Amid utterly charming Frank Rizzo impersonations and the voicing of his support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Mayor-elect Jim Kenney made a comment about city tech staff during his Rise keynote interview that gave us pause.
It was a little worrisome, actually.
“People who are really talented aren’t working for the government,” he said. “I don’t mean to denigrate the work of people in government, but if you’re looking for the top notch IT people, the private sector sucks them up immediately and you can’t pay them.”
Kenney may have forgotten he was speaking to a crowd of, among others, local city IT staffers. Some of whom have left the private sector, like Civic Tech Director Aaron Ogle and developer Mjumbe Poe. (While those staffers were in the crowd, here are a few more city technologists who have left the private sector to join city government: civic tech developer Gabriel Farrell left dev shop P’unk Ave, mapping chief Tom Swanson left Esri and lead content designer Erin Abler left creative agency Allen & Gerritsen.)
We can’t yet expect Kenney to have the best grasp of the capabilities of City Hall’s tech team, but the comment was concerning because right now, the future of that tech team in in question.
Kenney has yet to announce if Chief Innovation Officer Adel Ebeid will remain in City Hall. (Ebeid has also been heads down as the lead city negotiator in the Comcast franchise negotiations.) Kenney spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said Kenney’s team would not release any information ahead of an official announcement.
City tech staffers, too, are in the dark. Two staffers who asked not to be named said they didn’t know what would become of their jobs. All they knew was that they had to reapply for them.
Here’s what we do know:
- Kenney said, in our mayoral questionnaire during the primary, that he would retain the Chief Data Officer role.
- Kenney appointed Harold Epps, CEO of outsourcing company PRWT Services, as his commerce director. He will replace Alan Greenberger, who has been a tech scene champion, stewarding the city’s StartUp PHL seed fund and grant program. (During his Rise interview, Kenney referenced “gateway offices,” a term popularized by Greenberger to describe suburban companies opening city offices. Gateway offices were a pillar of Greenberger’s tenure.)
- The city’s working on a major redesign of its website and hiring people to work on it, to boot. For that reason, we’d venture a guess that Ogle and his team is staying put.
Another big question is what will become of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, the office founded to experiment with public-private partnerships. It ran procurement reform efforts like FastFWD, the city’s accelerator for companies that might contract with the city. (In our mayoral questionnaire, Kenney also said he supported procurement reform.)
Since its two founding directors, Jeff Friedman and Story Bellows, have both left city government, its future is up in the air. Bellows said she hoped that the office would live on.
“Mayors play a really important role in bringing people together around civic innovation,” she said, “and it’s critically important that the next mayor continues to have a focus and staff dedicated to civic innovation to work with different folks inside and outside government.”
Michael Lawrence Evans of Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which inspired Philly’s, made a similar plea during his talk at Rise.
At #riseconf15, a plea from @EvansML to keep Philly's Mayor's Office @newurbanmechs open. What say you, @JimFKenney? pic.twitter.com/t36dGPqhcO
— Technical.ly Philly (@TechnicallyPHL) December 4, 2015
Technology and innovation will be one of Nutter’s legacies.
Under his watch, staffers went to innovation school. The city experimented with running an accelerator for companies that could contract with the city. Philadelphia got its first Chief Data Officer. The city got its own seed fund for startups.
Most recently, the city won an award for its “infrastructure of innovation.” We could go on.
Will Kenney continue these initiatives? Or will we remember the Nutter administration as the heyday of innovation in Philly city government?
We’ll keep you posted on that.
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