By Alexa Easton, Communications Intern
On October 7, 2014, Harvard Kennedy School Professor Steve Goldsmith and Harvard Law School Visiting Professor Susan Crawford were joined by First Cabinet-level CIO for the City of Boston, Bill Oates, to discuss Goldsmith and Crawford’s new book, The Responsive City, at the Ash Center. A series of case studies highlighting the work of municipal leaders in several cities, the book serves as a guide for how data and strong leadership can be used to improve city governments and generate active, valuable civic engagement.
Ash Center Director Anthony Saich moderated the discussion and began by noting a central theme of the book— that governments’ complicated and outdated organizational systems underlie many civic challenges. “Government must get out of its own way,” he concluded.
Goldsmith, director of the Data-Smart City Solutions initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School, described governments’ struggle to utilize modern technology and effective data tools. He stated that although it is “the responsibility of the structures of government to deliver data in a way that provides better information,” most city governments are failing to deliver this vital service.
Government, Goldsmith explained, needs to transform structurally in an effort to mirror the way society works. Its rigid operations oppose the flexibility of citizens living in a community, which creates gaps between city services and those who rely on them. “We organize government vertically and people live horizontally,” he said.
Susan Crawford, co-director of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, elaborated on Goldsmith’s vision of a more interactive relationship between government and citizens. She used the example of Boston’s recent effort to engage residents through Citizens Connect, an app allowing users to report neighborhood blights, like potholes, graffiti, and broken traffic lights.
Although research shows that citizens do not value reporting municipal problems because they perceive it to be complaining or futile in the event the issue goes unresolved, this new technology offers citizens an effective and anonymous way to improve their community in real-time. “When we have some sense of the role of government in our lives, we can do lots of small things well, which gives the city a chance to do the big things we’re going to have to do to survive,” said Crawford.
With an estimated three-fourths of the world’s population living in cities by 2050, city governments have an urgent need to bolster their technical services, data collection processes, and avenues for fostering civic engagement. While there is still much to improve upon, Crawford believes that the U.S. is at a significant turning point with recent technical innovations, getting us closer to the ideal of “sustainable cities that are a pleasure to live in.”
Oates, a longtime municipal official, spoke about his experience working with the late Mayor Menino as a testament to the need for strong leadership and the power of trust. “As a proponent of citizen engagement,” he said. “The Mayor built trust with individual Bostonians which led to enormous trust from the entire city.” City governments, Oates said, should follow Menino’s lead by focusing on people, reflecting the diversity of the city, and engaging in-person in order to build citizens’ trust.
While building relationships face-to-face was one of Menino’s most admired practices, Oates emphasized the importance of using social media and modern technology to engage with today’s urban population. He explained how instrumental social media can be in disseminating information in the event of a major citywide event or tragedy, such as the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
Saich ended the discussion by broaching several questions touched upon by the panel: Is it feasible to institute sweeping changes to organizational systems that government employees have been working with for over twenty years? How can we make city residents comfortable sharing their data to achieve a public good?