Philadelphia looks to evidence-based insights to inform policy

A conference bringing academics and policy makers together looks at how behavioral science can benefit local government.

Person in black suit and blue tie speaks at podium with red banner, gesturing with left hand
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney speaks at the GovLabPHL conference at Perry World House.

Philadelphia city employees as well as researchers from Penn and other institutions around the city and country gathered on Jan. 24 for a conference aimed at providing evidence-based insights from social science that could be put to work to benefit the city.

The GovLabPHL conference, “Bridging Evidence and Policy in Philadelphia,” was a daylong event hosted by Penn’s Fels Institute of Government and sponsored by the City of Philadelphia and the School of Arts and Sciences.

The conference, held at Perry World House sprang out of the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative (PBSI), which was established in 2016 as a partnership between academics and the City of Philadelphia. The focus is on strengthening the city’s external research partnerships and its ability to apply behavioral science in local government. In 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney supported the creation of GovLabPHL, led by the Mayor’s Policy Office, to expand the city’s commitment to evaluation and practical use of data. It’s led by Anjali Chainani, Kenney’s director of policy, and co-founded by Daniel Hopkins, a professor in the Political Science Department in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.

“Too often, researchers and policymakers can work on the same problem but in very different silos, and the practical knowledge about what actually works in policymaking doesn't make it back to university-based researchers. Through the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative, we've been building a bridge between academic researchers and policymakers to close those gaps,” Hopkins said. “We were able to invite in something of a ‘dream team’ of academic researchers doing actionable, policy-relevant research. I think many attendees left inspired to try new ideas and to deepen these ties between Penn, other local colleges and universities, and the City."

One person in yellow jacket speaks into a microphone, another person stands next to them, holding a piece of paper
Anjali Chainani, left, and Daniel Hopkins at the GovLabPHL conference.

“PBSI and GovLabPHL are working towards sustaining culture change within local government where we think about evaluation at the onset of a program of policy. We owe it the residents of our city to demonstrate how their taxpayer dollars are working and how we are using data to make continuous improvements. This annual conference creates a learning opportunity for city employees to bring common municipal challenges and hear from leading researchers about what has proven to work in other contexts,” Chainani said.

Mariele McGlazer, the city’s GovLabPHL manager and a student in the Fels Executive master’s of public administration program, moderated the day’s event.

“This was our fourth annual conference, and we were delighted to have another opportunity to invite academics and city workers to share ideas on how to tackle some of our toughest challenges and bring to the mayor’s policy priorities into reality,” McGlazer said.

Person speaks into microphone at podium
Sendhil Mullainathan gives the morning keynote speech.

During his first term as mayor, Kenney enacted a tax on sweetened beverages that he saw as a way to help lift citizens out of poverty by improving early childhood education and rebuilding and renovating recreation centers, parks, and libraries.

Because of the tax, more than 6,000 3- and 4-year-olds gained access to pre-K, and 17 new schools serving 9,500 students were created, Kenney said.

The city also initiated work at 60 parks, recreation centers, playgrounds, and libraries through the Rebuild program. Philadelphia schools were also returned to local control and more than $1.2 billion in new money was invested by the city schools, Kenney told the attendees. 

Still, the city has a lot of work to do fighting poverty, opioid addiction, and gun violence and continuing to improve public schools, and those will be the focus of his current and final term, he said.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation and had 356 homicides in 2019, up from 353 the year before, according to Philadelphia Police Department data.

“Even my mother says to me, you should smile more. But when I’m dealing with the things we’re dealing with, the poverty and addiction and violence, it’s hard to be happy,” Kenney told the crowd at the start of the conference. “But then I come into a room like this and I see all these dedicated public servants and others who are interested in government and public service here to help. I’m smart but I’m certainly not the smartest person in this room and that makes me feel good, that there are a lot smarter people in this room who really want to make our city the best it can be. I’m really grateful to you and grateful to your commitment to making this work and hope that together we’ll get there.”

Person speaks standing in front of room full of people seated at round tables, underneath a large screen which says "Poverty is disrupting college."
Sara Goldrick-Rab speaks to the attendees.

Among the speakers was Sendhil Mullainathan, the Roman Family University Professor of Computation and Behavioral Science at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. His current research uses machine learning to understand complex problems in human behavior, social policy, and especially medicine; Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, best known for her research on food and housing insecurity in higher education; and Jamila Michener, an assistant professor in the Department of Government at Cornell University who studies American politics with a focus on the political causes and consequences of poverty and racial inequality. 

Person speaks into microphone at podium with banner reading "Perry World House."
Jamila Michener gives the afternoon keynote speech.

“Philadelphia has long had a high poverty rate, and we certainly can’t outspend cities like New York or San Francisco. But we can still compete. The way we can do so is partly by making use of the resources at our great universities here. Places like Penn and Temple, Swarthmore and Villanova, St. Joe’s and so many other local colleges and universities,” Hopkins said. “These universities are full of researchers who want to know what works, who want to know which of their ideas can actually translate into practice. We want to improve the city that we call home. Through this sustained partnership, Mayor Kenney is giving us that opportunity and we are deeply grateful.”