The City of Philadelphia recently honored Assistant Professor of Economics Syon Bhanot for his efforts—powered in part by Swarthmore students—to encourage innovation in government.
Mayor James F. Kenney recognized Bhanot with an official citation and Liberty Bell award at the third annual conference for the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative (PBSI), which Bhanot helped create with the goal of using social science to positively influence public policy.
Speaking to Bhanot and Daniel Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania who helped create PBSI, Kenney said: “Because of you, the city has been fortunate enough to explore the application of behavioral science to determine what actually encourages certain behaviors to improve outcomes.”
Following the event, Bhanot expressed appreciation for the chance to contribute to the mayor’s broader efforts to promote innovation in government and, particularly, “evidence-based and not hunch-based policymaking.”
“It ended up being quite an education for me, as well,” he says. “Not only have I learned about how cities work, but I have come to appreciate the extraordinary capability and passion of the city’s public servants.”
Bhanot also thanks the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, which has supported the annual PBSI conference and, more importantly, provided summer grants to Swarthmore students, whom Bhanot cites as “central” to the project.
Over the past two summers, Mehra den Braven ’20, an economics major from Santa Clara, Calif.; Aamia Malik ’18, an economics major from Philadelphia; Henry Feinstein ’19, an honors political science major from Arlington, Mass.; and Chase Williamson ’19, an honors economics and mathematics major from Jonesboro, Ark., served the mayor’s policy office and directly engaged with leadership at the highest levels of the city’s government. They drew rave reviews from their city colleagues, says Bhanot, who is also collaborating with den Braven and Williamson on an academic paper about one of the many randomized evaluations PBSI has completed in the city.
“Swarthmore students have played an active role only because [Bhanot] has been so intentional about getting students involved,” says Williamson. “The opportunity to work with PBSI was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had at Swarthmore, and it would not have been possible without Professor Bhanot and his dedication to both scholarship and mentorship.”
Bhanot and Hopkins co-founded PBSI three years ago, with Evan Nesterak ’09, Susanne Schwarz of Princeton University, and the mayor’s policy office team led by Anjali Chainani. Beyond using social science to improve policy, Bhanot saw the program as a platform for publishable research projects.
“In the end, it has been much larger in scope than I could have imagined,” he says, “with well over a dozen active or recently completed projects across city departments, and nearly that many more in progress.”
Among them, notes Penn Today, are interventions to improve the bicycle-sharing program Indego, efforts to reduce litter in collaboration with the city’s Zero Waste and and Litter Task Force, and a partnership with the city’s human resources team to encourage employees to participate in a new wellness program.
“The work that Syon and [Hopkins] are doing exemplifies what can be accomplished when the academic and public sectors partner together to address societal problems,” says Malik. “During my work with PBSI, it was constantly evident how dedicated Syon is to this effort. I look forward to seeing how the initiative continues to grow.”