Transparency at City Hall

City of Memphis Flag via-wikicommons
City of Memphis Flag
via-wikicommons

We’re just 11 days into the new administration at City Hall, and expectations are high for Mayor Jim Strickland and his team.

Since his inauguration, Mayor Strickland has had his initial appointments approved, though not without some controversy from an appointees former employer.

In this world of 24-hour news cycles, and extreme “I want it now-ism”, people’s patience for things, especially when they may be constrained by the realities of life, or the speed of government, runs thin quickly. Establishing an early momentum is one way to buy some time, and show people that you’re off to the races.

With that in mind, there is something Mayor Strickland could do immediately, that wouldn’t have to cost much, but would go a long way to realizing an unrealized goal of the outgoing administration, and keep his administration one step ahead of the demands of the public, and the institutions that help inform the public…

A Noble but Unrealized Goal

Just 10 days into his first term, Mayor Wharton enacted an Executive Order making transparency in government a priority of his administration. The order itself, likely expired with the changing of the guard at city hall.

Many of the goals of that Order never came to fruition. Last year, Mayor Wharton tasked Mike Carpenter with analyzing the city’s open records processes. He submitted a report with recommendations to the Mayor. It is my hope that Mayor Strickland will find a way to enact these recommendations.

While there may be things that seem sexier, and more pressing, I believe setting in motion a plan to live up to these recommendations and maintaining that effort throughout the term will go a long way to dispelling some of the concerns and negative oft heard refrains about the City government.

But transparency isn’t a document dump. It has to have be more than just access. It has to have context. That context can lend credibility over time because you’ve not only provided the public with information, but what that information shows and why its important.

That context, to be effective, also has to be honest.

Don’t Play Games with Crime Numbers

Take Crime data. The Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission releases stats periodically about crime in our community. These stats are also sent to media and the public with an analysis or comparison of the same month over the past 5 years, and against their benchmark year, 2006. Almost always it finds that violent crime is down since 2006.

If that’s the case, then why doesn’t the public feel that crime is down?

Because the Crime Commission is using 2006, a high water mark for violent crime, as its benchmark it runs counter to people’s experience. Almost no one remembers what happened this month last year, much less 2006. People’s notions about crime are based in their cumulative memory, not some mythical ‘point in time’ memory.

So the claim that ‘crime is down over 2006’ may be true, but it is a deceptive claim to the public. I believe Mayor Wharton’s insistence in using this faulty measure over and over again hurt his credibility with voters…and that, along with a host of other unrealized goals, ultimately was his undoing.

But if you show the public something like this, you’re being more honest.

Data gathered via the FBI Uniform Crime Report

Showing information in this way, instead of just numbers, and following it with an acknowledgement that while property crime is down, violent crime hasn’t really changed much, you can shift the conversation to what the administration is doing about it. The public may not like what they see, but they’re getting an honest assessment of where we are when the Administration is getting started, and what they intend to do to reduce the crime rate.

People might want to know what kinds of violent crimes are most dominant in the City. From there you could show them this:

What this shows people is that its not murder or rape that’s driving the violent crime rate, its aggravated assault (which may include attempted murder). You could go still further and show that the vast majority of these violent crimes take place between people who know each other, which anyone who’s spent years reading police affidavits will tell you, is more often than not, the case.

Of course, the local media almost never reports on this. Why is that? Because news organizations don’t have the resources they once did, from bodies in the newsroom, to people who know how to read more than the most basic top-line stats. Further, it was hard to come up with the numbers because there’s never been a clearinghouse for information presented in this way. But if the information is there, the media will report it. And that, over time, can change the perception of crime in Memphis from a series of random acts, to the thing that actually drives more violent crime…bad relationships (be they romantic, friendships, or acquaintances).

You could show all kinds of things…. Data that goes well beyond the reporting requirements of the FBI. And all of that data could be used to serve as a benchmark to reduce various kinds of crime.

And you could do that with any number of issues, from tax/fine/fee collections, to 911 and 311 response/resolution times.

But the key is, you’re being honest, and you’re being transparent at the same time…two things that the city has lacked going way further back than the previous administration.

Measuring Progress

From October 2012 to September of 2015 I worked for a local media outlet (it doesn’t matter which one). Whenever the Mayor or a Division director was questioned about something, magical numbers would fly around. I’m not saying they weren’t right, I’m saying that because there was nothing to measure them against, they were meaningless, and in some cases, unbelievable. Both those things led to credibility issues, and if a reporter thinks an Administration doesn’t have credibility, that’s going to come out, in some way, in the report.

By taking the information the City generates, and making it accessible, measurable, and meaningful you can maintain credibility even in the face of failure, and acknowledge the challenge of tackling difficult things. You’ll also always know where you stand in meeting your goal.

I’m not saying Mayor Wharton’s administration didn’t do this. I’m saying that because it wasn’t easily accessible, everything looked like a campaign event, which damaged credibility. Those campaign style events weren’t followed up with enough of what looked like real action, which also made the ‘results’ unbelievable. It turned into a constant cascade of he says, she says in the media…and the media always wins those battles.

Conclusion

Just after the election, the City launched MEMFacts. Its an information site that is more pretty than it is substantive. But its a start.

The truth of the matter is, most regular folks will never look at a site like this. But for those who do, ensuring that there is real information available for them, and the media, that spells out for the public why the information is important (which MEMFacts does on the areas it covers) is crucial for getting the story out there in a way that is meaningful for the public.

Understand, this can’t be an extension of the ‘perpetual campaign’ world we now live in. It has to be unbiased, and the warts have to be acknowledged when they appear. But I believe that people’s perceptions about Memphis will change if the City changes the way it makes information available to the public, and uses that information, good or bad, to give people the kind of long-term look that is critical to providing real context…and real value.

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