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New Study Looks Under Hood of Boston's New Urban Mechanics

BY Sam Roudman | Friday, August 9 2013

Boston’s office of New Urban Mechanics is a model for other cities looking to provide more and better service with less cash. By taking advantage of mobile technologies, bridging long siloed departments, and engaging civic minded tech entrepreneurs and academics, the department, under the direction of Mayor Thomas Menino has had its hand in an array of projects in the past years, from figuring out how to repurpose 19th century fire boxes for the digital age, to testing online games to inform city planning. A list of projects doesn’t really get at what actually makes New Urban Mechanics tick but a new case study from Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society just might.

“It’s a special story what happened in Boston these last few years,” says Professor Susan Crawford, who conducted the study along with Dana Walters.

The study, which included interviews with 21 city employees, looks at Boston’s 24-7 constituent service hotline, and how it moved from being a standard 311 style system and became a platform for civic engagement that integrates mobile, text, and online interactions. It highlights how the city bureaucracy collaborated across department lines at the behest of Mayor Menino’s leadership, how the system enabled data gathering to create reliable performance metrics for different departments, and how it used technology to facilitate engagement between constituents and their government rather than place distance between them.

“It was a useful lens with which to tell the story of a very innovative group of civil servants,” says Crawford.

"Even without budgetary authority or staff, the innovation office within the Mayor's suite (the Office of New Urban Mechanics) has been able to nudge, encourage and facilitate collaborations inside City Hall and across academic institutions, technologists, and other city governments that are productive," writes Crawford in the study. "The Mayor's office of New Urban Mechanics is highly collaborative. The low egos of [Chris] Osgood and [Nigel] Jacob [co-chairs of NUM], and their feeling that the work is more important than who gets credit for it, has allowed relationships to form with ease. This culture works through loose allegiances and trust in partners to 'own' certain projects."

In an interview with TechPresident, Nigel Jacob, co-chair of NUM in Boston, said the constituent service hotline is a good example of their office’s focus on approaching city services as if they were consumer software products.

“You need to look at innovation efforts like products you manage,” said Jacob. The platform was launched in 2008, and has been updated continually since then. “Treating it like a product allowed us to engage with experimentation.”

Crawford says Boston use of technology to provide better customer service differentiates it from other big cities.

“This is a quite different approach than what’s going on in New York or Chicago,” she says.

Crawford lauds Chicago’s development of predictive analytics, and Mike Flowers’ civic data operation in New York City, but thinks their approach lacks in other ways.

“It’s just so exciting, but it’s exclusively data driven,” she says, “whereas the Boston approach is much more high touch.”

Of course, the Boston way, with its focus on following up with every constituent complaint and concern, is not without room for improvement. Crawford concludes that the system could do a better job of tracking customer satisfaction, and that future versions of the system might want to integrate city data –traffic data, inspection data, 911 data– to improve the services that citizens receive, and get a better understanding of how departments are performing.

Whether these improvements will come to pass is up in the air. While the study details the chemistry of a particular group of city workers, it acknowledges that Mayor Menino will be out at the end of the year, and what happens to his pet office afterwards will be a question for Boston's next mayor.

“It’s impossible to institutionalize a culture,” says Crawford, “and this really was a special group.”