The PhillyStat Zombie Returns

Can the 2.0 version, helmed by Richard Negrin, improve our city government?

Back when Michael Nutter first took office, the initiative called PhillyStat was as good a symbol as any that Change Had Come. Drawing its inspiration from corporate performance management practices and New York’s vaunted “CrimeStat” program (which some have credited with that city’s ever-falling crime rate), PhillyStat was supposed to make city managers better at their jobs by actually tracking the work their departments did. It would be televised (points for transparency), driven by hard facts and figures (points for accountability) and customer oriented (points for not treating residents like scum).

It was, for Philadelphia city government, a revolutionary concept. And it would all be led by Managing Director Camille Barnett, a star of the city government seminar circuit who Nutter hired to drag City Hall into the modern age.

But PhillyStat bombed. Hard. After an initial burst of enthusiasm, PhillyStat sessions quickly became City Hall’s version of Dilbert and Office Space rolled into one. The meetings were long, dull, and in the eyes of many senior managers, a complete waste of time. Barnett proved to be pretty good at beating up on officials who weren’t performing, but not so good at figuring out how to actually improve the departments’ work.

And so when Barnett mercifully left city government last year, her replacement—Managing Director Richard Negrin—immediately “suspended” PhillyStat. I figured it was gone for good.

But now PhillyStat is back. Kind of. Negrin is starting small with PhillyStat 2.0, working principally with the departments he directly controls, most of which are internal service departments like technology, personnel and records. That means those who hated the old PhillyStat the most—like Deputy Mayor for Transportation Rina Cutler—only have to participate once a quarter. That’s probably a good call. PhillyStat has such a toxic reputation among some city managers that forcing them to take part more often would only backfire.

Negrin hopes that his approach to PhillyStat will eventually win over converts. There are a few key differences between Barnett’s model and Negrin’s. To begin with, Negrin said, it’s not enough to measure performance.

“That only gets you so far. We need a more robust, true management performance system that actually helps our departments manage internally. This new model is incredibly different,” Negrin said.

He’s created senior management teams for each department. That’s not so new. The twist is that the teams include managers from other departments like finance, human resources, law and technology. It might seem like a dead obvious call, but Negrin said it hasn’t been done in city government before.

“It’s how I did things in the private sector. You would never hold a strategic meeting in the private sector without your chief technology officer, without your finance guy, without your lawyer. You just wouldn’t do that,” Negrin said.

He’s also naming a “customer service officer” for each of his leadership teams. Their job—one they’ll get special training for—is to act as the customers’ representative at each PhillyStat session.

Lastly, Negrin says PhillyStat sessions—and the department activities they’re monitoring—will be better linked to Nutter’s strategic vision for the city, which break down into five goals (which are themselves a topic for another day).

Given PhillyStat’s past performance, it’s hard to be optimistic about any of this. But Negrin is a good choice to run this kind of operation. He’s one of the few senior Nutter administration officials with management experience in the private sector (at Aramark), and he did impressive work in a short stint at the Board of Revision of Taxes when Nutter sent him in to restore order to an agency that was spinning out of control. What’s more, the model HAS worked in other cities. There’s really no good reason why it can’t work in Philadelphia as well. Eventually.

Follow Patrick Kerkstra on Twitter at @pkerkstra.