We’ve all had the experience of waiting in line for a government service. Whether your car’s gotten the boot and you’re waiting to pay off those tickets or you’re just trying to switch over your license plates, tapping shoes and stares at the slow-mo hands of the clock indicate that we need more efficiency in government services. Well, we’ve got TicketZen and ParkBoston now for paying tickets and meters…but what about other services? And what about for new mothers or the elderly? How can we make their lives less about trekking to City Hall and standing in lines?
Enter: City Hall to Go, the coolest concept on wheels this side of heavily populated food truck areas. This, folks, is civic tech at its finest. It’s the very definition of government “For the People.” Because it brings the government right to you.
We had the opportunity to chat with Danielle Valle Fitzgerald, Director of CHTG (@CityHallToGo) about how they created the concept and what they’ve been doing in the civic truck so far.
(Note: CHTG is on hiatus for the Winter, so now’s the perfect time to start making your list of needed services for Spring 2015!)
MSNE: I’ve been following the City Hall to Go Twitter for almost a year now. How long have you had the truck in action?
CHTG: We’ve been on the road for a little bit over a year now and have been learning as we go—increasing the amount of services available as well as the quality of service available. Whether it’s registering parking stickers or registering to vote, we’ve been doing a lot of work on the back end to streamline processes as well as continuing to be creative and come up with more ways to serve constituents.
MSNE: That’s great! How did this concept come to fruition?
CHTG: It came to fruition through a brainstorming session, as a way to really embrace the culture of food trucks that we have here in Boston, as well as be able to bring a human interaction to everything that we were doing. We started it as a prototype. We took a truck and we put some money into it to see whether or not it would work, and in the past year, services have increased 250%. It’s been incredibly popular and we’ve been really happy with how it’s been served.
It’s really about bringing services to where people work, so not only our social media and the services we provide online, but also the great way we are able to physically bring services to people in their neighborhoods.
MSNE: One of the challenges for city government and constituents is a disconnect. So, now you’re bringing City Hall to the people, rather than the other way around.
CHTG: Yeah, which saves an untold amount of time, money, and energy commuting to City Hall and waiting in line. We built this for the elderly, for new mothers, and we really try to engage with the senior population to make sure that they know about it and that we can make life easier for the people who really deserve it.
MSNE: How important is it to have that hands-on, personal interaction with your constituents?
CHTG: It’s invaluable. It’s paramount to Mayor Walsh’s administration. The mayor cares about everyone in Boston and making sure we engage with them, look them in the eye and help them.
One way that we did it this year is we invented “Chief Chat,” where we took chiefs and department heads and brought them on City Hall to Go to neighborhoods so that they could have office hours in the community, and people could ask specific policy questions to the decision makers. And it was also great because not only did constituents get to ask questions, but it also gave those department heads the chance to listen without any filter.
MSNE: What’s painted on the truck?
CHTG: We literally took a map of the city of Boston and the actual streets, and as your eye is looking at the truck, you are following the streetscape of the city of Boston through all of the neighborhoods.
MSNE: Do any other cities have a City Hall to Go, or is this the first city hall food truck in existence?
CHTG: We are the first and we’ve had over 20 cities reach out to us to learn more about our programs. Three cities have created programs, so now Illinois has a City Hall to Go, and two cities in Canada have what they call city event vehicles, which are pop-up State Halls that come to neighborhood events.
MSNE: Do you think you’ll ever have a mobile City Hall meet-up?
CHTG: That’s like one of my dreams, even if it’s just a phone call to start. Maybe when we get five cities, we’ll be able to put something together.
MSNE: Could you tell me one of your best stories about the truck?
CHTG: There are so many times when a resident comes up to the truck for one thing and ends up doing five transactions. A woman came because she needed a copy of her birth certificate and she ended up getting a resident parking sticker, and she just moved so she registered to vote. She was really excited because she was able to check five things off her personal to-do list in less than five minutes.
MSNE: What kind of technology do you use on the truck?
CHTG: We actually have a Microsoft Surface on the truck. For example, we have user audit, which we give to our constituents so we are able to get some feedback. I also use it for when we have a line. We have two computers and sometimes three people. I am able to grab a Surface and get constituents’ information from outside the truck before they actually come up in the line.
MSNE: One last question. One of our pillars at Microsoft New England is civic technology, and we really focus on using Microsoft’s technology for social good. We think that the CHTG truck is one of the best examples we’ve seen of bringing technology directly to the people. What we want to ask is, what does civic technology mean to you?
CHTG: It really means a lot to me. It’s probably the most important part of my role. I come from the campaign world of meeting outdoors, and we really always put people first. At the same time, there are all of these new inventions and ways to get the word out, and engage more. It’s really an exciting time to be here in Boston. There are so many ways we can make a difference.