GovLabPHL embeds academic research into city government

As a part of the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative, Penn faculty members connect with the City of Philadelphia to use innovative research data to inform more effective programs and policies.

Mayor Kenney shakes hands with Daniel Hopkins on stage at Perry World House
At Penn’s Perry World House, Mayor James F. Kenney hands a citation to Dan Hopkins from the School of Arts and Sciences for his service to the city, as a token of appreciation for the work he’s done through the Philadelphia Behavior Science Initiative.

Researchers and scholars are helping the City of Philadelphia rewrite the playbook on innovation in government through the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative (PBSI).

An evidence-based, people-focused approach to policymaking, PBSI is just one of the programs that falls under the umbrella of GovLabPHL, a City of Philadelphia initiative led by Anjali Chainani, director of policy for Mayor James F. Kenney.

For three years, GovLabPHL and PBSI have brought academic researchers together with government officials to use social and behavioral sciences for urban solutions by harnessing the best ideas from economics, psychology, sociology, political science, and other fields.

Daniel Hopkins, a professor in the Political Science Department in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, is one of the co-founders and co-coordinators of the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative, which began three years ago.

Hopkins partnered with the Mayor’s Policy Office and various city agencies to accomplish two goals—to identify insights from social science that can help strengthen policies and ultimately better serve the public, and then to rigorously test them. As a researcher, he designs experiments and tests interventions to determine what actually encourages certain behaviors to improve outcomes.

One of the projects that he’s worked on is with Philadelphia’s bicycle-sharing program, Indego. The organization wanted to design a new payment structure, but first information was needed about what could actually work. For his part, Hopkins conducted a randomized experiment that presented people with different offers. Then, he sat back and observed.

“People were more likely to re-enroll in a monthly bike-share pass if they were given a more substantial discount,” Hopkins, who has a secondary appointment in the Annenberg School for Communication, explains. “More importantly, this test was a ‘proof of concept,’ indicating that, yes, the government can effectively team up with social scientists to do this type of innovative work.”

Hopkins has worked on a variety of other projects, including the city’s Zero Waste and Litter Task Force, which coordinates efforts to collectively address Philadelphia’s litter problem.

Each year, Philadelphia disposes of nearly 1.5 million tons of residential and commercial waste, according to the Zero Waste and Litter Action Plan, which promotes the use of data-driven practices and research to identify the most effective ways to achieve sustainability.

For his part, Hopkins designed and conducted extensive experiments to identify how social science can lessen litter.

“In the parks and commercial corridors, putting in more trash cans was helpful,” Hopkins says. “It both led to less litter and reduced the total staff time dedicated to cleaning up.”

But that’s just the first step. Currently, Hopkins is in the process of exploring ways to eliminate “short dumping,” or disposing of residential trash in public trash bins. Future experiments may include a pilot program to see if it’s possible to increase recycling.

He’s also partnered with the city’s Human Resources Division to encourage employees to use a new wellness program, with the School District of Philadelphia to increase participation in its annual parents survey, and with Healthy Philly to look at ways to communicate with tobacco vendors about preventing sales to minors. And Hopkins is already looking ahead to 2019.

Five award recipients lined up on stage holding honorary citations, alongside the mayor
At Penn’s Perry World House, Mayor James F. Kenney (far right) recognized Daniel Hopkins (second from left), along with other awardees, for their work with the Philadelphia Behavior Science Initiative. 

“We received a Making a Difference in Diverse Communities grant from the School of Arts and Sciences to support our work in trying to increase voter turnout for the 2019 municipal elections. We’re still doing ongoing work to design what that might look like,” he says. “But all of these are cases in which the city brings to us the central problems it’s facing and we try to design effective social science research to address those concerns.”

There are lots of benefits to this kind of work, Hopkins says, and it’s more than just the formal assessments of outcomes or determining what works.

“Especially in a city that’s so resource-starved as Philadelphia, we are trying to make sure the city is using taxpayer dollars in a maximally effective way and helping them to evaluate their efforts,” Hopkins explains. “Sometimes we act as consultants and identify ways that different ideas from social science can be incorporated, so they make a stronger impact.”

In addition, Penn has hosted PBSI’s conferences three times and provided additional support through the Making a Difference in Diverse Communities and Fels Research Policy Initiative grants.

“This is a great example of Penn’s engagement in our home. We are drawing on social science insights, including many generated right here at Penn, and seeing how those insights can help the City of Philadelphia to deliver critical policies in a maximally effective, efficient, and responsive way,” Hopkins explains. “We’re being scientists about it. We test these ideas in practice using experiments and see if they work. Some do, others don’t.”

The other co-founder of the Philadelphia Behavior Science Initiative is Syon Bhanot, an economist and professor at Swarthmore College, which is included on the list of institutions of higher education who have participated in PBSI, along with Temple, Princeton, and St. Joseph’s universities.