Data Points Create Position of Mutual Understanding and Knowledge in Somerville, MA

By Mike McGrath Editor National Civic League

Since they started “Reinventing Government” in the early 1990s, public managers have looked for new ways to deliver high quality services to citizens in a cost- effective, efficient manner and courteous manner. Squeezed between declining revenues and increasing costs, local governments learned to become, in the words of authors David Osborne andTed Gaebler, more “mission driven,” “customer driven” and “market oriented.”

Advocates of civic engagement, however, often object to the language of markets and customer relations with its implication that citizens are passive consumers of goods and services.Yet the two values of public-administration, better customer relations and active citizen engagement — are by no means contradictory. As the old saying goes, knowledge is power, and some of the same information systems developed to increase efficiency and enhance “customer satisfaction” can be used to foster citizen engagement and public learning.

ComNET (Computerized Neighborhood Environment Tracking) was developed by the Fund for the City of New York’s Center on Government Performance as part of its effort to find new ways of engaging citizens in performance assessment and reporting. During a series of focus group meetings, it was discovered that citizens and government employees didn’t always measure the performance of government agencies in the same way. One revelation was that citizens care a lot more about the appearance of their streets and sidewalks than many public works officials realized. It is one of the most visible indicators of how their neighborhoods are faring, and ComNET helps them underscore that point.

Worcester, Massachusetts, began using ComNET and changed the way public managers and citizens view their respective roles and responsibilities.The program arms neighborhood groups with handheld computers and digital cameras, allowing them to document street level problems and report them to the appropriate agency.Traveling in groups of three or four, citizens roam the streets on weekends looking for potholes, buckling sidewalks, derelict vehicles, weed-strewn lots, illegal garbage dumps and downed stop signs.The information is uploaded via the Internet to theWorcester Regional Research Bureau’s ComNET Connection.The bureau then generates spreadsheets, analyzes the information and shares the findings with neighborhood associations, which get a better picture of what they should be asking the city to fix. Since 2003, thousands of abandoned vehicles have been removed from the streets byWorcester’s Department of PublicWorks, thanks in part to NewYork City’s ComNET.

In Somerville, Massachusetts, a Boston-area city of about 80,000, local officials hope to combine the benefits of a data- driven performance management system with regularly scheduled, ward-based public meetings. Somerville began its ResiStat meetings in 2007 to complete the feedback loop between citizens and government.The comments and suggestions of residents are reported back to the city’s semi- weekly data-driven performance evaluation meetings and compiled in an annual Resident Report that is published along with the official city budget.Thomas Champion, executive director of the city’s office of communications, says email groups have emerged from these ResiStat meetings and these groups are constantly sharing information. “There is a lot of communication between ResiStat members directly to SomerStat throughout the year,” he says.

“We are creating a civically engaged group in each ward that is constantly talking to itself and to the city and using a common reference point.They know what is going on.They have an inside look at how the city is allocating resources in their areas.”

“This brings us to a position of mutual understanding and knowledge,” says Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone when asked about his “ResiStat” program. “We’re building a level of true collaboration between citizens and government, and that’s great for the future of the city.”The origins of ResiStat go back to 1994 and efforts by the NewYork City Police Department to link crime fighting efforts to timely, accurate data generated by police calls, computers and databases under the city’s CompStat program. Geographic information system software was used to pinpoint problem areas in the city and regular performance management meetings were held to ensure that resources were being deployed in the most efficient manner.The resulting drop in crime rates was dramatic, and other cities noticed.

As part of Somerville’s “ResiStat” program, the mayor, the local alderman and other city officials meet with citizens in each of the city’s nine wards, which correspond roughly to neighborhoods, and five special interest groups (parents, young people and speakers of the city’s three main foreign languages—Spanish, Portuguese and Creole.)The goal of these public meetings is to present information generated through SomerStat, the city’s data-driven performance management system, and get feedback from citizens.To build SomerStat the Mayor borrowed the CitiStat model from Baltimore, which itself had been adapted from NewYork City’s CompStat.

One outcome from SomerStat was development of a 311 Call Center, a 24-hour service allowing citizens to ask questions and make requests for service from the city. Easy to answer questions are handled immediately. Others are answered in a timely manner through e-mail or a follow-up call, ensuring that citizens are not shunted from one department to another. Requests for service are entered into a database, given a tracking number so citizens can find out how things are proceeding.The 311 calls and work orders became an important source of data for SomerStat.

It is too early to judge the success of ResiStat. Somerville officials readily acknowledge that it is a work in progress, but it offers an interesting model that other cities seeking to link data management, performance assessment and civic engagement may want to consider. Also, it has already raised expectations among Somerville residents.When a change in parking regulation was announced recently, some complained that there wasn’t adequate public input. “The perception is that the old modes of civic engagement aren’t good enough anymore,” says Champion. “Citizens do feel that on a whole range of issues and services, they are better informed and more engaged than they have ever been.”

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