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Walsh’s new tech chief faces challenges, opportunities

From its innovative apps like Citizens Connect to its commitment to open data, Boston City Hall has earned its reputation as a leader in integrating technology into the process of delivering constituent services. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of room for improvement. Finding ways to do so will be the job of Jascha Franklin-Hodge, Boston’s new chief information officer, Mayor Walsh’s most celebrated recruit from the private sector.

Franklin-Hodge will take over on July 28, and is coming to city government from Blue State Digital. The company, which he co-founded, specializes in grass-roots organizing and online fund-raising. According to Franklin-Hodge, one of his first priorities will be restructuring the city’s website so that residents can find information organized by services, as opposed to bureaucratic designations. Right now, the site is structured the like municipal government, with different pages for different offices. But that isn’t helpful for people looking to accomplish a task that cuts across departmental lines or for those who aren’t familiar with the inner workings of City Hall. Instead, Franklin-Hodge wants to build a site around actual tasks, such as finding a school or opening up a new business.

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Franklin-Hodge also says he wants to use technology to help address some of the city’s larger policy goals. For instance, he will help organize a hackathon in August to encourage private-sector tech innovators to find ways to streamline the city’s permitting process, which currently requires multiple applications and inspections from different city departments.

Revamping the website and finding outside partners to help make the permitting process less onerous could go a long way toward making constituent services run more smoothly. But the real challenge will be finding ways to make a substantial difference in city government with the resources available. The Department of Innovation and Technology has an operating budget of $26.6 million for fiscal 2015. While that’s not a pittance, it’s significantly less than the combined development budgets of all the gadgets, apps, and other innovations that have shaped Bostonians’ view of how technology should work. Yet if Franklin-Hodge and Walsh choose initiatives carefully and deploy resources creatively, the entire city will benefit.

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