Some Cities Welcome Citizen Engagement And Some Don’t

Through the leadership of Mayor Thomas Menino, the city of Boston tracks an extensive amount of data in an effort to answer three questions:

1) What is City government doing?
2) How well are we doing it?
3) How can we do it better?

Since 2010, the City of Boston has created a Performance Management Scorecard for every City department. In an effort to promote transparency in government a large amount of the statistical data tracked by the City is being made available to the public through a program called Boston About Results(BAR). Through a web site and a mobile app, citizens can access information and judge for themselves how well the city is providing government services.

In a press release about BAR, Mayor Menino stated: “Collecting and sharing this data helps city agencies understand what programs are working, make changes to those that are not, and provide a level of accountability for responsive service delivery.”

As reported in a Boston Globe article, through BAR, the public will be able to see more than just a snapshot of monthly statistics, but also how those numbers compare with the city’s own benchmarks and whether the numbers have changed from previous years.

I love what is taking place in Boston as far as measuring performance and making information available to the public. In the City of Buffalo and County of Erie very little information is made available to the public regarding government performance. The City of Buffalo brags about tracking performance but it is very unclear what the measurable goals are for city departments. The City of Buffalo conducts Citistat meetings allegedly to discuss the performance of City departments but the meetings lack substance and seem more like congratulatory press conferences. Unlike Boston the City of Buffalo’s performance tracking shares very little information with the public.

While Buffalo’s CitiStat meetings are shown on television and the videos are available weeks after they are first aired, the statistical information and PowerPoint slides are not available to the public in any way that can be searched or printed. In fact when I inquired as a concerned citizen as to when the next Buffalo CitiStat meeting was being held and what department was appearing, I received a legal opinion from the City Law Department stating that as the meetings are not subjected to the state Open Meetings Law they don’t have to tell me when the meetings are being held. As for my request to obtain a copy of the information presented at the meetings, the Law Department informed me that I was welcome to file a Freedom of Information Law request to obtain the documents.

The fact that the City Law Department had to respond to a citizen request to attend a meeting that is tapped and shown on TV is amazing to me. Equally amazing is that the information shown on TV is not made available to the public except through a Freedom of Information Request that from my past experience, typically takes months and the payment of 25 cents per page for copying charges.

Not sure what the big secret is in Buffalo but a different and refreshing approach is taking place in Boston as well as other communities across the country. Hopefully your local government is operating more like Boston than Buffalo?

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