Advocating for the Public

2013-12-20 12:49
Written by
Approximately two years ago, the New York City Public Advocate (NYCPA) began the process of implementing CiviCRM as their constituent case tracking solution. Working with New York City-based Rayogram, Albany-based Lighthouse Consulting & Design, and influenced in part by the New York Senate’s implementation, the office undertook the process of migrating data from a legacy system and configuring the required functionality in CiviCRM.
The result is the basis for all communication tracking with constituents -- the people of New York City.
Providing flexible, efficient, yet powerful tools for managing interaction with organization constituents is at the heart of the CiviCRM application. This intent is visibly realized in the work of the Public Advocate’s office.
The Advocate’s office was created with the goal of providing a publicly-supported government watchdog. It is tasked with ensuring all citizens and residents of New York City have a voice in government and receive access to city services they deserve.
The Public Advocate is rather unique in city government. The Advocate serves an as ex-officio member of Council committees, holds the power to introduce legislation, and retains various powers of appointment, which influences City planning, the budget process, and retirement fund management.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Advocate’s office serves as the “ears” of the city. Residents, citizens, commuters, visitors -- all may contact the Advocate’s office to express concern, register complaints, or seek assistance resolving issues. And here is where CiviCRM plays a critical role.
Central to the Public Advocate’s implementation is the use of CiviCase. Every time a constituent calls the office to request support, the contact is created (or found) in the system and a case record is opened and assigned to a staff member. All subsequent communication, documents, and work-tracking as it pertains to the constituent’s issue, resides in the case record.
To support the Public Advocate’s  implementation, several customizations and improvements were made to CiviCRM.
  • The office receives a vast number of constituent requests each year, each of which is constructed as a case record. The number of cases created in 2013 to date is nearly 8,000. Because of the detailed nature of case records, particularly as it relates to activities and roles, the case queries can be quite complex. The Public Advocate staff found very early on that certain case tools took a prohibitively long period of time to load, because of the query complexity and data volume. This included the case dashboard, and even the contact’s cases tab. Work was done to analyze and optimize several of the queries used to generate these lists -- all of which was contributed back to core.
  • Because cases form the central component of the NYCPA system, several of the case reports were extended to include additional fields and options. Additionally, several new dashlet reports were created to provide a summary of cases based on status and role (contact), and status and date.
  • In an effort to streamline the case management process, one-click activity creation options were added to the case management screen and the case report was simplified to more efficiently display the most relevant data.
In addition, custom scripts were developed to handle the conversion and import of all records from the legacy system into CiviCRM.
As with any large database deployment, the process was not without its bumps and bruises. Data migration is always a tricky process, and after the initial migration some issues were discovered with the legacy data which were hard to correct. Later on, additional issues were discovered with how the legacy case records were reconstructed in CiviCRM -- in part because certain assumptions were made with regard to the data was later proved to be incorrect. As a result, several “fix-up” scripts were created to cycle through the imported data and correct things.
And although improvements have been made in several of the case queries, the system can still be sluggish at times. Ongoing effort will periodically be taken to assess performance bottlenecks and seek to improve the user experience.
In the months ahead, the CiviCRM implementation will experience a new test of its effectiveness. The current Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, was recently elected Mayor of New York City and will be taking office in January. As a result, there will be significant turnover in staff as the new Advocate takes office. Steps are being taken now to ensure documentation is updated and prepared for new staff -- as we seek to ensure this successful implementation of CiviCRM remains successful for years to come.