By Jack Grauer
Despite what the friendly infographics suggest, government transparency in Philadelphia is stuck in a paradox: The people that release information about what the city’s spending themselves are paid millions in city funds every year. As a result, “open data” in Philadelphia often acts less like a public service and more like City Hall PR.
Case in point: Philadelphia declared last week Integrity Week. It was Integrity Week in the city that brought us Five Squad, the vice cop extortion racket that percolated through to the Deputy Police Commissioner in the 1980s.
Scheduled Integrity Week festivities began last Monday with a galvanizing presentation to city employees at the Municipal Services Building. The topic was state and local law as it pertains to open-bid government contracts with the private sector.
The ruckus continued Wednesday at 1515 Arch Street. The City invited Integrity-Weekers to observe a meeting of the Board of Ethics, which announced its new Twitter account.
Addressing questions regarding the Board’s plans for campaign finance regulation reform, Board Chair Michael Cook said, “There’s nothing imminent but there’s always a list.”
Spectators were then dismissed in accordance with a Sunshine Act exemption before the discussion moved to legal matters.
WHYY’s Dave Davies spoke at City Hall that evening. He devoted a great deal of his presentation to congratulating the City for its recent progress regarding campaign finance disclosures.
What’s going on now makes more sense when if you think about it in the context of Philadelphia’s mayoral lineage. As John Street’s successor, Michael Nutter had little choice but to stump loudly for better city government transparency.
Street was re-elected for a second mayoral term in 2003 amid an FBI investigation of his office for alleged corruption. The subsequent trial produced 24 convictions, according to The Inquirer, but none against former mayor Street himself.
Upon election, Mayor Nutter created the Integrity Office and strengthened the Office of the Inspector General. The latter has recovered more than $58 million worth of misappropriated City revenue under his administration.
Nutter also issued Executive Order 1-12, intended to guide the city toward conducting
its work more openly and publish[ing] its information online, including ready public access to ordinances and regulations, policies, legislative records, budget information, crime statistics [and] public health statistics.
The Order also recommends that officials collect, centralize and provide a list of links to “appropriate websites where the public can engage in the City’s existing participatory process.”
The idea is not novel in Philly. Much of what OpenDataPhilly now contains first appeared online as the Neighborhood Information System (NIS): the project of University of Pennsylvania Professor Dennis Culhane.
Culhane negotiated with several City offices to get crime incident data, along with real estate and tax records. He then aggregated that information and made it available to civic associations.
One City official called the NIS “very new and very exciting” — 15 years ago. The project has since become publicly accessible, though it’s relegated to a dusty corner of UPenn’s website.
Academia began incubating Philadelphia’s open data movement with non-profit foundation funds, but the initiative has since become property of the Mayor’s Office.
Local GIS firm Azavea designed, launched and now maintains OpenDataPhilly. Azavea received more than $3.6 million in City funds between 2013 and 2015. Dun & Bradstreet records show that the firm claims $2.18 million in net sales a year. This would suggest they depend heavily on City contracts for revenue.
And most of the funding Azavea receives is disbursed by the Office of Technology and Innovation: another of the Nutter administration’s urban policy progeny.
Crime and land records have received most attention since the early days of discussion about open data in Philadelphia. The City has since made progress on campaign finance disclosures as well, according to WHYY’s Davies.
But the Philadelphia Offices of the Treasurer and Solicitor have sought multiple deadline extensions and have not answered a seven-month old request to see recent municipal expenditures.
In Los Angeles, open data obligations fall to the Controller’s Office rather than the mayor. LA’s “open checkbook” accounts for all expenditures dating back to FY 2012.
What more obvious question should an “open” government answer than what it does with tax revenue? Yet 15 years after the City of Philadelphia got behind the disclosure effort, this remains an unanswered question.
OpenDataPhilly does, however, give us a nice list of low-sodium Chinese food spots.