the paperwork and scheduling a wellness visit. If you need the Senior Citizen Rent Increase Exemption, we will come to your house, assist with your paperwork, and make sure it is processed with the Department of Finance. We serve as the human face to connect vulnerable populations with their government to get city resources and approach engagement in that way.
There is a robust outreach ecosystem in the New York City Administration and our teams work closely together. The city has a strong Community Affairs Unit that has been around for much longer than us that works very effectively at the community level. We also have strong Pre-K enrollment outreach, Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and NYCService teams. Many agencies have borough leads, but none are conducting targeted door to door outreach like we are at PEU. Their types of outreach are very effective and we add another layer to the equation. Our work is not limited to our core areas of service. Because of our effective track record and robust team, we often add capacity to the work of other agencies on a variety of issues.
Additionally, the tools we have introduced to use for outreach are applicable to various forms of administrative governing—like a tele-town hall—so we work across teams to execute them.”
Are there any limitations to where this model could be used? Could it work in rural communities?
“I think it would work well in rural communities where people feel disconnected from government, perhaps more than in cities. In NYC we are packed together and have a strong identity as New Yorkers. It might not be the same in more geographically dispersed rural areas. But the strength of a Public Engagement Unit is the individualized, person-to-person connection when you open the door or get a phone call from someone who speaks your language, offers to help you and takes your needs and feedback directly to the administration. It’s a model that could work anywhere.
Many cities think that this type of team is only possible with the resources of a large city like New York. But, these PEU teams are a net positive for the city. We’re saving the city money with every tenant we keep out of shelter, family we can move from shelter into permanent housing, or patient who uses the public hospital system with insurance. When you’re a city, investing up-front to prevent issues that would take up additional city resources in the long run is smart and forward thinking.
There are also different levels of investment needed to execute variations of the PEU programs based on a given city’s resources. If full outreach teams aren’t feasible, there are ways to begin with a human touch and then use technology to amplify your reach. For example, we’re using iPads for intake, tele-townhalls, hotlines, and developing our own streamlined case-management tools and using smart data for efficiency. Other cities can do that, too. Cities can also use smart digital targeting and paid media to connect an engagement team to specific constituencies”
What are the biggest challenges with this model? Biggest successes?
“I’m biased, but the team at PEU is extraordinary. The folks that reach out directly to New Yorkers are passionate about their work and feel the impact of their work on a personal level. Many have stories from their own lives of eviction or other challenges similar to those we are addressing and they take pride in what they are able to accomplish for families. It’s because of that passion that we have hit big milestones. In just over 2 years, our Tenant Support Team has been able to help 14,000 people stay in their homes. We’ve worked with landlords and providers to move 6,000 people from shelters into housing in our Home Support Unit. And we have engaged over 60,000 people about enrolling in healthcare with GetCoveredNYC in under a year.
Our biggest success lies in the willingness of other city agencies to work with us and try this new way of engaging constituents and providing critical services. We’re changing the way the city thinks about outreach and the perception that individuals in need will come to us. Teams across the administration want to collaborate on proactive outreach and I think that’s a really big win for New Yorkers.
In terms of challenges, you’re never as nimble as you want to be in large organization. Especially in the current national climate, we are rushing to mobilize and keep up as new policies continue to affect New Yorkers and put people at risk.
Another challenge is that we’re learning a lot here in NYC and it would be great to share our successful model with other cities in a more robust way. Last month we conducted a webinar to share our GetCoveredNYC team model and tools with dozens of cities facing federal budget cuts for outreach. But that’s not our core mission—our core mission is serving the people of New York—so we don’t have the bandwidth to assist in the implementation and adaptation of this model as much as could be impactful.”
What’s a recent project that you were most proud of?
“A few months ago we launched a new team in PEU that focuses on Rent Freeze enrollment. Many seniors and persons with disabilities are eligible for rent increase and homeowner tax exemptions. But they’re under-enrolled across the city, so our team, in collaboration with the Department of Finance, reaches out to them. By talking with people at their doors, we’ve been able to better see the barriers to entry to enroll in these programs. They can be as simple as having to photocopy documents because not everyone has easy access to those tools. By increasing our individualized case management and changing systems, we are able to work with other city agencies to make a difference in the lives of many New Yorkers.
Also, we’re working with the Mayor’s Office of Operations and the Mayor’s Office of Economic Opportunity to build their AccessNYC tool into our outreach and case management technology that we—and hopefully all city employees—can have at their fingertips the ability to screen people for over 30 different benefits and resources while in the field or at a door. Just with the push of a button. How incredible is that?”