Seeing through transparency
For a guy who has resisted installing voicemail at City Hall, Mayor Menino has kind of been geeking out lately. Shortly after a mayors' meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House last month, Menino vowed that he would set up a Web site to track how Boston is spending its share of federal stimulus money. A few days earlier, the city had unveiled its Boston About Results (BAR) Web site — a downloadable page of graphs and charts measuring the goals and progress of selected city departments — proclaiming it a "new level of transparency in local government."
"Yeah, right" has been the collective response from Boston's mayoral hopefuls. "This is not serious transparency," says Sam Yoon. "It's the political use of transparency."
Michael Flaherty has called the BAR reports the equivalent of students grading their own work. Upstart Kevin McCrea, who regularly files public-records requests to pry information from City Hall, calls BAR "a joke."
A close reading of the reports — the product of a performance-measurement system in development since 2002 — does raise the question of whether waving these previously internal assessments at the online public represents a window on city operations or window dressing. For example, with the city now faced with the prospect of having to lay off hundreds of teachers and other municipal employees, the BAR budget charts show only the amount spent in the past year, with no comparison to how much was allocated. So to look at this data, you'd never know that the police and fire departments together went $22 million over budget on overtime pay, an excess slammed in a recent report by the Boston Finance Commission.
According to the BAR report for the Department of Public Works (DPW), the percentage of absent hours among workers in 2008, 5.7 percent, is only slightly higher than this past year's, despite an independent audit in 2007 that found record-keeping at the DPW almost nonexistent, and an undercover internal investigation last summer that revealed workers routinely ditched their shifts.
Lisa Signori, Boston's chief operating officer, rejects the suggestion that the accountability program is selective in the stats it highlights, and she adds that the city is open to suggestions from the public.
So here's one: how about performance data on how the city is doing addressing the perennial constituent complaint of filling potholes — a task that the 2007 audit found was especially challenging for DPW workers?
They never got back to us on that.
: News Features
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