Citizen-Centered Government: The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Evolution of CRM in Boston

August 07, 2013 by Susan P. Crawford, Dana Walters

Access this Publication
Over the last three years, the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, the innovative, collaborative ethos within City Hall fostered by Mayor Menino and his current chief of staff, Mitchell Weiss, and Boston's launch of a CRM system and its associated Citizens Connect smartphone app have all attracted substantial media attention. In particular, the City of Boston's strategy to put citizen engagement and participation at the center of its efforts, implemented by Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob as co-chairs of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, has drawn attention to the potential power of collaboration and technology to transform citizens' connections to their government and to each other. Several global developments have combined to make Boston's collaborative efforts interesting: First, city managers around the world confront shrinking budgets and diminishing trust in the role of government; second, civic entrepreneurs and technology innovators are pressuring local governments to adopt new forms of engagement with citizens; and third, new digital tools are emerging that can help make city services both more visible and more effective. Boston's experience in pursuing partnerships that facilitate opportunities for engaging citizens may provide scalable (and disruptive) lessons for other cities. During the summer of 2013, in anticipation of Mayor Menino's retirement in January 2014, Prof. Susan Crawford and Project Assistant Dana Walters carried out a case study examining the ongoing evolution of the Boston Mayor's Hotline into a platform for civic engagement. We chose this CRM focus because the initial development of the system provides a concrete example of how leaders in government can connect to local partners and citizens. In the course of this research, we interviewed 21 city employees and several of their partners outside government, and gathered data about the use of the system. (Exhibit A is a list of interviewees.) We found a traditional technology story — selection and integration of CRM software, initial performance management using that software, development of ancillary channels of communication, initial patterns of adoption and use — that reflects the commitment of Mayor Menino to personalized constituent service. We also found that that commitment, his long tenure, and the particular personalities of the people on the New Urban Mechanics team make this both a cultural story as well as a technology story. Here are the highlights: The combination of Mitchell Weiss's vision for citizen engagement, Nigel Jacob's expertise in software development and digital strategy, Chris Osgood's experience in navigating government bureaucracy, and Bill Oates's (CIO) private-sector experience has allowed this team to launch successful projects and build valuable partnerships that focus on citizen-centered innovation; Even without budgetary authority or staff, the innovation office within the Mayor's suite (the Office of New Urban Mechanics) has been able to nudge, encourage, and facilitate collaborations inside City Hall and across academic institutions, technologists, and other city governments that have been productive; As one example of the team's joint efforts and partnerships, both inside and outside City Hall, the launch of Boston's Lagan CRM system in October 2008 was followed by integration of the system into the operations of several constituent-facing service departments; The system has evolved over time to include, among other things, a mobile app for field workers in the Department of Public Works (City Worker), a smartphone app for citizens (Citizen Connect), reports that are useful for performance management, and several different channels through which citizens can interact with City Hall, while retaining its high-touch, personalized character; Although every CRM system case is assigned a case ID number, the CRM system as a whole does not automatically assign a unique identifier to citizens that would allow uniform tracking across different modes of contact (smartphone app, Web interface, phone call) or mapping of particular citizens to particular neighborhoods. Constituents who contact the system may voluntarily provide contact details (name, home address, email, and phone); Future versions of this system, and layering of CRM data over other City data (911, inspections, sensor data, social sentiment data, traffic data), could make possible much more extensive citizen collaboration, situation awareness, policy inputs, performance analysis, and co-creation of government services or policies. Although there are many channels for reporting into the CRM system — Citizens Connect, SMS, web chat, phone calls — all of the people reporting in are not connected to each other, and the lack of unique identifiers makes true "citizen relationship management" difficult. Customer satisfaction is also not measured by the system, as far as we can tell. Outbound calls, texting, and Twitter/social media sentiment mining might be useful tools for this assessment; Combining formal CRM requests with social sentiment information could provide useful guidance underpinning policy decisions and resource allocation. Connecting all of this information to job functions within City Hall would also clearly be productive. And if we believe that people in their communities know more about their communities than all the gifted people in City Hall, how do we enable them to help themselves solve some of their own problems? Boston City Hall has not been focused on predictive analytics or the public release of data; rather, the team's top priorities (in line with Mayor Menino's strategy) have been to improve service delivery and encourage citizen engagement; Mayor Menino's leadership style, strategic goals, and long tenure, together with the particular personalities of the members of the core team profiled in this study, have been essential to this narrative; The longterm effects on either the operation of City government or citizen engagement of the Office of New Urban Mechanics and the innovative, experimental ethos encouraged by that Office, Chief of Staff Mitchell Weiss, and CIO Bill Oates are unclear. Much will depend on the character and priorities of the new mayor.