PHILADELPHIA- The City of Philadelphia today announced that the Office of Homeless Services (OHS) and the Department of Revenue will be the first departments to participate in the “PHL Participatory Design Lab” — an effort to improve the experiences of the public when interacting with the City.

The announcement comes four months after the City received a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Knight Cities Challenge award for an 18-month design lab initiative.  The Knight Cities Challenge seeks ideas that help make cities more vibrant places to live and work, focusing on three drivers of city success: keeping and attracting talent, expanding opportunity, and creating a culture of civic engagement.

“Residents should be a part of creating the type of cities where they want to live and shaping the issues they care about. The Lab will drive resident involvement in improving some of the city’s most crucial services and create lessons in civic engagement for Philadelphia and cities across the nation,” said Patrick Morgan, Knight Foundation program director for Philadelphia.

The goal of the PHL Participatory Design Lab is to employ social science and service design methods to improve the experiences of the public when interacting with the OHS intake system and with Revenue’s Owner-Occupied Payment Agreement (OOPA) that assists homeowners behind on their Real Estate Taxes and provides protection from enforcement action.

“While there’s no easy fix for any of the challenges we face as a municipality, integrating social science and service design methods gives us the tools to be creative in how we tackle and improve complex service challenges that involve many people, processes, and entry points,” said Mayor Kenney.

While OHS and Revenue vary in mission, service offerings, and populations served, they both address the needs of people who sit at different points along the housing crisis spectrum. The team will use cross-agency learnings to inform more holistic service improvement efforts.

“We’re thrilled to collaborate with the PHL Participatory Design Lab to redesign the customer experience of our intake system. The intake centers are ground zero for people in a housing crisis. We’re working to deliver dignified, person-centered and trauma-informed experiences for individuals who are facing homelessness and need our help. We’re excited to see what insights and improvements will be available to us,” said Liz Hersh, Director of the Office of Homeless Services.

“The Department of Revenue believes that in order to improve long-term outcomes, we must understand the needs of our customers and make service improvements based on those understandings. We’re excited to work with the PHL Participatory Design Lab to continue to use evidence-based methods to better service those who are eligible for the Owner-Occupied Payment Agreement,” stated Frank Breslin, Revenue Commissioner.

Service designer Devika Menon from Baltimore, Maryland, and social scientist Nathaniel Olin from Washington D.C. have been hired as the Lab’s fellows and will move to Philadelphia in November of 2017. The fellows, alongside Lab team members, will convene stakeholders in neighborhoods across Philadelphia and work with residents and City staff involved with the intake system and OOPA to understand their needs and preferences. Interventions will have a greater chance of implementation success because they’ll be designed, prototyped, and rolled out in collaboration with those who advocate for, deliver, and use the services.

The PHL Participatory Design Lab is spearheaded by Liana Dragoman, Service Design Practice Lead and Deputy Director of the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation (ODDT) and Anjali Chainani, Director of Policy in the Mayor’s Office of Policy, Legislation, and Intergovernmental Affairs and is comprised of a multi-agency and disciplinary team of service designers, social scientists, and policy-makers.

Under the Kenney administration, ODDT was created by the Chief Administrative Officer (CAO) in 2016 to collaborate with departments, the public, and other stakeholders, using human-centered design methods, to make government services more efficient, transparent, and accessible.

More broadly, the Mayor’s Office is committed to leading with evidence-based and data-driven practices to ensure sustainable outcomes. For example, the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative and GovLabPHL are on-going initiatives that foster relationships with academic partners to increase opportunities for City employees to engage in designing and testing behavioral nudges.


About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation is a national foundation with strong local roots. We invest in journalism, in the arts, and in the success of cities where brothers John S. and James L. Knight once published newspapers. Our goal is to foster informed and engaged communities, which we believe are essential for a healthy democracy. For more, visit