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From pothole apps to Google Docs - Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz goes digital

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed June 26, 2014
Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz is hardly ever without his iPad. Being a nosy journalist, I started obsessing on what he was working on. Finally, I decided to ask - on video. Here's what I learned about digital governance, Northampton style.

A couple years ago, a dose of welcome serendipity led me into volunteer work with the fine folks at Northampton Community Television. While behind the cameras at our local City Council meetings, I noticed that Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz is hardly ever without his iPad. Being a nosy journalist at heart, I started obsessing on what he was working on. Finally, I decided to ask.

Behind that question was another one. Reading all the digital governance content on diginomica, I found myself wondering if my town of Northampton, Massachusetts (population 29,000) had something to say on the topic. To me, digital governance means - first and foremost - transparency. It might sound appealing, but transparency can be a real beast. And how do you 'go digital' on the modest budget of an American town?

To say that interviewing local politicians is outside my comfort zone would be a fair statement. But Mayor Narcewicz was a good sport, letting me haul a bunch of gear into his office and set up shop. The end result: our video discussion on Northampton's digital journey - where success stories include one I would not have predicted: a pothole app.

On potholes and citizen engagement

I started by asking Narkewicz if 'digital governance' had relevance, or if it was just a wonky phrase. To Narkewicz, digital governance matters because of three factors:

  • Making government more open and transparent
  • Operating more efficiently and maximizing limited resources
  • Opening up communication between government and citizens

Northampton has pursued these agendas through a number of projects, from web site overhauls to mobile apps. Streaming local meetings and citizen feedback via social channels are two more parts of the story.

Oh, and about those potholes  - there's an app for that. And it's provided a new way for citizens to interact with the city, documenting the pesky tire chompers on their phones and uploading them.  Narkewicz:

Digital governance provides another way for citizens to be able to weigh in on issues, whether it's people using our mobile app to report potholes, or tree limbs, and then have real-time feedback: 'Yeah, we got that, thanks for submitting that pothole,' and then a week later getting something from our DPW saying, 'The pothole has been fixed.' It's really opened up a lot of possibilities for the way that citizens interact with government.

These apps came out of a process that started as a core plank in Narkewicz's political campaign. After being elected as as the 44th mayor of Northampton in November 2011, Narkewicz formed an IT advisory committee including local IT experts to prioritize projects. The web site, one of the first of its kind, was showing its years.

Our website was a little dated, it was pre-social media. I was talking to you about RSS feeds. We did a whole process of really refreshing our website and making it more intuitive. We always had lots of information online, it was just much harder - you really had to search around to find it. We've tried to create a website that's more intuitive, that has all the modern things like links to social media and YouTube.

Sharing the city checkbook: a new kind of transparency

When it comes to the radical transparency, one of the city's most interesting features is the Open Checkbook, which literally shows every single item paid by the city of Northampton:

Citizens can actually see when we pay for x or for y, or write a check to the hardware store, or pay for a new truck - it's all there. They can see it online.

But a more transparent web site is not just a nice-to-have. When it comes to open governance, effective web sites support compliance:

Electronic calendar is really important, particularly since we now have state laws that govern the way meetings have to be posted, 48 hours in advance, and the kind of detail that we now have to provide under new Open Government laws. The website is a way for us to be able to comply with those laws.

The new site, launched in December 2013, has also done its part to promote the city's reputation as a cultural destination for music, shopping, and eats - the kind of tourist traffic that delights local businesses, even if cranky  townies like me find the tourist influx tedious. 'It's amazing how many hits we get, not only from Northampton, but all around the country,' says Narkewicz.

Governing by iPad is about cloud services

Mayor on ipad
Social networks link back into the web site, with Northampton residents - never short on opinions - providing plenty of feedback to the Mayor and his colleagues on Twitter and Facebook. But what of governing by iPad? As it turns out, the Narkewicz's iPad is not just for tweeting. A move to cloud services has made the tablet far more useful:

One of the pieces of the IT that I worked on is moving to cloud  It didn't take many server crashes for me to say, 'We've got to get this stuff on the Cloud.'  We've now moved over to Google Apps for Government, so we're all on a Gmail and Google Docs.

Being an elected official is synonymous with stacks of administrative paperwork. Narkewicz sees a better future with cloud services:

I can access my email anywhere, 24/7. I'm able to do everything from checking email to approving spending requests. A lot of the documents that I have to review I ask for them in electronic version  - because otherwise I get buried in paper. I have lots of PDFs. The budget, for example, is always a fingertip away that I can refer to, because it's on my iPad. I'll use it to take notes if people stop me, or I take pictures. If I see a tree limb, or somebody talks to me about a street that wasn't plowed properly, it's easy to take a photo and send it to the DPW.

Final thoughts

Digital might make local governance more accessible, but it's no cakewalk. When I rattled through digital challenges, from culture change to resource constraints, Narkewicz cited financial limitations as Northampton's biggest digital impediment. These issues come to a head in public schools, where notorious 'unfunded mandates' require expensive modernizations. Example: a new pilot to conduct testing online, which compels towns like Northampton to find a way to fund their own infrastructure upgrades.

Narkewicz pointed to smaller rural communities where resources are even more strained and broadband access remains a serious issue. Northampton has its own digital divide, with residents who simply can't afford broadband access. Mobile services can alleviate some of those issues. but Narkewicz remains concerned about the funding needed to make digital accessible.

Then there is persuading citizens to embrace the digital investments already made. Just like any other web site, the city of Northampton competes for attention with cat videos on Facebook. There is an old saw that we get the government we deserve. That may or may not be true, but Northampton's digital success does depend on the gumption of its own citizens. Just because a City Council meeting is streaming online doesn't mean folks are watching it.

Fortunately, as Mayor Narkewicz has learned walking our streets, an encouraging number are watching. That bodes well for the digital road ahead.

Image credits: photos by Jon Reed

Thanks to Northampton Community Television for support on this project, including video editing equipment and advisory.

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