Op-Ed: How Kenney Proved He’s Serious About Open Data

Headd: By making his administration's salaries public, the mayor is giving Philadelphians a stronger voice in how the city works.

Photo by Jeff Fusco

Photo by Jeff Fusco

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Mark Headd. He was the Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia from 2012 to 2014, and is now an open data evangelist advising municipal governments across the country.)

For the first time ever, Philadelphia has just made public — in easily usable formats — the salaries of every municipal employee, including elected officials. This data is now available for anyone to download freely from the city’s open data portal and will be updated quarterly.

No doubt about it — this is a major victory for journalists, good government advocates and open data enthusiasts in Philadelphia. But it’s also a victory for everyone who lives or works in the city. Here’s why:

Releasing This Data Makes City Government More Efficient

Public employee salaries are typically one of the most requested records in municipal governments, and Philadelphia is no different. For years, journalism outlets (including Philadelphia magazine) and others interested in analyzing how the city works have submitted Right-to-Know requests to the city for this information. Responding to these numerous requests for the same records year in and year out is a burdensome process that consumes finite city resources.

In addition, the Right-to-Know process can be lengthy and time-consuming. This can create a strong disincentive to those who may want or need the data, but lack the time, resources or expertise to navigate the bureaucratic process to get it.

Proactively releasing salary information makes obvious sense from an efficiency standpoint.

It Signals That Kenney Is Committed to Open Data

The information that the Kenney administration released this week is widely viewed as a touchstone data set for any government that bills itself as “open.” Under the previous administration, the city adopted an open data policy in 2012 with the stated goal of “creating a high level of openness and transparency in government,” and yet there was resistance to proactively releasing salary records publicly — even though they were requested frequently and clearly fell under Pennsylvania’s Open Data Law.

Most other major cities in the country (as well as many county and state governments) already release data of this kind routinely as a part of their open data programs. Until now, Philadelphia held the somewhat dubious distinction of being one of the few large municipal governments in the country that had an open data policy but did not publish salary records.

For the Kenney administration to release this data just a few months after Inauguration Day sends a very clear and very strong signal that this mayor’s idea of openness differs significantly from the last mayor.

Why You Should Care

But beyond good government advocates, journalists and data geeks, why should anyone in Philadelphia care about city employee salary data? How does the release of these records affect the average Philadelphian who may never visit the city’s open data portal, who doesn’t know what an API is, and who has no interest in crunching data sets?

The significance of this data release for everyone in Philadelphia, and the clues it may hold for what the rest of the Kenney Mayoralty may look like, lie in the nature of the data itself.

Many of the records that populate government open data portals are relatively limited in their use. This is not meant to diminish their importance, or the value in releasing this kind of data, but typically what you see is what you get. For example, data on the locations of parks, playgrounds, infrastructure and city facilities — a staple of most open data portals — are almost always used simply to identify or facilitate travel to one of those locations.

Salary information is different. It allows anyone to begin evaluating how well the city is doing its job. Which departments have the largest share of city salaries? What employees or departments are accumulating the most overtime? What is the salary range across job titles, and what drives the difference in salaries? Is the difference in salaries for the same job title too big?

This is just a small sampling of the questions that anyone can pose to the city using software they probably already have on their home or office computer. More than just a way of underscoring the importance of transparency, this data release feels like a signal that Mayor Kenney wants to have a real conversation with the public where citizens are empowered to ask important (and sometimes tough) questions.

And that is something that everyone in Philadelphia can get excited about.