Educate, Embed, Empower: Turning Small Interventions into Ongoing Improvement

How the City of Philadelphia is using the City Accelerator to apply proven techniques and operate more efficiently and effectively.
March 28, 2017 AT 11:00 AM

Editor's note: With a mayoral transition, the City of Philadelphia made a number of significant changes to its innovation practices. But there is a through line from the former Office of New Urban Mechanics to today's GovLabPHL that speaks to a continuing commitment to improving residents' experience with their government.

Through the City Accelerator, we found more efficient and effective means of enrolling our most vulnerable residents in our utility and taxpayer assistance programs. We employed randomized control trials; developed partnerships and pilot programs with academic institutions; and implemented human-centered design, behavioral science and a trauma-informed approach to customer service. Hundreds of individuals have been enrolled in these programs thanks to this effort. We could consider the City Accelerator a success based on those results alone. But it grew into much more.

What started as a group of fewer than 10 people in the Department of Revenue became a network of programs managers, policymakers and others across an array of city departments who became believers in and champions of certain tactics and techniques to help government deliver programs and services better. We did not want the lessons we’d learned, the skills we’d acquired and the partnerships we’d built to atrophy. From the outset, we knew the project would be forced to evolve due to a change in mayoral administration. Staffing changes, departmental reorganizations and shifting priorities among leadership were likely. 

To keep up the momentum and spread the benefits to an array of public policy challenges, we developed a strategy to educate others about the work, with the goal of embedding these practices into day-to-day operations, and empowering employees across government to explore innovative techniques to solve the problems they face. Our work has turned into more than 100 people applying behavioral science, human-centered design and trauma-informed service delivery methods to an array of policy areas. This is GovLabPHL.


We couldn’t replicate and expand the results from the initial effort to get more low-income seniors a 25 percent discount on their water bills unless on-the-ground staff could own the work, continue it and grow its scope. To accomplish this, the City Accelerator team demonstrated the benefits of using behavioral science to staff, engaged them in identifying ways to apply it and cut through the jargon.

When considering education, the team was guided by two key principles:

Engage frontline staff. Particularly with a mayoral transition, it became important to include the frontline employees in the design and implementation of interventions using behavioral science. These folks were subject matter experts in how the programs worked, what the pain points were and what could be improved. As part of the initial project, we held a meeting to solicit input from staff and had a wrap up session afterward to share the results.

Build excitement and expertise. In May 2016, a one-day Behavioral Economics Workshop was held for over 100 participants, bringing together dozens of academics and nearly 70 high-level city officials. The workshop included presentations about real-world applications of behavioral science to government programs and policies, as well as breakout sessions where city representatives and researchers shared ideas and brainstormed opportunities in small groups. Check out the agenda here.

Throughout 2017, monthly forums will bring public and private sector practitioners to Philadelphia to share their insights about human-centered design. There will be daytime talks for an audience of city employees, paired with evening events opened up to the public in partnership with a local university.


To move beyond one-off projects and one-day workshops, other people and agencies outside the immediate City Accelerator team had to be engaged and enabled to continue the work.

Communicate. The one-day workshop began an ongoing partnership between academics and the city, which is called the Philadelphia Behavioral Sciences Initiative. A website serves as a virtual clubhouse for the project – a place that academics and city officials can turn to for information.

We were purposeful in sharing our story so that other city agencies could learn from our experiences and be inspired to do related work. Following inclusion of the Department of Revenue’s pilot for trauma-informed customer service training in a wrap up of year-end accomplishments, two other departments that serve similar populations reached out for more information and are now exploring their own training. We went beyond sharing within government, resulting in a newspaper article highlighting our efforts.

Dedicate time and resources. Behavioral sciences, human-centered design and the other approaches that have proved useful require practitioners committed to using them. As a result of this initiative, the Department of Revenue created a new position, Administrator of Assistance Programs, and hired someone who is dedicated to increasing enrollment and is familiar with these tactics.


Even within government, the promise of assistance from other branches or agencies can be viewed with skepticism. With the City Accelerator, the team has created an environment where program managers and policymakers can move projects ahead themselves, but with guidance and resources to make implementation and experimentation easy.

Be a matchmaker. Following the Behavioral Science Workshop, dozens of ideas were submitted for projects to pair city staff with academics to use behavioral economics to improve outcomes. It’s a little like online dating – a platform exists to get like-minded people together, and then they take it from there. Several matches have been made and projects are being incubated, including increasing bike sharing among low-income Philadelphians, encouraging online license and permit renewals, outreaching for the launch of a new water bill assistance program and more. With a simple Google form, departments share their challenges and academics review each submission. Lead partners from local universities act as matchmakers, finding researchers with expertise and interest that align with the needs of city agencies.

Provide startup funds. Some of the biggest hurdles in the initial City Accelerator project, such as testing which methods were most effective to communicate with low-income seniors, were the most mundane. Securing a few hundred dollars for postage and envelopes outside the normal budget process was essential to figuring out what worked and what didn’t, but was a bureaucratic hassle. With funding from City Accelerator, current pilot projects will be able to get off the ground quickly, with micro-investments smoothing the path.


Benjamin Franklin, one of Philadelphia’s most beloved residents (who can still be seen roaming the streets) once said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

By educating our peers about the work accomplished as part of the City Accelerator initiative, embedding the best practices we uncovered, and empowering other program managers and policymakers to pursue projects on their own, the City of Philadelphia will continue to expand the opportunities to apply proven techniques to make government run better.

Be part of the campaign for civic innovation at the City Accelerator, presented by Citi Foundation.