From left to right: Vanessa Garrett Harley, deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety; Theron Pride, senior director of violence prevention strategies and programs; and Shondell Revell, OVP's executive director

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Municipal government’s favorite approach to solving problems, including the city’s seemingly intractable gun violence crisis? Form a committee.

So far this year, 1,296 people have been shot in Philadelphia. With two weeks left until the calendar flips, that’s already more than last year, when 1,220 people were shot. Last July, in recognition of the gravity of the situation, the Office of Violence Prevention was founded to monitor the effectiveness of anti-violence programs and help coordinate their efforts.

After 17 months of research, the OVP announced Monday that in order to fulfill one of its founding responsibilities — the coordination part — another brand new governmental structure was needed.

Officials said they had identified 38 community-based violence prevention services — i.e. things that fall outside of courts and policing — that receive city funding totaling $13.3 million a year (see table below). They could not, however, provide data on the effectiveness of those programs, at least not yet.

A comprehensive violence reduction plan will be rolled out in January, per a city spokesperson. Meanwhile, OVP is moving forward on creating the nebulous new “coordinating” committee. Its name and budget are TBD, but it will likely entail hiring a few additional staffers, said Theron Pride, who helps run the office as senior director of violence prevention strategies and programs.

“Right now, to balance out all the different priorities and get this done right, you have to have a table of leadership there … in this work of coordination,” Pride told Billy Penn. “It’s about being proactive.”

A ‘vague’ sounding plan

In its report released this week, OVP, which itself has a budget of $5.6 million (but no website), included a few goals for future operations — many of them extremely simple and basic. They include:

“All that sounds good, until you have to deliver,” said Reuben Jones, a community organizer who previously worked as a social services coordinator for Philly’s Focused Deterrence program, which was listed in Monday’s report.

“It’s very general, very vague,” Jones added.  “If you really want to be impactful in this city, transparency has to be the key. People want to know what specifically you’re doing to save lives.”

City officials said the goals were intentionally basic, in advance of the release of a more specific plan to curb violence in January.

“We’re trying to reset the table,” said OVP staff member Pride, “[and] better align programming and policy and lay out a strategic vision that helps then drive action in a more coordinated and intentional fashion.”

But don’t hold your breath for the results.

“We’re trying to show folks that from the city, there’s absolutely a sense of urgency,” Pride added. “From a policy and program point where we sit, it does not move as quick.”

Measuring effectiveness is not easy

One thing that’ll take some time: measuring the effectiveness of Philly’s current community-based anti-violence spending.

Per Vanessa Garrett Harley, Philly’s deputy managing director for criminal justice and public safety, OVP’s new “governmental structure” will analyze the programs based on a few different metrics:

  • General crime data in the program’s geographical area
  • Post-program employment data
  • Utilization data (aka, is the program actually serving the people it aims to serve?)
  • More metrics TBD

For the big-budget programs, providing data won’t likely be a problem. Mural Arts, for example, is included on the list of funded programs three separate times, raking in nearly $700k annually just for its violence prevention work.

Jane Golden, the program’s executive director, said she’d be immediately ready to provide data on effectiveness if the city asked. Off the top of her head, she rattled off numbers associated with the org’s prison programming — like an 80 percent post-program employment rate and a 12 percent recidivism rate after graduating.

“City resources are precious funds, they’re really important, and we want to make sure they’re used effectively and efficiently,” Golden told Billy Penn. “Every day we need to ask ourselves, how are we moving the needle?”

“But as someone who’s been doing this work as a nonprofit city agency, I can say evaluations are complex and challenging,” she added. “I know extraordinary programs around the city that are really small and don’t have the capacity to evaluate.”

Indeed, not all nonprofits are like Mural Arts — with massive budgets and the capability to analyze their own programming. Included on the list are places like The Attic Youth Center, which accepts just $20,000 annually from the city and a boxing gym that gets $10,000.

It’s unlikely these smaller-ticket nonprofits will have precise data on hand — but that doesn’t mean they don’t work at all.

“We need to be able to look at success from different angles, and we need to be fair-minded when we ask the questions,” Golden said.

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Michaela Winberg

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...