Philadelphia’s tag team attempt to improve services.

Nov. 9

By Arrus Farmer
For PlanPhilly

During his Mayoral campaign, Michael Nutter stressed his future focus on accountability and transparency in city government. Now Philadelphia’s top bureaucrat, Nutter has taken steps to bring city government’s service delivery system into the 21st century.

Under the current administration, Philadelphia is employing a 311 hotline to gather citizen input and a statistics based performance management system to track, analyze and evaluate the data collected.

According to Anuj Gupta, former Deputy Director for Performance Management who was recently named chief of staff at Licenses & Inspections, “these two systems serve as the cornerstone for delivering the mayor’s campaign promise.” 

The Philadelphia Performance Management Team, which sits in the office of Managing Director Dr. Camille Barnett, is using a two-pronged approach to ensure that the city is moving efficiently and effectively to improve public health and safety, economic vitality, education, neighborhood livability and civic engagement.

Dial 311 – It’s not an emergency


The front line of this system is Philly311.  Like 911 it is a direct link to government services, only this one isn’t for emergencies.  Among other things, residents can use 311 to report issues such as abandoned cars, broken street signs or hazardous vacant lots.  Operators also provide general city information like agency office hours as well as routing callers directly to the appropriate department. The goal is to establish a high level of accountability and customer satisfaction, and thus provide high quality services to citizens.

When PlanPhilly sat down with members of the Philadelphia Performance Management Team they stressed that their efforts are aimed at “putting the customer at the core of what the city is supposed to be doing. The city has a bad reputation either deserved, or undeserved, and these systems remove the mystery and let us know who is accountable and how we, as an organization, are serving our customers.“
Gupta, co-chairs PhillyStat and says that that establishing a performance management system was one of the Nutter’s priorities from day one of his term and that he and Barnett laid an  “ambitious timeframe for its implementation.”  Similar 311 systems in other cities have taken as long as 20 months and $25 million to get off the ground, Philadelphia was able to implement the system in less than eight months and with a budget of about $2 million. 

Though operational for less than a year, Philly’s 311 system is establishing benchmarks for cities of comparable size.  The system is expected to receive its one-millionth call this month, exceeding expectations.  

According to a case study performed by the International City/County Management Association in June of 2009, roughly 12% of calls were to place service requests – most of them reporting abandoned vehicles.  Patrick Morgan, Deputy Director in charge of 311, maintains that the result has been not only the removal of thousands of abandoned cars from city streets and a reduction of the burden on the 911 system – through which those calls were previously received, but also the creation of a stronger sense of government accountability for Philadelphians.

“We can now set the citizens’ expectations,” he says.  By monitoring service requests, 311 operators can tell callers that removal of a reported abandoned vehicle takes roughly 30 days, 11 of which are required to notify the registered owner.  In the meantime, the caller can check up on their service call either by ringing back or using an online tracking system to check progress – adding another level of transparency to delivering city services.  Morgan asserts that “the simple knowledge that something is being done, and results can be expected within a month’s time removes the mystery and opacity of the city’s role and provides a clear benefit to the customer.” 

The 311 system is also serving the city’s leadership.  By having a direct link to the public, Philly311 provides departments with unfiltered feedback from the source, telling them where their attention and resources should be focused. 

Behind Philly311 and other city services is another ongoing initiative that collects, tracks and analyzes levels of service from more than 30 city agencies. PhillyStat is a system that uses data from city agencies and 311 to measure how well Philadelphia is serving its customers, city residents and tax payers.   



Comparative statistical performance measurement systems (CompStat) like PhillyStat have been used by U.S. local governments since the mid-1990s and are now accepted as being a component of modern governance.  These models essentially enable city agencies to track certain data that indicates service delivery efficiency to residents and then present that data at monthly meetings with city leadership. 

Many attribute the first CompStat model to the NYC Police Department in the mid-1990s. By using crime data and mapping software, the city’s leadership was able to identify high crime areas and apply the appropriate resources directly to those communities.
Roughly 18 months ago, members of the Nutter administration began focusing on improving customer service levels for city departments. Since then, agencies have identified, tracked and presented data that relates to performance at weekly meetings in the municipal services building.  These meetings are open to the public and aired on public TV.

At one recent meeting, the Licenses and Inspections department presented data on customer wait times at their concourse service desks as well as average processing times for a host of permits related to development and construction in the city. The presentation provided a good gauge of how the department is scoring in trying to meet the needs of its customers, or at least how long it is taking to do so. 

Although the meetings can be arcane at times due to the presentation’s statistical nature, Barnett keeps the program’s mission on the front burner – a commitment to continuous improvement.  On several occasions the Managing Director simultaneously applauded the L&I’s improvements and challenged the department to raise the bar by setting tougher goals for faster results. 

Pushing the Performance Envelope
Unlike CompStat meetings in other cities, the overall atmosphere in Philadelphia seems fairly positive.  Other cities are known to use these meetings as behind closed doors torture sessions  – shaming leaders of under performing departments or using harsh criticisms when expectations aren’t met.   

Philadelphia is using their CompStat program to “bring departments together that share a stake in an issue but don’t usually coordinate with one another – public safety meetings for example could include representatives from the Streets Department , Police, and Licenses and Inspections.  At the L&I meeting PlanPhilly attended, folks from The Commerce Department and the Planning Commission were present.  “This is not only the most transparent CompStat program in the country, we also try to be the most collegial, this isn’t a ‘gotcha’ game” Says Philip Mancini of the Managing Director’s Office.

Mancini maintains that this coordination is absolutely critical to accomplishing the goals the mayor and Barnett have laid out for the city.  “PhillyStat is a performance management tool for making decisions.  But we want to be sure that we continue to push to raise standards. “

Philadelphia, unlike other cities, decided to implement their 311 and CompStat programs simultaneously. Integrating nearly forty city agencies into a two-tiered performance measurement system required not only careful planning and an efficient platform but in many cases a culture change. Simply convincing some city departments that they have customers can be a tough sell.  The challenges of quantifying what it is that departments do to improve services can be an even higher hurdle when that objective is accompanied by tough discussions when setting goals.  

With the initial groundwork laid, the Performance Management Team, along with Barnett is working hard to set high service benchmarks for the city to fight department complacency and soft goals that are too easily attained.

Earlier this summer the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) applauded the Nutter administration for instituting a performance based system but urged for consistent high level execution of that program in order to change the fundamental challenges facing the city.  Translation: A performance management system that isn’t linked to the budget process misses the target. 

Efficiency is about using resources effectively, in this case dollars, tax dollars.  A performance management system that isn’t tied to department budget allocations presents a missed opportunity.  Though this linkage is in the works, until it is implemented, the system is no going to be fully effective.

PICA and critics of CompStat programs argue that a danger with these systems is that they can turn the act of providing education and public health services into numbers games that lose the personal touch and diminish the user experience.  Critics also complain that statistical evaluations tend to remove some of the flexibility in managing a dynamic government.

Gupta says that one of the strengths of Philly’s performance system is the pairing and connection of 311 and PhillyStat.  He points out that 311 gives live feedback direct from the customer and thus provides an important check for data presented by individual departments.  That said, the system will need to be allowed to constantly evolve and be updated in order to improve services.

The biggest challenge facing the team moving forward will be continuing to work at such a fast pace with even more limited resources.  While the Mayor has vocally made a commitment to both performance based governance and 311, current budget constraints have caused a reduction in 311 call center hours from 24-7 to 8 a.m.-8 p.m. during the week and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on weekends.  Even after “Plan C” was averted, the hours of the call center remain reduced.  Of course, in an emergency, such as the recent SEPTA strike, call center hours can be increased.

Given the technology driven accountability system that PhillyStat creates combined with the citizen engagement and feedback that Philly311 provides, the administration hopes city residents feel more confident that their needs are at the core of city business.  Not convinced?  Check out the PhillyStat meeting calendar at the link and go see a meeting or check one out on government access Channel 64 or call or email Philly311 to report your non-emergency concerns. 

Check out the Philadelphia Performance Management Website for the PhillyStat Calendar and more info
Committee of Seventy’s Tackling True Reform
PICA’s Philadelphia Financial Plan FY 2010-2014 Staff Report

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