The Top 10 Cities for Responsive Open Government

March 20, 2014 at 6:55 am EDT
The City of Malden, Mass., boasts the top responsive open government in the U.S. The City of Malden, Mass., boasts the top responsive open government in the U.S.

It's been a brutal winter in much of the nation. Driving the roads of Chicago has been like Alpine skiing combined with moguls. Motorists have to memorize their lines and dodge and weave the potholes accordingly. In the past, a phone call to the alderman's office could add your pothole to the repair queue, but what happened after that was a mystery. There was no way to track the progress of your repair, nor track the city's efficiency as a whole.

Enter technology. First comes the open government trend. More and more cities of all sizes are making data available online about budgeting, zoning, building codes and city services. Couple that with the incredible rise of mobile technology (i.e. smartphones), and the ability of cities and citizens to connect increases exponentially.

Sitting at the intersection of these trends is SeeClickFix, which has created a platform that enables that kind of critical interaction. Residents can report problems in their city – and even include photos – and track the progress the city makes in addressing them. Most of these issues relate to livability: potholes, graffiti, accessibility issues. The app is available free to residents, and a basic set of tools is also available for governments. SeeClickFix also sells a suite of upgrades to cities.

The site keeps a leaderboard of sorts that looks at both activity and responsiveness from the cities. We worked with them to create this top 10 list. Of course, other cities are doing great open government work (New York, I'm looking at you...) and this list is only looking at one data source, but it's a start. It’s based on data collected during a random sample of days in January and February, weighted by population and then averaged to come up with an overall score.

The Top 10 Cities for Responsive Open Government

  1. Malden, MA
  2. Tontitown, AR
  3. Chicago, IL
  4. Albany, NY
  5. Macon, GA
  6. Springerville, AZ
  7. Linwood, NJ
  8. Randolph, MA
  9. Richmond, VA
  10. Absecon, NJ

Many are smaller towns, leveraging inexpensive tools to create a more livable place. But larger cities like Chicago are taking advantage of these tools, too. Sitting atop the list is the northern Boston suburb of Malden (pop. 60,000).

"Our high ranking is a clear indication of Malden's commitment to promote transparency and improve the delivery of services," says Mayor Gary Christenson. "I believe the better we become at responding to SeeClickFix requests, the more our residents will trust that the work will get done and, in turn, continue to be our eyes and ears on the street.”

But to say that open government platforms like this are just about fixing potholes is like saying that Twitter is just people saying what they had for breakfast. Yes, people tweet about food, and yes, people use open government tools to get potholes fixed, but in both cases there's more going on and more at stake.

“Potholes are important,” says SeeClickFix CEO Ben Berkowitz, but he adds that it’s even more important to see that there’s a response and that the city and its systems are working the way they should. “The most important step is that a city and its citizens are participating in open communications.”

He cites examples of residents using platforms like this to come together and help each other. For instance, in the recent winter storms elderly residents requested help shoveling and were overwhelmed by the positive and fast response.

In many cases, cities have evolved in ways that can depersonalize neighborhoods. We might live right on top of our neighbors; we might also never get to know them. Technologies like this, or Nextdoor, or its predecessor Everyblock, help reconnect residents. It’s like having a block party every day on your iPhone.

Of course, not all cities have signed up for this or related services yet. The advantage are pretty clear and the drawbacks are hard to articulate. “I can’t think of one good reason not to do it,” said Berkowitz, clearly a biased source. If a government refuses, he jokes, “there should be an election.”

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