Changes 'That Don't Roll Back': Using Technology to Institutionalize Innovation


Changes 'That Don't Roll Back': Using Technology to Institutionalize Innovation

Changes 'That Don't Roll Back': Using Technology to Institutionalize Innovation

Kevin G. Kelly, deputy commissioner of NYC Business Customer Service in the New York City's Mayor Office, discusses how the city uses technology to improve efficiency and radically restructure how businesses interact with government.

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KEVIN KELLY: Create a new operating normal so that there is no other way to do it. And that's really the way to use powerful levers like technology to make changes that don't roll back.

ROB WOLF: I'm Rob Wolf, director of communication at the Center for Court Innovation. With me today is Aubrey Fox, the Center for Court Innovation's director of strategic planning. Today we're looking at how technology can be used to improve government and institutionalize innovation. Helping us explore these issues is Kevin G. Kelly, deputy commissioner of NYC Business Customer Service in the New York City Mayor’s Office. Thanks for hosting us in your office today.

KEVIN KELLY: My pleasure.

ROB WOLF: You've been working at the intersection of technology and government for a number of years, particularly helping change the way businesses interact with city agencies. How important has technology been to that effort and what have you been able to achieve?

KEVIN KELLY: Well technology has been a fundamental building blocking driving innovation and radically restructuring how businesses interact with the city. And if you find a process that's in a manual state, or that's paper-based, or that requires people to go from their place of business to a city location in order to fill out a form and pay a fee with a money order, bringing technology to bear so that they can enter their information remotely, pay for things online with a credit card, and manage their transactions with the city using technology has really enabled us to take what had been a series of fragmented and paper-based processes, and bring them into the 21st century.

AUBREY FOX: Can you give us some concrete examples of where technology has changed how a customer interacts, or how a citizen interacts with the city?

KEVIN KELLY: So prior to the city building a website called NYC Business Express, there were no licenses or permits or certifications that businesses required online. In all cases, those papers needed to either be mailed in or brought into a physical location, so on NYC Business Express, there's now 57 licenses, permits, and certifications that a business can go online, create a very simple account, select the licenses and permits that they need for their business type, pay with a credit card, and send all of the data to a city agency for processing.

AUBREY FOX: And I can imagine that the opportunities to use technology to improve these processes are endless. How do you choose what you focus on?

KEVIN KELLY: That's a great question. So start at one end of the spectrum, which is sort of Nirvana. If you had $10 billion in 10 years, you could replace every existing legacy system and mainframe, and then think about practical elements. The amount of money that's available, how much time the disruption to business is, etc. The best possible solutions are ones that allow us to leave, to the extent possible, systems that are fundamentally sound in place so that from a customer perspective, things are radically transformed. They can do things over the web, they can access the Internet, they can create an account, they can transact with the city. They don't know what's going on behind the curtain. And what's behind the curtain is sort of an aggregation of technology solutions leveraging, to the extent possible, the good and the sound and the viable that's there, with targeted, specific system switch-outs in cases where it was impossible to mold or extract value out of something that was already in place.

AUBREY FOX: I think it's important to say that you're using technology to try to meet a policy goal, which is to increase access to business activity.

KEVIN KELLY: The other component piece that I would add is that when you make it so difficult to understand what it is that you're supposed to do in order to be in compliance. There are businesses that will move forward with their business plan anyway and they are, you know, just sort of taking a chance that they're not gonna get caught. So wrapped up in the economic development objective is also increasing compliance, and increasing the quality of compliance that business have with oversight agencies like the fire department, and the department of buildings, and the health department.

AUBREY FOX: Does your department have the freedom to choose where you go? I mean can you survey a city business and say, now I want to look at problem x, now I want to look at problem y?

KEVIN KELLY: We have a tremendous amount of latitude inside of some fairly well understood parameters. So for NYC business customer service, anything that touches on city and, in certain cases, other government oversight requests and demands on the part of businesses are part of what we're focusing on and working on. So it could be regulatory analysis, taking a look at all those laws and requirements associated with licenses and permits and thinking about ways to simplify the "what" of it. It could be operational transformation, which is the "how" of it. How you change the way in which things get done. It could be learning and planning, instructional, or producing videos that are designed to show businesses elements of oversight requirement that potentially would require 15 pages of text, but if you show someone in a video what you're talking about, it can be 30 seconds, or two minutes, or two and a half minutes.

ROB WOLF: So are there issues around the mayor's achieved certain fundamental shifts and changes, and you want to embed those changes in this technology? I mean is that part of it as well?

KEVIN KELLY: It's not so much embedding the changes in the technology. It's using the technology to create a new operating normal so that there is no other way to do it. And that's really the way to use powerful levers like technology to make changes that don't roll back. Because the easy changes are policy changes. "I hereby declare that...", you know, or executive orders or, you know, things that happen at 50,000 feet—change with administrations, change with different commissioners, etc. But when you operate at the operational and technological level, and you change the way things were done and create the way things are done, and you make it impossible for things to be done in the way that they were, then you've effectively guarded against roll back. And the only thing that you need to concern yourself with when you're integrating technology into operational processes is to remember that not everyone can access the Internet. Not everyone is comfortable accessing the Internet. Some people need support. Some people have language barriers, some people have other types of disabilities. So you transform your current customer service locations or processing centers that are seeing lots of over the counter traffic from everyone, because everyone has to do it this way. Those locations should be for the people who need help.

ROB WOLF: It's hard for me to visualize a policy change at the 50,000 feet that you described, that then surfaces in a drop-down menu on an online questionnaire or something. Can you give an example of how you would take something that—

KEVIN KELLY: Sure, lots of examples. So if an administration or legislative body decides that people who are looking for certain types of social service should not have to go through intake 15 times, right? So you can have a policy that says data sharing among social service agencies will be utilized in order to reduce the number of times someone has to fill out duplicate forms. Then what that can translate into is a website that has a uniform sort of data capture front end, right? A form that has the three fields that everyone uses— name, address, phone number, email address, social security number, etc. And then, and on the back end, that same data packet could be sent to multiple agencies to process someone for specific services, but it doesn't mean that that person has to over, and over, and over supply the same information.

AUBREY FOX: Creating a new normal. That seems like the power of technology at its best. Would you say that's correct?

KEVIN KELLY: Yes. Technology is without a doubt the single most powerful tool that can be used in a service delivery realm to create a new operating normal. But in and of itself, it doesn't necessarily do the trick. So the business process re-engineering has to happen. You have to analyze what the oversight or policy objectives are, and I think sometimes where folks get in trouble—not just in government, in private sector it happens all the time as well—is when they think of technology as an end rather than a means, and they become enamored of a technology for itself, as if in and of itself it was something that was worthy of admiration, or worthy of consideration.

ROB WOLF: We've been talking with Kevin G. Kelly, who is the deputy commissioner of NYC Business Customer Service in the New York City Mayor’s Office. Thanks so much, Kevin, for taking the time to talk to us.

KEVIN KELLY: It was my pleasure. Thanks very much for your interest.

ROB WOLF: If people want to just get a sense of some of the innovations we're talking about, is there a web address they can go to to learn more?

KEVIN KELLY: Sure. So one would be, and you can look at the one stop tool that we've built for businesses to make it easier to start to operate and expand in the city. Another website would be, which is the website for the city's new business acceleration team that works with food service establishments in a quicker, more efficient manner.

ROB WOLF: That's great, well thank you very much. I'm Rob Wolf, director of communication at the Center for Court Innovation, and I've been here with—

AUBREY FOX: Aubrey Fox, the director of strategic planning.

ROB WOLF: And to find out more about Center for Court Innovation or to listen to our podcasts, you can go to our website at You can also download our podcasts on iTunes. Thank you very much for listening.

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