Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Politics & Government

For Peduto, Better Government Means Open Government

Ryan Loew
90.5 WESA

Peduto's 100 Days: Wednesday marks Mayor Bill Peduto’s 100th day in office, so we’re introducing an occasional series looking at the new administration’s progress toward promises made by candidate Peduto.

* * *

When Mayor Bill Peduto was a City Councilman representing District 8, he went back to school to get a master’s degree in public policy and management.

David Miller was one of Peduto’s professors at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. He’s also the director of Pitt’s Center for Metropolitan Studies, and was the city’s director of management and budget under Mayor Tom Murphy.

“There’s a great quote from Dick Thornburgh, who used to be the governor of the commonwealth,” Miller said. “He said, ‘You campaign in poetry, and you govern in prose.’”

After 100 days in office, Peduto’s transition from poetry to prose is ripe for analysis. 

“I would have to say if you compared 100 days in to prior administrations, I think this one has clearly outpaced governance reforms,” Miller said.

Throughout his campaign, Peduto promised Pittsburghers a better, smarter, more efficient government, through transparency, talent-based hiring and data-driven decision-making.

Kevin Acklin, Peduto’s chief of staff, said the city’s new Department of Innovation and Performance is a “jewel … of our first set of accomplishments.”

The department is headed up by boomerang Pittsburgher Debra Lam. She’s worked on sustainability and innovation projects with governments all over the world, including London and Beijing.

“Debra’s worked hard the first three months of the administration to really revamp and restructure what used to be called CIS, which was information systems, to make it more than just a technology service provider to city workforce, but really to serve as the innovation hub of the city,” Acklin said.

Acklin said the new department’s main purpose is to make sure that taxpayer money is spent efficiently. For example, some computer systems currently used by city departments aren’t compatible with one another. Lam and her team are working on fixing that, but they’re also trying to make sure that every department has the resources it needs to achieve its goals.

“(They are) working with our department of public works for the next winter snowstorm, to make sure that we’re able to track our snow plows, and also with paving … to make sure we’re addressing the streets that are most in need,” Acklin said.

Acklin said the department also wants to do big things, like bring Wi-Fi to the neighborhoods and ramp up the city’s commitment to sustainable development. Additionally, they’re working to collaborate with the county and neighboring municipalities to reduce duplication of tasks.

“For the first time in I’d say over 30 years, you have a city mayor and a county executive that talk every day, that are political allies, and we want to take advantage of this to make sure we’re breaking down those institutional barriers between the city and county to create a smart government … a government that uses taxpayer money in a more efficient manner,” Acklin said.

According to Acklin, Debra Lam’s very presence in Pittsburgh is a reflection of the mayor’s new approach to hiring: one based on talent, not on politics.

Searches for new department heads have all been run through the website Talent City, which is an initiative of the Pittsburgh Foundation that is meant to bring transparency to hiring in city government.

The administration has also appointed members to boards, authorities and commissions using Talent City, an approach that City Council President Bruce Kraus said is a welcome change. Last week, Kraus attended the orientation for the roughly 60 members of such entities, such as the Pittsburgh Water & Sewer Authority and the Pittsburgh Parking Authority.

“He asked has anyone ever served on a board, authority, or commission before, and I would argue seven-eighths of the room lifted their hand to say no,” Kraus said. “It sort of gave me a chill down my spine, that when he talks about open government, that it isn’t just talk, that it is action."

Acklin said the city now has the most diverse group of people on boards, commissions, and authorities in Pittsburgh’s history, including, for the first time, a female majority.

But Peduto’s personnel changes in the city haven’t been all about hiring. His controversial employee severance incentive program received approval in City Council in February after months of disagreements and compromises.

“Our internal projections have us projecting that the early retirement program is not only going to allow us the opportunity to restructure city government from the workforce perspective, but it will also result in substantial savings to the taxpayers, to the tune of about $6 million over the next 5 years,” Acklin said.

But as late as Monday, Councilwoman Darlene Harris expressed concern about the program, saying she’s yet to see the list of roughly 70 employees who took the buyout.

“Separate from that list, I would like to see what the amount of money is that is going out,” Harris said. “That includes sick time, vacation time and everything that is combined into the amount for those buyouts.”

Tuesday was the deadline for the Mayor’s office to present such a summary to City Council as part of the administration’s overall personnel restructuring plan.

Tim McNulty, Peduto’s communications manager, said that deadline wasn’t arbitrarily imposed by City Council. Instead, it came out of collaborative conversations with councilmembers.

“There’s a cooperation on the fifth floor that I have previously not experienced, and it’s a welcome change,” Kraus said. “(The) last administration, not so much. There was not that sort of willingness to keep an open door.”

Acklin said collaboration with City Council is central to the mayor’s open government approach and points to two pieces of legislation as evidence of his commitment to cooperation: Councilwoman Deb Gross’s land bank bill, which received final approval this week, and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak’s open data initative, which became law last month.

“That’s not just good government, that’s economic development, that will allow companies to develop around the different data that we’re spinning out of the city, whether it be crime data from our neighborhoods, different data from our transportation systems, and the like,” Acklin said.

At a January news conference announcing the open data initiative, Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak said it marked a reversal of the traditional assumption of closed data, where citizens have to file Right to Know requests in order to get information.

“Right to know is about asking for information, about going through the law department, about encountering red tape,” Rudiak said. “This bill is about giving the information. It’s about unlocking the information, and not having to go through months of red tape to obtain it."

Pitt professor David Miller said that what the open data initiative means for the city may be even more important than the data itself.

“You send not only an important message in terms of information that wasn’t (previously) available, but you send a much more important message that we’re open. This is a government that we want you to be able to see and feel and be part of,” Miller said.

Miller said, for Pittsburghers, being a part of the new city government means holding the administration accountable for all the promises they’ve made.

“Vigilance is the key word," he said, "because there’s no guarantee that it’s necessarily going to unfold the next 100 days like the first 100 days."