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The Revolution Is Operational

When’s the last time you encountered the city bureaucracy and said to yourself, “Wow, what great customer service?"

When’s the last time you encountered the city bureaucracy and said to yourself, “Wow, what great customer service?"

You hear anecdotes like this all the time. A couple of years ago, the city’s revenue department started dunning a friend of mine for city taxes he did not owe. He entered a descending, Kafkaesque world where, in the rare cases he could find a live customer service representative to actually speak to about the matter, he learned that the onus was on him to pay the erroneous back taxes—and only then could he embark upon the convoluted process of trying to right the wrong accounting. The denouement came when he received a letter from the city, advising him of a new hotline to call for help in these matters. When he did, however, the phone just rang and rang. Not only weren’t his calls answered by a human being; there wasn’t even voicemail set up to at least give the appearance that the bureaucracy cared about the issues of its taxpayers.

Eventually, all ended well for my friend. But not before multiple years of frustrating phone calls and being subject to head scratching indifference. I thought of my friend when, in his inaugural address, Mayor Kenney announced that “the vision that will guide my administration is that city government first and foremost deliver efficient, effective services to every single Philadelphian.” Many of us detected a lack of ambition in such a small-ball goal. But angels, as well as the devil, usually reside in the details, and maybe there is a chance to reinvent how the city does business with its taxpayers.

Someone—no doubt someone in private industry—once said, “Customers may forget what you said but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.” Too often, our taxpayer-funded government makes us feel pretty crappy, like we don’t matter. Can’t take on City Hall, right? But imagine if that weren’t the case. Imagine if we loved our city government as much as we love our city.

Last week, the Kenney administration released a voluminous report from its transition team, co-chaired by Dwight Evans and Alba Martinez. The report makes 139 recommendations in areas such as education, economic development and public safety; I read it to see if real steps were being considered to make the city more customer friendly. After all, across the country, city governments have become laboratories of experimentation when it comes to treating their customers with Disney-like levels of service. Do we measure up?

Under Michael Nutter, some strides were made. The 311 system, for example, not only democratized customer service—you could call a hotline instead of a ward leader or Council office to get that pothole filled—it had real consequences on the ground. Police officers, for example, now have access to 311 data on laptops in their cars. They can see previous complaints about, say, a vacant property, and use that information when interacting with citizens on the scene. But the transition team rightly pointed out that our version of 311 doesn’t go far enough. Other cities, like Denver, have official Memos of Understanding between city departments and 311 to insure that citizen requests get responded to. Here, no such formal agreement exists.

Too often, our taxpayer-funded government makes us feel like we don’t matter. But imagine if that weren’t the case. Imagine if we loved our city government as much as we love our city.

That said, one wishes the transition report cited more best practices, because other cities are reinventing the relationship between local governments and the governed. In Boston, Citizens Connect is an app that allows people to post geotagged photos of potholes and graffiti and other blight—and then track the status of the city’s response. For Boston city workers, there’s City Worker, an app that directs them to new trouble spots and allows them to open case files in real time. The combination of these apps empowers both citizen and city worker to get things done without the delay we’ve come to expect from big city government.

In their book, The Responsive City, Stephen Goldsmith (the former mayor of Indianapolis and a former deputy mayor in New York under Michael Bloomberg), and Harvard Law’s Susan Crawford give a compelling example of how these apps have improved Boston’s civic life, and how an emphasis on customer service can turn frustrated taxpayers into fans of government:

Boston’s recycling program hands out large bumper stickers to constituents who ask for them, so they can label any trash can as a recycling retainer. One day, the Mayor’s Hotline got a call from a man living in one of Boston’s far-flung southern neighborhoods asking for one of those stickers. ‘And eighteen minutes later a public works employee showed up at his door and slipped one of these [stickers] under his door,’ [Boston Chief Technology Officer Justin] Holmes said.

The caller went to the door in amazement…’How, even if you ran every traffic light from city hall, could you possibly have gotten here in such a short time?’ The public works employee showed the constituent his iPhone and the City Worker app. ‘I happened to be around the corner when your call came in, and I had some stickers on the truck, so I thought I’d drop by.’

Imagine feeling like that constituent must have: My city has my back. It’s doable. The Kenney transition team briefly touches on one of the innovations that has engendered those kind of results elsewhere. The report recommends “identifying key staff to lead performance management in each department;” despite its distinctly unsexy name, performance management—consistently reviewing performance data to inform decision-making— has proven that government can adopt practices that make it more responsive to its constituents.

Once again, Boston is leading the way, using performance management techniques as a type of CompStat program for ordinary city services. CompStat, you’ll recall, was the revolution in policing that used data to constantly examine and reexamine strategies to fight crime. Well, a program called Boston About Results takes the same approach to things like trash pickup; using performance management metrics, the city has seen a 30 percent drop in the number of days permitting applications spend in review. In Atlanta, the same philosophy informs a program called Focus on Results, which has reduced the backlog of uninspected housing code violation complaints by 70 percent and increased the percentage of inspections within target time frames from 17 to 77 percent.

But if Mayor Kenney is serious about rethinking local government and improving its efficiency, he needn’t look as far afield as Boston and Atlanta. He need only look at nearby Montgomery County, where County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, now a candidate for Attorney General, has figured out ways to make local government work for people. First came his zero-based budgeting innovation, which Kenney pledged during the campaign to bring to Philly, though word now is that he’s already backing away from that promise. In Montco, requiring city departments to build their budgets up from zero exposed the job creep and flab that had accumulated in the county’s government, which went from 3,200 employees to 2,400 by refocusing on core mission.

We’re taking a page from private industry and sending out a team of mystery shoppers to engage with city government, in search of the good and the bad experience, and we’ll be publishing their reports right here.

But budget reform was only Shapiro’s first step. More recently, he’s unveiled “Community Connections,” satellite offices throughout the county that bring services to the people. In the past, if you were, say, a veteran who needed to apply for benefits, food stamps and services for your autistic son, you’d have to drive or take public transportation to Norristown and deal with three different faces of county government in three different offices. Now you can go to one of four (and soon to expand) Community Connections service centers in neighborhoods throughout the county. There, you’ll be met by a “Navicate”—a customer service representative who will navigate the system and advocate for you.

“We’ve taken a chunk of staff out of the back offices in Norristown,” Shapiro explains, “and trained them in customer service and put them in Main Street storefronts. Why not make it easy for  people to interact with their government?”

Perhaps it shouldn’t be, but the thought is actually revolutionary. The Kenney transition team report contains some smart proposals, but, when it comes to inspecting how city services are delivered, it doesn’t break a lot of new ground. There is a noticeable dearth of specific goals and, most worrisome, a lack of an overarching vision. In New York, Boston and Chicago, for example, average citizens have been invited into their cities budgeting processes, sending the message that government isn’t something that gives you goodies so much as something you participate in. It’s called participatory budgeting and it was originally devised in Brazil. In New York, 18,000 city residents have been empowered to spend over 25 million dollars in capital funds annually.

Innovations like Citizens Connect, performance management, and participatory budgeting might not, in and of themselves, change government. But, taken together, they can change the culture of a city’s workforce and the mindset of its citizens. To its credit, last week, the Kenney administration tried to introduce some data-based thinking to its human resources department but ran into some bureaucratic pushback from civil servants. Tanker-like institutions fight change, even when the metrics scream for it.

So let’s create demand. This is the first in a series on bringing a more customer service culture to city government. And we’re taking a page from private industry, where mystery shopping is all the rage. We’re sending out a team of mystery shoppers to engage with city government, in search of the good and the bad experience, and we’ll be publishing their reports right here. Because we hope Mayor Kenney meant it when he said he wanted to make Philadelphia government more efficient at delivering services. Now let’s see how good or bad we are at doing just that.

Photo by NEC Corporation of America with Creative Commons license


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