Politics as Unusual: Menino’s tech legacy is no joke

May 14, 2013
By

City Councilor-at-Large John Connolly said something interesting at a mayoral forum in Jamaica Plain last week. He hyperbolized that under his leadership, City Hall would look something like the Apple Store. Presumably, Connolly meant that moving forward, the bureaucratic labyrinth and concrete bunker in Government Center should be sleek and futuristic—flatscreens galore, perhaps beepers to alert customers of their turn, like at TGI Friday’s.

That technological zinger may be tasty crowd candy for this stunningly exhilarating race, in which every clever one-liner stands to set candidates apart from the enormous pack. But in this case, the councilor is off-base, since the obvious next step in municipal management is to make it so that no one ever has to go to City Hall. Connolly, of all people, knows this; before Mayor Tom Menino took his name out of the running, the councilor noted, at his announcement party, that the current administration’s idea of online permitting is asking people to print forms off the Internet and deliver them in person.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if City Hall looks like the Apple Store or an apple orchard. In the future, no one should ever have to trek downtown to pay a parking ticket or to plead for a permit. Likewise, residents shouldn’t have to queue endlessly while perturbed bureaucrats send us from window to window, like some sort of sadistic scavenger hunt. Rather, from the comfort of our desktops, laptops and mobile devices, we should have every service available. It’s an awesome ideal.

Fortunately, Boston is ahead of nearly every other American city in delivering such tech resources and in leveraging data to improve the quality of urban life. As I wrote about in great detail in the current issue of Boston Magazine, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) is responsible for web and mobile applications like “Street Bump” and “Citizens Connect,” which crowd-source the Herculean effort of maintaining infrastructure with dazzling results. They’re also behind City Hall To Go, a project in the spirit of the food truck movement that brings constituent services instead of tacos to every neighborhood.

It’s easy to disparage Menino for his apparent lack of technological sophistication. He doesn’t email or type and enter his own tweets—and he only installed voicemail at City Hall this year. Yet his MONUM and their data scientists and coders around City Hall have already streamlined operations like trash collection. After years of limited transparency, they now even have an open info portal where the public can scrutinize things like crime stats and financial expenditures. There’s also “Discover BPS,” which helps parents find schools in their assignment zone, as well as countless other projects in the works, most of which are collaborations with local talent from outside of government.

The Hub is not only winning, but leading on the cutting edge. Based on Boston’s MONUM, last year Philadelphia opened an office of new urban mechanics, and the two cities now share ideas daily. Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, who run MONUM for Menino, have received high honors for their work—the White House has named them “Champions of Change”; they’ve been Governing magazine’s “public officials of the year”; the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School just announced that they are finalists for the annual Innovations in American Government awards.

Now that the deadline to pull papers has passed, it’s time to move beyond the rhetoric. Instead of blasting Menino for his apparent Luddite ways, smart candidates should acknowledge his achievements in new urban engineering and pledge to continue his work in updating this ancient metropolis. While they’re at it, those who address education endlessly may want to add to their platform a promise to put more computers in schools. If there’s one digital area that Menino has neglected, it’s in our places of learning. Forget about a laptop for every child, or all BPS students studying code, as they should already be doing by their early elementary years. We still have schools where fewer than 1 in 5 students has a working computer available to them! It’s beyond shameful.

I believe that the new flock of candidates wants the best for Boston’s technological tomorrow. With the exception of District Attorney Dan Conley, whose website looks as if it were designed by drunken apes on GeoCities, most of the frontrunners have even built respectable websites, advertising their “Mayor of the Future” laurels. The best way to really show off those credentials, though, is to embrace the genius underway at City Hall—not to flog Hizzoner for a cheap laugh.

Chris Faraone is a former Boston Phoenix reporter and author of “99 Nights with the 99 Percent” and the upcoming “I Killed Breitbart.” He lives in Jamaica Plain.

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