In 2012, when I was a visiting professor at HKS and HLS, I taught a course called Solving Problems Using Technology. (For the second term, my co-teacher was the wonderful Mike Hooper of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.) The class provided an overview of the use of technology in governance and put students to work with the residents of Dudley (a neighborhood in Boston) designing applications and systems that could be useful in solving particular problems on which the neighborhood wanted to focus – like “How do we involve residents in urban planning processes?” and “How do we get more young adults involved in neighborhood governance?”
There were many great and memorable things about that class for me, and I think for some of the students too. (At least that’s what they told me.) And the whole thing simply would not have happened without the active engagement of the co-chairs of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob. Their open, collaborative, energetic presence was essential. Clearly, something special was going on in Boston’s City Hall.
This summer, Berkman Center for Internet & Society intern (and Project Assistant) Dana Walters and I were given the opportunity to explore the ecosystem of City Hall in some detail. We were tasked with finding out how Boston’s call center had evolved since its introduction in October 2008, and asked to present this work to a meeting of mayoral chiefs of staff from around the country that took place last week at HKS.
Having such a specific subject to work on was in many ways helpful: We had a clear framework within which to work. But in other ways it was frustrating because we found a significant cultural story about innovation and collaboration in City Hall that went beyond the attributes and history of Boston’s CRM system.
We ended up telling both stories in the form of a case study (available via SSRN) that we hope will be useful to the government innovation field.
Here are five high points:
- Key Boston City Hall staff built relationships across City Hall and out into academia and industry that led to the introduction of several new interfaces and systems for constituent service requests, including Citizens Connect (mobile app for constituent requests, soon to be updated to allow for civic engagement points) and City Worker (app for use in the field to manage queues of requests and close them when finished). All of these interfaces and systems continue to evolve.
- It seems critical to have staff tasked with encouraging innovation physically and virtually located in the mayor’s offices rather than isolated in a particular department. Even without substantial budgetary authority or staff resources, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics succeeded in cajoling and facilitating useful cross-City Hall efforts as well as collaborations between people inside and outside government. The mayor’s imprimatur (and their own personalities) made these staffers fearless.
- The focus of technology-oriented staff members has been on constituent engagement and the personalization of services. Five-term Mayor Menino’s leadership in this regard has been crucial. He does not want to allow technology to be used to keep constituents at a distance. In turn, the staff believes that increased responsiveness to residents has created substantial political capital that can be harnessed when needed – in the form of support for big ideas that will make a difference, or in the form of civic trust during difficult times (e.g., the Boston Marathon bombing).
- The launch of Boston’s CRM system triggered the creation of trustworthy data about departmental performance. (In the past, departments didn’t believe in the data.) It also required service-providing departments (Public Works, Parks) to work much more closely together. The CRM system had helpfully disruptive institutional effects; people who hadn’t been data-focused became much more so, and a fractured bureaucracy became less fractured.
- There is much more that could be done to make the city an active listener, able to hear and internalize feedback – and pivot (as a policy matter) in response to what it learns. Unlike New York and Chicago, Boston has not been focused on predictive analytics or opening data for its own sake. But Boston’s emphasis on personalization and engagement provides useful lessons for the future nonetheless.
Many thanks to the Knight Foundation, the Open Societies Foundations, HKS’s Ash Center, the Data Smart Cities Solutions initiative, and the Berkman Center.