Tom Ferrick Jr. | Making city better with less

Let's begin with some good news for a change: Philadelphia government is reasonably well run and generally efficient.

Trash is picked up on time almost all the time. The city has some acclaimed programs that are imitated in other cities: Its aid to the homeless effort is one example. It has tried innovations in governance that others have emulated, such as the five-year budget plan begun in the Rendell era. Its Web site wins awards.

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So what's the problem?

There are two.

One is the public perception that the city is not doing a good job. In a poll done in March by Temple's Public Affairs Institute for the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, 74 percent of city residents said government was doing only a fair to poor job. Only 26 percent graded it good or excellent. That's a C-minus.

Adding to the poor public perception is a widespread feeling that city government is, as the Temple report put it, "pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves."

Forty-two percent of those surveyed believe that many people running government are corrupt.

That's the lingering legacy of The Bug scandal and the public embrace of pay-to-play politics by Mayor Street and his associates.

Another key to understanding the low performance grade is to look at what city services are most important to people. In the poll, it was clear: Public safety and public schools topped the list. Those are the two areas hardest to fix - witness the murder rate - and hard areas in which to turn around perception. To quote an old public relations man: Perception is everything; the rest is only reality.

If he takes over as mayor in January, as expected, Michael Nutter is going to have to work hard to change those perceptions. He undertakes the task with several advantages: He is not seen as a politics-as-usual guy who is part of the problem. He has a deserved reputation as a reformer.

He also understands that, before anything else, a mayor must deliver the goods on basic services. He can be a big-picture guy, but he first has to make sure the trash is picked up, snowy roads are plowed, streetlights are replaced, and the murder rate comes down to maintain his support among regular folks.

Nutter, who talks of beginning the kind of 311 service hotline that has succeeded in Baltimore, seems to get that. He told a citizens potluck supper hosted by the Great Expectations project recently: "I understand the need for services. Providing services is what we do; it's the business we're in. When people call City Hall, they're not calling to see how we're feeling. They want us to do something."

The new mayor would do himself a favor by keeping in mind the words of Colleen Puckett, a longtime civic activist, who said that what people want from their government is to be "efficient, transparent, logical" - and, to add my own two cents, responsive.

People are weary of government bureaucrats' telling them the problem they are reporting is their problem - not the city's. If the next mayor does nothing else, he should work to put the service back into customer service.

Nutter is positioned well to handle the perception deficit, but it will be harder, a lot harder, to deal with the other big problem. Let's call that the structural problem.

It is difficult for the city to operate efficiently because of several factors: the layering of civil service rules over union work rules, outdated purchasing requirements, and its antiquated City Charter.

As Marisa Waxman of the Economy League noted, the charter is more than 50 years old, written long before the rise of computers.

Waxman offers an example of how it inhibits: Other cities do something called "Gain Sharing." If you come up with an idea that saves your department money, your reward might be a little slice of the savings as a bonus. Or your department might get additional money for its operations. In Philly, this is not permitted. All money saved just goes back to the city's general fund.

Add to this another factor: A lot of departments don't have the capacity they once had to meet demands for services. The city budget has gone up 23 percent in the last five years, a rate that outpaces inflation. Most of that extra money went to three other major items: debt service (to pay off bonds); police and prisons; and employee fringe benefits.

In that time, the city workforce has shrunk by about 1,000, or 4 percent. Adjusted for inflation, the budgets of most city departments have gone down. The decline is led by areas such as Streets, Parks and Recreation, whose budgets have declined 11 percent in real dollars since '03.

Unless the city suddenly finds a new source of revenue (higher taxes, anyone?), the trend lines are clear. To pay mostly for debt service, policing and fringe benefits, the city will have to continue to strip other departments of their capacity to deliver services.

More money many not be, by itself, the way to upgrade city services, but less money isn't, either.

To put it another way, it is one thing to have expectations for improved city services; it is another to have the resources to meet those expectations. The next mayor's real dilemma will be not only to think of ways to provide better services, but also to find a way to pay for them. If he fails, the gap between what the city can deliver and what the public expects will only widen and the civic cynicism deepen.

One thing we don't need in Philly is more cynicism.


Tom Ferrick Jr. | City Services Ideas From Elsewhere

311 systems. A centralized number for city services is old news in such cities as Chicago, New York, Baltimore and Houston. But not Philadelphia. The Street administration looked into installing a 311, but felt it would be too expensive and raise expectations too much. In other words, when citizens called, they'd expect action. Councilman Jim Kenney is pushing for a 311 system here, and Democratic nominee Michael Nutter hails the idea.

CitiStat. Nutter already has visited Baltimore to observe its CitiStat system, a computerized map of the work done by city agencies. It's modeled after the CompStat system on crime data used by the Philadelphia police. Proponents say it's a way to help top managers keep an eye on services - and hold them directly responsible for delivery.

Citizen Budget Panels. They do this in Los Angeles and other cities. It's a way to help government prioritize services by (radical idea!) asking citizens for input. Several cities use citizen panels, often drawn from civic and neighborhood groups, to help shape budgets.

ComNET. It started in Worcester, Mass., and spread elsewhere, including the Center City District here. Citizens and city employers use handheld computers to

report possible code violations, potholes, etc. City departments use these data to pinpoint problems and make inspections and repairs.


Tom Ferrick can be reached at tferrick@phillynews.com or 215-854-2714.