Red vs Green? Redesigning Code Enforcement Tickets to Support a Safe and Clean Boston

A 25-year-old medical student, Ji-Yun*, resides in Boston. One day he comes home to see a bright green envelope stuck to his door, with the word “Violation” written across its side. He has never seen this envelope before, so he assumes it is spam and then throws it away. 

This envelope was placed on Ji-Yun’s door by Boston Code Enforcement Police, a division within the City of Boston’s Public Works Department, because he did not shovel the sidewalk in front of his house. When officers see dangerous sidewalks or unsanitary conditions, they issue tickets in green envelopes to non-compliant residents. The most common violations are failure to shovel snow and improper disposal of trash. 

For the past few months our team of students in DPI-663, a Harvard Kennedy School field class on Technology and Innovation in Government, has worked with Boston Code Enforcement to determine how we can encourage residents like Ji-Yun to pay legitimate fines when they violate a city code, and motivate them to comply with their code responsibilities in the future. 

To understand what leads people to pay fines, we heard from over 160 Boston residents. From them we learned that people who receive a fine fall into three broad categories: 1) people who ignore or forget the ticket, 2) people who attempt to pay but don’t complete the transaction, and 3) people who successfully pay their fine. We decided to focus on helping residents in the first two categories become more like those in the third category. 

The Power of Simplicity

After brainstorming 50 solutions, our team reflected on where in the code enforcement process our interventions could be most impactful. Given that the envelope is the first thing a violator sees from the Code Enforcement Police, we decided to focus our efforts on redesigning the envelope and everything related to it. We made simple prototypes and tested them with residents for quick feedback. After incorporating their feedback, we refined the prototypes and took them back out again for additional testing with residents. Here are our final designs based on several rounds of resident feedback: 

  • Envelope: Our envelope redesign centered on helping residents understand who had mailed the envelope and why they were receiving it. 


Above: Original ticket (left) is compared to the new ticket (right).

  • Ticket: Our ticket redesign focused on helping residents understand how to pay the fine, while reinforcing the reasons why they had received the ticket. 


Above: Original ticket (left) is compared to the new ticket (right).

  • Insert: We created seasonal inserts that could be included with the redesigned tickets and envelopes to help educate residents about why it’s important to comply with city codes. One strategy we used was showing how code violations can negatively impact a resident’s neighbors. The insert may change a potential violator’s behavior—by making the impact of code violations more tangible. 

Above: The front (left) of the new insert illustrates a neighbor’s story, while the back (right) gives guidance on the two most common code violations.

  • Letter: The City currently sends a past due notice in the mail if a resident has not paid the fine within 21 days. Given these letters are effective at getting some residents to pay, we decided to create a reminder letter that would remind people of the consequences of not paying the ticket and give them an opportunity to pay before a late fee was added. We also redesigned the past due letter to make it easy to understand the payment process.

Above: The current past due notice (left) is compared with the new letter (right).

  • Website: The current City of Boston website lacks a single landing page where residents can pay or appeal their ticket, while also learning more about their code violation. Our team suggested building out a page so that residents can have all of that information in a central place.

After these changes are implemented we believe that Ji-Yun’s journey will look radically different. If he were to receive another ticket for not shoveling his snow, he would receive it in a red envelope. It would be clearly labeled as coming from the City of Boston, and he would likely open the envelope to find an insert that would share a story of one of his fellow Boston residents, educating Ji-Yun about how code violations affect his neighbors. The back of the insert would include instructions for avoiding the two most common code violations. His ticket would include clear payment steps and an explanation for why he received the ticket. If he forgot to pay, he would receive a letter in the mail one week later reminding him to make his payment to avoid a late fee. Ultimately, he would pay his ticket online or by sending a check in the red envelope. 

*Ji-Yun is a fictitious person, but his story is based on real accounts from conversations with residents. 

It has been an honor to work with the City of Boston Department of Public Works and Code Enforcement over the past semester. We are grateful to Daniel Lesser, Director of Strategic Initiatives; Brian Coughlin, Assistant Superintendent of Waste Reduction; and Steve Tankle, Director of Code Enforcement, for all of their support and guidance during this project. We were inspired by their passion for public service and their continued efforts to continue to keep Boston safe and clean. 

 Clare Herceg, Naeha Rashid, Ariana Soto, Elyse Voegeli, & Clarisa Yerovi