Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics: Innovation for the Public Good

The Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics uses a private sector innovation model to promote more effective government. It is trailblazing the way for how cities are run, one app at a time.

The Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) is a pioneering organization that uses private sector innovation models to promote more effective government. Formed in 2010 by Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, MONUM partners with entrepreneurs and technology companies to crowdsource, build, pilot and scale projects that enhance the quality of life for Bostonians. MONUM’s core mission is to increase the influence that citizens have over their government through the power of collaboration and technology [1].

Example projects include:

  • Citizens Connect: The country’s first big-city 311 app that allows residents to report public issues directly from their smartphones [2].
  • Street Bump: Mobile app that senses and reports potholes as residents drive throughout the city [2].
  • Flu Shot App: Platform that informs Boston residents of the nearest place to get a flu shot and schedules an appointment for them [3].
  • Smart Parking: An app that uses government data to provide drivers with real-time information on vacant parking spots throughout the city [3].

The Office has received significant praise since its founding and its operations are being replicated by cities across the country [2]. It is a leading model of how the private sector and public sector can work together to do a significant amount of good.

Operating Model

MONUM’s operating model has three distinct features that allow it to source, select and build successful projects for the city:ALawrence2

  • Innovation funnel: With very limited resources, the Office relies heavily on crowdsourcing ideas and forming partnerships with civic hackers. Through email, twitter and local hackathons, MONUM identifies ideas for potential projects. The Office then partners with local technology companies and entrepreneurs to pilot these projects. MONUM monitors closely and refines each project in its pilot phase before determining whether the project is scalable or not. Finally, successful projects are scaled for city-wide roll-out. [5] 
  • Transparency: MONUM promotes transparency, a core value of the Boston Mayor’s Office, by publishing real-time results and usage of its projects to the public. For example, in the city’s Citizens Connect app, residents can see how many public complaints (potholes, graffiti, etc.) have been resolved and the time it takes to resolve each complaint [1]. 
  • Organizational structure: The five-person MONUM team uniquely stands outside the city’s departmental structure [6]. The Office is constantly forging partnerships with constituents, academics, private companies and non-profits. This flat and nimble organizational structure allows the team members to leverage all resources in City Hall to pilot and scale its experiments [1].

Business Model

MONUM’s business model is quite simple – the Office first pilots, then launches projects city-wide that create value for the citizens of Boston. The Office defines value as increasing the quality of life of Bostonians through citizen-centered innovation.

The Office originally piloted projects that focused on civic engagement; however, MONUM’s own focuses have expanded in the past year. MONUM has prioritized four major issue areas for its experiments: education, engagement, the Streetscape and economic development [4].

Alignment

MONUM’s success is largely due to its operating and business models’ ability to support each other. First, the innovation funnel is successful in crowdsourcing and narrowing down the very best ideas for projects. With only a five person team and no formal budgetary authority, MONUM does not have the capacity or resources to invest in R&D to build experiments. MONUM’s crowdsourcing model circumvents this barrier and the Office is inundated with ideas for potential projects. Moreover, its “first pilot, then scale” strategy ensures that only the most successful projects will be rolled-out city-wide.

The transparency of the Office’s projects provides a continual feedback loop that allows the apps to provide the most public good possible. By allowing its apps to have open API, providing bulk user data online and publishing real-time results from the projects, MONUM allows residents of Boston to engage with projects post-launch and provide recommendations for further enhancement. Projects are then continually refined and upgraded as improvements are made [1].

Finally, MONUM’s organizational structure of sitting outside City Hall’s departmental silos allows the Office to expand into new areas. Due to the limited resources in local government, organizations within City Hall are always at risk of getting cut in each budgetary cycle. However, MONUM’s nimble organizational structure provides the Office the ability to form partnerships and build projects across all forms of government service [1]. Five years into its existence, MONUM has enhanced the delivery of services across a wide array of City Hall’s departments and has proven that innovation is essential to how cities of the future are run.

 


Sources:

[1] Crawford, Susan, and Dana Walters. “Citizen-Centered Governance: The Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and the Evolution of CRM in Boston.” Berkman Center for Internet & Society (2013).

[2] Weiss, Mitchell. “More Citizens Connect.” Harvard Business School case (2015).

[3] “Projects.” New Urban Mechanics Homepage. http://newurbanmechanics.org/portfolio/. 4 Dec. 2015.

[4] “About.” New Urban Mechanics Homepage. http://newurbanmechanics.org/about/. 4 Dec. 2015.

[5] Lawrence, Alex. “Ten Innovations That Reimagine City Services: Boston Mayor’s Office of  New Urban Mechanics.” 2013.

[6] Schreckinger, Ben. “Boston: There’s an App for That.” Politico 10 June 2014.

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4 thoughts on “Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics: Innovation for the Public Good

  1. I really like this look at city government because its what we complain about all the time as citizens – we don’t like what the government is providing us, but this really comes down to our frustrations about the disconnect between business model and operating model. People in Boston likely don’t realize how advanced Boston is taking it, but after moving to the area, I appreciate the advances they have made. Even the concept of being able to reserve parking spaces online for when you are moving in and the Police block it off was something I hadn’t ever thought of before and seems genius, but at the same time, I have never lived in a city that does that. I am excited for the ways government can leverage new app technologies to better align their models. Thanks for sharing.

  2. This is a very interesting case study of a lean team having a broad and powerful impact by leveraging recent technological innovations, including crowd sourcing. I wonder if this model would work in many other cities and what its scaling limitations are (i.e. could you extend this to the county level or the state level)? Are there ways that constituents can “game the system” by organizing among themselves and pointing out the same issues or suggesting the same projects, effectively over-magnifying the importance of certain a issue or project when compared to others?

  3. I heard Dan Koh (Boston Mayor’s Chief of Staff and HBS graduate) speak at the Tech Conference not too long ago and was impressed with what the Mayor’s office is doing with data. In addition to mentioning the pothole project, he spoke about a partnership with Waze that yielded data used in traffic flow studies, resulting in modifications to parking/idling rule enforcement strategies, and about intelligent dispatch of snow removal equipment during the brutal early 2015 months. There’s a brief line in the YouTube video where the subject says the initiative is more about citizen experience than efficiency, which leaves me wondering: is this ultimately a way to reduce costs and save money for taxpayers? I do think, though, that government in general suffers from an egregious lack of citizen-facing technology. Both in the ability of government to interact with citizens digitally, and in the user interfaces/experience, there is still a lot of room for improvement.

  4. It’s great to see government leverage private sector best practices. Crowdsourcing is a powerful tool that can be used to deliver differential value to consumers. Are there any barriers for other cities to adopt Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics approach to innovation?

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