The Dysfunction of Philly’s Open Government Machine


Average Number of Police Stop-and-Frisks Per Day by Block in 2015. Source: Police Advisory Commission.

By Jack Grauer

In an old sketch comedy bit, two bored airplane pilots get on the PA system and repeatedly assure passengers the plane’s wings aren’t on fire. Passengers grow more worried with each announcement. That’s kind of how it feels as city officials continually release new government data some people have asked for, while ignoring burning questions posed by many others.

Mayor Jim Kenney in April released city worker salary data. His office credited its “commitment to making the data of city government open and easily accessible.” “Ooh. Aah,” fawned the open government crowd.

Stuff like salary data is great for journalists like me when we’re looking for some faceless public official to baste or to write another amateur league budget analysis. And Open Data Philly has a simple and handsome interface for viewing real estate and crime data: vital stuff for someone looking to make a sensible housing investment in the least “dangerous,” fastest “changing” neighborhood.

The site’s also got maps of farmers’ markets and the city’s tree inventory. But it’s useless to someone looking for a Section 8 landlord that doesn’t abuse and/or extort tenants, for example. It’s useless to someone getting a hard time from a police officer.

You can check if your landlord’s been to court with tenants in the past at the City of Philadelphia’s Municipal Court and Philadelphia County’s Common Pleas Court at these sites:

Civil Docket Access
Philadelphia Municipal Court Filings

What about results from racial bias exams people take when they apply for jobs with the Philly Police Department? Concerned residents asked about those records at a Police Advisory Commission this month. They also asked about information regarding abusive or otherwise corrupt officers.

Last year, a judge forced the City of Chicago to release over 56,000 civilian complaints lodged against Chicago police after a legal challenge. As a result, the public, journalists and defense attorneys now have a fairly comprehensive database of problem officers at their disposal.

Police records are an open government highmark. But unlike Los Angeles, Boston and New York, Philly won’t even release basic stuff like its checkbook: a list of itemized, individual expenditures. The Philadelphia City Solicitor’s Office has informally argued with Spirit News that such a release would compromise government contractors’ private information.

My point isn’t that Jim “Constitutional Police Stop” Kenney’s administration would never put this kind of stuff online. I’d be thrilled if they made this article irrelevant by doing so. My point is that the bureaucracy in place encourages the release of certain information that helps certain people. And it discourages the release of other kinds of information. The public is hungry for data outside of what the city voluntarily releases – the uncomfortable stuff.

In Philly, the Mayor’s Office itself directly hosts and funds the open government show. A firm called Azavea, which designed and mostly runs Open Data Philly also cashes close to a million dollars in government checks a year: close to half the $2.18 million in net sales they reported during that time, according to Dun & Bradstreet.

Former Mayor Michael Nutter created the City’s open government positions with a 2012 executive order. Now imagine that a future mayor takes offense to a data release that catches them from the chin up. She could kill the whole thing with another unilateral pen-stroke.

This isn’t standard. Open government-related work in LA, Boston and NYC falls to controllers’ offices. As elected officials usually head those offices, they tend to enjoy some autonomy from the mayor. And city law legitimates the controller’s office, not mayoral orders. This makes those offices harder to quash.

Former Philly Chief Data Officer Mark Headd reflected on his stint at the job in a 2014 blog post shortly after he quit. “Don’t hang any pictures in your office,” he advised. He continued:

“[D]on’t get comfortable. Recognize that your time in public service is temporary… The contents of the cabinets and desk drawers are those that the previous occupant left behind. There are no decorations, few items with sentimental value, nothing to suggest permanence.”

Kenney moved some chairs around within Philly’s open government organ this year. But the changes don’t break the power line from the Mayor’s Office. Until that happens, I’m keeping a tight confetti budget for what people in those positions and their private sector friends accomplish.

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