"Gotcha" Games Make Headlines, Not Change

(October 2012)

Philadelphians too often find that our leaders are focused on creating publicity for themselves when they should be looking to make the differences that can move Philadelphia forward.  We need them to make change a lot more than we need them to make headlines.

The City Controller, Philadelphia's independently elected auditor, recently released a review on construction practices which criticized City agencies and their oversight of contractors in certain neighborhoods.  Unfortunately, in his rush to run before the news cameras and preen for the press, the Controller never bothered to share his review with those City agencies so it might help improve their oversight practices.  

Mayoral spokesperson Mark McDonald was quick to pounce on the Controller's gambit, criticizing the review's lack of understanding of City agency operations and the Controller's rush to get the report to the press first: "It certainly would have been helpful had Mr. Butkovitz shared the report with us to give us the opportunity to respond." (Philadelphia Inquirer – October 11, 2012)

These kinds of "gotcha" games work tremendously well to generate news and reporters are happy to have a scoop, but best government auditing practices and professional conduct demand proper procedures — entrance and exit interviews to ensure that auditing work is legitimate and to ensure that the audit is best crafted to result in corrective action.  By initiating audit work with an entrance meeting to establish the scope and objectives of the work, and by using an exit interview to obtain management's comments before the report is issued, audit work can be best framed and presented to promote change.

If agency leaders and employees believe that audit work is a serious effort to promote efficiency and effectiveness, there are opportunities to utilize audit findings to generate improvements.  However, if there is a perception that the audit work is designed to embarrass officials and line workers, then the only likely outcome is mistrust and suspicion.

It would be fortunate, indeed, if this recent episode was the first time that the Controller's rush to stand in front of a television camera resulted in slip-shod work or unfair statements coming from his office.  Unfortunately, a quick Google search yields a long list of criticisms of his work.

In an editorial (February 24, 2010), the Daily News lashed out at Butkovitz: "This kind of intellectual dishonesty is at the heart of our problem with the controller's actions; if we can't expect actual data and facts from a controller, we're in big trouble…For that, we have a hard time trusting him."  

Another Daily News editorial (July 14, 2010) offered a scathing critique:  "We've already criticized the controller's fondness for ‘gotcha' reports detailing government's failings in a way that alienates the people most apt to fix them, but this ‘report' is so full of half-truths and unconfirmed assumptions that it corrodes the credibility of the office."  The editorial concludes of Butkovitz, "He seems intent on getting attention for finding faults, instead of helping to find sound solutions to problems."

After another headline-chasing release from the Controller's Office, Mayor Nutter's spokesperson said, "That this was released to the media and not to the administration leads me to think it is little more than a publicity stunt." (Philadelphia Daily News, December 31, 2008)

The Philadelphia Exposure Project concluded a consideration of the Controller's work with this damning criticism: "It's unclear if the controller has any productive ideas to help the school district, not hurt it. What is clear is that he knows how to make headlines."  (February 8, 2012)

The Controller's efforts have been successful at generating media attention.  While the media often give him the headline he wants, his "shoot-first-ask-questions-later" approach is a disservice to the qualified and credentialed auditors in his office.  These auditors should instead be engaged in legitimate and productive audit work to improve the efforts of the agencies we all count on to make Philadelphia a preferred place to live, work, and visit.

Philadelphians elect their leaders to do good, not to play games.  A Controller committed to accountability and effective government could use the powers of the office to focus government on high performance.  Until we change the Controller, we will be stuck with "gotcha" games that create headlines, not productive and legitimate work that creates positive change.