Boston’s use of data changes pothole politics and points toward a better kind of public service.

In the U.S., city governments are known more for patronage jobs than encouraging innovators. Such a stereotype is not entirely glib; when a politician makes headlines for technology usage, it’s usually for all the wrong reasons. City budgets tend to go toward repairing roads, installing street lights, sewer line maintenance, and other tangible services that existed long before computing. Cities don’t tend to spend on “gee-whiz” technology, and they can’t pay the salaries tech-savvy people can earn in the private sector.

But Boston is showing how cities can use digital technologies to draw on the resources of citizens, including corporate citizens, who want to make their city a better place to live and work. Through a combination of tech-minded public servants, civic-minded tech-izens, corporations willing to work at or near cost, and passionate, focused leadership, over the last two years Boston has seen significant changes in its capacity to respond to citizens’ needs. Some examples:

  • Time to deliver recycling bins has dropped from 30 days to 7 days.
  • Burned-out streetlights are replaced in 7 days, down from 17.5 days.
  • In January 2013, 96% of reported potholes were repaired — up from 48% in February 2011 — and potholes typically are filled within 0.6 days of being reported, down from 3 days in 2011.
  • Sidewalk repairs take place within 1.1 days of a report, down from 5.4 days.
  • Park maintenance requests are fulfilled in 6 days, down from 10 days.
  • In 2013, 75% of constituents say they are satisfied with the city’s customer service system, up from 54% in 2011.

What brought about these changes? It wasn’t a new, tech-savvy administration; Boston’s mayor, Tom Menino, has held that office since 1993. Instead, a number of factors over several years sparked real change in the relationship between the city and its citizens. Those changes were significant enough that Boston was featured as a case study at a recent conference for mayoral chiefs of staff held in August at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

The case study, entitled Citizen-Centered Governance: The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Evolution of CRM in Boston, was prepared by Susan Crawford, a professor at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law and co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, and Dana Walters, an intern at the Berkman Center. The two were given extensive access to Menino’s staff and the Office of New Urban Mechanics, a two-person skunkworks that had no direct authority over city agencies, but leveraged the mayor’s backing to foster collaboration and a surge in data-driven projects.

The case study shows that significant technological change can come even in organizations with tech-averse leadership. Menino, who at 71 years old has been charitably described by one staffer as someone who “doesn’t understand technology,” is the same man who refused to let the city adopt voicemail until 2012 (and callers still only get voicemail after they tell a receptionist they want it). It also shows that some changes can come from relatively simple means — Boston’s technology catalyst is a humble call center customer relationship management (CRM) system called LAGAN — if there’s a commitment to change in the organizational culture.

In her blog post about the study, Crawford cited five factors that made this project work:

  1. It had Menino’s complete support, down to creating space in his office suite for his Office of New Urban Mechanics. Menino’s support meant the team was able to break down departmental barriers and survive threats to its existence when the initial project took 18 months to deploy.
  2. The project leveraged partnerships between the city and local industry and universities to create new ways for citizens to interact with city workers. It did not rely solely on the resources the city had on hand.
  3. When it launched, the system generated good data, creating trust and bringing together fractious or isolated departments.
  4. Menino made sure that the technology itself was not the team’s reason for being — what the technology could do for citizens was the key point.
  5. The city made an effort not only to fulfill citizen requests, but also to communicate to the citizens that the problems they reported had been resolved. This was done to create a more personal relationship between the city and its citizens.

In fact, Chris Osgood, the co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, said the office isn’t about technology at all, but “about how government is trying to actually better deliver services, whether it is using technology or not.” The mayor, he explained, focuses not on data or software, but making sure that whatever the city does with technology helps the city get a deeper personal connection with citizens. Callers get callbacks to tell them when a problem has been fixed, for instance.

Menino’s key team, which along with Osgood and co-chair Nigel Jacob includes chief information officer Bill Oates and chief of staff Mitchell Weiss, came together in 2006, years before the city would be able to effectively leverage the technologies in use today. Menino’s patience and protection gave them room to build the platform they needed to measure department performance on citizen service requests, make that data publicly available, create mobile apps for both residents (Citizens Connect) and workers (City Worker), and open new avenues of communication between residents and the city. (There are now seven ways a citizen can contact Boston City Hall.)

Crawford and Walters say Boston’s approach to its CRM system could well be scalable and disruptive for the practice of city government worldwide. Boston “has shown the potential power of collaboration and technology to transform citizens’ connections to their government and to each other,” Crawford and Walters write in their report.

Even so, they fret that Boston’s data-driven progress could soon be lost. Menino will not run for a sixth term in 2014. Whoever replaces Menino will almost certainly be more tech-savvy, but may not be as people-savvy, or as focused on making government more accountable to and engaged with citizens. A new mayor might replace Menino’s team. Or that team may simply leave. Some have deep personal ties to Menino; others have stayed because they were inspired by Menino’s intense focus on citizens — a 2013 poll found that nearly half of the Boston residents surveyed said they had personally shaken Menino’s hand.

Boston's next mayor, not to mention mayors in other cities around the world, should note how Menino keeps his nose out of his phone, and still connects with citizens.