For Mayor Curtatone, SomerStat has become the equivalent of health care for Obama: it signals all that’s good, that’s efficient, that’s professional, that embeds Harvard, Tufts, and MIT to his advantage. And, on it’s surface, it’s a serious improvement on CitiStat, the model from Baltimore, and other Stat’s now circulating or adapting among the Massachusetts Mayors, and officials as far as Indiana and Oregon. It gives a much clearer measure of “impact” of public payments for public services than the standard line item which Alderman Curtatone so hated.
But, it’s neither as new as the Kennedy School would have you believe, as sure as the national journals would have us acknowledge, nor as useful to the citizens as it is to certain elected officials who readily exploit its most obvious metrics. Keep in mind, in the description that follows, that “metrics” are what it’s all about: how do we measure what we get from public investments? Do we count – and counting is absolutely everything – tickets or dollars, hours or arrests, serious problems solved or trivial problems acknowledged? It’s all in the metrics, and there is the real problem.
First, some background. During World War I a bunch of “radical” anti-war faculty bolted from Columbia to found the New School for Social Research. I know this mostly from long conversations with one of them, the late Louis M. Hacker, who’s more famous for his own book, The Triumph of American Capitalism (a pseudo Republican defense of the New Deal) than for his earlier socialism. As a then student of Charles A. Beard (who first investigated the financial interests of the founding fathers), Hacker joined him in what he later called “counting fireplugs,” at what was then the New York Bureau of Municipal Research, and a partner of the New School in the then new enterprise of civic management. The Bureau later became the Institute of Public Administration, from which, I suppose, the Rappaport Institute at the Kennedy School imported the concept of “performance budgeting,” perhaps, sometime in the distant past, even citing Kelly & Rivenbarks’ book, Performance Budgeting in State and Local Government. In any case, SomerStat and the process of counting municipal outcomes has a long and mixed history.
Second, that history is decidedly mixed. Although modern information systems do make a difference, the real question is who is counting what, and what they make of those numbers. In the ’20′s and ’30′s, the heyday of this kind of expertise, its proponents knew very well what they were doing: they were taking government away from the “amateurs” and “politicians” and putting it with the “experts.” Although this sounds uncomfortably like Obama’s revolution of the Bush “administration,” it really meant creating measures by which we know that money actually produces more than paid off friends: how many miles of highway, how much crime numbers drop, and the like. The New Deal was conceived and thrived in this environment. And then, after Truman, it ended.
The end was less dramatic than the beginning, since there remained (and still remain) many measures that have common agreement: dollars count; people impacted, at different levels, count; change resulting also counts. What rarely gets counted are the numbers for which Somerville, in particular, is so well known: who gets what, how much, and do they do anything on behalf of the public for what they get? In Somerville, for example, we have to ask who owns those tow trucks, how much they net (and how much the city gets) and who are their relatives in city government who may also…at least theoretically…benefit. In Somerville, we have to ask why certain streets do not have parking signs? To whose benefit are the signs and who benefits from knowing they ought to be there? In other words, SomerStat hides these questions beneath a blanket of other data.
Third, the value of those data ought to be regularly questioned. It is very, very unfortunate that the Mayor has chosen to exploit parking, of all city enterprises, for his first application of data based financial decisions. In doing so, he puts the entire SomerStat approach in real jeopardy. In spite of the overwhelming cupidity of the Board of Aldermen, one or more may ask why or how the Mayor connects “access” to higher tickets across the board? If he really wanted to improve access, he would designate parking spaces away from typical markets as free-zones to residents, and make us safe from the predatory ticket writers. If he really looked at his data, he’d realize that some times during the day are less busy than others, and that those times ought to have discounted parking to even out the flow. If he really cared about access for businesses, he’d give those businesses tokens for discounted parking for their clients (or for evening performances of theater or music) rather than inhibit their business and ours at the same time. The obvious conclusion is that he cares nothing about access, and everything about money. While that may be good for his budget, it is at real cost to citizens and businesses, and, ultimately, to the management system that justifies – or rationalizes – that cost.
Finally, the real problem of parking is a problem of those experts telling citizens what we ought to do. That is what killed this kind of management after the New Deal – and it took about 20 years, well through the Great Society – and what could kill university credibility today. The incredible naivete of the Kennedy School, et.al., is that they really do think that the number of fireplugs – or the equivalent raw number of measured outcomes – says anything. To venal, short-term politicians, it says there’s money to make and an excuse to invent. Of that we’ve ample evidence with expensive tickets and explanations of more “access.” But, in her elaborate measures of parking violations, SomerStat expert leaders forget they are giving a loaded gun to ambitious, underfunded politicians. The public value of those measures (those metrics!) – like when, where, how often, who, and for what those tickets are given – ought to support a real public policy of improved access, protecting the interests of business, of residents, of children, and charging visitors a fair price at rates near or slightly higher than competing cities. That is as far from his current policy as Joe Curtatone is from Urban Progressives at the beginning of the last century – like Charles A. Beard – who started it all!
Before we dump the good part of SomerStat – finding out what real problems can have real solutions – because of the bad part – where’s there money to make, regardless of the consequences? – why doesn’t the Mayor, his new parking committee, his old Parking Commission, his experts, and the Board of Aldermen do some real homework. Who profits from towing? Who loses from unmarked streets? What businesses will lose how much because of a policy framed for cash not access? Why do some people get more tickets than others? Just because they’re stupid? or because the ticketers are unfair? or just under too much pressure? in all neighborhoods? some neighborhoods? rich or poor neighborhoods? Share the real facts before you invent new defenses full of meaningless language about access! Make the policy really transparent! Rather than horde this decision to a Mayor’s appointed Parking Commission, give it to the Board of Aldermen as a serious policy change with real information and real discussion! Or does the Mayor really want all the blame and none of the credit for his SomerStat and his parking fiasco? Why is he protecting the Board of Aldermen from real fiscal decisions that affect over $7,000,000 in income? Has he appointed too many of their relatives as ticket givers? Well, questions like this are just what’s about to happen, and SomerStat could be forced to take the heat!