The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, by Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford (Jossey-Bass, 208 pp., $35)

From the debacle to the Veterans Administration scandal to the bungled Ebola response, Americans have good reason to be pessimistic about the competence of government. But Harvard professor Steve Goldsmith, formerly both mayor of Indianapolis and deputy mayor of New York City, remains bullish about government’s ability to improve services, at least at the state and local level. His new book, The Responsive City, coauthored with Harvard colleague Susan Crawford, celebrates the potential of data analytics and technology to transform local government, provide better public services, and empower and engage citizens.

The book chronicles more than just technology’s potential; it also highlights what some local governments have already achieved with innovative approaches. After several fires resulted in the deaths of five people, New York City built a system to identify buildings at high fire risk, using predictive models and integrating data from multiple sources. City inspectors are now aggressively targeting those buildings for upgrades. To fight its rat problem, Chicago is using data analytics to predict where rats will gather, instead of waiting for resident complaints. Boston has developed a civic customer-relationship management system, with mobile-device apps, to link residents more easily with city services. Mimicking the way that Yelp collects restaurant reviews, Washington, D.C. uses a website to solicit ratings of city services. Cities around the country are adopting open-data portals.

To the private sector, these sorts of applications may seem old hat, but to government they can be revolutionary, overturning decades of entrenched practice. And to Goldsmith and Crawford, that can only be a good thing. As mayor of Indianapolis, Goldsmith pushed managed competition for the delivery of city services, a reform that helped reduce costs while improving quality. He sees data technology as another vehicle for reinventing government. The Responsive City can sound techno-utopian at times, but in a deeply cynical time, it’s refreshing to read an optimistic take on government’s ability to get some things right.

Goldsmith and Crawford are candid about the challenges facing their responsive-city vision. Progressive-era reforms designed to eliminate corruption also curtailed government employees’ discretion, leaving them with narrowly defined roles and limited ability to respond effectively to real-world problems. Rigid job descriptions, such as “temporary full-time permanent intermittent police officer,” are common in cities like New York, which has more than 2,000 such classifications. Procurement rules require that detailed specifications be prepared in advance, unlike in the private sector, where technology and other solutions are often developed iteratively. Government’s rigid contracting processes make it tough to respond to findings during development.

The Responsive City spotlights leaders providing the strong executive sponsorship that government-technology projects need: New York’s Michael Bloomberg (who wrote the book’s foreword), Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel, and former Boston mayor Thomas Menino, among others. America’s large cities tend to set the agenda for other municipalities to follow. When they get good results, competitive forces pressure others to adopt similar approaches—just as happened with New York’s hugely successful Compstat policing system. Big cities can take the lead in other ways: Chicago is open-sourcing its technology, enabling smaller municipalities to benefit from its know-how while bearing little of the R&D costs. Goldsmith sees cloud computing and pay-by-the-drink-style software as services that will level the playing field; in the past, smaller localities operated at a financial disadvantage compared with large cities that could bear the costs of monolithic systems.

Smart uses of technology—like the sensor technology in smart phones that helps municipalities track and manage potholes—have brought clear improvements to government performance. But technological fixes can also distract from more existential challenges. Better rat management, after all, is far down the list of Chicago’s problems. Many of today’s biggest challenges require political will more than anything else. There’s no shortage of data on municipal debt and pension liabilities, for example, or the prohibitive capital costs of transit construction in the United States. But few cities have tackled those problems head-on.

On the other hand, one can’t wait for pensions to be stabilized before addressing more readily solvable problems. Ultimately, this is the potential of data technology for government reinvention: its advancements will render areas of continued failure less tolerable. Compstat’s track record, for instance, makes it difficult for any New York City mayor, even Bill de Blasio, to take a nonchalant approach to crime, just as the efficiency and power of the iPhone and other private-sector technologies make the public impatient with dysfunctional government health-care websites. Perhaps, with enough momentum and more technology-driven successes, public demand will force city and local governments to tackle even the core problems of political will.

Photo by Steve Jurvetson/via Flickr


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