BEFORE THE Internet age, when my car had some minor problem, I would choose a car shop at random and walk out with a whopping bill for some possibly unnecessary service. Today, the Internet provides me with abundant warnings about unscrupulous mechanics and helpful hints about automotive ailments. Reams of reviews help us choose books and hotel rooms, and harder data help us to select cars and refrigerators.
Yet when it comes to local governments, which provide the very services we need to keep our communities healthy and safe, we often seem stuck in an age that is closer to James Michael Curley than Steve Jobs. And even as individual municipalities, including Boston, move toward greater openness, a single community’s information is of limited use on its own.
Years into an information explosion that has revolutionized the private sector, the application of hard data is just beginning to transform the quality of local government. Boston About Results, the city’s transparency website, is a good first step, but it needs to be part of a statewide system that allows us to compare public efficiency across every city and town.
In many areas, the City of Boston has been an information technology innovator. Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood were two of Governing Magazine’s public officials of the year in 2011 because of their IT work at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which created the app Citizens Connect. It lets smartphone users report problems and check on the progress of over 18,000 complaints - like a traffic light at the corner of Beech and Poplar streets that was repeatedly flashing yellow.
But for us to sensibly choose the cities and towns we live in - and the people who lead us - we need better information. Boston About Results is the city’s attempt to deliver knowledge about the state of city services. The website allows you to check on eight areas, like public safety or education. You can then click through and learn the share of crimes that have recently been cleared (16.8 percent) or the number of hours absent per library employee (about 50 in 2011).
Perusing the website can be fun, but one naturally wonders: Is 16.8 percent bad or good? What do any of these numbers mean? The city has established benchmarks for key performance indicators, but in some cases, I’m not inclined to give much credit or blame for the outcome. The city gives itself a big red circle - “performance off-target’’ - because there have been 300 more building and structural fires than their target, but is that really the Fire Department’s fault? Even when the performance indicator clearly does reflect on public performance, like the share of fires responded to in less than four minutes, it can be hard to tell whether the city’s target rate (70 percent) is too lenient or too tough. Boston deserves credit for moving toward transparency. Still, with nothing to compare this information to, it’s as though Yelp collected a lot of data on a single restaurant, or TripAdvisor on a single hotel.
It would be far better if we had a statewide system, where every town had to provide similar data that could be viewed in a single website. We should be able to easily learn how quickly the fire departments respond in Worcester and Springfield and everywhere else, which would enable residents of those cities to evaluate their governments and for Bostonians to compare their city services with performance elsewhere. A good statewide website would also enable us to compare the costs of services across jurisdictions - like dollars spent per citizen or per fire.
The Legislature should require regular reporting of performance and financial data in order to receive local aid. The data could then be fed into a single website - call it Massachusetts About Results - loosely based on the Boston system. With no more than two capable tech people, the state could issue regular reports praising star local agencies and shaming poor performers.
As families in Massachusetts make decisions about where to live, and businesses about where to locate, they deserve the same information they can get about auto repair shops and restaurants. Boston has innovated in information technology; but the state government must now provide the leadership and resources to ensure that this innovation spreads across the state.Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is author of “The Triumph of the City.’’ His column appears regularly in the Globe.