Congressman Dwight Evans has a lovely line that he trots out when some media talking head tries to probe whether he’s sufficiently progressive or more of a centrist. “I’m from the governing wing of the Democratic party,” he says.
It’s exactly the right answer, particularly in cities, where there’s no liberal or conservative way to fill a pothole, as we talked about at our Ideas We Should Steal Festival last month with former Mayor Michael Nutter and former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. Yes, there’s a whole lotta shouting going on from our respective amen corners; amidst all the noise, it’s easy to forget that most voters are just trying to get by and still embrace practical solutions.
I know, I know: Every time the Chicago teachers union bucks common sense and refuses to enter the classroom despite all medical evidence, and each time Rand Paul accuses Tony Fauci of killing people it seems—but only seems—like polarization is here to stay. Recent evidence suggests that actual competence—delivering real things in real people’s lives—can still pay political dividends, at least in cities.
Turns out, the best way to get elected isn’t that mysterious: Pick up taxpayers’ trash, keep ‘em safe on your streets, and grow good-paying jobs.
“It does not matter what you do in life, as long as you do it effectively,” the great tabloid writer Jimmy Breslin wrote in The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, his fictional 1970s sendup of ineffectual mobsters that remains a testament to the enduring power of competence. “The people who shoot and miss are the ones who get in trouble. In a city like New York, failure is the real crime. But for those who shoot straight and get the job done, the rewards are immense. Society not only approves but gives adulation.”
Such is the message we should take from last November’s election, when an elitist strain of democratic socialism took a thumping in favor of practical problem-solving. In Buffalo, NY, after a socialist who had never held office before beat an incumbent mayor in a low-turnout primary the previous spring, we saw that mayor wage a write-in campaign and score a landslide general election victory. In Minneapolis, voters rejected a vague plan to remake the police department in what had been seen as a “defund the police” referendum—Black and Brown folk, it turns out, actually want police…they just don’t want them busting their heads.
In Ohio, Democrat Shontel Brown won a special election for a congressional seat after defeating democratic socialist and Bernie Sanders acolyte Nina Turner in the August primary, after Turner had described voting for Joe Biden as like “eating a bowl of shit.” Most of all, in Virginia, exit polls showed that Republican Glen Youngkin won the governorship not by demagoguing Critical Race Theory (which he did) but by appealing to working class voters’ economic interest, most notably promising to repeal the state’s onerous grocery tax.
Turns out, the best way to get elected isn’t that mysterious: Pick up taxpayers’ trash, keep ‘em safe on your streets, and grow good-paying jobs.
RELATED: Want to do a better job holding our politicians accountable? Start with voting! Our guide lays out everything you need to know to make sure you’re ready for the May primary (which actually starts in March).
We know by now that Jim Kenney is not a visionary leader, and, to hear him tell it, our biggest challenges—like gun violence—are beyond his power to solve. (“I’m responsible for—the government is responsible—for things I can’t control,” he said in a stunning, buck-passing year-end interview.) But let’s lower our sights a bit. Kenney is not a bad guy; he’s just not the right guy for times of crisis. He has had to deal with a lot: Covid, the worst murder epidemic in city history, crushing poverty and rampant municipal corruption.
Given all that, don’t you think we’re in desperate need of putting at least a few wins on the scoreboard? Well, Kenney still can do that…if he rebrands himself as a quality-of-life mayor.
Here are three things Kenney can set in motion these next several weeks—as he prepares the city’s next budget—that could go a long way toward reminding the average voter that, actually, someone in City Hall has your back and is invested in making your daily life a little bit better:
Fill the damn potholes
Last week, Paulette Guajardo, the mayor of Corpus Christi, Texas, held a press conference on a city street to announce her month-long, intensive “Saving Our Streets” initiative. “Today marks the day when you will begin to see aggressive action in your neighborhood to repair potholes immediately,” the mayor said.
Residents had done their part, she explained: “We have heard our constituents loud and clear,” she said, referencing the city’s six-month backlog of requested repairs. Now she was announcing that her Public Works Department would be partnering with two private construction firms and deploying a new water-based technology called “jet patcher” that enables the filling of 150 potholes per hour per crew.
Let’s compare and contrast pothole leadership styles, shall we? Guajardo made herself accountable for real change in a tight time window—change her constituents would soon see on their very streets. She framed herself as responsive to her constituents. And she practiced horizontal leadership by partnering with private sector companies who brought innovative technology to the fore. Rather than bemoan what she can’t do in times of crisis, she made herself the face of change in every neighborhood.
Here, according to a terrific pothole primer in Philadelphia magazine, the city fills between 30,000 and 70,000 potholes a year and repaves streets every 12 years or so. The Streets Department owns two “pothole killer” trucks that fills holes with a mix of tar, rocks and asphalt, and other holes are filled by three or four person jackhammer crews. What’s missing from this picture?
First, mayoral leadership. You don’t see our mayor making himself publicly accountable to you for the state of our roads. Do you feel listened to when you report a pothole? As outlined in the Inquirer last week, the mechanism for doing so—our 311 app—has been inoperable for a month and has been redirecting users to an unsecured website. Talk about gangs that can’t shoot straight; somewhere, Breslin is smirking.
You don’t see our mayor making himself publicly accountable to you for the state of our roads. Do you feel listened to when you report a pothole?
In his new budget, Mayor Kenney could prioritize fixing potholes and thereby provide a public good residents could see and feel in their daily lives. But you don’t do that from a reactive crouch, throwing more money at solutions long burdened by bureaucratic inertia. Other cities are embracing more innovative approaches, like using Artificial Intelligence to map roads in an effort to not only identify potholes—rather than wait for someone to get through to 311—but also to show the cracks in roadways that will soon become potholes.
It requires a proactive governing mindset—and expertise beyond the skill set of City Hall. RoadBotics is a Pittsburgh-based software company that uses AI to analyze road surfaces for cities. It made dubious headlines here when, last year, it released an AI-based report that ranked Philly as having the best roads in the nation, though it turned out they only analyzed Center City. Still, the fact remains: Forward-thinking cities are embracing this notion of fixing the problem before you even experience it.
According to govlaunch.com, rather than hire an outside contractor, Memphis has provided city buses with cameras capturing road footage to then be put through an AI application. In Tarrant County, Texas, officials have opted for a less complicated approach: they monitor the traffic app Waze and auto-generate work orders the moment a pothole warning appears on screen. Under dynamic Mayor Quinton Lucas, Kansas City uses gel-based bags to fill holes temporarily until the city is able to make the fix permanent. Imagine calling 311 and, ten minutes later, spying a city worker on your street, smoothing things over until a truck can make it to your block.
Under Mayor Kenney, the city has done a lot of repaving, having committed $100 million over two years in last year’s budget. But do you know that? Do you see it or feel it? Other mayors are making a movement of smoothing their streets. That’s not self-aggrandizing; it’s actually called governing.
Declare war on litter
Are you as sick of seeing the word “Filthadelphia” as I am? Literally every survey finds Philadelphians ranking the cleanliness of the city as a top three concern, yet we can’t shed what has become a national reputation as America’s dirtiest city. It’s an enduring embarrassment. And the frustrating thing is that this issue isn’t actually that complicated.
Again, other mayors have made cleaning up their streets a cause. Before the pandemic, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser launched her “Not In My City” campaign, an anti-litter and graffiti blitz. In Kansas City, the aforementioned Mayor Lucas has been out on the streets filling trash bags himself and targeting illegal dumpers.
Here as Jon Geeting has laid out, we dither with task forces and still don’t have citywide street sweeping, largely for fear of asking South Philadelphians to move their cars. The Kenney administration has done a good job of mapping litter—you can see where it is, in real time—but there’s a big difference between identifying a problem and solving it.
Our trash problem is an enduring embarrassment. And the frustrating thing is that this issue isn’t actually that complicated.
In addition to infusing combatting litter with a mayoral imprimatur and finally restoring street sweeping throughout the city, the Kenney administration could, as with so much else, widen the aperture of its lens and embrace experimentation. Rather than be threatened by outspoken activist and civic hero Terrill Haigler, aka Ya Fav Trashman, the administration could welcome him as a much-needed partner for change.
For example, Haigler helped promote Glitter, a subscription service created by another civic disruptor, Morgan Berman, to help residents get paid to keep their block clean. Rather than enthusiastically and, yes, financially support the innovation, the Streets Department has shown itself to be a risk-averse bureaucracy by taking a wait and see approach: “If the app is piloted and successful, the City will consider an RFP, but the pilot must be objectively proven to reduce litter citywide,” a Streets Department spokesperson told The Citizen last year.
Why? Why not, in a time of crisis, channel FDR: “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something”?
Former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told us last month that a mayor’s job is “to shape the public will.” Well, beyond policy fixes, we need to do something about the mindset of so many Philadelphians who think nothing of trashing their own city.
In 2019, so frustrated were we by the trashy state of our public spaces, that 6ABC President and General Manager Bernie Prazenica and I convened the heads of every local major media outlet around a center city law firm conference table. (It was like a meeting of the five families.) We agreed to start a public service campaign consisting of star athletes like Allen Iverson and Rhys Hoskins telling Philadelphians that “We talk trash; we don’t trash Philly. Litter is a losing game.” (Research shows that, almost exclusively, men litter. Surprise, surprise.)
In addition to picking up the trash, in other words, we’ve got to change hearts and minds among those who would deface our public spaces in the first place. Alas, the pandemic hit and the campaign never fully got off the ground. Mayor Kenney was supportive of it and maybe now’s the time to revisit it with him:
— Don't Trash Philly (@donttrashphilly) March 18, 2020
Pretend like you have customers and that your job is to serve them
Are you familiar with eCLIPSE? It’s an online tool that promises to make engaging with Philly city departments more customer friendly. According to the city, using it, “L&I customers can apply for permits, schedule inspections, and request approval from multiple departments at the same time.”
Sounds great, right? Only try logging in to it. After not being able to, you might have to waste more time accessing the platform’s help line. That’s where, after considerable digging, you find out that the site is only usable via the Chrome browser—which only 50.4 percent of Americans use.
A metaphor, perhaps? Even when trying to address customer service, we don’t put the customer experience front and center. How groundbreaking would it be to have a city government that adopted a hospitality-first mindset?
In 2016, jazzed by the fantasy, I took the liberty of sending to Mayor Kenney and Council President Darrell Clarke Front of the House: Restaurant Manners, Misbehaviors, and Secrets, a behind-the-scenes primer by Jeff Benjamin, acclaimed Chef Marc Vetri’s longtime business partner. It’s an entertaining read, but it also can serve as a road map for anyone seeking to instill a customer service ethos into traditionally sclerotic organizations.
If Jim Kenney can prioritize investments in those kind of results, he might get himself a two-fer: He’d be rescuing a flailing political legacy and restoring a modicum of faith among a highly jaundiced electorate that government, for all its faults, can still make your life better.
Here at The Citizen, we periodically send out teams of “mystery shoppers” to report back on how their city government has treated them. We do this because it sure would be cool to love our city government as much as we love our city. Sometimes, we find great examples of caring and connection. Too often, we find a soulless bureaucracy that lacks empathy for you.
That’s why, in 2019, we asked Brian Elms to address our Ideas We Should Steal Festival. He’s a type of municipal bureaucracy whisperer. In Denver, he created Peak Academy, where he trained city workers in spotting and fixing inefficiency in their work. He’s gone on to consult for cities around the globe, retraining municipal workers to, as he puts it, “see their work through the lens of ingenuity, curiosity and grit.” The result is innovation in areas you don’t think of as ripe for it, like pest abatement services and the mediating of landlord/tenant disputes.
For its part, the Kenney administration has made nods toward Elms-like reforms, with its two-person Office of Innovation Management. But another city office in a workforce comprising 26,000 employees is not going to change culture. Only the force of a mayoral mandate can do that, as happened in New York under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, where teams of innovators were embedded in each city department, paying particular attention to the ways government serves the governed.
Other cities seem to be ahead of Philly when it comes to meeting the everyday need of constituents. 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 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 actual 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.
Here’s the thing: Kenney might be right; big, intractable problems like murder and poverty might exceed his reach. But focusing on neighborhood quality of life issues is eminently doable. If Jim Kenney can prioritize investments in those kind of results in the city’s next budget, he might get himself a two-fer: He’d be rescuing a flailing political legacy and restoring a modicum of faith among a highly jaundiced electorate that government, for all its faults, can still make your life better.