Imagine a city where citizens are recruited by government to help spot problems, enforce code, and locate potholes needing repair.
Armed with handheld computers, they patrol the streets in teams, tapping in precise information on conditions in their neighborhoods, information shared with city agencies.
Often within 48 hours after a report is received, city crews arrive to fix the potholes, replace the blown streetlights, and write citations for violations of local building, health and safety codes.
Result: Conditions in the neighborhoods improve, and, as a bonus, citizens begin to take a more active role in improving their surroundings themselves.
Imagine a city where they have a centralized call center for citizen complaints and questions that can be reached by dialing just three digits.
Manned by expert operators, linked by computer to all city agencies, the 24-hour hotline works to assure that answers will be prompt and service speedy.
The call center tacks a tag number on each call so city officials - including the mayor - can track how quickly and how well a city agency responds.
Result: a more efficient, responsive city government with a renewed emphasis on customer service.
Imagine a city where the mayor assembles his department heads in a darkened room every week and all eyes focus on a giant screen that displays maps of the city, filled with up-to-date data on such items as code violations written, roads repaired, abandoned buildings sealed, lots cleaned and cleared, acres of parkland mowed.
The mayor uses the data to inform him of trouble spots, but also to measure how the city is performing. It is a way to "drive accountability down" to the department level. Each bureaucrat in the room must account for how his department is performing in the field.
This isn't some Spielbergian vision of the future. These tools are being used today in cities across the nation.
Worcester, Mass., is pioneering citizen involvement in city problem-solving with its ComNET system. About one-third of the city's neighborhoods are now covered.
Those centralized call centers, also known as 311 systems, are civilian versions of 911 and are now in use in Chicago, Houston, New York and Baltimore, to name just four cities.
That weekly meeting of city bureaucrats was the idea of Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. Called CitiStat, it is a cousin of the CompStat system of crime data first used in New York City and imported to Philadelphia with great success by Police Commissioner John Timoney.
O'Malley was so pleased by the results that, as newly elected governor of Maryland, he has taken it statewide. Other governments are taking note and implementing variations on CitiStat themselves.
In addition to being new and sophisticated ways of making cities more efficient, accountable and customer-driven, these modern tools of governance have one thing in common: None is used in Philadelphia.
The city flirted with instituting a 311 system a few years ago, but shelved the idea. Recently, Councilman Jim Kenney suggested Philly revive it.
That suggestion was shot down by Joyce Wilkerson, Mayor Street's chief of staff, who said the city feared that the 311 system would lead to higher costs by increasing demands on city government.
As Wilkerson told my colleague Patrick Kerkstra: "People don't want to just complain, they want results. You have to make sure you have the capacity to service the request. You have to have the money in the budget to fill potholes; the department needs enough people to go out and do the work."
Let's parse what Wilkerson is saying: We don't want to make it easier for people to report problems because it will just lead them to expect service. And we can't have that!
When I repeated her statement to various city officials outside Philadelphia this week, they all verbally rolled their eyes.
"Imagine that, expecting service out of city government," one of them said, tongue planted in cheek.
An extension of Wilkerson's thinking is: You certainly don't want detailed information on how you respond to service requests, because that may tell you that you are doing a lousy job. And that could ruin your day!
I do give Wilkerson credit for honesty. To my knowledge, she is the first local official to acknowledge publicly that the Street administration - in its search to find money for pet projects, public safety and city employee fringe benefits - has stripped money and personnel out of the core (read: service) bureaucracy. It does lack the capacity to respond to citizen complaints, so why encourage them?
This administration has done the same thing with infrastructure repairs, which are usually paid with bond money. It sounds boring, until the day your local rec center roof leaks and ruins the gym floor, or until the front end of your car is whacked out by a huge pothole on a city street.
To give one example, in this year's proposed budget, the city has set aside $7.2 million for major road resurfacing and repair. It should be double that, according to the city's own planning agency.
After seven years in office, the Street administration is suffering from governance fatigue. The mayor and his team entered office talking about government's possibilities, they are leaving bemoaning its limitations.
Remember, this is the same mayor who began his first term by removing 40,000 abandoned cars from the streets. In with a bang, out with a whimper.
Fortunately, relief may be in sight.
We are electing a new mayor this year, and we have five Democratic dynamos running for the job. To hear them talk, if elected mayor, they are going to end poverty, take a huge whack at the homicide rate, make sure every kid gets a great education, and revive the city's economy. No word yet on what they plan for their second year in office.
This is the politics of overpromise and it is - as Philadelphia often is - out of step with the times.
John Walters, a longtime reporter for Governing magazine, told me that these mini-Great Society platforms went out of style in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan took the sword to federal revenue sharing. Cities came to focus their increasingly lean resources on core services.
"You had a generation of new mayors come along who realized that good management is good politics," Walters said. "Look at Richie Daley in Chicago. He runs a pretty tight ship. Same with [Michael] Bloomberg in New York. See [Thomas] Menino in Boston. Rendell was in the hunt, too. You see this new generation of executive leadership."
Emphasis on delivering city services is the rage, along with finding new ways to measure that performance, Walters said.
That's why mayors and city managers are excited by tools such as ComNET, CitiStat and 311.
There's no reason we can't do the same in Philadelphia. There are thousands of good reasons we should.
Here is where you can find more information about the innovations mentioned in this column:
The Worcester, Mass., ComNET system was profiled in an article by John Walters in Governing magazine. Go to http://www.governing.com and type "Worcester" in the search field to find the 2006 article. The article also links to information about similar programs elsewhere.
For detailed information on Baltimore's CitiStat system, go to the city government's home page at http://www.ci.baltimore.md.us and click on the "CitiStat" under the "o" in Baltimore.
Chicago won a Ford Foundation Innovation Award for its 311 system in 2005. To learn how it works, go to http://www.innovations.
harvard.edu and type in "311 system" in the search field.