Rise Conference:
Talk Civic Tech and Innovation at Rise, a new event brought to you by Technical.ly, Oct. 22-24

Civic

Jun. 19, 2014 7:32 am

Why Philadelphia’s first Chief Data Officer quit

A conflict over property-tax data nudged Mark Headd out of city government. What should cities and open gov advocates learn from it? A Technical.ly Philly exclusive.

Mark Headd. (Photo by Flickr user Interop Events, used under a Creative Commons license)

It felt like he had hit a wall.

After a year-and-a-half, Mark Headd, the city’s first Chief Data Officer, believed it was no longer possible for him to carry out the Mayor’s open data policy, he told Technical.ly Philly.

During his tenure, the city had released more than 50 datasets, including Part I crime data, police complaint data and property reassessment data. But, according to Headd, when he tried to push the open data needle a little bit further and get one city agency to share an important dataset with other agencies, he came up empty. He quit last April.

That dataset in question was one on property-tax balances, controlled by the Revenue Department.

It’s an especially important dataset, given Philadelphia’s longstanding problems with tax delinquency and collection. Headd and his team spent months last year building an API, or a real-time feed, of the property-tax data. But Headd couldn’t get buy-in from the Revenue Department and its commissioner, Clarena Tolson. To this day, it’s not clear that anyone is using the API: it has not been released to the public or to any city departments.

In an attempt to show city officials the importance of releasing the property-tax balance API, Headd and his team conducted an internal analysis of how many tax delinquents had received licenses and permits. They found that the city had issued permits and licenses to almost 6,000 properties that owed more than $48 million in back taxes as of December 2013. (Tolson takes issue with this analysis because some tax delinquents are actually tax compliant — if, for example, they are on a payment plan or have declared bankruptcy.)

Headd’s point: If the Revenue Department would green-light the property-tax balance API, Licenses & Inspections could use it to find out, in real time, if an applicant was tax delinquent.

Headd published the data late last month, after referencing it in his talk at the Transparency Camp conference near Washington, D.C.

See the data

It did not convince the city’s Tolson, who admitted that, before 2014, Philadelphia had a less-than-effective way of making sure those applying for licenses were not tax delinquent. That has since changed, Tolson told Technical.ly Philly. This January, the city launched an online clearance tool for all license and permit applicants.

Anyone who applies for a license or permit has to get a tax clearance through the phila.gov website, print it out and turn it in with their application.

It’s working, Tolson says.

Since the tool’s launch, the city has collected $900,000 in taxes that can be directly linked to this new clearance system. Other city departments, like Procurement, Human Resources and the Zoning Board of Adjustment, also use the new tool, according to Tolson.

Tolson says privacy concerns are her main beef with the proposed real-time feed, which isn’t unfounded (though anyone can look up an address and see how much taxes a property owner owes on the city’s Revenue site).

The new clearance system is “superior” to a property-tax balance API, Tolson said.

Headd disagrees.

“A self-certifying website is a 20th century answer to the problem of tax deadbeats,” he wrote in an email. “An open data API is a 21st century answer to the problem. And that was my single biggest frustration during my time at the city — we were constantly using 20th century answers to problems that required a 21st century solution.”

The struggle over the city’s property-tax balance data API was one reason Headd left, he said. Headd believed that part of his job was to transform the way government worked with open data, and he felt that this hurdle represented a larger cultural block within the Nutter administration.

He wrote:

“Philadelphia is at a juncture where it is ready to take the next step in its open data evolution. To start sharing data across departments (hell, even across governments) and start identifying new ways of doing things — ways that are more efficient and more effective. I tried very hard to move us past this juncture and onto the next steps. I was not able to do so, and it became clear that I was never going to be able to do so.”

Adel Ebeid, the city’s Chief Innovation Officer, refused to comment on the record for this story, as did several other former and current city employees who also worked with Headd.

-30-
Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes began as lead reporter at Technical.ly Philly in July 2012. Previously, she was a city services beat reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, as part of a project called “It’s Our Money.” She is learning to drive, learning to bike (in the city) but is an expert at taking SEPTA. She grew up in North Jersey and Manila, Philippines but she left the tropics for Bryn Mawr College, where she majored in linguistics. She now lives in West Philly.

Advertisement

Comments

  1. Feudi Pandola / June 19, 2014

    Unbelievable that Tolson refuses to use efficient tools like this app to collect deadbeats real estate taxes…just one more example of bureaucratic incompetence and turf protection that hurts all of us. Where is Butkovitz when you need him???

  2. TartanSixNine / June 19, 2014

    Tolson’s tool is not very user-friendly. First of all, it forces the user to select what type of compliance they want a report on…this defeats the purpose of it being an all-in-one clearing house. They also use terms that might be unfamiliar to someone that isn’t inside the Revenue department (entity?). Also when someone is non-compliant, there is no information available on why, or how to fix it. Clearly they did not take a normal user’s perspective into consideration.

  3. TartanSixNine / June 19, 2014

    The other issue here is that I’m sure Headd was underpaid. Why put up with this sort of petty politicking when you can go back into private sector and get paid properly to deal with it?

    The fact is that you aren’t going to get any kind of quality tech talent in that organization with the salaries they are offering. For instance, there is an IT Director position open right now in OIT where the posted salary is at least 50% under market value. You get what you pay for.

  4. qguy / June 19, 2014

    The bureaucrat’s first and strongest impulse: withhold information.

  5. amyhoy / June 19, 2014

    This is a great piece of journalism. Hopefully it will do its part to shame the administration. Well done! And Mark… kudos to you for trying so hard and being willing to walk away, to hold up your values, rather than keep taking a salary. That’s what helps makes change, too. Most people don’t have the guts.

  6. Jake / June 19, 2014

    It’s absurd that a printed piece of paper the tax delinquent owner is in charge of producing is the certification of tax compliance. At very least the department should be verifying this information with their systems, not trusting the person applying for the permit to say that they’re tax compliant.

  7. TartanSixNine / June 19, 2014

    Apparently the Revenue Dept has never heard of Photoshop

  8. Mark Headd / June 19, 2014

    Thanks, Amy!

  9. Mark Headd / June 19, 2014

    FWIW, the work that my team did on an open data API for property tax balance data was largely completed before I left. There is no technical reason that this can’t be deployed quickly and quite easily. Someone in a position of authority just needs to make it happen.

  10. Nathan Lee Jones / June 19, 2014

    Wow. Great Article! Mark, not sure if you’re still responding to comments but if so… What do you think is really causing the hesitation? Often when you see resistance to change, its more than simple stubbornness from one person. I have seen everything from misaligned incentives (like being compensated in a way that supports a different process), general risk aversion (since anything new has risks), fear of technology, lack of buy-in (would the API be a loss for Tolson somehow?) and on and on. Considering that privacy was cited as a risk when its been possible to look up tax records for years anyway, it would seem that something more complex is happening.

    As someone that likes to explore and understand Innovation Management, I usually end up beating my head against a wall. My general assumption though it that government, worse than anyone, is inherently risk averse and therefore change-averse. Could you dissect this further for us!?

  11. Kathy / June 21, 2014

    Not a single word here is surprising. I’m very proud though that our first chief data officer has said this openly. It will change nothing, at least nothing any time soon, but it matters. This is a town where individuals who know someone in city offices pull permits to do just about anything, yet in other cases people are put through the ringer of an out of date and impossible to navigate licensing process. A piece of paper between two people that may be swiftly filed away and ignored is not a watchdog system. They can do better given a tool right in front of them. Hopefully you can continue to raise awareness and opportunities for change from elsewhere. In Philly and its institutions, change is slow but we’re hopeful or we’d have run screaming long ago as many do.

  12. AW / June 21, 2014

    In a city with deep levels of mistrust, and a long history of people in power using their power against those who are marginalized, I can guess why Tolson might be worried over “privacy.” But I would sure like to hear a longer and more detailed case from her about WHY privacy should trump city tax collection in this instance.

  13. JonGold / June 21, 2014

    What everyone here seems to be missing is that the city is only marginally more “open” today about its data than it was 20 years ago. Open Data is generally understood to be an approach to making government data available to the public; that was the stated purpose of the Mayor’s Executive Order and all of his PR around being an “open city”. Of course, city departments should be sharing their data in an effort to be efficient and make their way into the 21st century – that goes without saying. The fact that they don’t (and won’t) is just more of the same, notwithstanding the PR machine of our Mayor. But what our stewards of open data should be doing is making data about government functions, expenditures, actions, etc. freely open to the public and they haven’t. Not recently the Inky had to write a formal open records request for what should be public info (i.e., what buildings fell down over the last time period) and then had their request denied. Where’s the open data there Mr. Headd? And open data is not just about hipster techies who want to write apps – because they’re cool and give the impression that Philly is a happening place. Open data should be about transparency about government functions and action to everyone – the regular citizen who wants to know what their government is doing. To me, Mr. Headd, you would get way more sympathy from me if you took a stand over that basic open data function and philosophy. Otherwise, I put you in the category of people who were just smart enough to leave city government because although we have a better PR machine in City Hall today than we did 10 years ago, nothing has changed.

  14. Jason Hare / June 22, 2014

    Mark I was inspired by your “don’t hang pictures on the wall” post. I also use your story as a way to show our civic leaders that collaboration keeps everyone out of the headlines.

    Well crafted piece here.

    I hear you will be at the NAGW conference in September. If that is true let’s get together for man beverages and talk about projects.

    Look forward to seeing you soon.

    Jason Hare
    @jasonmhare

  15. Kathy / June 22, 2014

    Regardless, I still feel strongly that the city’s tax revenue is a fundamental component of change and support the focus of energy on solving lost revenue that is sorely needed for basic quality of life solutions. I work very hard to pay all my taxes and expenses of living and working here. Construction and renovations are essential here, but without tax compliance we’re headed nowhere and unfairly. Making sure every property owner is on a plan to pay over time is the least we should expect, esp. especially if someone is building there or anywhere else in the city. Clearly, appointing a data officer is just a preliminary step in a tidal shift needed. But turning away or marginalizing people with technology skills – or any skills- that can contribute a great deal to making information easy to find, read and use is a lose-lose.

  16. Stanley H. Griggs II / July 1, 2014

    I few weeks back I send a email to the Office of Food Protection asking can I get their inspection data which by looking at the source lives online with some 3rd party vendor but everything is digitized and in a need format.

    My first email got no reply. My second I hinted at using the freedom of information act in which case I got an immediate email reply then a call from a director who got upset at me asking for the information as I explained I want to build a better tool and I only need information in JSON, CSV, or any format that I know they have to have this stuff in.

    She said the city doesn’t want to pay programmers to make a better tool when I had to explain I want to do this for fun as I am learning new programming languages. I mean who wouldn’t want to be able to see how the businesses they frequent do on these inspections in a more efficient way.

  17. Georgina C Parker / August 9, 2014

    As an employee of the Health Department that receives these compliance forms, I can tell you Photoshop is overkill. Microsoft Word can whip one up pretty quickly.

  18. TartanSixNine / August 11, 2014

    Excellent point. Further evidence that paper forms are a completely outdated way of conducting city business.

Leave a Comment