We caught up with Danielle Valle Fitzgerald, Director of the City of Boston's mobile city hall project, to find out how the service is making a difference for residents in every neighborhood of the city.
Food trucks are a common sight in Boston, Massachusetts. Whether its The Taco Truck at Harvard Square, or Roxy’s Grilled Cheese wagon at the Boston Public Library on a Friday, the concept of meals on wheels is a popular one. So much so, in fact, that the local government decided in December 2012 to launch its own version — a mobile City Hall that travels to every neighborhood, offering up a menu of civic services.
At that point, City Hall To Go was essentially a prototype service, initially developed as part of the Bloomberg Mayor’s Challenge. Although it wasn’t a finalist, the City of Boston ended up using the idea anyway. Now, under the lead of Director Danielle Valle Fitzgerald, it offers 44 different services on board, with consistent usage by constituents.
The primary aim of City Hall To Go is accessibility for citizens. The real Boston City Hall — an imposing piece of 1960s brutalist architecture designed by Kallmann McKinnell & Knowles — is located downtown, in one of the northernmost parts of the City’s jurisdiction. That means that those in southern neighborhoods like Hyde Park or West Roxbury can face up to a 2 hour round trip to carry out tasks they can’t complete online. The project makes things easier by bringing the City Hall to every resident’s neighborhood at some point in the year, a schedule they can keep up to date with on social media. The scheme’s Twitter account is particularly active, even getting followers to vote on where the truck should head next. In the past 12 months, it has succeeded in visiting every neighborhood in Boston’s 50 square miles.
The City isn’t hoping to cut back on other services by distracting residents with a flashy red and blue truck either. Fitzgerald says: “You can still call the Mayor’s Hotline, use our Citizen’s Connect Application from your cell phone, or contact a Neighborhood Services representative, but now there is a truck in your neighborhood where you can submit paperwork or file a complaint before getting into your car.”
While you might expect the project to come with a unique headache of paperwork, cramped office space and citizens constantly requesting the truck come to their part of the city, the biggest setback has actually been maintenance of the truck — a repurposed Bomb Squad vehicle from 1985. City Hall To Go has its own team of auto mechanics that keep the truck roadworthy, getting it back up and running when something like the radiator cops out (like it did in December last year). Additionally, if on-board technology such as the copier breaks down, many services can’t be provided. “With the help of our auto mechanic and technological teams, we are able to fix these problems and get back on the road as quickly as possible – but we have definitely learned the importance of redundancies and the ability to think quickly and creatively,” Fitzgerald says.
Visitors to the truck will find a ‘menu’ of services they can take advantage of, from settling a parking fine and applying for a dog licence to picking up some recycling bin stickers and registering to vote. Throughout 2014, the team hopes to add the provision of moving permits and sorting out business paperwork to its roster, as well as building a regular email newsletter to keep citizens even better informed about the trucks whereabouts. At the same time, the project also hopes to visit even more of Boston’s residents: “Our long-term goal is to have the demand to scale the program so that we can reach even more neighborhoods each week.”
The service has also been a learning curve for the team. Rather than deal with citizens over the phone, the truck enables representatives to truly get out into the community and interact with the people that make up Boston in a more personable way. “Each neighborhood has varying priorities and concerns, and it has been amazing to learn so much from our constituents and be able to develop our program with that information,” Fitzgerald says. They’ve been tempted — like many startups and fledgling businesses — to take up the more exciting opportunities involved in trialling an innovative service, but by listening to its users have instead focused on creating a regular schedule that isn’t interrupted by PR events or the seasonal calendar. “The fact that residents know when to expect us in the neighborhood is really paying off.”
City Hall To Go has been a success for both Boston City Council and the residents that use it. “Every day we are making government services more accessible to constituents. For example the average constituent who needs to register to vote takes almost an hour out of their day to commute to City Hall, find a place to park, wait in line, and then commute back to their neighborhood,” Fitzgerald explains.
“Today, he or she can submit paperwork from the City Hall To Go Truck in their neighborhood. With this service, we’re giving time back to constituents.”
26th February 2014