Long-serving Boston mayor, Thomas Menino, was concerned by the gap between local government’s provision of basic services and citizens’ civic engagement. His mission was to involve citizens in the decision-making processes that affect them in order to improve their quality of life. Menino wanted to humanise government, which he felt was largely bureaucratic and inaccessible to many people. Mayor Menino recognised that many city departments were unwilling to take risks in policymaking because they were afraid they might suffer reputational damage or incur financial costs. To alleviate the pressure to produce successful outcomes, a new strategy was required that would not only allow for mistakes, but actively encourage them as a part of the learning experience.
The Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) is a new approach to providing city services and engaging the local community in the process. It was launched in 2010 under the leadership of the long-serving mayor Thomas Menino, as a way to increase civic engagement and improve citizens’ lives by bridging the gap between local government and Bostonians.
Mayor Menino’s chief of staff, Mitchell Weiss, spearheaded the New Urban Mechanics approach in 2010. MONUM was set up and run by two staff, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, who were already working in city hall departments that were trying to increase civic engagement. Weiss, Jacob and Osgood were primarily motivated by the desire to increase civic engagement rather than streamline government bureaucracy, although they recognised the need for the latter. Data could be used to highlight success or flag problems, but it was not an end in itself. Engaging citizens and improving their quality of life was MONUM’s main focus.
MONUM chooses its experiments based on their ability to be prototyped, scaled and have a positive impact for citizens and the community. Before the team chooses a project, they research and evaluate it through their social network incubator – initially a cross-departmental group of 15-20 city employees. Incubators generate and develop ideas as well as serving a point of contact for the public. If a pilot is successful, MONUM rolls it out with the relevant city department; if not, they learn from the experience and move on.
This small-scale experimentation and willingness to take risks is central to MONUM’s approach. However, the Mayor’s Office is aware that not every pilot or scheme will be successful and that city departments might be anxious about putting their name and budget towards an experimental project. Therefore, MONUM takes responsibility for new projects when working with city departments. Co-chair Nigel Jacob explains: “if it doesn’t work, we try to absorb as much of that bad news as possible, so they can push all the negative publicity our way. If it does work, we try to give as much good credit to these departments as possible.”
MONUM is involved in improving the lives of all Bostonians through a wide variety of projects. Some projects’ ambitions are more modest than others. BOS:311, formerly Citizens Connect, was one of the first apps to allow citizens to report problems such as graffiti and broken streetlights to city hall; Street Bump, which was launched in 2012, enables residents to report on potholes. City workers respond to these service requests using their internal CityWorker app, and update residents on the status of the relevant repair.
Under Mayor Walsh’s leadership MONUM has addressed complex and challenging projects involve housing, education and the future of Boston. The Housing Innovation Lab’s mission is to increase housing affordability for the fast-growing city. One of its projects pairs elderly people to live with graduate students, and another provides information and assistance to first-time homebuyers. MONUM has also carried out experiments in education. Discover BPS is a user-friendly website that allows parents to compare Boston’s public schools, replacing the existing dense and lengthy booklet. The website functions like a travel comparison website and “helps parents find which available schools might be the best fit for their child” by applying criteria such as class size or available school facilities. Another experiment with far-reaching ambitions is the first Civic Research Agenda, launched in spring 2018, which invites all Boston residents to contribute their ideas on how to improve their local community.
The public impact
The New Urban Mechanics approach has been successful in engaging the local community in many of its projects. MONUM has worked in conjunction with several city departments across diverse issues such as housing, education, civic engagement, racial equity, and city infrastructure. Furthermore, the approach has spread to other cities, and has since been adopted in Philadelphia and Utah Valley. Owing to the wide variety of projects and trials that MONUM undertakes, not all have been successful. Similarly, because some of the projects require access to smart technology, there is a possibility that certain groups may be excluded or discouraged from accessing and engaging with services. However, the Mayor’s Office has shown awareness of these possible limitations.
One of the first successful projects was the app Citizens Connect, which was launched in the year before MONUM was officially established. Citizens Connect embodied several of the main principles of MONUM: it encouraged civic participation, aimed to improve local communities, offered an innovative approach, and was affordable, costing USD25,000 in its first year. The app allowed Bostonians to report local issues such as potholes, graffiti and broken streetlights. By 2014, the app processed about 28 percent of requests for city services, up from 6 percent in 2010. The app has since been renamed as BOS:311, and has been successful in engaging more young people who rent their homes to report local issues. Furthermore, app users report more frequently and over a larger area than residents who request services through other channels, such as by telephone or through the website.
The Housing Innovation Lab has many different projects aimed at various aspects of housing and affordability. One scheme that has proved successful and is due to be expanded is the Intergenerational Homeshare Pilot. Under this scheme, MONUM teamed with the Age Strong Commission and Neighbourhood City Hall departments to pair elderly people who have a spare room in their homes with graduate students looking for a room to rent. The basic premise was that students benefit from affordable rent and elderly people have some assistance with daily tasks, such as food shopping. The pilot matched eight pairs, seven of whom said they would recommend the programme. There were some lessons learned about people’s reservations, which has prompted the lab to refine the scheme for the benefit of future participants.
In 2015, Boston was awarded first place honours in the 2015 City Livability Awards Program. The award conferred by the United States Conference of Mayors recognises “mayoral leadership in developing and implementing programmes that improve the quality of life in America's cities, focusing on the leadership, creativity, and innovation demonstrated by the mayors”.
The New Urban Mechanics approach was first used in Boston; however, other cities have been impressed by its results and adopted it. The city of Philadelphia announced and launched its own Mayor’s Office for New Urban Mechanics in 2012. However, in 2016, Philadelphia’s incoming mayor discontinued it and restructured civic innovation within local government. Two years later, Utah Valley established its own Office for New Urban Mechanics at the Utah Valley University, making it the first to be based on a university campus.
This case study was written by Ella Jordan
Public Confidence Good
There was little public awareness of the New Urban Mechanics office when it first launched. However, the public were broadly supportive of both mayors who have overseen MONUM. Currently, the public can find easily information about MONUM’s work through various channels. It lists current projects on its website, where it also publishes annual progress reports as well as regularly posting updates on its Twitter account. In 2016, around 16,000 to 18,000 app users were interacting daily with BOS:311, which also shows public uptake of the projects that have come out of MONUM. 
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
MONUM actively consults relevant stakeholders in the community throughout the duration of its projects. The central strategy of New Urban Mechanics is a participatory approach called “peer production”.
Peer production invites citizens, community organisations, policymakers, and city administrators to participate in developing new innovations together. This approach was a founding principle at MONUM and continues to shape new projects across different city departments. The Urban Housing Unit Roadshow of the Housing Innovation Lab (HIL) provides a clear example of MONUM’s model of peer production. In 2016, HIL put a prefabricated studio apartment on wheels and brought it into different communities to get feedback from residents about compact living. Over 2,000 residents spoke to the HIL team and their partners from the Boston Society of Architects (BSA), the BSA Foundation, and Livelight, giving them the kind of detailed feedback they needed to address residents’ needs and concerns.
Political Commitment Strong
Mayor Menino was the driving force behind MONUM and its participatory values, and his successor and fellow Democrat, Mayor Marty Walsh, has been deeply committed to continuing MONUM’s mission.
Before officially launching New Urban Mechanics in 2010, Mayor Menino was already interested in improving citizen and community wellbeing, and was working on services and technology to meet their needs. Mayor Menino had relatively little technological expertise, but he was a strong leader who maximised his employees’ potential. The chief intelligence officer, Bill Oates, and co-chair Chris Osgood both commended Menino’s leadership and cited it as an essential factor in their ability to get work done and achieve MONUM’s goals.
Menino pioneered New Urban Mechanics alongside co-chair Nigel Jacob, and Mayor Walsh has continued and expanded its work into new areas such as the arts and education. Mayor Walsh has expressed the need for MONUM’s work to be a part of the city’s “master plans”, not just short-term projects with little lasting impact. Shortly after arriving in office, Mayor Walsh launched the Imagine Boston 2030 campaign and said: “this citywide planning effort is the first of its kind in 50 years and we truly want residents from every corner of the city to be engaged in a way that they never have been before… The success of Boston's future depends on the contribution of our fellow Bostonians of all ages and backgrounds.”
Clear Objectives Fair
The primary objective of New Urban Mechanics is to “improve the quality of life for Bostonians” through increased civic engagement and the use of innovation.. Informing MONUM’s objectives was Mayor Menino’s mantra: “people first”. Nigel Jacob explained that because “MONUM bills itself as a ‘civic innovation lab’ … Our job is to run experiments that push the envelope in terms of how services get delivered to residents.” MONUM’s objectives focus on promoting a better quality of life and greater wellbeing. Such qualitative assessments are open to interpretation and debate, and therefore it would be hard to judge whether an initiative had achieved its objective.
MONUM was officially established in 2010 and has since pioneered a new approach to civic engagement and innovation. MONUM’s projects are trialled on a small scale before deciding whether they should be fully rolled out. Nigel Jacob explained that New Urban Mechanics is “the place where the risks can be undertaken and where failure is allowable because we’re not deploying these services daily or at scale. We’re doing these prototype experiments to see if these things will work.”
The Boston public schools information website, Discover BPS, provides a clear example of how MONUM uses evidence and trials in its design process. In 2011, MONUM and Code for America collaborated on a project to improve parents’ access to information on local schools. They created a website that contained all the information available on public schools that had previously been available in a booklet. However, one of the designers acknowledged that the new website was simply a “better interface on a broken process”. This prompted MONUM and Code for America to reassess the whole system and create a more accessible and useful website.
MONUM was officially established in 2010, but key members of staff were already working in the Mayor’s Office to improve city services for constituents before then. Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood had both joined the Mayor’s Office in 2006, and until October 2012 they were MONUM’s only permanent employees. There were, however, many research fellows and interns working at the office. Since then the office has expanded from six staff members in 2014 to nine in 2019, drawn from a wide range of professional backgrounds. Nigel Jacob said that “we try to hire hustlers. We want people who are comfortable navigating big bureaucracies, but still creative.”
MONUM’s aim was always to innovate and respond to problems creatively rather than rely on expensive infrastructure or technological solutions; therefore, its small size as a department was in line with its overall operations strategy. It had no annual budget when it launched in 2010, and it had to secure funding for its projects through other city departments. By 2014, it had an annual budget from city hall of USD280,000, which increased to USD425,000 by 2018. In addition to the budget it receives from city hall, MONUM has also secured funding from a mixture of foundation and public sector grants. Between 2012 and 2014, MONUM received USD800,000 in grants and USD1 million in capital funding.
MONUM has a clear management structure within the Mayor’s Office. In comparison to other city departments, it has relative independence to experiment and collaborate with other city departments to ensure that it makes progress in its projects.
On paper, cofounders and co-chairs, Jacob and Osgood were responsible for running the office when it was established. However, in practice the management structure was relatively fluid because Jacob and Osgood collaborated and worked closely with Mayor Menino’s staff, principally Bill Oates, his chief intelligence officer, and Mitchell Weiss, his chief of staff. These key figures within MONUM and the Mayor’s Office had extensive experience of working in both the public and private sectors.
There are clear mechanisms in place to measure how MONUM is performing as a department and how individual projects are progressing. Additionally, the Mayor’s Office uses data to monitor how well it is providing human services and basic services to constituents, through the Boston About Results (BAR) and the CityScore mechanisms.
MONUM assesses its impact through data, interviews, surveys, user feedback and focus groups. To judge how well it is performing as a department, the team collect key metrics on their daily operations. For example, they monitor the number of entrepreneurs they meet and the number of projects undertaken, evaluated and scaled. For individual projects, MONUM measures the level of civic engagement, which is assessed by external evaluators. It also collaborates with the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI), “an interuniversity research partnership of Northeastern University and Harvard University in conjunction with the city of Boston”. BARI’s mission is “to spur original, cutting-edge research in the greater Boston area that both advances urban scholarship and improves public policy and practice”, and has collaborated with MONUM on Boston’s 311 services. BARI reviewed data collected from 311 requests, and its findings were used to shape and influence the design of BOS:311.
Two mechanisms that enable the mayor and citizens to monitor how well city hall is providing basic services are BAR and CityScore. Although the two mechanisms do not directly relate to MONUM’s internal performance, they do measure how well services are provided, which is an integral part of MONUM’s work. BAR tracks performance metrics of city hall’s 16 main departments and gives each one a scorecard based on whether they meet their key responsibilities and targets. BAR uses its data “internally to drive performance and share it externally so the public can see our progress”. CityScore takes the aggregate of key performance indicators in certain city services on a daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly basis. The information is freely available on the city of Boston website and includes metrics on 311 call centre performance, Boston public school attendance, emergency services response times, and incidents from other basic city services.
There has been notable cooperation between MONUM staff, the Mayor’s Office and its project partners since its conception in 2010.
The MONUM team have a hands-on approach when it comes to working with other city departments. Among the challenges they face are ensuring that departments have the capacity to scale projects successfully and, as Chris Osgood says, ensure that “there is a way of incorporating them into city operations”. However, they are actively involved with projects and they provide coaching to relevant partners. If a project is running into difficulties, MONUM steps in to assist and act as a mediator between city hall, the department, the media and the public to minimise any negative impact.
MONUM takes an iterative approach to designing and implementing its projects. The CityWorker app provides a clear example of how city service workers were initially sceptical of MONUM’s technological innovation, but ultimately came to value it. When CityWorker was introduced, there was some resistance on the part of city workers whose job it was to repair potholes and take care of local maintenance tasks. City commissioner of public works, Joanne Massaro, acknowledged workers’ doubts, but explained: "the more we could make it user-friendly, the more easily they ad[o]pted it”. However, city staff have since been involved in developing the app and find it to be a useful asset in their work. Mitch Weiss, Menino’s chief of staff, explained: “after a successful beta test, these employees – some of whom had never used a computer before in their lives – didn't want to give the devices back. That appetite for the technology was remarkable to us, also proof that our iterative approach allows us to quickly attack priority issues, reduces launch time and gives programmers, managers and workers a sense of project ownership.”