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Menino rivals blast city response

Offer own ideas to expedite services

By Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / May 28, 2009
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Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston may be pleased that a computerized tracking system has recently reduced the amount of time it takes to perform basic city services, like replace a downed tree or a blown streetlight.

But the three candidates hoping to oust him said the reductions - cutting from 10 days to six the time it takes to handle park maintenance requests, for instance - are hardly dramatic, especially since Menino first embraced the idea for such a system three years ago.

"Incremental improvement to response time is certainly welcome," Councilor Sam Yoon said, "but this is about an inefficient system becoming slightly less inefficient."

Yoon, Councilor Michael F. Flaherty, and South End developer Kevin McCrea are all offering their own ideas to make City Hall faster and more responsive to residents.

The debate tends to sound like a Harvard Business School seminar, with calls for efficiency, improved workforce distribution, and enhanced service delivery - all in the name of better garbage pickup.

Flaherty, for instance, wants a system that would allow all departments to track data, share findings with one another, and publish the results online every two weeks - not every quarter, as is done under the current system. He says such a system would allow housing officials, for example, to share data on foreclosures with the Police Department, so officers can be on the lookout for drug dealing, gang activity, or robbers around foreclosed homes.

Flaherty said the proposed system, dubbed CitiStat, will allow Boston to realize the sort of long-overdue overhaul that allowed Baltimore, after adopting such a system, to save $6 million in overtime costs and reduce absenteeism.

"We need to be a leaner government, a smaller government, and a government that works better for the people it serves," Flaherty said. Residents tell him, he said, that the city's current tracking system for constituent complaints isn't user friendly. "Folks still have to call many different times and speak to many different people," Flaherty said.

Flaherty also wants to hire a chief technology officer to audit every department in City Hall, an idea he says allowed Texas to save $4 billion during Ann W. Richards's tenure as governor.

"I'd prefer a performance management review over further burdening the taxpayers," he said. "We need to ask ourselves: What can we do better, and what's working and what's not working?"

Flaherty, Yoon, and McCrea also want to change the mayor's current seven-digit complaint hotline to 311, the shorter, snappier number used in other cities.

"The insistence on a seven-digit number versus a three-digit number really shows how the mayor doesn't understand technology or human psychology," Yoon said. "It's common sense. There are far more people that will memorize three-digit numbers than 10 digits. By his logic, why are we using 911? What's the point if it wasn't to help people remember the number?"

Yoon supports Flaherty's idea of a more robust computerized tracking system at City Hall, but said it is not enough.

"CitiStat is not an out-of-the-box piece of software that will automatically produce those benefits," Yoon said. "It's an approach to management that is based on clear presentation of information. You can do CitiStat without the software if you simply have an attitude that we're going to share information on a regular basis with the stakeholders and the decision-makers and, on a regular basis, look for ways to improve the delivery of services."

McCrea backs a CitiStat program as well, and wants to make city government leaner by eliminating no-bid contracts and publishing all contracts online, saying that transparency leads to greater efficiency. He questioned his opponents' commitment to making bold changes. Flaherty, he said, has been touting CitiStat for years but has not pushed legislation through the council to put the system in place.

"My point with all these guys is: What have you done?" he said.

The Globe reported Tuesday that a $5 million computerized system implemented by Menino three years after he pledged to install it has cut the time it takes to deliver many services. City workers now fix burned-out streetlights within a week, down from an average of 17.5 days last year. New recycling bins are also delivered within a week, down from a month on average last fall.

The city also has a performance management system, dubbed Boston About Results, that collects data about services and publishes them online every February, May, August, and November. City officials say they use the data to identify trends, hold managers accountable, and seek efficiencies.

"There's been no one stronger about customer service than Mayor Menino," said Dot Joyce, the mayor's spokeswoman. "That's his number one priority when it comes to these types of systems."