Transparency in government is a grand idea that gets lots of lip service, but rarely works to give taxpayers a better understanding of what they're paying for.
Maybe this isn't surprising: Government officials do much of their business behind closed doors, and some of those doors are to back rooms. So when they do anything in the light of day, they think they're being transparent.
It's not the same thing. And given the big relaunch of PhillyStat yesterday after a year's hiatus, it's a good time to review the differences.
Mayor Nutter created PhillyStat to improve city departments by collecting and publicizing data about their work. New York and other cities have implemented similar programs successfully; for example, New York's website publishes accessible data on city performance.
The original PhillyStat involved city officials reporting to the managing director in public meetings. The meetings felt choreographed for the benefit of the public, but were so painfully boring that no one outside a small circle of government nerds would actually watch. Based on our observation of yesterday's meetings, new Managing Director Richard Negrin has made improvements, but there's more to do.
Yesterday, department heads from police, fire and prisons talked with the mayor - for three hours - about how great everything's been going. By trying to be both public relations and a serious policy discussion at once, the meeting failed to be either.
An afternoon meeting focused on the city's 3-1-1 call center was more promising. Negrin and his staff climbed into the weeds of 3-1-1 operations, discussing successes and challenges. The meeting felt rehearsed, but the participants didn't seem as handcuffed by the idea that someone was watching. They ended up having a useful discussion of department operations that no one actually watched, but is at least now part of the public record if someone wants to go find it - though data from department presentations have not yet been posted on the PhillyStat website.
If PhillyStat meetings are aimed at the public, then they should a) be held after work hours; b) be kept to an hour; c) incorporate public input by soliciting questions ahead of time; and d) feature clear and concise handouts with stats.
The Nutter administration deserves credit for sticking its toe into the water by starting PhillyStat, and for improving the program. But now it's time for the big plunge.
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