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Boston eyes single number to grade City Hall

Daniel Koh, left, chief of staff for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, discussing the CityScore program at City Hall in Boston on Wednesday.
Daniel Koh, left, chief of staff for Mayor Martin J. Walsh, discussing the CityScore program at City Hall in Boston on Wednesday.(Charlie Mahoney/The New York Times)

In baseball, a wave of advanced analytics can capture how players perform in a single statistic, an all-encompassing measure of overall value.

Boston’s City Hall is now following a similar statistical path, looking to distill its data-driven efforts into one gauge of government performance.

Dubbed CityScore, the figure aims to summarize dozens of measures, from how quickly crews fill potholes and fix street lights to fire response times and crime levels. The idea is to give city leaders — and residents — a general sense of how city government is doing on a daily basis, and quickly highlight areas that need improvement.

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“It will provide an accountability that I think is important,” said Daniel Koh, chief of staff to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose office has large computer monitors with displays of data collected from various city departments. “If we’re underperforming our targets, we’ll do everything in our power to address it.”

The city has been working on the new system for several months and plans to launch the effort in January. Koh was slated to unveil the initiative, which city officials describe as the first of its kind, at a speech Thursday evening at TEDxCambridge, a technology event.

City governments are increasingly using data analysis to make services more efficient, and the Walsh administration has made it a priority. The city has partnered with the traffic-monitoring app Waze to crack down on double parking and improve traffic management. It also closely tracks its response to public complaints to measure performance and target areas for improvement.

That information provides the statistical base for a more comprehensive, city-wide metric, Koh said, just as baseball statistics reflect players’ total value.

“Research has shown that we are forgoing up to $3 trillion in economic potential because we aren’t using data to better inform public sector decision-making,” Koh said in his presentation Thursday, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. “Yet, the implications of using data can be monumental and baseball has charted a path for us to do it.”

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Koh says the single measure will have value as a broad reflection, but that it will not preclude more detailed analysis.

“We won’t rely solely on that score,” he said. “We’ll obviously be digging into the data.”

The city plans to show the scores to the public, and will welcome public input on how the data are calculated and which measures deserve extra weight. Maybe it won’t draw as much discussion as baseball, but Koh expects a lively debate.

“Different people in the city have different priorities,” he said. “We fully expect to be optimizing it as we move forward.”

Michael Ahn, assistant professor at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, said that while a single measure could provide a general overview of city performance, merging a host of statistics into one can be tricky.

“The devil will be in the details,” Ahn said. “The real question is how do you get to that number.”

Gerald Young, senior management associate for the International City/County Management Association in Washington D.C., said a simple, straightforward measure of how the government is faring could help engage the public.

“I think that’s definitely a way of sharing the information with the public that is concise,” he said. “If anything, it helps to encourage residents to dig a little deeper in the data.”

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Young said an increasing number of local governments are measuring performance and sharing it with residents, making services more results-driven.


Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.