Mayor Walsh hopes to drive agenda with data
Mayor hopes real-time systems will aid in construction, zoning, licensing
A year after winning office, Mayor Martin J. Walsh is hoping to drive his agenda with an emphasis on real-time data that measure everything from shootings to building permits, using management techniques often found in business settings to infuse city government with new urgency.
Every stop on Walsh’s daily schedule is now automatically plotted on a digital screen in the mayor’s office showing how often he has visited each Boston neighborhood in the past 30 days.
Pothole crews are using more smartphones to increase productivity, and residents now receive photos to prove that tasks were completed: One image shows the freshly patched asphalt and the other is a portrait of the public works crew that did the work.
In a 90-minute interview last week, Walsh unveiled what he described as his “thriving, innovative, and healthy” vision for Boston, an exhaustive list of issues he hopes to tackle in the three remaining years of his term. His administration plans to build new digital tools to regularly track progress toward individual goals, such as dramatically boosting housing construction, rezoning swaths of Boston to increase economic opportunity, or eliminating superfluous licenses for jukeboxes and pool tables.
The agenda Walsh described was heavy on analytical tools but lacked concrete details about how he plans to address the broader issues he cited, such as increasing economic inclusion. He also did not provide specifics about how he plans to pay for new initiatives, including his campaign promise to expand prekindergarten classes so that all 4-year-olds would have a seat.
But he said the emphasis on using digital tools to track the administration’s progress will help Boston become “the first 21st-century city in America.”
“I can make all the announcements that I want and have all the speeches at the Chamber of Commerce and the State of the City and talk about my vision and great plans,” Walsh said. “But it is really making sure that we follow through on them. If we truly want to make that jump from the 20th to the 21st century. . . . We have to hit the benchmarks.”
Walsh, who requested last week’s sit-down with Globe reporters, described his transition from a state legislator to chief executive of a large, complex city that began when he took office in January. Walsh said he began feeling more at ease in his new role about two months into his tenure and his comfort has grown with each passing day.
Walsh acknowledged that he had remained in the shadow of his predecessor, Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s longest-serving mayor, who after 20 years in office had almost become synonymous with the city. When Menino died late last month, Walsh was sitting in his City Hall office and it hit home.
“When I got the phone call I sat down and thought, ‘I’m the mayor,’ ” Walsh said. “He was always kind of there. . . . He’s such a big figure out there in the community.”
After taking office, Walsh faced a mayor’s broad portfolio: the shooting death of a 9-year-old Mattapan boy, a showdown over casinos, the deaths of two firefighters, and union contracts. Walsh noted that he also had to prepare for the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings and for Menino’s funeral.
“I learned trial by fire early on,” Walsh said. “I think we’ve done a fair job of governing in Boston so far.”
In the interview, the mayor also revealed that a few weeks ago he met for the first time with casino magnate Steve Wynn, whose company was recently awarded a license to building a gambling resort in Everett. The administration has been critical of the casino, which will be near the Boston city line.
“He reached out to me,” Walsh said. “We had a good first conversation.’’
Walsh also announced that the city’s round-the-clock hot line will soon be transformed from its 10-digit telephone number to 311, a system used in other urban centers. A new digital initiative dubbed “Street Cred” will soon be launched to encourage civic participation by allowing users to earn points for volunteering or reporting broken street lights, unplowed streets, and overflowing garbage cans.
When he is up for reelection in three years, Walsh said, his most significant accomplishments will still be works in progress. He described a “strong infrastructure” to improve education and said that by then Boston would be in the second year of a master plan for public school buildings. Construction must be under way on a “sufficient number” of units of workforce housing, Walsh said, adding when pressed for specifics, “I don’t have a number today, but in the thousands.”
The city will also be preparing to implement universal prekindergarten, Walsh said, with a goal of having seats for all children by 2018, the year after the next mayoral election. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio made the same campaign pledge and universal prekindergarten started in September after state lawmakers agreed to fund the initiative.
Walsh said he plans to appeal to the state for funding. “If not, we’re going to have to take [money] from somewhere else to build it in,” Walsh said.
Walsh was accompanied during the interview by three top aides who embody vastly different backgrounds. The emphasis on data came from the new generation of municipal officials educated at Harvard and MIT: Walsh’s chief of staff, Daniel Arrigg Koh, and Boston’s chief information officer, Jascha Franklin-Hodge. The third was Michael Goldman, an outside communications consultant whose political roots date to the 1970s and the first administration of former governor Michael S. Dukakis.
Under Menino, the city used data in an effort called “Boston About Results.” The initiative tracked more than 200 performance metrics that included everything from employee overtime to library card usage, the number of trees planted to violent crime. The data were regularly analyzed by top city officials and reports were made public every three months.
Walsh’s goal is to change the culture at City Hall by infusing all levels of government with a data-driven approach, according to Koh. One Cabinet meeting a month will be dedicated to reviewing the data, and top officials will be required to submit reports to show progress toward each of Walsh’s goals. The mayor said the data would be made public.
“The idea of people really thinking at all levels of government about how we measure things quantitatively is novel,” Koh said. “But I think people are really excited about it.”
As an example, he pointed to Melissa Pagan, supervisor of veterans’ services. Pagan’s department hears from veterans across the city and employees track calls by neighborhood.
“I input all the information and it goes zooming up to the mayor’s office to his big screen,” Pagan said.
Focusing on collecting and analyzing data is part of the new administration's effort to manage a city workforce with more than 18,000 employees and 20 different departments.
“If we built this correctly, the measures that we are talking about translate into real impact for people of this city. That is the goal,” said Franklin-Hodge, the chief information officer.
For the mayor, the push to drive his agenda with data is an attempt to show tangible progress on the array of complex problems facing Boston.
“I want to be able to look back three years from now and say, ‘OK this is what we spoke about when we first came into office. And this is where we are today,’ ’’ Walsh said. “The biggest piece is really for me personally . . . going from a legislator to an executive. That transformation took almost a year in.”