Boston's Pioneering Way of Innovating

The mayor's chief of staff describes how the city's aggressive pursuit of citizen-friendly tools aims to increase civic participation.
by | September 12, 2012
 

Last week I wrote about Boston's Mayor Tom Menino's Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), which represents a new approach to urban governance and service delivery, blending technology and citywide cooperation. Its success, and its strong and inventive vision, have led to its replication across the country and internationally.

In this edited interview, I discuss with Mitch Weiss, Mayor Menino's chief of staff, the unique way Boston perceives and pursues innovation, focusing on the partnership among the mayor, city workers and citizens, the occasional tension between innovation and efficiency, and the vision for MONUM's future.

Boston's MONUM has taken the spotlight among a growing set of city-level initiatives to spark innovation in policymaking, sustainability and government finance. What makes your work stand out, and what should mayors looking to build similar projects take into account?

In Boston, civic innovation is civic engagement. In this way, MONUM emphasizes peer production -- harnessing new data and mobility tools to allow citizens to co-work to improve their city. MONUM stands out because it still imagines an important role for government beyond sharing data or app competitions, that of identifying problems and marshalling solutions with citizens. Mayor Menino is adamant that our work focuses on the basics that improve people's lives. He feels government too often gets away from that, and he has made sure that MONUM has citizen-facing solutions at its core.

Cities looking to build similar projects need to create a safe space for experimentation. MONUM allows us to be "ambidextrous" -- to have city agencies focus on the traditional work residents expect but meanwhile also experiment on more boundary-pushing, citizen-engaged innovation.

A key concern emerging for mayors seeking to drive innovation is the need to work with operating agencies. What have you done to leverage the knowledge and dedication of department leadership and individual workers in MONUM?

The mission of MONUM from the beginning has been to improve the little things that make the biggest differences in people's lives and make that the interest of agency leaders and workers also. The leadership we've chosen for the office has been key. Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob bring a mix of policy and technological expertise, along with enormous trust and credibility among executive leadership and colleagues. As a result, government employees and outside partners feel welcome to approach MONUM with new ideas.

Also, we have been connecting this new work to issues that have been long-standing priorities for the city. For instance, anybody who works for the city knows that potholes and street lights are important to the mayor. So Citizens Connect, the city's mobile citizen-reporting platform, makes their maintenance easier.

We've worked with agencies on an iterative approach to project development that focuses on improving day-to-day workflow for employees. We've built City Worker, a mobile application for the city's public-works employees in the field. After a successful beta test, these employees -- some of whom had never used a computer before in their lives -- didn't want to give the devices back. That appetite for the technology was remarkable to us, also proof that our iterative approach allows us to quickly attack priority issues, reduces launch time and gives programmers, managers and workers a sense of project ownership.

What kinds of tangible technologies or outcomes do you see this employee-focused approach uniquely able to produce?

During the City Worker beta test, a resident called the city looking for the sticker needed to distinguish curbside trash cans from recycling bins. The caller expected to have to come to City Hall or wait a couple weeks for the sticker to arrive by mail. Instead, a public-works employee delivered a sticker within 10 minutes. Our workers get really excited about having that kind of impact on constituents.

We also hope to combine our wealth of collected data with data analytics and workers' insight to solve problems way beyond potholes and street lights. For instance, StreetBump's algorithm could be tweaked to tell us where cars are stopping short or blowing through intersections and predict where crosswalks are likely faded, lights are burnt out or stop signs obscured by overgrowth.

Citizen engagement is as important as employee and department engagement in making these tools truly disruptive to how mayors and cities create value. How does MONUM differentiate between tools that help residents share their thoughts or problems they see with government and tools that help citizens directly create public good?

Tools in that first category focus on equipping government to gather policy ideas and understand public opinion. This is a great outcome for democracy, but perhaps not the most strategic path for local government to make the largest impact. We will make a larger impact by building tools that enable citizens to co-create solutions. Allowing them to report basic neighborhood problems in new and more timely and complete ways -- and to share that information with their neighbors -- is just one example of how to do that.

There are times when residents can actively assist in doing the work. For example, the Adopt-a-Hydrant program launched last winter asks residents to volunteer to shovel out their neighborhood fire hydrants in major snowstorms. However, we don't want citizens to feel our peer-production model is an attempt to outsource the city's work to citizens. So we are moving into that second category cautiously.

This blog is focused on ways to do government work not only better and faster but also cheaper. However, operational efficiencies and budget savings seem secondary to the creativity of your office's ideas. How do you see the relationship between operational efficiency and innovation?

Efficiency and innovation aren't at odds with each other in our approach. Many of our innovations also lower costs and speed operations, but we do believe that the biggest problems facing government today can't be "efficiencied" out of. Across the country, cities are wrestling with issues like school reform and the future of pensions -- participatory challenges as much, or more, than operational ones.

So MONUM focuses on innovations that engage citizens. Governments are deploying more tools for efficiency than at any point in history, yet trust in government is low. Rather than simply treating residents like customers, MONUM calls on them as citizens. If we work with citizens on all the small things that improve their city, we can better work together on the big things too.

What are the next big ideas your team is cooking up?

Our new "Street Cred" project aims to make citizens' engagement visible and recognized in their community. We want to create a culture of "conspicuous citizenship." We also hope to create a network of MONUM offices nationally to build and test tools and make our cities better together. We helped launch an office in another major U.S. city, and we're looking for more partners.

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