Five Steps to Digitally Transforming City Government

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

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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.

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