The National Security Agency’s spying seems to demonstrate a scary Orwellian marriage of big government and awesome electronic power. But the City of Boston’s computing innovations, spearheaded by the Office of New Urban Mechanics, are warmer and more empowering, more Wall-E than HAL. As Mayor Marty Walsh contemplates the city’s future, he should embrace and expand Tom Menino’s commitment to computing on a human scale, because the speed and power of the Internet and the convenience of mobile phones increasingly inform residents’ expectations how everything else, including government, ought to operate.
Mayor Menino managed to combine old-school urban leadership with a remarkable — but selective — openness to transformative technology. Menino disliked innovation, such as answering machines, that he feared would depersonalize government, but he loved the energy of young talent. Nowhere was that talent more obvious than in the Office of the New Urban Mechanics. Its co-chairs, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, were two of Governing Magazine’s public officials of the year in 2011. (A disclosure of sorts: The Rappaport Institute, which I direct, has been lucky enough to collaborate with that office over the years.) The office’s name is a play on the sobriquet given to Menino because of his desire to focus on the humble basics of urban government.
The NSA’s spying frightens people because it increases the power that the government holds over private citizens. The New Urban Mechanics do the opposite: They increase the influence that citizens hold over the government.
Governing Magazine lauded Citizens Connect, a “mobile app that helps residents report quality of life issues, such as graffiti, directly to the right person at City Hall to take action.” According to the official website, the app produces about 20 percent of all cases received by City Hall and allowed over 10,000 neighborhood issues to be fixed each year.
Street Bump is another award-winning app that allows Bostonians to voluntarily engage with government and prod it to respond to their needs. Drivers need only download the app and put their smartphone in their cup holder. The phone then collects information on potholes and other road problems and transmits it to City Hall.
The emotionally fraught and often bureaucratic field of education has been a particular focus for the New Urban Mechanics. The One Card is “a school ID, a library card, and community center membership card, as well as a transit pass.” The website Discover BPS provides information for families about possible schools for their children, but surely parents would like more information on MCAS scores than the site provides. The site Where’s My School Bus lets parents learn how their child’s trip is moving along — which proved particularly valuable when the bus drivers went on strike.
Some projects make less of an impact. I am more skeptical of Adopt a Hydrant, which allows people to take responsibility for shoveling a hydrant clear after a snowstorm. But this also asks for a level of public spiritedness well beyond merely zapping in a complaint; not coincidentally, users have been slow to take it up.
An obvious question is how much effort Boston should expend on such tinkering, because city government isn’t a software company. Fortunately, many applications were developed by partners. The group Code for America is responsible for Discover BPS and Where’s My School Bus; Connected Bits created Street Bump. That’s how it should be. The public sector can achieve more by leveraging external talent, as long as partnerships are managed wisely.
If there is a flaw with the New Urban Mechanics’ design, it’s that there’s not enough external evaluation of the new projects after the fact. Governments should take risks, just like private-sector entrepreneurs. But because governments don’t face the same market discipline as private companies, public initiatives need other ways to measure success. One path is for Mayor Walsh to appoint an external committee to evaluate the New Urban Mechanics’ projects, and possibly also to help dream up new projects.
New administrations often wipe the slate clean. But the New Urban Mechanics aren’t just another program; they’re seeking out concrete, attainable ways to make government function better. The new mayor should embrace this effort — while also making sure its products are working well and suit the public’s needs.