City Council Order Facilitating Access to Data Impedes Access to Data

I didn't set out to be the snow violations guy in Cambridge. Nor did I set out to be a poster child for governement dysfunction. But that's how it all turned out.

I didn't set out to be the snow violations guy in Cambridge this winter. I had gone to a community meeting and heard stories about inconsistent responses from the Cambridge Department of Public Works. Having spent time working for dysfunctional customer service organizations, this was hauntingly familiar, so I wrote an article about the muddle that was DPW customer service.

Then it snowed.

A colleague pointed me at the DPW's web tool for reporting unshoveled sidewalks. While I had spent time looking at the DPW's web site for my first article, the tool was so deeply buried I had completely missed it. I didn't think much of the tool and said so. Reflecting true Cambridge cynicism, the colleague who called the tool to my attention was sure that nothing was done with those reports.

Last year, I had taken a one day course from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting which, among other things, taught that public records requests were a great source of stories. I had the sudden insight that, rather than echo cynicism, I could found out the truth. I needed to know to whom I make a request for these data, so, without a whole lot of thought or planning, I asked DPW Commisioner Peterson, with whom I'd been having an ongoing dialogue about my stories. I ask her, she said, and took my email as a public records request and said I'd get a response shortly. A few days later, she responded by saying that the cost for the data would be $12.50, representing 30 minutes of work for the DPW Permit Administrator. I paid, and had the data for my first snow story, Where Not To Walk In Cambridge.

We all know what happened next. We joined the storm-of-the-week club and snow became a political issue. And, as it often happens with data, you answer some questions and raise some more. In this case, there were no tickets issued for my neighborhood, which raised the question of whether there had been any complaints. I then formulated my second records request, this time for both the complaint data and violation data. Commissioner Peterson responded again, estimating the cost at $57.15, including time of an Information Systems Administration as well as the Permit Administrator.

While this was going on, I was discussing my work on a neighborhood mailing list and a City Councilor, Leland Cheung, offered to enter a City Council Order to make the data available in order to save me the costs. I thanked him, accepted the offer, but told him that I'd proceed with my current request as changing course would just slow things down. Little did I know how right I was. On February 7th, Councilor Cheung entered the order which was adopted unanimously by the Council.

I want to pause here and make one thing crystal clear. Commissioner Peterson is, by my observation, a dedicated public servant who answered my annoying questions completely and professionally while she was dealing with the worst snow problems in living memory. She's been very responsive with my data requests and has not engaged in any sort of stonewalling. If she wanted to make my life difficult, my first, naive, request presented her with ample opportunity. For the second request, she gave me up to the minute data, rather than fall back on the fine print of when the request was made. Similarly, Councilor Cheung understands the power of data, and understands the civic virtue of making these processes transparent. There are no bad actors here, only bad outcomes, no obstruction, only dysfunction.

A few days after the Council Order was adopted, I made another request for data from Commissioner Peterson. Ten days later, she responded:

I am writing in response to your February 10, 2011 request for the following public record: "a copy of all uncleared sidewalk complaints received and entered into your database and all violations issued either due to those complaints or otherwise. I would request it in a spreadsheet format, containing offense date, issuance date, time of day, location, offender address, total fine, comments (if any), as well as date/time of receipt of complaint, if that data was easily available. The timeframe for the request would be all complaints/violations from 12/28/2010 to the present."

We have estimated that the total cost of fulfilling this request will be $ 23.67. This cost includes 30 minutes of time by the DPW Permit Administrator at a rate of 24.995487, and 15 minutes of labor time by the DPW Information Systems Manager at a rate of $44.680657 per hour. The labor time is needed to run a report from a snow ticketing database and to create and run a report from a complaint database. Please be advised that this is a good faith estimate of the project cost, and that final total may vary. The City does not waive fees for public records requests. Please let me know if you would like us to proceed with gathering this information. Payment to the City of Cambridge in the form of cash or check and must be paid in full prior to our collecting this information.

I was a bit taken aback by this, as I understood the City Council Order to grant me, or any other Cambridge resident, access to these data without costs. I replied to Commissioner Peterson:

I'm requesting this data pursuant to the Order passed
by the City Council on Feb. 7th, which, as I understand,
directs you, via the City Manager, to make these data
available without cost.

Her reply confused me further:

Saul, I am not able to respond to the City Council request within the timeframe of your FOIA Request. I will be writing a response to the Council Order. If you plan on waiting until I respond to the City Council, then I assume you no longer have a request pursuant to FOIA?

And, when I responded with what amounted to "Huh?", she clarified her meaning:

Your FOIA request and the response to the Council order are not exactly the same. The Council Order is a request for data on snow ticketing to be made available on the web site (or other means I believe, but I think it is preferable to be on the web site). The City Manager has also received requests from City Councilors to have other enforcement/ticketing data on the web site as well and I was planning on answering Council Order comprehensively to consider other compliance data as well. I will talk to the City Manager about it.

I certainly don't mean to be difficult Saul. There is a process for us to answer the Council Order via the City Manager's office. The response goes back to the City Councillor(s) first who put the order in.

If, by "not exactly the same thing," Commissioner Peterson meant "text cut and paste from each other thus being word for word identical," then Peterson is correct. But this is government, so we're not talking substance, we're talking process:

Saul, it will take me a week or so to write a response to the City Council order and get it to the City Manager. He then will review and forward to the City Council. If you would like the data request in the FOIA request for the time you specified in next week, then you should maintain as a FOIA request.
Sorry for the confusion.

I'll be maintaining the FOIA request and paying the $23.67 in costs.

I've spent my career in academia, a sector that, like government, places a high value on process, so I don't succumb to the instant desire to roll my eyes and chuckle derisively. I accept that there needs to be a certain formality that structures the response from City staff to the Council. And, you don't want the Council to be able to micromanage the City. No, really, you don't.

But look at the outcome here. The City Council requests access to data and gets, instead, a report. There will no doubt be discussion, and as each Councilor adds their unique perspective, the scope will expand. It'll be hard to argue with any of this, because, really, the scope should expand so that all City data should open and freely available.

I've got to ask, though, don't these people talk? Wouldn't it have been better for Councillor Cheung to have had a chat with someone and asked how best to achieve the end he wanted and entered an order that did that? Or, wouldn't the City staff, understanding the intent of Councilor Cheung's order, just waive the costs this time, engendering good will?

The weather is warming, the snow is melting, and, in the greater scheme of things, my little quest for snow violation data doesn't really amount to much. It does, however, illuminate why there is so much cynicism about Cambridge governance. When you have good, competent, well intentioned people doing their jobs as best they know how and the outcome is the opposite of the intentions, there's much to be cynical about.

Comments

Submitted by Anonymous on

Saul,

Great article and thanks again for all your fantastic work on this.

The way our system works I can’t just go have a chat with DPW. Everything needs to go through the City Manager. And the Manager doesn't want to have DPW spend time with me on how to achieve a policy objective without the council first voting in support of that policy objective. Submitting an Order is the equivalent of having the chat you mentioned.

Coming from the private sector I agree it's clearly not the most efficient process; however, I cheer myself up by remembering that inefficiency is the cost of living in a free and open society.

Leland

Leland,

Thanks.

But I take strong exception to the notion that "inefficiency is this cost of living in a free and open society." Freedom, openness and transparency is only inefficient if the system is hard wired to be opaque. Accepting this dysfunction as a fact of life is just another way to surrender to cynicism.

Submitted by Anonymous on

This has all been very instructive. Thanks, Saul, and also Councillor Cheung and Commissioner Peterson, for your patience and conscientious efforts.
Mary Holbrow