Within minutes of the mayor’s arrival, one of the several cell phones he was carrying started to ring. It was his Chief of Staff, and so he excused himself mid-sentence to answer the call. It was your classic politician being pulled-in-all-directions moment, and for an instant I was filled with questions. Would we be getting interrupted this way all evening? Was this less going to be less a discussion and more of a meet-and-greet? Was I just a plucky extra in an episode of the West Wing? Before I got any further however, the mayor dispelled my questions by quickly wrapping up the call, apologizing, and shutting off his phone. When he was the first to crack the bottle of wine a moment later, I knew we were going to be just fine.
Mayor Joseph Curtatone and his aide Meghann Ackerman (with whom I had emailed to set this all up) came to dinner at our house as part of the MIMBY program. MIMBY, or Mayor In My BackYard, is a newly-instituted program in Somerville, MA wherein Joe visits the homes of his constituents for dinner and conversation. When I heard about it, my first thought was: “That’s how government should work.” Getting out among the people, getting to know them, hearing their concerns and getting feedback are some of the most important things a leader can do. In doing so one also gains the people’s respect: the hottest mayor in the country right now is Cory Booker, who’s got a reputation as a superhero for his engagement with the community, from rescuing dogs to saving people from burning buildings.
Once that bottle of wine was opened, I think we all relaxed a little bit (as someone who rarely drinks, it still amazes me what how alcohol eases social situations). As we sat down for dinner, Sarah presented her creation: a kale, sausage, and lentil stew, served with French bread. It was delicious, and a complete hit with our guests…Meghann even requested the recipe, so she could add it to her MIMBY recipe book!
Over dinner we went beyond praise for the MIMBY program and explored its value as a source of feedback to city officials. It was in this context that Joe uttered the magic word: systems. The mayor of my city is a systems guy, who knew? Once he started to expound upon his systems-level approach to his job he really had me, since I honestly believe that’s the best way to govern. I’d define a systems approach as collecting data about the city, setting goals based on what citizens want, and iterating over your solutions based on continued feedback. It’s not hard to figure out what citizens think and feel (through town meetings, surveys, and programs like MIMBY), and governments work better when they tap the intelligence of the wider population. Best of all a systems approach is a bullshit killer: since it’s data-driven, so there’s no room for ideology or ego.
Systems thinking can often appear daunting, as it’s bound up in computers, statistics, and equations. But those complexities overshadow the fact that it traffics in truths known at some level by everyone. For instance, if you drive through the same intersection every day, you develop a pretty good mental model of how those traffic lights change. That local knowledge makes you one of the best people to advise city officials looking to ease traffic congestion in your area. The same rules applies to garbage collection, potholes, crime, or any other aspect of city living…locals will always have the best understanding of local issues. Being a good public servant (and through MIMBY, Mayor Joe really embodies this) means collecting all of this knowledge and sorting the signal from the noise.
From the outset, it was apparent that Joe really knew his stuff: the way he talked about his job and his approach to problems was systems thinking 101. I liked hearing him talk about the local 3-1-1 service, which has been a tremendous success in both addressing resident’s concerns and collecting data to improve city services. I also liked the way he framed the issue of crime by saying you can get it down to a certain floor level with policing, but if you want to pierce that bubble and take it down further, you need to look at other societal factors. That last part is the most important, because most people are fairly linear thinkers…we like to frame most problems with a simple CAUSE and EFFECT. In contrast, systems thinking presents a problem as the result of many interwoven causes, so to fix it you have to consider the whole ecosystem in which your problem lives.
Let’s explore the systems approach to crime a bit further. In today’s world, you don’t have to look very hard to find a politician who would tell you the answer to crime is simply to hire more policemen. That’s a common sense solution that appeals to most people, and it’s a position of strength which might win you votes in an election. But it’s also a woefully incomplete answer to a complex problem, since it’s been proven that crime is a result of many factors like poverty, poor education, and lack of job opportunities, none of which more policemen will address. Systems thinking requires you to leave the comfort zone of easy answers and look deeper.
Speaking of police, one of the most impressive parts of the night was when Joe detailed the changes he had made to the police force. It came up because I relayed a story from a few years ago when went to the Somerville police station to report a bike thief. Back then I was really in to bikes, and was buying a few from craigslist people each week. One guy in particular kept selling me bikes that were clearly not his size, he’d ask me to meet in out-of-the-way places, and he always had a different story about how he was leaving town and needed to sell. It was obvious to me he was fencing stolen property, which pissed me off because I’ve had many bikes stolen in Somerville over the years and now I was being made party to it. I had records, times and locations of the deals, and was willing to set up another meeting to help catch the guy. Yet when I took all of this information to the cops, they seemed genuinely annoyed…they grudgingly took my name and number and I never heard from them again.
Stories like this were apparently the norm until recently: the Somerville police were renowned for their laziness and greed (one cop even stole candy that had been donated to the police to host a Halloween party). Joe gave us the full rundown on how terrible the Somerville police force was, and what he had done to clean it up. He told stories about how officers would tell the new recruits to not arrest anyone or make any extra work for them…they just wanted to sleep and work details. To fix things, Joe basically cleaned house: he fired the chief, kicked out all the lazy officers coasting by on their seniority, and changed patrol and reporting schemes to increase efficiency. Cops now analyze crime statistics to discover patterns and how best to allocate their resources, often preventing crime as much as responding to it. All of these changes appeared to have worked, as crime is down and resident satisfaction is up.
Of course I would have been remiss if I didn’t bring up the biggest systems problem of all: climate change. My goal wasn’t to find out if he believed in it…being a systems guy and a Massachusetts Democrat, I was pretty sure that Joe was already on board. Instead, my goal was to frame the debate around a simple question: what was the science his office was working from, and by extension the timelines required for action? Joe took my question as an opportunity to enumerate a few local programs dealing with issues of the environment and sustainability, but I politely cut him short. More than just exploring his response, I really wanted to grasp his understanding of the problem (and thus the information upon which he made his policy).
So I pressed. When he admitted he didn’t have any numbers to throw my way, I took the opportunity to provide him with some. I cited:
- The United Nations Environment Program’s (UNEP) forecasts of a > 5°C temperature increase by 2050, which is more than enough to cause complete human extinction.
- The International Energy Agency predicts a 3.5°C increase by 2035…more than enough to cross tipping points after which climate change becomes self-reinforcing and unstoppable.
Talking about climate change sometimes requires you to go on the offensive, and with Joe I really tried to land these forecasts as the gutpunch they are. Beyond the numbers I made it personal…I referenced his sons, my godchildren, and the children Sarah and I hope to have, and how at this rate none of them are going to live to see middle age. I don’t know how much of an effect I had on the mayor, but it did open up a larger conversation about my work on this site and the state of climate activism overall, which I was happy to discuss.
More stuff that came up:
- MBTA Green line extension -> Coming to Union Square (where I live) by 2017, this troubled project appears to be back on track.
- Citywide WIFI -> On the advice of friends I floated the idea of universal wifi for the entire city, like they have in San Francisco and other places. While he admitted there were no immediate plans for it, he was open to the idea if the right business model could be found.
- Dog parks – Bindi was omnipresent during dinner, as she is anytime we have company over. Joe inquired about the dog park that had been built on the corner of Summer St. and Putnam a few years ago, and whether we used it. While everyone else seems to love it, I told Joe that we rarely take Bindi there and that it often “smells like low tide.” (Though the main reason we don’t go is that Bindi’s legs are shot but she doesn’t know it, so when she tries to play with other dogs she ends up hurting herself.)
- The Cummings School – The Cummings School (which is directly across the street from my house on Prescott Street) presently services K-8 students but is due to be shut down this year. After it closes, Joe believes the building will be knocked down and turned into affordable housing.
As the evening wound down, Joe entertained us with videos from Obama’s inauguration, and we discussed ways that I could get involved in local government (which I very much intend to do). As we waved our goodbyes and the door closed behind our guests, Sarah and I exchanged a smile and a high five.
Some of that gesture was for the accomplishment of pulling off a delicious meal and a successful hosting of an elected official. But mainly it was for the overall experience: we both felt like we got a lot out of it, that our voices were heard, and that we’re just really happy with our community and the way it’s being governed. It’s no coincidence that I’ve lived in Somerville for over a decade: it’s a good town, in no small part because it’s got a great mayor.