New Philadelphia Leaders Mean Opportunities to Address Pressing Policy Challenges

Pew is helping the administration and council use data-informed approaches to better serve community needs

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New Philadelphia Leaders Mean Opportunities to Address Pressing Policy Challenges
A photograph of City Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Tomas Martinez Unsplash

The start of 2024 brought big changes to Philadelphia’s leadership. Cherelle Parker, the city’s 100th mayor and the first woman to hold the office, was sworn in on Jan. 2, along with Kenyatta Johnson, the new city council president. That same day, four new members joined a 17-seat city council on which two-thirds of the members have served less than four years.

To assist this transition, The Pew Charitable Trusts and partners organized a series called “Pew’s 2024 Accelerator: City Budget and Policy Workshops.” The goal was to prepare policymakers, new and seasoned, to address the issues facing the city and to build relationships among colleagues during the post-election transition period.

The workshops, a first for Pew in Philadelphia, reflect the organization’s commitment to helping the city’s government be as effective as possible. They were developed in collaboration with Anavi Strategies and Rvesta Consulting, and ran from mid-November to mid-January.

The five-session program covered key topics, such as city revenues and expenditures, infrastructure projects, performance management and data analysis, jobs and economic development, and affordable housing. Pew and the William Penn Foundation funded the initiative.

Participants heard and learned from national experts, current and former officials from Philadelphia and other jurisdictions, and researchers from Pew and other institutions.

Among the national experts who spoke were Tracy Gordon, vice president of tax policy at the Urban Institute; Kerri Lang, budget officer with the City of Austin, Texas; Jennifer Pahlka, founder and former executive director of Code for America; Denise Turner Roth, former administrator of the General Services Administration; and Peter Beard, senior vice president for workforce development for the Greater Houston Partnership. Local speakers included Marisa Waxman, executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority; Michael Carroll, Philadelphia’s deputy managing director for Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability; Michael Nadol, managing director of PFM Group Consulting LLC; and Patrick Clancy, president and CEO of Philadelphia Works.

Thirteen council members attended at least one of the workshops, as did many top staffers. Several members made it to all of the sessions. Parker, the new mayor, joined the opening session, and key members of her team were on hand for others.

Each workshop featured opening presentations, followed by panel discussions and small group conversations. Attendees were given reading lists and time to chat privately with experts and each other. Beyond the substantive content, the Accelerator offered policymakers something they rarely get—a shared learning experience in a nonpartisan, collaborative, closed-door environment that encouraged learning and the exchange of ideas. At each session, facilitators reminded participants to respect all perspectives, assume best intentions, suspend judgment, and maintain confidentiality.

Among the key points that emerged from the workshops:

  • Philadelphia’s city government likely faces years of declining fund balances starting in 2025, when funding from the American Rescue Plan Act runs out, even though tax revenues are projected to increase.
  • Just over 40% of the city’s spending is discretionary—as opposed to fixed or inflexible, such as debt service or pension contributions—and the discretionary category includes critical basic services including the police and fire departments.
  • Philadelphia has received substantial federal funding for infrastructure and other purposes from the federal government through formula-based allocations, but leaders can do a better job when seeking competitive grants.
  • Data analysis can be a powerful tool when used to guide city departments toward better results, rather than grading their efforts based on past performance.
  • Collaboration between council members and administrators will be key to drafting legislation that can be implemented effectively.

Participants were highly engaged during these sessions and kept the quality of the dialogue high. Some have asked for more sessions, which are under consideration. Regardless, this experience will inform Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy work going forward.

What did Accelerator participants have to say?

“The sessions were very, very useful for all of us. For me, they provided an opportunity to refocus on a variety of different topics that I’d already known about; I’m always looking to learn and grow. And it gave incoming council members the opportunity to learn about those topics, particularly around the budget, so they could hit the ground running on day one.”

  • Council President Kenyatta Johnson, council’s first new president since 2012

“[The program] provided a format where we could have necessary discussions about issues facing the city without fear of judgment and/or finger-pointing. Developing a shared understanding of those issues is essential to figuring out how to address them.”

  • Rachel Meadows, director of legislative affairs for Mayor Cherelle Parker

“Whether it’s community organizations or community members, no one’s talking to us about revenue streams and expenditures and coordinating funding for projects. It was so valuable to be able to talk about things like fiscal responsibility and what’s on the horizon, which I really appreciated.” 

  • Rue Landau, newly elected at-large councilmember

“I honestly think [being elected just before the pandemic kept council from meeting in person for two years] made things harder in terms of developing relationships with colleagues. So, for me, these sessions were very important. I want to be able to continue to build relationships with my colleagues and with the new members, too. That’s a big reason why I came.”

  • Councilmember Jamie Gauthier

Chris Arlene leads Pew’s policy team for the Philadelphia research and policy initiative.  

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