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From City Hall to the streets of Boston, Maya Alper MPP’24 highlights service delivery’s role in promoting democracy

By taking a new approach to its digital service delivery methods, Alper believes that Boston can harness democratic innovations to help heal the wounds left by the city’s legacy of racism and disinvestment.

Maya Alper smiles in the Harvard Kennedy School courtyard.

“Boston is a city of contradictions,” writes Maya Alper, MPP’24, in the opening lines of her Kennedy School capstone research project, the Policy Analysis Exercise (PAE). Boston, she explains, prides itself on being a highly educated, innovative, and progressive city, but it continues to grapple with its history and reputation of racism. To achieve its goal of being a “city for everyone,” Boston must first come to terms with its complicated past, she says. And that’s where Alper’s project begins.  

In her research, Alper saw how some residents curbed engagement with a government that they felt hadn’t served them in generations. In turn, the city struggles against the tendency to pour resources into the neighborhoods with the loudest voices. “City Hall is resolved in its commitment to make Boston ‘a city for everyone.,’ she writes. “There’s no shortage of barriers to this goal, but one key challenge is that participation in Boston’s civic life and core city services is unequal and not representative of the vibrant diversity of its neighborhoods and communities.”   

She argues that to ultimately ameliorate the discrepancies between participation levels and delivery of city services, city officials must first understand how historical narratives and frustrating personal experiences color residents’ expectations of what government can achieve for them. “…while [the reputation of inequality] is a relic of an older Boston [for some], it is the everyday reality of many residents who still don’t feel like this city is built for them and that they can access the resources that they need.” 

 

Alper's findings from her PAE research

Photo of two different cycles: The cycle on the right demonstrates a

“Residents’ experiences with city services provide them with ‘scripts that indicate how they can expect government to act.’ Delivering high-quality services can kickstart a positive and reinforcing cycle of trust, engagement, representation, and reinvestment,” writes Alper.

Scatter plot that shows a correlation between 311 activity and mayoral election turnout in 2021

She found that there was a notable correlation between higher rates of 311 utilization and voter participation.

Graph of the city of Boston's neighborhoods. The neighborhoods that are more deeply colored in have a higher rate of 311 requests

Alper illustrates that in 2023, the traditionally wealthier and whiter neighborhoods had higher rates of 311 use.

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To rewire this cycle into one that’s more equitable, Alper recommends the city start by adopting a customer experience mindset across the entire organization. This starts by taking stock of the administrative burdens and time costs it imposes on residents. By reimagining business processes, like paying a parking ticket or applying for a permit, with the user experience front and center, Boston can consistently deliver faster, reliable, and respectful services, creating opportunities to build trust with constituents. Additionally, she proposes that Boston invests in stronger transparency and accountability measures to foster more productive interactions between the city and its citizens. 

When more people engage, government becomes more responsive to communities that have traditionally been excluded. And a more responsive government is a better government that then reinvests in communities through things like high-quality service delivery. Maya Alper smiles in the Harvard Kennedy School courtyard.

Maya Alper

MPP'24

“When more people engage, government becomes more responsive to communities that have traditionally been excluded,” says Alper. “And a more responsive government is a better government that then reinvests in communities through things like high-quality service delivery.”  

And while high-quality service delivery is one goal, faith in government ultimately can lead to greater faith in democracy. It’s this broader vision that drives Alper to continue her efforts.  

“I think that the way that we bolster democracy and make people believe in democracy is by making people believe in government, and by showing that government can work for people and can deliver on its promises… if we make it a little easier for vulnerable people to get services from the government, we can have huge impacts on the quality of people’s willingness to invest in and strengthen democracy.” 

Alper’s contributions to the Ash Center and beyond

After years of working on issues of voter participation and civic engagement, Alper found a community at the Ash Center that was engaged in and excited about new and innovative ways of fostering greater civic engagement. Alper quickly became a regular face around the Center, working as a research assistant on the Reimaging Democracy Program team. The Center provided support for her PAE and this spring, Alper was awarded the Center’s Mauzy Award for the Advancement of Democratic Governance, which is given to a graduating Kennedy School dedicated to democracy. 

“Maya has added so much to HKS, to the Ash Center, and to the community of scholars and students at Harvard committed to studying, debating, and generating big ideas on behalf of pursuing equitable and inclusive democracy. We are grateful for Maya’s many contributions over the past two years and excited that, in her next chapter, the Commonwealth will benefit from Maya’s many talents and commitment to good governance,” said Ash Center Executive Director Tim Glynn-Burke on her achievements during her HKS career.

Admittedly, Alper notes that her PAE could have been “a very negative, pessimistic project,” but it actually invigorated her optimism for the city’s future and for her own future working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security. And while Boston’s efforts to make the city work for everyone are far from complete, she walked away from this experience with a renewed sense of optimism that the city is taking steps in the right direction.  

After graduation, Alper will bring her digital service delivery expertise to the state-level where she’ll support agencies in leveraging technology to continuously improve the quality and responsiveness of government services for the people of Massachusetts. “It is really encouraging to know that I live in a city that is powered by employees who care about the city deeply and who want to make it better and who have this vision for how to do so.” she reflected. “I feel really lucky that the city wants to hear these things, wants to tackle them, and wants to be really frank about them.” 

 

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