Ethics will be Nutter's mayoral legacy. Will open data gains survive? - Technical.ly Philly

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Nov. 25, 2014 11:30 am

Ethics will be Nutter’s mayoral legacy. Will open data gains survive?

With a year left in his administration, the Nutter legacy is currently being written. At a recent event, some wondered whether his work on open data will survive after he's gone.

Mayor Michael Nutter delivers his March 2013 Budget Address in the Mayor's Reception Room in City Hall.

(Photo by Kait Privitera)

Updated: Find our 2015 mayoral campaign coverage here.
Michael Nutter’s 2007 mayoral campaign was successful in part because of his work in City Council on ethics reform and his strong rhetoric on transparency.

With a final year left on his two-term limit, the Nutter administration has been called one of the most honest and incorruptible mayors in Philadelphia history. The open data movement was revived here at a good time, as a natural partner to Nutter’s campaign package.

But will it last?

The progress in City Hall transparency, from the infamous 2003 federal probe until today, is commendable, Committee of Seventy interim director Ellen Kaplan said at a roundtable discussion last week. The panel, part of the city’s inaugural, internal-facing Integrity Week, also featured recently-retired Inquirer City Hall reporter Bob Warner, attorney Stella Tsai and, full disclosure, this reporter. Watch video of the roundtable below.

The roundtable, much of which Nutter watched from the audience, was moderated by the city’s new chief integrity officer, Hope Caldwell, whose office organized the week of events aiming to celebrate and educate city employees about transparency efforts.

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“There’s no expectation that any mayor won’t pick up the trash,” Nutter said at the event. “We need the same [expectation] for ethics in government.”

Nutter, of course, was bound to take on ethics as an administration staple, considering how he got to City Hall in the first place.

That 2007 cycle was the first test of the city’s campaign finance limits, which Nutter helped write, Kaplan said, and, following one of his campaign promises, Mayor Nutter continued the Board of Ethics he helped launch.

The board was “extraordinary” in its initial incarnation, said Bob Warner. (Warner is more muted on recent developments, criticizing the Nutter administration for sending too many right-to-know requests to their now over-burdened legal department).

The ban on gifts to city employees is seen as a lasting triumph, but policy wonks like he, Kaplan and Tsai (an original member of the Board of Ethics) all wonder if the momentum of this administration could fade under different leadership. (There’s a similar concern in Washington, D.C.)

For example, Kaplan still wants to see more of the recommendations from the ethics task force be implemented. For example, there is no comprehensive whistleblower law for the city, she said, and there are at least three disclosure forms for city employees to report second jobs that may be a conflict.

Nutter’s polling numbers have sagged, in part because of general public frustration around the School District, but he at least anecdotally remains popular in tech and startup circles — he’s still a hot ticket to help open a new Center City office, for example.

Open gov is a part of that, and there are many groups getting excited about more. What remains to be done is not for lack of people whose job it is to oversee such changes.

Between Caldwell’s Integrity Office, the city Inspector General, the City Controller, the Board of Ethics, various task forces and myriad independent nonprofits like Seventy and Common Cause, there’s a patchwork of good government watchdogs that may have defined roles to insiders but likely remain confusing to those less well versed.

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If the rules and oversight groups that govern good behavior of city employees are the traditional mechanisms of enforcing efficient government, the digital toolkit of the open data movement represents the next wave.

There, too, are successes to laud the Nutter administration for — but there also remains a need over the next year to institutionalize open data efforts.

It’s striking how much of a Gov 2.0 community has blossomed under Nutter’s watch; it’s also worrying how easily a successor might let it fade.

Note the rapid timeline since the end of Nutter’s first term:

Headd brought widespread attention to his position and aggressively pursued workflow adaptations and regular data releases. In time, he grew tired of the slow pace of City Hall, a familiar trope among reformers, and announced his resignation. (For what it’s worth, some in city government who cheered his mission have said his methodology wasn’t always productive, pushing too hard too soon.)

But rather than backsliding, an interesting opportunity is emerging.

Headd’s enthusiasm is now in the hands of Tim Wisniewski, a self-taught civic hacker who knows neighborhood politics. The city’s new chief data officer is well liked both by the local tech circles that Headd helped build and the civil servants who are more comfortable with his methodical approach. Headd himself has said his departure might help push things forward in a more sustainable way.

City data keeps being released and workflows are being reconfigured. Wisniewski has a three-pronged attack to make his work last, and still-independent OpenDataPhilly is getting a reboot.

Wisniewski added former Code for America fellow Aaron Ogle as his Director of Civic Technology and is joined at city IT with a cadre of other mostly young staffers, who are well-versed in national open gov trends.

For the open data side of Nutter’s transparency legacy, those staffers may represent the real test case: the processes and ideals started anew in the last half-decade will either have lasting impact into the next administration or they will stall; leaving only a talented young squad unable to maintain its clout without mayoral leadership.

“Work like this is never done. There’s always another goal,” said Caldwell, the city’s chief integrity officer. “This is all a process, one we have to all work on continuing.”

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