Politics and Public Policy

The following panel discussion took place at the Encyclopedia’s Civic Partnership and Planning Workshop, held April 16-17, 2009, at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Please join in the discussion by adding your thoughts below.

In this panel chaired by Carolyn Adams of Temple University, the discussion began with Richardson Dilworth, Drexel University, who asked how politics and policy would fit in an encyclopedia. Coming from a strong institutionalist position, Dilworth suggested levels of analysis and abstraction, with both bounded and discrete institutions. Rule systems would be important to include as well as institutional mechanisms such as voting and home rule. Additionally, he posited that habits of thought and scripts (such as that of a political leader) would provide a template for understanding the people involved in both politics and public policy. He noted the interesting levels of abstractions in the metropolitan region of Philadelphia, such as the municipalities. He added a cautionary note that a topic can disappear in its abstractions and urged the audience to remember that the focus is Philadelphia.

Larry Eichel of the Philadelphia Research Initiative, Pew Charitable Trusts, suggested tracing the evolution from WASP control leading to ethnic empowerment. He posed the question of whether Mayor Nutter’s strong support from white voters signals a shift to “post-racial politics” in Philadelphia. Government and public policy matter to people in Philadelphia and reflect a deeply entrenched political culture that tends to separate citizens into two groups: people view themselves as either users of government services or as payers, but rarely both. An important question to ask: How did the city become such a high-tax city, with a quarter of the population living in poverty and a city too poor to support their needs? He also noted the region’s importance in the last five presidential elections. How did this happen?

Wendell Pritchett, University of Pennsylvania, noted the wealth of the region’s contribution to public policy history, citing numerous institutional “firsts.” New organizations are emerging that are much different than traditional ones. The new organizations are issue-based organizations, connected to national trends and national organizations, such as the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania, and Young Involved Philadelphia. They are new and innovative and affect current public policy. Pritchett suggested that an encyclopedia could highlight them and use them to show how the city is changing. An encyclopedia could serve as a point of access to the city and a mechanism to connect current debates to the region’s past, an example being Fairmount Park and its sustainability.

Stephen Highsmith, NBC Universal, said an encyclopedia is a civic project whose purpose is to disseminate information about the city. New knowledge is key, along with an awareness of new consumption. Who is your audience? There is no need to redo the earlier 300-year history volume. The new encyclopedia could include pop culture and be more in-depth than a compilation, noting that public policy hasn’t been covered comprehensively. Highsmith argued that controversy shouldn’t be a deterrent. He saw a the need to include the city’s drug culture and its devastation to the city, along with the effects of public policy on weapons within the city, the region, and the nation. There has been a failure among leaders to address these issues effectively.

Highsmith also said it is important to include the links between public policy and culture and to acknowledge the unsung heroes of communities, such as the Women’s Aid Society of 1918 (3,000 people died in the 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic, half because of a public policy failure). Often when government has failed the city, private organizations have helped save the city. It is also important to view Philadelphia as a city of neighborhoods. Highsmith noted the community cohesion in South Philadelphia, citing the Mummers as people with jobs who did not leave the city to flee to the suburbs because of their strong affiliation to their clubs. He asserted there has been a failure of historians to address the culture of corruption in local politics, the “ideal” versus the “real” of public service. Another area he suggested is noteworthy is the impact of lost skills and the influence of newspapers on the city. The MOVE issue is important to include also. Highsmith noted that the encyclopedia is being written for a future audience in a very visual society and to keep that in mind moving forward.

Dialogue: Are there any taboo subjects as project moves forward? Caution was urged when the story is incomplete. For civic myth-making, it is extremely important to check facts (an example was given of Chicago political corruption). A suggestion was to focus on such issues as political culture and urban history, rather than on individuals. Myths could be included as part of the discussion of political culture. The question could also be posed to determine for whom corruption was functioning. The corruption discussion continued with the following questions:
Are Philadelphians corrupt and contented?
What groups were responding?
Who receives benefits?
Is Philadelphia the “best poor man’s city”?
Then a question was raised about the utility of the term corruption. It was suggested that a functionalist definition of corruption would be more helpful – corruption as an institutional dynamic of American government. The challenge is not to sanitize history.
The question was then raised whether we are introducing a notion of reform in this encyclopedia? Is our goal to improve? Is there an agenda? The motivation of government in what it does and doesn’t address needs to be included. The challenge is writing about what doesn’t happen because of political culture, economic structures, etc. To do this, one needs to compare Philadelphia to other cities.
Most public policy is not made by government officials. Several participants in the session saw corruption in the city as being dwarfed in its influence on the city by other city issues such as poverty, pensions, and the penal system. There is a need for this project to address the present needs of the region, but participants also cautioned against referencing relatively new developments without looking at historical patterns to contextualize the “newness.”
Several participants noted grassroots politics as a rich resource. We should probe beneath formal institutions, because they don’t always represent reality on the ground in the city’s communities. It was then noted that there is already an encyclopedia of non-profit organizations.
Returning to the purpose of the encyclopedia, it was emphasized that this is first and foremost a resource. As a secondary function, it can educate people that there are two ways of looking at a particular entry: for example, an entry on corruption could tell readers that corruption has been interpreted from competing perspectives: 1. rationalist/functionalist 2. Muckraking. The extent of interpretation is a challenge for this project.
When the suggestion was made that we would want many of the entries to show the relationship of their topics to power/policy/mobilization, James Grossman (representing the Encyclopedia of Chicago) recommended that if this is the purpose, it must be included in the instructions for your authors.
It was noted that policy comes from everywhere, and it is important to emphasize what is unique to Philadelphia while covering broader trends.

What are the region’s information needs in the area of politics and public policy? Add your thoughts below.

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