Tuesday, May 5, 2015

IOM editorial: City is too app-happy

FOR MANY YEARS, if you wanted to make a request for a city service in Philadelphia — a pothole filled, or a streetlight fixed — you either navigated the city bureaucracy to figure out which department to call or went through your district Council member. This system was confusing and allowed political favoritism to creep into basic municipal services.

IOM editorial: City is too app-happy

Councilman Henon
Councilman Henon
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FOR MANY YEARS, if you wanted to make a request for a city service in Philadelphia — a pothole filled, or a streetlight fixed — you either navigated the city bureaucracy to figure out which department to call or went through your district Council member. This system was confusing and allowed political favoritism to creep into basic municipal services.

The city’s 3-1-1 nonemergency call center, launched in 2009, was supposed to help take the politics out of services and simplify the process by creating a single point of entry.

But things are still pretty complicated.

Two weeks ago, the managing director pledged to launch a mobile 3-1-1 application by summer. The app would let citizens report nuisances directly from their smartphones, and process their service requests directly into 3-1-1’s system.

Then last week, freshman Councilman Bobby Henon announced the release of a mobile City Hall application that would let citizens do . . . the same basic thing. Except this version will process requests through a server in Henon’s office and route them to the local district Council member.

This is the mobile version of the same old divide about who works on behalf of citizens for city services.

Henon gets points for showing a sense of urgency about making a mobile service available. The city has been promising a mobile 3-1-1 app for two years now, and has missed its own deadlines more than once.

He also built a pretty good app — you can snap a picture of a problem and either type in an address or use GPS to submit its location.

But the city’s app, when it finally exists, should do all this, too. It’s also, frankly, more appropriate for complaints to go directly to 3-1-1, which has a formal processing system and a direct line to the departments, than to Council offices, for the same reasons 3-1-1 was a good idea in the first place.

This doesn’t mean Council members can’t help constituents out, but they shouldn’t battle 3-1-1 for the spotlight.

Even if Henon’s app eventually links in to the 3-1-1 system, as his office hopes it will, having two city-issued service apps will make it harder for the city to spread the word about 3-1-1 as a simple, clear entry point for basic services.

It’s fair to wonder if Council’s insistence on being a service liaison is partly to justify its $1.45 million budget for constituent-service staffers.

Both the city and Henon’s office are playing nice about their dueling apps, saying “the more the merrier.” They should have played nice before this confusion, and gotten on the same page.

When it comes to city services, there should only be one app for that.

This editorial originally appeared in the Daily News.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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