Improving Public Records in Boston: 
Researching, Building, and Buying Solutions for Real People

What if we could make it easier for the public to request information from the City of Boston, and for the City to respond to those requests? What would that process look like, and how would it better serve the needs of outside requesters and City staff? These are the questions our team set out to answer over the spring 2018 semester as part of the Tech and Innovation in Government Field Course at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Back in January, we paired up with the amazing team from the City of Boston to rethink public records—essentially any document made or received by a government employee. Public records—like the City’s bid to attract Amazon’s second HQ—matter because they promote government accountability and trust in government.

 While we didn’t start out as design professionals, our teaching team pointed us in the right direction to jump!

While we didn’t start out as design professionals, our teaching team pointed us in the right direction to jump!

We’ve done a lot since then. We helped craft a Request for Proposal (RFP) with the City of Boston that lays out the goals and requirements for a public records solution that will meet both the needs of the public and City employees. Pending Boston City Council approval of the latest proposed City budget, we are proud to say that the RFP will soon go up on the supplier portal.

Historical Context: Learning from the 18F Methods

Our approach was inspired by the work of 18F, an innovation unit within the federal government that scaled rapidly after the healthcare.gov crisis. Among their many tech transformation projects within government (including work around federal public records as well!), 18F is helping other federal agencies buy technology in new ways. Traditionally, governments buy goods and services through complex, multi-year contracts with a long list of requirements. This is something that may work well for buying a tank or a building, but doesn't work as well for technology-driven services or software, which change over time.

Instead, 18F recommends using modular contracting: “breaking up large, complex purchases into multiple, tightly-scoped projects” to introduce technology incrementally. In this framework, people who use the service—i.e., “users”—have to be the north star, rather than the stakeholders. In the case of public records, for example, users include both the public making requests and the civil servants who work to make records public. 

As we started working on our RFP, we wanted to learn from 18F’s work and, contribute to the growing knowledge base around modular procurement.

Our Work with the City of Boston

Currently, almost all public records requests for the City of Boston are made, processed, and fulfilled via email. 

 Shawn Williams is the Director of Public Records. We interviewed him and 40 other prime users.

Shawn Williams is the Director of Public Records. We interviewed him and 40 other prime users.

The City set out to make this process more efficient, and created the position of Director of Public Records, hiring Shawn Williams. The City then started to consider technology solutions that could support the people and processes dedicated to making information public.

The City wanted to make sure the new system would be easy to use for both the public and City staff. That required learning more about who makes public records requests and better understanding their experiences. What was the current process like? What was working well, and what wasn’t?

That’s where our student team came in. We interviewed more than 40 people who interact with the records request system in different ways to learn about the service from the public, City staff, peer cities, and experts in the field.

We focused our research on two groups: the public requester (like a journalist, community activist, or just concerned resident) seeking public records, and the custodian within the City providing them. You can imagine them as two sides of the same coin.

 Requesters and Custodians are two sides of the same coin, and share parallel frustrations

Requesters and Custodians are two sides of the same coin, and share parallel frustrations

After interviewing both Requesters and Custodians, we asked three fundamental questions:

(1) Does the City need a records request tracker?

Analyzing our interview insights, we found that almost 70% of the frustrations expressed by both City staff and the public could likely be addressed by a public records tracking tool—i.e. Internet based software that would track the status of a public records request.  So our conclusion was yes, the City of Boston does need a tracker!

(2) What should a records request tracker do?

In our interviews, we heard about four key challenges—routing, scoping, timing, and trust—which we narrowed into three criteria for a record request tracker:

●      Routing: Does it clarify who could best fulfill this request? How do we make sure the request gets to that person?

●      Specificity: Can it help requests be more specific so that City staff can effectively fulfill them and requesters can get what they need?

●      Communication: Can it help provide a clear status for the progress of the response, setting clear expectations and making it easy to recognize great service delivery by the City?

For each of these criteria, we developed a prototype that we put in front of people to test how they interacted with it, and understand what could be improved. In addition to the “Tippy” prototype that helped narrow requests to be more specific, we tested a Department Suggestor and a Status Tracker

 We tested paper prototypes designed to address each tracker criterion

We tested paper prototypes designed to address each tracker criterion

 We put our paper prototypes in front of City staff and the public to observe, listen, and learn

We put our paper prototypes in front of City staff and the public to observe, listen, and learn

We listened carefully to the feedback we received in this testing phase. Here is some of what we heard:

●      Scrolling through 72 departments and matching one to your request was dizzying. The Department Suggester prompted people toward a suggested department, making it easier for them to route their request properly. We learned that the City is already doing similar work on their enhanced 311 system, which provides prompts for a suggested case type.

●      Tippy, which provided timely tips about how to craft your request based on keywords, clarified broad requests. This type of functionality has the potential to significantly decrease the time it takes to fulfill a request.

●      The Status Tracker, modelled after the Domino's pizza tracker, provided the public with updates on the progress of their requests. This taught us that requesters like to know where their request has been and where it’s going.

(3) How does the City get a good records request tracker?

Enter procurement—the process through which the City buys goods and services.

We were lucky to have a tangible opportunity to bring our findings to life: the City had decided to issue a competitive RFP to buy a public records request tracker.

Our goal was to translate what we heard in our research and testing into specific evaluation criteria on the RFP. We hope our input will help the City find a vendor that will offer a system that truly serves user needs. We also provided the City of Boston with a number of recommendations about how they could include a human-centered approach within their procurement processes.

 Based on what we learned in testing of “Tippy,” we added the pink text shown here to the RFP

Based on what we learned in testing of “Tippy,” we added the pink text shown here to the RFP

Conclusions

Our work led us to three key conclusions:

●      A software system to track requests will be a huge win for both sides of the proverbial “coin”—that is, both requesters and custodians.

●      A best-in-class public records tracking system is entirely within reach for the City of Boston.

●      Integrating user testing into procurement will help the City make important procurement choices, for public records tracking and also for other software needs.

We look forward to seeing how the City of Boston, building on our insights and help, improves public records transparency!

Jackie Chea, Thad Kerosky, Jim Moffet, Erica Pincus, Jon Truong