The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia government watchdog group, is branching out to include civic consulting, with the city-owned Philadelphia International Airport as the first to accept the committee’s new approach to making local government more effective.
“We were founded to improve the performance of government, to make it work better in terms of integrity, and outcomes, and effectiveness,” said Committee of Seventy CEO David Thornburgh. “So this is a different path to the same goal. To me, this is true to our roots.”
Philadelphia airport CEO Chellie Cameron said PHL had already begun a wide-ranging effort to address three areas of challenge: social media; employee engagement and training; and place-making, or how to make the terminals and other airport spaces more inviting, comfortable, and customer-friendly.
The airport said in a statement Tuesday that it had already begun looking at these three “pain points,” but decided it could benefit from the observations and insights of 18 civic and business leaders who were recruited by Seventy to take a fresh, in-depth look. The community experts took six months and generated dozens of ideas and suggestions for improvements. A preliminary report is being reviewed by Cameron and her team.
The airport will provide feedback, which will be incorporated in a final report that will be made public this fall, said Chris Satullo, civic engagement consultant to Seventy who served as the project director.
Satullo and Thornburgh said they hope the airport initiative, called the “Franklin Challenge,” named for the city’s civic innovator Benjamin Franklin, will lead to other civic consulting projects with government agencies.
“David is very eager to expand the notion of what Committee of Seventy does, not just worry about who gets elected to run a government, but how well does the government run in between elections,” Satullo said.
Seventy was paid $31,536 from the airport’s aviation operating fund to conduct research, which involved work sessions, visits to PHL, conference calls, and meetings with senior airport staff. The airport receives no local tax dollars. Funds for the study came from rates and charges paid by airlines, airport vendors, and concessionaires, and passenger-facility charges.
Satullo said the idea for the initiative, also dubbed Project Runway, originated at a Leadership Philadelphia lunch last year when Cameron was asked: “Is there anything this group can do to help you?” At the time, she talked about challenges with social media, and Satullo said he told her, “I think we can help you with some of that.”
“David and I were talking about this idea of civic consulting and how we could play a role connecting the business and nonprofit expertise in the city with government agencies and support innovators and innovations that are sometimes stranded in government agencies,” Satullo said. “This lunch with Chellie [Cameron] popped up, and it seemed to create opportunity to try this thing we had been thinking of.”
The volunteers came up with dozens of recommendations, ideas that are practical and within the airport’s fiscal and legal boundaries and will not cost billions of dollars. “We were able to put together an extraordinary team of people, all pro bono, to contribute their insights,” Thornburgh said.
The advisers made suggestions on three fronts: Improve the environment for passengers arriving at or departing from PHL, to alleviate confusion and anxiety and make the airport more welcoming; set a clear, unified customer service standard and train and motivate 20,000 employees wearing badges who work for a variety of employers including airlines, vendors, and the Transportation Security Administration; and come up with a social-media strategy to improve the airport experience in connecting with airport services on their devices. What kinds of information should the airport convey, and how should responses on different platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, be handled?
“Our job was to help reframe the way the airport looks at social media as part of a larger customer experience,” said Stefan Frank, social media director at the Wharton School and one of the leaders. “The biggest takeaway was to really think about the passenger, and you being their guide. Helping to facilitate their experience, whether it’s getting from one gate to another, or the leisure time they are spending in the airport.”
The airport expects to review the report and respond by next month. PHL said it will invite the group to return within a year to see what has been done with their recommendations.
“We see the Franklin Challenge as a new kind of civic consulting,” Thornburgh said. “We look forward to offering this opportunity to other government agencies and institutions around the city and region.”