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  • 09.24.14

Meet Councilman Ben Kallos, The Agile Politician

Can Ben Kallos change New York City’s government by running his district like a tech startup?

The first time I walked into New York City Council Member Ben Kallos’s District Office, I immediately recognized the layout: A pair of long tables occupied by laptop-facing 20-year-olds wearing jeans and hoodies.

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To be fair, there were also several people not in their 20s wearing Oxford shirts and slacks. And on three sides of those tables–front, back, and left–are a handful of proper individual desks, the people behind them all wearing business attire. In the back of the room is a single corner office, comprised of quick-install floor-to-ceiling glass walls and a glass door.

“How do you like our startup office?” Kallos asked me, as he welcomed me into his glass-enclosed office with a smile.

Kallos is one of New York City’s newest members of the city council. He is a lawyer and former business owner who represents part of Manhattan’s Upper East Side as well as Roosevelt Island. But his experience as a coder–he’s worked with MySQL and PHP–is shaping his time on city council as much as any of his other credentials. Thus far, he’s proposed a host of open government bills and used technology to make his own work more open and accessible.

“We operate using Agile. We use Trello for task management. We do standing check-ins,” says Kallos. “So we’re using all the best practices of the world’s most nimble startups to run our government offices.”

It’s exciting to hear a politician using tech buzzwords. Less clear is whether Kallos is just a savvy-self marketer wearing the cloak of geek chic. Are his unorthodox methods showing results?

In his term so far, Kallos has put forward numerous proposals in city council that make government more open: that New York City record government-issued public notices and certain public information be posted online (with an API), the creation of a centralized system for processing freedom of information requests, and adding an interactive map to the city’s open data portal. The City Record online portal bill was recently signed into law by Mayor de Blasio.

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“He’s definitely not someone with a career politician pedigree, who was brought up and trained to run for office,” says Thom Neale, a programmer who worked alongside Kallos when they were both staffers in the state legislature. “He’s really just an open data, open government, open source enthusiast, who just also happens to be politically ambitious and confident navigating in that world. Now he’s up there doing exactly what he said he’d do the whole time I knew him when we were younger. These are the exact sorts of legislative initiatives he said he’d work on.”

Here are six ideas from the startup world that Kallos is applying to his work in government.

1. Agile Politics

Kallos has adapted the “Agile” software development philosophy to his work, and even worked with CivicActions to train his staff in the practice.

Agile has been utilized by development shops big and small that need to prototype rapidly and respond to change seamlessly. In practice, running a local government office on Agile means learning from mistakes and being willing to pivot and alter even the most entrenched practices.

“The best part of the startup mentality is not being afraid to fail,” says Kallos. “For startups, failure is part of the business model. Because if you’re not failing you’re not getting the opportunity to iterate.”

The iterative process is a cornerstone of Agile. Rather than plan out every step of a workplan and then enact it, Agile emphasizes altering your model as you go as you respond to new information. And it’s a methodology that Kallos puts to work on nuts and bolts aspects of the business of government.

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2. Better Customer Service

“The number one job I have is constituent service.” Constituent service is, essentially, what you think of when you think of local government: You come to a politician with a problem, they lodge your complaint, and either they do something about it or they don’t. Through iterating how he handles those interactions, Kallos says he has been able to reduce the number of complaints he receives within his district fourfold.

Photo by William Alatriste

At first, when someone approached him on the street with a problem, Kallos would hand them his card and say to call his office.

“I’ve realized that was not customer service,” says Kallos. “So I’ve changed what I do.”

Kalllos soon picked up on the fact that people felt like they were being blown off when handed a card and, basically, told to go away. His next iteration was that as soon as someone starting lodging an issue with him, he’d pull out his phone and start taking notes on what he was being told.

“With that second iteration, I realized that people were upset because I wasn’t looking at them. They thought I wasn’t paying attention.”

Finally, he settled upon listening first, looking a constituent in the eye, and asking them for permission to take out his phone and take notes on their issue, Kallos tells me, mimicking the process at his desk.

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“Now I’m doing one hundred percent intake. What’s started happening is I will stand at an event and someone will tell me their problem, I’ll take notes on their issue, and then other people will start to queue up. It’s a very different level of customer service that somebody is getting when I’m literally helping them right then and there.”

Constituent service is a mundane, even boring, part of a politician’s job. But if the numbers don’t lie, Kallos has found a way to make it better through iteration.

3. Beta Testing

On top of his duties to his district in Manhattan, Kallos has introduced a number of bills and resolutions to the city council. And many of them have one surprising feature in common: a built-in beta testing period.

Photo via Facebook

“Something I learned at the very beginning of the Internet is you don’t wait for the finished product to go online,” says Kallos. “As soon as you have a minimum viable product you get out there with it and you honor the fact that it is a beta. Whether you’re talking about software users or constituents, they’d rather see a solution to a problem now that might not be fully complete and have the opportunity to improve it.”

Testing laws to see if they produce their intended effects before they become permanent makes logical sense. But in practice it would be complex–how long is the test period, and who evaluates whether or not the enforcement was effective?

For now, Kallos is focusing on the smaller but just as sensible goal of trying to build beta periods into city contracts for products and services. One example is NYC’s plan to transform defunct pay phones into Wi-Fi and information hubs. Kallos hopes the department in charge of that program will include a period of beta testing for the new system before deploying it on a wide scale.

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“Both legislation and software benefit from a healthy pre-launch or beta period where you’re doing user testing,” he notes.

4. Version Control For Legislation

Kallos’ most innovative initiative is to literally treat legislation like a piece of software. “Legislation and software are both code,” says Kallos. So naturally, he decided on a home for his legislation that many programmers have chosen for their code: GitHub. On the popular software version control site, programmers can share and collaboratively edit their projects. Now Kallos is applying that same system to his legislation.

“They can literally pull my legislation just like software code,” he says. “They can edit my legislation and they can push it back into my GitHub repository.”

It takes a particular type of politician to put their ego aside and voluntarily post their legislation online for their constituents to ruthlessly edit. Displaying a trait shared by successful CEOs, Kallos recognizes that his job is not to come up with all the brilliant ideas, but to be a conduit for them.

“I wish I could say I’m the smartest person in the council or in the district,” says Kallos. “But I’m lucky enough to be surrounded by a lot of smart people. The open source ethos says let’s tap into that and let’s crowdsource our legislative process and our democracy.”

For Kallos, crowdsourcing legislation means using technophile tools like GitHub and looking to what other politicians have done around the country and even the world. But often it also means taking an old-fashioned, low-tech approach.

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“We actually have a policy night where people from my district are coming in and coming up with legislation,” he adds. It’s still crowdsourcing, just with a different pipeline for people’s opinions.

5. Net Neutrality As A Local Issue

“I’m really focused on trying to bring a different argument to the net neutrality debate,” says Kallos. Indeed, his perspective on net neutrality steers clear of the common technorati tropes and centers the importance of net neutrality to city denizens, especially the city’s immigrant population.

That population, which comprises 37% of New Yorkers and 44% of the city’s workforce (as of 2011) holds a particular stake in net neutrality, according to Kallos.

“The immigrant community cannot survive in a world without net neutrality,” he says. “Whether someone is from Ukraine, Palestine, Israel, Russia, or where have you, the only way they can find out what’s going on in the world today and communicate with their relatives is over the Internet. Restricted content or fast lanes would limit the ability of these people to connect. We live in a new age and people need to be able to communicate whether it’s over Skype or Google Hangout or voice-over-IP.”

6. Open Data

In 1996, Kallos worked on a website called Jumbo.com, which was one of the biggest shareware sites on the web at the time. He was written up in The New York Times as one of a handful of teenage pioneers in the new “after-school job” of web design and programming.

Photo courtesy of @CitizensUnion

Kallos left programming behind to pursue law school, but was drawn back into the field while working as an attorney on election law. He was concerned that New York State seemed to have lost 2 million voter records overnight, going from 12 million registered voters to 10 million.

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Kallos’s solution was to create votersearch.org. Any one can search the barebones site entering their basic information to check if they are successfully registered to vote. In order to create a tool that can parse 12 million records, Kallos had to learn MySQL. From there he taught himself PHP and got votersearch.org up and running in a matter of hours.

Later, Kallos and his friend Neale, who were both working as a staffers in the state legislature, collaborated on similar open government initiatives.

“I think it’s so cool that Ben is a member of city council,” says Neale. “A couple years ago we were just a couple of buddies who were interested in open source software and opening government data. We would write software and hack together.”

They used the state’s Freedom of Information Law to amass what Neale refers to as “data piles” and then write software to parse that information and make it accessible to the public.

Beyond Technology

Kallos isn’t only about technology and open government. He has also spearheaded two resolutions with important political resonance. One resolution calls on the U.S. Senate and the President to take steps toward creating a National Women’s History Museum. That resolution was adopted by the city council earlier this month.

“Any woman growing up is used to seeing so many men presented in the history books,” says Kallos, who is the only man on the women’s committee of city council. “So to have a national museum where women can come and see women’s history is really important.”

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Kallos, who is Jewish, is also sponsoring a resolution calling on the New York State legislature to pass a law that would prohibit companies that profited from the Holocaust and have not yet paid reparations from being awarded government contracts.

“My family survived the Holocaust and I have relatives who passed in concentration camps and during Kristallnacht,” says Kallos. “So through the lens of accountability, I want to make sure that companies like SNCF have repaid their debt to society before we engage in contracts with them.”

For his first nine months in office, Kallos’s track record so far is certainly ambitious. Clearly, he wants to make the most of the current political climate in New York.

“I think we have an amazing opportunity here,” he says. “We have a progressive mayor. We have a progressive speaker. We see a lot of progressive change happening in New York City at this moment. Now is the time for people to take back their government, take back their democracy. It’s our job to build the tools that allow people to interact with government in any way they wish.”

About the author

Jay is a freelance journalist, formerly a staff writer for Fast Company. He writes about technology, inequality, and the Middle East.

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