Talk to anyone who has dealings with the City, and you’ll hear a lot about city workers. Bureaucrats, inefficient, tied by unnecessary rules, political appointees who clock in, do the minimum needed, and then clock out. You know, city workers.
But you’ll also, on more than a rare occasion, hear about the public workers who take the “public” part of their jobs to heart, those who do their absolute best to make lives better and easier for their customers—Philadelphians.
They are people like Ralph DiPietro, in the Department of Licenses and Inspections, who helped clean up his rampantly corrupt department, and received the city’s Joan Markham Award for Integrity for his efforts.
Or “jury duty lady” Tanya Covington who leads sing-alongs in the Common Pleas jury room.
Or police officers Shamssadeen Nur Ali Baukman and Justin Harris who throw Friday afternoon karaoke parties at the corner of 52nd and Market streets to bond with their community.
They are city workers, too—and they are not alone.
“When I worked in city government, I saw a lot of really good people who went above and beyond their work, to help residents,” says Andy Toy, a former Commerce Department employee who is now development and communications director for SEAMAAC, an immigrant support group in South Philadelphia. “That’s great—but they never get recognized for any of that.”
We want to change that.
Today, The Citizen, along with SEAMAAC, WURD Radio, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, and D.C.-based Accountability Lab launch Integrity Icon Philly, a contest to name the (non-elected) city-paid workers who show the highest amount of integrity in their work.
The competition will work like this: Over the next six weeks, we’ll accept nominations here for anyone—except for elected officials—whose salary is paid by city taxes: educators; police officers and firefighters; court employees; assistant district attorneys and public defenders; public health and social service workers; and workers in the myriad city departments you may encounter in your dealings with government—or even those only known to their colleagues.
The criteria we’re looking for is simple, but powerful: A high-integrity public service employee is respectful and caring; knows their work makes a difference to people’s lives; acts in a trustworthy and transparent way to solve problems the best they can; treats everyone equally, without regard to politics or influence; and goes above and beyond to provide good service to Philadelphians.
Once we close the nominations on April 13, we’ll spend a few weeks vetting the candidates and narrowing the list down to eight or 10. Our panel of esteemed judges will select the five finalists in late April.
In addition to Toy, those judges include: Rev. Bill Golderer, President/CEO of United Way; Syreeta Martin, host of “Happy Hour” on WURD; Michael O’ Bryan, Director of Learning at The Village of Arts and Humanities and an Innovation Fellow at Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation; and Ellen Kaplan, recently retired Chief Integrity Officer for the City of Philadelphia.
A high-integrity public service employee is respectful and caring; knows their work makes a difference to people’s lives; acts in a trustworthy and transparent way to solve problems the best they can; treats everyone equally, without regard to politics or influence; and goes above and beyond to provide good service to Philadelphians.
Then, it’s back to you. We’ll tell the story of each finalist in mini-documentaries, and ask you to vote on who you think encapsulates our criteria best. Then, we’ll crown a winner—though, really, all five are winners—at a gala event in July, where they will be awarded with…glory. (No cash prize here for doing the right thing.)
The point of all this is not just to hold up these five people as high-integrity city workers. It’s to change the whole way that we think and talk about city government; to change the narrative from “naming and shaming” our corrupt public officials, to “naming and faming” our best ones. More than that, it’s to change the way city workers think about—and do—their jobs. (And maybe, dare we say it, rub off on their elected leaders?)
“We are holding up role models for others to believe in and imitate,” says Accountability Lab founder and Executive Director Blair Glencorse. “That’s very powerful.”
Glencorse launched Integrity Icon (formerly “Idol” until American Idol threatened to sue) in Nepal in 2014 when he was looking for a way to popularize the idea of reform in a country often rife with corruption. That first year, Accountability Lab got 300 nominations, and tens of thousands of Nepali picked the winner: Gyan Mani, a district education officer in a poor region of the country, who routed out corruption in (among other places) the local schools.
Since then, Integrity Icon has spread to nine countries, including South Africa, Liberia, Pakistan, and last year Ukraine, Morocco and Mexico City, the first time Accountability Lab held a local rather than nationwide competition. In the last six years, dozens of civil servants have been recognized for their high-integrity work, and they have formed a sort of army of do-gooders setting a new course for their communities.
“Our icons are becoming bastions of integrity,” says Jean Scrimgeour Accountability Lab’s director of operations and growth. “People go to them and tell them when they see a problem, and they’re more likely to be included in higher level conversations about integrity or corruption.”
One South African winner, for example, was a policeman selected for his work in helping to keep protesters safe. Only later did Accountability Lab learn of another reason to celebrate him: He had rented a house—on his own initiative, with donations from his community—for victims of sexual assault, where they could see a doctor, have a clean shower, and a clean place to rest, away from the additional trauma of the police station. He is now the only non-politician on the country’s anti-corruption task force.
“Philadelphia is the birthplace of democracy in the U.S. It set out the original rules of good government and what that looks like,” Scrimgeour says. “There is some pride there: ‘We thought about this stuff, we do think about it, we may have lost our way in one or two places, but integrity is still a value that we care about.’”
And he’s just one of many examples.
“This is about building community and society, not just about building your job,” Scrimgeour says. “We’re looking for people who are saying, ‘I’m putting my city, my people, my department above my particular need for praise. It’s bigger than just me.’ There are so many people like that.”
Philadelphia is the first American city to host an Integrity Icon contest. And boy do we need it. It’s not just that we have a decades-long history of political corruption, something The Citizen commemorated in 2017 with our tradeable Philly Corruption All-Star cards (a jokey gimmick to make the point that this is NO laughing matter), or that two of our sitting City Councilmembers are currently facing federal corruption charges (one of whom, Bobby Henon, ran unopposed for the seat he still holds).
It’s that we have grown so accustomed to hearing about this corruption, and government inefficiencies, and the perpetual machinations of, well, machine politics, that we have ceased to care (see above: Henon ran unopposed). We’ve even given that a name: The Philly Shrug.
It’s not often you hear people saying in Philadelphia, “Wow, I got great service from the city!” But it is also true that there is often great service from city workers. We are just so bogged down in the narrative of apathy that goes along with the drumbeat of bad actors that we fail to notice the glimmers of excellence in our midst.
It’s time to put an end to that. The City of Philadelphia has over 30,000 full-time, part-time and seasonal employees in more than 700 different types of jobs, at 200 sites. That is a lot of people; and a lot of them would probably qualify as high-integrity people worthy of celebrating.
Scrimgeour works in D.C., and hails from South Africa. But she knows enough about Philly from her research and her visits to have captured pretty well who we are.
“Philadelphia is the birthplace of democracy in the U.S. It set out the original rules of good government and what that looks like,” she says. “There is some pride there: ‘We thought about this stuff, we do think about it, we may have lost our way in one or two places, but integrity is still a value that we care about.’”
She’s right, isn’t she? We think so. Help us prove it—nominate an Integrity Icon today.Header graphic by Dan Shepelavy