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By Nick Carney

Big cities have always been somewhat impersonal places. How is one individual supposed to raise her voice to be heard over the din caused by her millions of fellow city-dwellers? For city governments and policymakers concerned with the quality of city services and empowerment of residents, this is an especially salient question, one that has never had a truly satisfying answer.

But the emergence of digital telecommunications over the last several decades has promised to change that, and indeed technology is now enabling a new form of urban governance. Residents no longer passively receive services; governments can actively bring their constituents into the process of maintaining the city.

The program transforms what was once a drawn-out and discouraging process into one that inspires active involvement, improving the value of government services by encouraging citizen-produced input.

In 2009 the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) developed a smartphone app called Citizens Connect that allows residents to quickly report public works and service needs. Bostonians can inform officials of infrastructure and service problems such as potholes, streetlight failures, or graffiti via their phones, allowing the city to be far more responsive to its citizens’ needs and eliminating paperwork. As workers finish projects they record the date and time of completion, allowing residents to verify the city’s responsiveness to their requests.

But the much-lauded program is more than just a mobile app version of a 311 system; the application is an example of what the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics terms “participatory urbanism.” The digital platform allows citizens to easily and swiftly tailor government resources to their needs; it acts as a more convenient, responsive, and engaging form of the 311 system or physically traveling to City Hall. Citizens Connect reduces barriers to interaction with government, allowing city residents to actively engage their government for assistance rather than being reduced to passively waiting for services eventually materialize. The program transforms what was once a drawn-out and discouraging process into one that inspires active involvement, improving the value of government services by encouraging citizen-produced input.

But perhaps even more importantly, argues Chris Osgood, co-head of MONUM, many residents do not own a smartphone and even some who do will still choose to call City Hall instead. Instead, the app “seems to broaden who is engaged in civic action, not simply shift the channel of their engagement.”

Just as crucially, Osgood says, “the nature of the mobile app seems to change, for some people, the feeling of the engagement.  We've heard user feedback that calling a hotline ‘feels like making a complaint’; using Citizens Connect ‘feels like taking action.’”

By December of 2012, over 35,000 problems had been reported and remedied and more than 20 percent of all “quality of life” notifications that the city receives pass through the app. The success inspired Governor Deval Patrick’s administration to fund the development of Commonwealth Connect, an app based on Citizens Connect, accessible to 35 participating municipalities.

The new standardized app will allow seamless information integration between the different municipal governments. Yet perhaps even more importantly than the increase in efficiency of service provision, these cities will likely benefit from a similar ethos of civic accountability that the program has engendered in Boston. And that would reflect a more fundamental transformation in urban governance that has been a long time coming.

About the Author

Nick Carney

Nick Carney is a Masters in Public Policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a Public Service Fellow. He is concentrating in Social and Urban Policy and has previously worked in clean energy policy and mixed-use, urban real estate development. Nick is particularly fascinated by transportation, land-use, and education policy, and with his sister runs a literacy nonprofit called Breaking the Chain.

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