An Old-School Mayor on the Forefront of Innovation

Boston's Tom Menino may be an "urban mechanic," but he's taking that concept to new and exciting levels.
by | September 6, 2012
 

Over five terms as mayor of Boston, Tom Menino has earned a reputation and label that might appear to lack glamor -- "urban mechanic" -- but which stirs admiration among those who care about city-government operations. Getting the nuts and bolts of a city's day-to-day work done is a prerequisite for everything else.

These days, however, those who watch governance across the country are abuzz about something that Menino is doing that is changing those old-school perceptions of him: his Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics. MONUM infuses technology, community participation and enhanced citizen responsiveness into the urban-mechanic model. Mayor Menino now stands at the forefront of urban innovation.

Although much has been written about MONUM's impressive results -- Governing recognized the work of the office's co-chairs, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, honoring them in 2011 as Public Officials of the Year -- to me its purpose and very existence represent a fundamentally important point of departure for government, one that should serve as a catalyst for other such efforts.

First, MONUM clearly establishes that city hall-led innovation efforts can prompt a broader culture of innovation in government. In other words, we should not assume that top-down mayoral leadership supplants a broader culture of city-government innovation but rather that such leadership is a necessary prerequisite to it. MONUM leads by nurturing and encouraging innovation, as shown by initiatives such as the recent partnership with Code for America to develop phone and Web "Backpack Apps" to help students learn, an initiative based on surveys of teachers, parents and the students themselves.

Second, MONUM represents a direct commitment to the power of participatory government. Clever apps such as Street Bump, which allows citizens to easily report the smoothness of their streets, exploit the power of mobile communications, data analytics and social networking to provide city services in better, faster and cheaper ways. But the real genius of the office is that it empowers citizens, city workers and managers to work together. Bostonians have become the eyes, ears and sometimes the hands of city government, producing public value.

Third, the existence of the office recognizes the power of technology in delivering even the most basic of city services, from trash pickup to paving streets. No city manager can ever again be good at the nuts and bolts of government without employing ever-improving technology and using it to connect citizens with bureaucrats.

Tom Menino, who might seem to be the archetype of the old-school mayor, now represents the future. That's exciting for him, for Bostonians and for other mayors.

Next week I will post an interview with Mayor Menino's chief of staff, Mitch Weiss, who is responsible for much of the vision behind MONUM.

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