The potential of digital for city government — Part 1: The case of Boston

Nicolas Diaz Amigo
Dec 16, 2018 · 8 min read

From global warming to fighting inequality, local governments are gaining increasing importance to tackle some of today’s toughest challenges. At the same time, cities are facing increasing pressures brought about by disruptive technologies and increasingly complex and multi-dimensional issues.

Luckily, local governments are also excellent platforms to support innovations as the services that they deliver are much closer to citizens than complex national bureaucracies. They are at a better place to tailor policies to the needs of specific neighborhoods or constituents. Organizations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies have documented and promoted some of these innovations. The concept of Smart Cities dreams of cities that are more responsive and that produce better outcomes through the use of new sensor technologies.

In A New City O/S, professors Kleiman and Goldsmith argue that…

“Innovations are flourishing in many cities and counties, driven by an innovation delivery team or by piloting a creative new technology […] advances in addressing a problem but without much impact on larger government systems. In a sense, these current innovations occur in a parallel universe while the traditional government enterprise continues to hum along virtually undisturbed. These advances often succeed because they avoid entanglements with government agency rules and processes rather than reforming them”

Indeed, there is the danger that these innovative efforts remain isolated from the traditional processes of city government, or that we sensorize our streets but we don’t change the way we integrate that data. Could the systematic incorporation of a data-driven culture and smart use of digital technologies allow us to radically transform how our cities are run?

There are certainly indications that something is going on at the local level, from precursors such as performance management tools like the CitiStat model pioneered in Baltimore, to the use of (highly controversial) predictive policing models and the proliferation of Open Data Portals. Cities, are approaching internal innovation in a more systematic way, with many of the biggest municipalities inaugurating the position of Chief Innovation Officer, which was unheard of even half a decade ago.

In this two-part blog series, I will analyze some of the common barriers that cities face in adopting innovative approaches to service delivery, describe the framework introduced by Kleiman and Goldsmith to establish a more open and distributed system of governance through three blocks, and then describe some of the digital efforts from Boston to put these ideas in context. In part two I will go over some of the recommendation and potential pitfalls that cities should keep in mind when moving in this direction.

The barriers

What makes it so difficult to improve government performance and foster innovation at the local level? Some issues are common to the public sector in general, while others are part of any large organization. Most commonly we hear the following mentioned:

· Silos. Cities perform a wide variety of functions, from running the garbage collection to promoting social integration. Departments and agencies are created to organize the tasks and resources into manageable chunks. But when it comes to most complex issues would benefit from a comprehensive approach (say, pushing back against blighted properties through a coordination between code enforcement, public health, education and housing officials), sharing resources or even data becomes a sisyphean task. Let’s say the department of sustainability wants to pilot a new system for collecting compostable materials from households and they would like to use the garbage collection data to model potential intake. Since there is no data sharing standard across the city, the best they could do would be to shoot an e-mail to their sanitation colleagues (who collect information using different software) and if they are lucky they will get a report back in a few weeks, often unreliable and outdated. This friction is the bane of innovation and cooperation

· Incentives against experimentation. Unless the political authorities explicitly ask for it, it is incredibly risky for municipal workers to experiment with new ways of doing things. Not only do they face a lot of resistance along the way, but they also get blamed if they attempted to deviate from the norm and failed. Public budgets and their restrictions also make it hard to justify expending the taxpayers money for unproven programs, even if in the long term it would mean using funds more effectively. As we have seen from applying agile methods in government, its not that the waterfall alternative is less risky or less prone to fail, but it is just hiding the bad outcomes. A similar thing happens when we fail to innovate.

· Focus on the process. In classic bureaucratic fashion, local governments often design their own processes and services to fit their own existing structure and communication channels, rather than looking to maximize the outcomes or minimize the paint points for their potential users.

Figure 1: The barriers to transformating local government.

The building blocks

“To reach this distributed governance, cities need a new O/S, an entirely new system, that deeply incorporates shared information, trusted social networks, and structural changes that give them the capacity to set roles and rules for conduct, quality, equity and privacy for participating partners”

A New City O/S, Kleiman and Goldsmith

In what they refer to as a “New Operating System” for city hall based around three main building blocks:

· UX: Employing human-centered design to create services around people. This refers to citizens but also that give more autonomy and ease for city workers to complete their mission. Although digital technologies are not a necessity for this approach, by creating quicker feedback loops, they can be an important component for reducing friction and enabling more citizen involvement.

· Responsiveness: The use of data and predictive analytics can help cities act with better speed as well as customize their responses in areas such as permitting, regulation and operations.

· Socio-technical eco-system: This in turn would allow more a more distributed system of governance where the city government would work closer with external NGOs, private companies, and its citizens. At the same time, more empowered municipal workers would shift to being problem solvers.

Figure 2: The building blocks that digital technologies offer us to address them

Some applications from Boston

A few days ago, we had Jascha Franklin-Hodge as a guest speaker in the Data Science Club at the Harvard Kennedy School. Jascha, currently a Fellow at the Shorenstein Center is the former Chief Information Officer for the City of Boston under Mayor Walsh. During his time as head of the department, he oversaw a large expansion of the city data infrastructure. At the meeting he spoke about some of the projects that he undertook which are a good way to see the New O/S building blocks into practice.

When Mayor Walsh decided to revamp their cities analytics capacity, the data team went forth in a exploratory mission, finding cool projects where they could demonstrate their impact to the government agencies while building a data infrastructure underneath, slowly connecting the dots and cutting across silos.

The old 311 portal was a static list divided by who provided each service.

· 311 redesign: In the United States, a 311 is an increasingly used telephone number where citizens can request non-emergency municipal services. It is often the main point of contact between a city government and its neighbors. Some cities have also created complementary web portals. The redesign process of the 311 portal in Boston involved moving from a static list to a more responsive open form system where people can start typing and be recommended the towards the most relevant services, or see the most frequently consulted services. This is a simple but effective example of building a service around the need of its users, as opposed to the internal organization of the government.

The new portal after the re/design.

· Pothole analytics: But revamping the 311 portal was not only useful for citizens, it was also an opportunity to look inwards. One of the most frequent complaints that Boston receives is the poor quality of its pavement. Pothole repairs are usually done in order of arrival. But by geo-modelling the complaints and then comparing them to a study of actual sidewalk conditions, the analytics team was able to see that most of the requests came from its high per-capita income areas. Poorer parts of the city did not voice their complaints as often. By incorporating data into a new process for handling potholes, the city is now able to prioritize their resources in more equitable ways, also considering the social vulnerability of each area.

By comparing 311 requests with socio-economic indicators and actual sidewalk conditions they figured out that there was some prioritization of resources that could take place.

· Building Intelligence: At some point the team came across the fact that the fire department had one person manually gathering data from other departments, as this was useful in their risk assessment of particular buildings. By helping with an already existing problem, the Building Intelligence internal app helps to connect several different databases with geographical data. Now a city official in any of those departments can punch in any address and find out as much as everyone else in city halls knows about it. This app allows for the breaking down of silos but it was built while taking into account the needs and abilities of the municipal workers that would use it.

A easy to use interface to combine several different databases.

These projects represent examples in which a city can be more responsive, empowering of its workers, more attentive to the citizens needs and a driver of more equitable outcomes. The potential for a radical transformation of local government is there. But how do we unlock its full potential? And what are some of the pitfalls that we need to be aware of? We explore that further in the following blog post.

Continued in part 2.

Nicolas Diaz Amigo

Written by

Chilean. Wondering how we can make our cities work better for all citizens. Master in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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