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Center Square: Fixing What Ails City Hall

April 26, 2008

Chris Satullo, Philadelphia Inquirer


Philadelphia City Hall. Outstanding customer service.


Those two phrases aren't typically paired in a sentence - unless it's said with a sarcastic laugh.


The Nutter administration would like to see that odd linkage become commonplace, instead of an oxymoron.


It will be an uphill climb. The ruling image of city workers tends to be the sign saying, at 3 p.m., "Be back after lunch." It revolves around phrases such as, "That's not my job; call this number," or "Fill out this form and wait over there."


The bad rap is unfair to the many city workers who care, work hard, do way more than the minimum. But in organizations with little accountability, the weak links pull down everyone else. You end up with a City Hall that's an inscrutable maze to most citizens, who end up relying on Council staffers or paid fixers to navigate it.


During his campaign, Mayor Nutter promised to change all that. His new team, led in this effort by Managing Director Camille Barnett, wants to instill a new culture of bold goals, clear measures, and accountability for effective services.


They have set six core goals for the city. They are working to set up the PhillyStat system for measuring progress toward those goals on a regular basis. By year's end, they want to set up a 311 hotline number to give citizens "one-stop shopping" for city services, ending those voyages deep into City Hall voice-mail hell.


The Nutter team wants to interweave PhillyStat with its budget process, so departments that deliver the goods get rewarded, while departments that bumble don't get a pass.


Now, through the Great Expectations project, citizens and customers of the city will have a chance to help root this ambitious effort firmly in the realities of day-to-day city life.


Great Expectations is holding a new round of 10 neighborhood forums, one in each Council district, to gather citizen input on what performance standards and customer service expectations should be incorporated into PhillyStat and 311. In short, how would you like to see the efforts of city workers guided and judged?


Great Expectations is a joint program of The Inquirer and the Penn Center for Civic Engagement. The Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, a crusader for transparent, effective government, cosponsors these forums.


They begin in South Philly on Tuesday night and will run through May. Each will include a free meal. A list of dates and sites, with information on how to register, can be found in the accompanying box and on the project Web site,


Top Nutter administration officials, including Barnett and city budget director Steve Agostini, will be present to explain their core goals and how they feed into PhillyStat. Those goals are, in brief, a city that is safe; leads in education; produces good jobs in a green way; has healthy, sustainable communities; operates with high ethics; and has outstanding customer service.


The administration poobahs promise to listen as you, the citizens, talk about how you'd like to see those goals be met. Members of City Council have also been invited to attend.


Agostini says the citizen input will be used to set up PhillyStat and in the drafting of future budgets.


"Oh, yeah, yield from these forums will be shared widely among departments," he said. "We do have a sense of what is important to measure and to deliver. But we know we don't know everything. We need a way to hear from citizens what they think is important for us to be doing."


Agostini said he learned to value citizen input highly in previous jobs in places such as Milwaukee, Seattle and San Francisco.


"What I like is civic input where people get a chance to do more than vent," he said. "I like to tell people, 'Here are the challenges we face. Help us think through how to solve them.' "


Those words could stand as the Great Expectations credo, which may be why Agostini so readily agreed to take part in these forums.


Great Expectations forums are an open door. The Nutter team has agreed to walk through it, to sit down and listen. So, if you live in, work in or care about Philadelphia, this is your chance to help turn customer service into a byword - not a foreign phrase - at City Hall.