Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz launched the city’s first fraud reporting app on Tuesday, April 19. Called Philly WatchDog, the app allows citizens to document activities on their iPhone or iPad that they believe are wasteful or abusive of taxpayer dollars and send them directly to the city.
Developed in-house, primarily through the efforts of Brian Dries, director of communications for the controller’s office, the app can be downloaded for free from iTunes or the Apple App Store. Philadelphia residents can send messages, pictures and videos anonymously of events they believe are fraudulent.
The app cost $5,400 and took approximately three and a half months to build. Butkovitz explained that the app serves as another tool in his office’s recent emphasis on cutting down fraud citywide. He cited examples over the past year of sanitation workers sleeping during shifts and illegal unlicensed parking lots as reasons for the app’s creation.
“Everyone in Philadelphia that is capable of observing [fraudulent] behavior that is out in the open can transmit it directly to our office,” Butkovitz said. “Now if we indicated that we are interested in an issue and put the word out, we’ll get data back from people.”
Currently the Philly WatchDog app can only be used on the iPhone and iPad, but the controller’s office may look into building applications for other smartphones in the future. Through April 20 the app had been downloaded 955 times and 40 items were submitted. Dries explained that while a lot of people are testing the app, there are “a few reports that the fraud director is looking at already.”
When asked about the app’s potential to be abused by citizens looking to bash municipal workers, Butkovitz admitted that it has the potential to be misused, but said that’s the rap on all new technology and the app wasn’t “spyware or something that is 1984-ish” in nature.
The controller said his office receives tips all the time and he was confident that his staff would be able to identify reports that are untrue.
“This may multiply the quantity of [reports] but that doesn’t change the kind of thing that comes to us all the time,” Butkovitz said. “There’s a lot of stuff that gets weeded out, and I anticipate that will be true with this app as well.”
The public employees union begs to differ, however.
Cathy Scott, president of District Council 47 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said there was no need for a fraud app, as the Philadelphia city government already has too many offices investigating employees.
She explained that in addition to the controller’s office, the city has a chief integrity officer and a staff of 10 in the inspector general’s office that’s dedicated to taking citizen complaints — all of whom Scott believes don’t communicate with each other effectively on fraud issues.
“I see this as an unnecessary duplication of existing efforts that is very easily abused,” Scott said. “Part of the problem is … misrepresentation of the facts or abuse of trying to investigate properly. The average citizen does not know whether a [city employee] is on the clock. It’s just overkill and a waste of money.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.