The Tough Love of Fact-Based Data (Spring 2010 Trust Magazine article)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Pat Loeb


03/19/2010 - As a veteran of internal government reform efforts, Claire Shubik spent years learning how to conduct research in a political milieu—making sure whom she could talk to, getting someone else to make the initial contact if need be, carefully shaping questions to avoid any unseen hazard, what she calls “the political third rail.”

So she was a little bit intimidated last spring by her first assignment for Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative: cold-calling budget officials in major cities and asking for all manner of information about their finances and spending.

On the other hand, her colleague Laura Horwitz, coming out of community organizing for faith-based organizations, had no qualms about contacting public-employee unions for a report on the fiscal impact of employee pensions and health benefits. After all, she was used to sitting down at a table with people of disparate interests and finding common ground to build on.

Both women were in for a big surprise and a lesson in the power of the Pew name.

For Shubik it was a pleasant surprise.

“I’m convinced I’m going to ask for information and people are going to say no,” she says. “But no one did. I was totally delighted.”

She spoke with budget officials, citizen watchdog groups and journalists who cover the budget process. She had only to identify herself and explain the Philadelphia Research Initiative, and doors opened, phone calls were returned.

“We’ve got the reputation,” she says, “by virtue of being Pew.”

Horwitz had a similar experience on the budget report, but on her next assignment, when she sought information on city employee contracts, she unsuspectingly hit a stone wall. The unions in Philadelphia either wouldn’t answer or responded with hostility. She concluded they feared the impact of a Pew report as they entered contract talks with the city.

“They would really rather we didn’t weigh in at all,” she says.

Shubik and Horwitz were gathering information intended to help Philadelphia—its citizens and its leaders—make better-informed decisions about the issues the city faces. They constitute half the staff of the Philadelphia Research Initiative, led by veteran political-reporter-turned-project-director Larry Eichel and project manager Thomas Ginsberg, also a former journalist.

The idea that Pew could help the financially troubled city with facts and data was the brainchild of Donald Kimelman, managing director of Information Initiatives as well as the Philadelphia Program at Pew.

“Pew does a lot of policy-relevant research,” says Kimelman. “We see the impact. We’re known for it nationally and globally, so we wanted to bring some of that expertise to our hometown.”

Kimelman first began to see the possibilities a decade ago when he commissioned consultant Basil Whiting to compare Philadelphia to six other cities in terms of its prospects and challenges. The study was intended strictly for internal use, but, realizing it would be valuable to policy makers, the staff produced a public version, which, though sobering, was very well received.

The report had coincided with the beginning of the administration of Mayor John Street, and as that era drew to a close in 2007, Kimelman says, he thought it might prove instructive to invite Whiting back to assess what had changed in eight years—what was better, what was worse, what challenges seemed most pressing.

Again pleased with the response, Kimelman commissioned another report, this one in collaboration with the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia. Called The Quiet Crisis, it zeroed in on the cost of city employees’ pension and health benefits. That was followed by another joint effort with the Economy League, looking at chronic inefficiencies and ownership options at the Philadelphia Gas Works. (In July, the Gas Works study won the Governmental Research Association’s 2009 Most Distinguished Research Award.)

His appetite whetted, Kimelman took stock. “I thought, ‘This is good, but it’s hard,’” he says, referring to the fact that each study was its own mini-project. “Every time we did one of these things, we had to figure out who could do the heavy lifting, and it made me a little nervous because we’re dependent on outside consultants although, in the end, it is Pew’s credibility that is on the line.”

So Kimelman went to the Pew board with a proposal: Make these research reports a regular feature of what Pew does in Philadelphia. Create our own internal capacity to do this work and add elements such as polling to bring a public voice to the issues. Kimelman felt he had a strong case. But he also knew it would be stronger if he could identify the right leader to run the new unit.

Hearts were heavy in The Philadelphia Inquirer newsroom the day Larry Eichel left, in November 2008. “Larry’s departure was a watershed day for the Inquirer,” says executive editor Bill Marimow. Eichel had been one of the paper’s stalwarts and stars for 34 years, covering city hall, elections, politics—the highest-profile stories and the most important events. Soft-spoken and slim-built, he was nonetheless a hefty presence on the second floor. His dark hair and beard and heavyframed glasses had become a reassuring sight to his colleagues through the turmoil of the newspaper’s sale and subsequent layoffs, and his reporting was one of the treasures that had survived. “To me, he epitomized the best of our reporters,” says Marimow. “His departure was a major, major loss for the Inquirer.”

One of his last stories, page one on November 5, the day after the presidential election, began: “Step back for a moment and consider what happened yesterday. The people of the United States have elected an African-American man named Barack Obama as their president.” To capture the enormity of the moment in such deceptively simple prose takes a pro at the top of his game. And to lose him was gut-wrenching for his editors. At a struggling paper in a beleaguered industry, it seemed like the end of something.

Eichel was the project leader Kimelman wanted.

“I had some conversations with Larry even before the board approved [the initiative],” says Kimelman. “I thought he had just the right kind of skills and temperament for the job. He’s rooted in the city but also senior enough and mature enough to navigate the shoals of city politics and keep us on the right course.”

Eichel says he was intrigued right away. It was the spring before the election, during perhaps the greatest story of his career. “I was covering the campaign, and I knew there was no plan [at the newspaper] for what was going to happen to me after the election, and I didn’t see any great options,” he says. “I kept trying to come up with reasons not to do it and couldn’t.”

Kimelman believes that being able to tell the board that Eichel would be the likely director of the project helped make it seem more tangible and doable.

Authorization came in September, but Eichel’s one condition was that he not start until November. “No way was I missing out on the campaign [coverage],” he says. But as soon as the election was over, his focus shifted.

It wasn’t nearly as difficult for Eichel to walk out of the newsroom that last time as it was for his colleagues to watch. He was not looking back as he left.

“I was thinking, ‘I have to go do this other job now. It’s different, and I haven’t done anything different in a long time. I hope I don’t screw it up.’”

The State of the City, the first major report from the Philadelphia Research Initiative, was already under way in November when Eichel took the helm. To get the ball rolling while Eichel was still caught up in campaign coverage, Kimelman hired former Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick Jr., who has a talent for ferreting out data and making them accessible to readers. The result was a glossy, slightly oversized booklet of 54 pages, packed with charts and graphs, laying out where the city stands in terms of economy, crime, education, health, government and the arts.

For Eichel, the project he joined in-progress was an education in the differences between his old job and his new one.

Where he’d been used to turning stories around in a day, The State of the City took months. He was acutely aware of the importance of getting everything right. “This institution has a hard-earned reputation for being solid and reliable. When we say these are facts, they’re facts,” he says. “So you spend more time checking facts.”

Still, he was surprised at how hard it was to get the report out without mistakes in it.

“Every time you looked at it, you’d see a different typo,” says Eichel, who says he gained a new appreciation for the importance of copy editors. “At one point, we said there were 224 cultural institutions in the city. Then when we listed them, we realized there were 225. We figured out that there was one in the database that wasn’t real, and we revised the list.”

In other ways, the report played to his strengths. “I thought the thing I did best as a reporter was to take something complicated and explain it clearly,” he says. “That was a really important skill. There’s not a lot of flash to the writing, but it has to be accessible.”

A good example is the opening of the report’s chapter six, on health and welfare: “All of the data on wages and wealth in the city can be boiled down to a single declarative sentence. Philadelphia has a lot of poor people.”

Another significant element of the report was a poll, conducted in January 2009, on a variety of issues. This was a particular interest of Kimelman’s, a central part of his proposal for the initiative.

“I’m really influenced by Andy Kohut at the Pew Research Center,” Kimelman says, referring to the president of Pew’s subsidiary, a nonpartisan “fact tank.” He continues: “I believe there’s value in bringing a public voice into issues and doing it in a scientific way where you have a representative sample of the public involved.”

The poll results were broken out into two separate reports that were published online in February—one highlighting public opinion about the administration of Mayor Michael Nutter after two years on the job (the conclusion: generally favorable), and the other an overview of what Philadelphians like and dislike about their city. These findings fit neatly into The State of the City, augmenting the hard data.

The finished product was sent to Pew’s mailing list of influential Philadelphians as a means of introducing the Philadelphia Research Initiative.

“We’re not going to publish many things,” says Kimelman. “In this day and age we don’t need to do that. We can make stuff available online. But this seemed like a nice thing to have and a nice way to say, ‘Pew is now in this business.’”

In addition to issuing The State of the City, Eichel spent his first weeks at Pew hiring a staff and talking to people. “What should we be doing?” he’d ask. The city budget seemed to trump everything. In a city short by half a billion dollars with most expenditures fixed by employee contracts, the Nutter administration was facing stark choices with far-reaching ramifications.

Eichel’s instincts as a reporter told him this was the big story in the city and the one on which the initiative should shine its light. For the next poll, he constructed budget-related questions. One significant finding was that, to balance the budget, Philadelphians preferred cuts in services to tax hikes. A real-estate tax increase was considered particularly unpalatable, according to the poll, and a sales tax increase even more so.

While the pollsters did their work, Eichel and his staff began working on their first research report as a team, comparing Philadelphia’s budget woes to those in 12 other major cities. The report was very straight-forward— the size of budget gaps (11 of the cities had one), the remedies local governments were seeking, the constraints each was under.

The Nutter administration appreciated it. “It’s always helpful to have outside sources of research,” says budget director Stephen Agostini. “Some of the data they pulled on services were helpful in informing the analysis we do internally.”

But what surprised the staff was how much other cities appreciated it. “Doing comparisons was useful from a policy perspective,” says project manager Ginsberg, “and for getting attention from outside Philly. The report got more ‘bumps’ outside the city than in.”

For example, the mayor of Seattle issued a news release on it. The city of Atlanta put the report on its Web site, and the major newspaper, the Journal-Constitution, published a story on it.

The report even went international: The Economist devoted a full page to the report, and the news service Reuters picked it up.

“It had tremendous appeal,” says Eichel. “We found there aren’t a lot of other organizations that do this. There’s a fair amount written about states but not cities. It made us think there’s a niche here.”

This was the report that had been such a pleasant surprise for senior associate Claire Shubik. “That was an awesome piece to work on,” she says.

Research associate Laura Horwitz also enjoyed working on the report. “It was exciting to hit the ground running,” she says. “It was amazing to show up, and, my second week here, I was talking to budget officials around the country.”

The excitement of that experience, though, left her perhaps less prepared for what came next.

The Quiet Crisis made news when it was released in January 2008. It was on the front page of The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote about a possible statewide solution to the crisis since Pittsburgh’s pension fund was the only one of the cities studied that was in worse shape than Philadelphia’s. Business and financial writer Robert Samuelson cited the report in a column for Newsweek, “Promises They Can’t Keep.”

The report did not gloss over a dire situation. The number of retirees in Philadelphia exceeded the number of active workers. Annual costs for both pensions and benefits were high and rising sharply. The pension fund was only 52 percent funded and had an unfunded liability of $4 billion.

At the same time, the study offered a menu of “policy options” that could help, items such as increasing employee contributions to the pension fund and to their health benefits, both of which would have to be renegotiated when contracts expired.

While there was a general consensus on the accuracy of the report and the need for action, public employee unions, perhaps not surprisingly, denounced it as “fatally flawed.”

More than a year later—well into 2009—some solutions had been proposed but none carried out. However, employee contracts were about to expire, opening a possibility for change. With the decision to focus on the budget, an update of the report seemed a natural task for the Philadelphia Research Initiative. Horwitz jumped right in.

She called each of the four municipal unions repeatedly. In one effort to establish her commitment to getting the facts, she sat through a full day of police arbitration hearings. They still wouldn’t talk to her.

The one response she got—from District Council 47, which represents white-collar city workers—felt more like an ambush. The union’s attorney took the questions but treated them with suspicion and hostility. From Thomas Ginsberg’s perspective, the union’s approach was “Every question revealed bias. Every fact we checked revealed some lack of understanding.” And then, he adds, “A week before the report came out, they denounced it” as full of errors—based on a memo the initiative had sent for fact-checking.

“It seemed to us there were other agendas driving them,” says Cathy Scott, D.C. 47 president. “They said they wanted the report out before the contract expired so there would be ‘more dialogue’ at the negotiations. So what’s the real purpose: information?—or impact on negotiations?”

Horwitz says she tried to make it clear she had no agenda, and she felt somewhat vindicated, a month and a half later, when Scott co-authored an op-ed piece in the Inquirer that cited the report to support her argument: “A recently released Pew study concluded that Philadelphia city workers’ pension benefits are not out of line with those of other public employees.”

“It was unexpected,” Horwitz says. “On one hand, I was happy. On the other hand, it was frustrating that they ignored the inconvenient pieces.”

The report was titled Quiet No More: Philadelphia Confronts the Cost of Employee Benefits, and the union wasn’t alone in using it selectively. Two weeks earlier, the Inquirer’s editorial board had also used the report to argue for union concessions on health benefits: “City workers enjoy a gold-plated benefits package. Taxpayers fund 100 percent of the healthinsurance premiums for most of the city workers. By comparison, a Pew Charitable Trusts study found local governments require single employees to contribute an average of 9 percent of the cost for health-care coverage and those with families to contribute 27 percent.”

Kimelman is philosophical. “People will always cherry-pick data, but the truth has a way of emerging,” he says. “When a debate is going on, one person’s use of the facts is going to be more persuasive than another’s. We don’t get involved in those debates. We just put out the facts.”

The Philadelphia Research Initiative’s next major report focuses on the prison system, a particular passion of Shubik’s. “I’m interested in seeing that government systems that have the power to deny people their liberty are run efficiently, effectively and fairly,” she says, noting that the budget for Philadelphia prisons has risen 80 percent in nine years.

Eichel is considering holding an event around the release of the report, something that would bring together various stakeholders in the system.

In the meantime, the staff continues to produce shorter reports on important local issues. A report by Ginsberg, released in October, found Philadelphia behind other cities in preparing for the 2010 census. Philadelphia has been losing population for decades, according to the Census Bureau, but many officials believe that the official figure is at least partly a result of undercounting.

Federal aid is based on population, and undercounting may be costing the city millions of dollars. Other cities have learned the power of maximizing local response to the census and challenging figures that work against them. Ginsberg senses that the administration needs to work harder on getting a full count and that local foundations can help.

Another recent study, Layoffs, Furloughs and Union Concessions: The Prolonged and Painful Process of Balancing City Budgets, examined the choices that 13 cities made and tried to make during what has been a difficult time for the governments of many large American cities.

The continuing stream of reports is not what Kimelman envisioned as the initiative’s work. “We expected more of a stately progression of two or three polls, a state of the city and two or three in-depth reports a year,” he says. Instead, he adds, “We’ve done more smaller reports.”

That’s not to say he’s not pleased with the way the initiative has evolved. “The short reports have provided useful information at a time when things are not set in stone,” he says. “Timing is essential. You have to do good, in-depth, unassailable work, but you’ve got to get it out on a schedule where it’s going to be most meaningful.”

One reservation raised during Pew’s internal vetting of the initiative, Kimelman recalls, was whether Philadelphia is a place where good information matters: “I was asked, ‘In a place where fact-based decision-making has not been the tradition, is this work going to be truly influential?’”

Again, the timing was good. “We have, in the Nutter administration, a staff very interested in this kind of work. Whether or not it ultimately influences what transpires remains to be seen, but it’s not being ignored.”

Indeed, Mayor Nutter says he takes the reports “very seriously.”

“I think information, data and analysis are always helpful,” he says, “especially coming from an organization with the credibility of Pew. Comparing Philadelphia to other locales is educational to the public, and we learn a lot from those reports. I’m in favor of an educated public, and I think information coming from a good, credible source makes a difference.”

The Philadelphia Research Initiative’s work is available at www.pewtrusts.org/philaresearch. In addition to the reports and shorter studies, you will find poll results of Philadelphians on key city issues and on their assessment of the city as a place to live. And you have access to a library of other authoritative documents and data on the city, downloadable as PDF files.

For updates on the initiative’s efforts, you can subscribe to a news feed, or sign up for the initiative’s e-mails to receive an alert on the day that a report is released.

Pat Loeb is a writer and a Philadelphian. Her work can be heard regularly on KYW radio.

This article appeared in the Spring 2010 issue of Trust magazine.

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