Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Open Burgh: Before Data, there were Impressions

What is Reality?

Pittsburgh's forthcoming Open Data policy is going to be unceasingly revolutionary, so please attend to that in all of its forthcoming kaleidoscopic glory. Execute Order 66.

Yet math and computers are hard. Can we blog for a moment about community theater?

PITTSBURGH,  PA - Beginning next week, City of Pittsburgh residents will have access to three regular meetings on Mayor William Peduto's public schedule including meetings with City Council leadership, department directors, and Act 47/ICA overseers.  (Mayor, Press Releases)

In olden times, the Mayoral branch always had an advantage over City Council. Only the latter did their bickering and dithering in public. Such process can invite scrutiny, when it counts.

Viewing Mayoral meetings with Departmental directors will be superb. One might mistakenly believe it will be easy for the administration throttle public concerns, yet over time the public will get rowdy over sore spots, the meetings will be derided if they do not tackle tough issues, and the administration will be pressured to become more responsive than otherwise.

Minutes from regular meetings between the Mayor and Council members Kraus, Rudiak and Kail-Smith will be a hoot and a half. The inclusion of our incumbent President Pro-Tempore in that circle virtually assures a thorough vetting on all issues, and reproaches if ever there are not. We can learn from these sessions.

Minutes from discussions with our Act 47 Coordinators and ICA plenipotentiaries will be nice as well. It might further inspire virtuous circles in terms of meeting objectives.

Now, back to your regularly scheduled oohing and aahing over the city's Open Data transformation. We had better refer to the legislation introduced by the Chairperson of City Council's Committee on Finance and Law today as Open Data Burgh 1.0. An heirloom piece like this is bound to merit some time in the blacksmith's furnace. We should think many will be eager to wield a hammer.

ELSEWHERE: The Fraternal Order of Police president faces impeachment rumors, according to the P-G's Liz Navratil. MORE: Businessperson who paid bribes to officials receives solid thwack on the wrist.

NOTABLE EVENT: Thursday, HackPittsburgh Rube Goldberg build challenge.


  1. Might I suggest this is an opportunity for the media to do a great public service? I suspect attending most or all of these mayoral meetings would be necessary to really understand the nature of the discussions, yet few if any ordinary citizens can do that. But this is precisely the sort of thing the media can do and then report about.

  2. Maybe the media could take the open data and put it into a SAS dataset so it's easier to use.

  3. Open data AND a land bank. This was a good day.

  4. Not a SAS dataset, please. Some open source flavor instead. And, that's not what we need the media to do either.

  5. While I am handing out homework assignments--exactly how the Talent City program works out as applied to the various Board positions (assuming Peduto gets his resignations) strikes me as a huge deal, and it sure would help if knowledgeable folks in the local media could help us assess outcomes on the cronyism-to-meritocracy scale.

    1. I'm actually working on two long articles on this topic for two different venues. One of the main sources I've used is cityethics.org and I wrote to their Director of Research, Robert Wechsler, about appointment structures for Ethics Boards and how community organizations should be assessed as regards their influence over pools of candidates. Here's a portion of his reply:

      The most important consideration in choosing community groups is whether the group or, if it is an association, a large percentage of its members seeks benefits from the city government, including contracts, grants, and permits. This can be a problem especially for universities, which are often chosen to select ethics board members, but really should not due to their relationship with the city government. Similarly, other nonprofits get city grants and, therefore, may also be seen to favor those who hand out the grants...

      It isn't that the group may not provide rigorous oversight; it is that the group may select someone who is, or is seen as, friendly to the people in power, on whom the group depends. And remember that ethical performance does not mean having no conflict issues; it means dealing with them responsibly. However, it is impossible to know if groups that seek benefits from government officials are considering the officials' interests when selecting ethics board members. And it is appearance that counts, the appearance that these groups have no self-interest with respect to the city government (as opposed to its policies). Therefore, even groups that perform ethically may not be appropriate to select ethics board members...

      ...The value of such a program is generally seen as going to the community as a whole, in terms of trust, transparency, the fairness of processes, and the cost of contracts.

      These concerns are certainly important considerations for all appointments to public boards, authorities and commissions when we look at the role of Talent City, an organization that is clearly strongly supportive of the new Mayor-Elect Peduto (who I campaigned hard for and very much respect) The organization is already working closely with Peduto's administration on professional hiring for the city (an effort that I applaud.) Cecile Springer, on the Oversight Committee of Talent City, served as People for Peduto Chair for his 2013 campaign. Talent City was established by the Pittsburgh Foundation, which makes grants to so many Pgh nonprofits, holding many BIG carrots of influence which could be perceived as sticks of influence, depending on level of dependency of applicants. No matter the good intentions of these people and participating partners, this newly fledged organization will be perceived as inherently entangled with and supportive of the fortunes of the new Mayor's Administration rather than just the public interest of the city.

      But that's just the beginning of concern about Talent City helping to appoint our various public boards, authorities and commissions when we see that both Oversight and Screening committees include many representatives of corporations, firms, developers, banks, the Allegheny Conference - entities that might indeed benefit from city government contracts, grants, permits, etc.

      I've been relieved to see no mention of Talent City helping to review applicants to an Ethics Board which will examine just such conflict of interest issues regarding procurement, contracts, influence of biz on government - how could the public trust their review and conclusions if Talent City had recommended the board's own members?.

    2. Helen, looks like BrianTH opened up the same conversation we're having on another platform. For the benefit of my blog readers, here is my reaction.

      The Ethics Board is the only city board or commission charged with potentially putting our Mayor effectively out of a job, so we felt it made sense to guarantee a strong community role in appointments to it. However Talent City recommendations are just that, and any appointing authority which feels comfortable utilizing it in some fashion including Ethics ought to do so.

      At least Talent City is up front about their role and identities, get rid of it and there will emerge two new whisper cartels to advise hiring and appointment bodies.

    3. http://www.cityethics.org/node/770

    4. I think it is an interesting theoretical question whether one could structure a process for recommending political appointment nominees that involved people with the backgrounds necessary to do a good job evaluating candidates for a specific position, and yet did not involve any people who had ever been associated with any entity that might have an interest in how that position was used. I suspect about the best you could do would be to seek some sort of balance in terms of the potential interests potentially represented.

      In any event, understanding that the Talent City process is not guaranteed to be an unmitigated success, that is why I am interested to see evaluations of how the process is actually working.