January 29, 2021 – By Chad Smith

To promote health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, the City and County of San Francisco rapidly moved over 2,000 people experiencing homelessness into city-contracted private hotels. These hotels, however, did not all have working phones available for guest use, thereby limiting essential services and connections for guests. The California COVID Command Center, a mixture of departments across cities, was tasked in June 2020 to initiate a pilot program to support phone access in these accommodations. As guests were being asked to shelter-in-place, telephonic communication was critical for vulnerable populations to access case management, behavioral and mental health supports, wellness screenings, and connectedness to family and friends.

In collaboration with the San Francisco COVID Command Center, the San Francisco Human Services Agency, Innovation Office (SFHSAIO) completed a user-centered, data-informed, two-phase prototyping pilot to design the best approach to successfully enroll the newly-sheltered clients onto phone services in response to COVID-19.

Since 1985, the LifeLine program has provided discounted phone service for qualifying low-income consumers to ensure that all Americans have the opportunities and security that phone service brings, including being able to connect to jobs, family, and emergency services.

Who Was Involved

  • San Francisco Human Services Agency, Innovation Office (SFHSAIO), in collaboration with the California COVID Command Center, providing Service Design expertise
  • California Department of Public Health, providing mental health and client expertise
  • California IT team, which had previously procured tablets for its housing-related work


Two pilots launched to address the problem of getting phone access to hotel guests.

The first pilot included setting up a Google Voice number on previously-distributed tablets. Google Voice is a free service that makes it possible to send and receive calls and text messages over a cellular or WiFi data connection. The SFHSAIO team worked with a number of guests to set up Google Voice accounts that included an assigned phone number. Guests could use this new phone number on tablet devices available in their hotel. The process to set up tablets was lengthy, and some guests also did not have an email address, which had to be created in order to enroll them.

Once set up, guests could use their tablets to make and receive phone calls.

The second pilot enrolled hotel guests in telephone services through a roving, on-the-ground team. The California Lifeline Program collaborates with a large number of cell phone providers who provide cell phones at a variety of rates from free to low cost. The application process takes up to 30 days from start to finish, with field agents helping to handout phones on the ground.

After researching the LifeLine plans available that would best suit the client population, the SFHSAIO team identified two phone providers that offered free plans and free phones. The SFHSAIO team was unable to identify a field agent that could be brought on site to assist guests in registering for LifeLine phones.

The SFHSAIO team then set up a space in the hotel lobby to gather insights by enrolling clients who did not have cell phone access. The team connected clients to LifeLine program administrative assistants to resolve barriers and assist client enrollment in the program.

Pilot Recommendations

When evaluating the return on investment, the first pilot was free of charge to access, but required access to tablets or devices and human support to set up and maintain. For the second pilot, there was a cost of $57.50 per client with only a 20% successful enrollment rate, which made it infeasible for the desired goal.

Because success rates were low and staff capacity was limited during the COVID-19 emergency, after conducting both pilots, the final recommendation was to a third option: handing out pre-activated phones, with limited functionality previously activated on their carrier network, at hotel sites. This avenue would reduce the strain on scarce staff resources, while ensuring a high success rate and quicker access.

KPI Metrics

The final recommendation of handing out phones with data already activated onsite was determined after evaluating the following key performance indicators (KPIs):

  1. length of time per phone registration per client
  2. success rate for enrollment onto the program
  3. success rate for conversion from enrollment to actually owning an activated phone
  4. cost per client
  5. uptake of method (i.e., frequency of usage of device)

Key Customer Journey Pain Point Learnings from Both Pilots

  1. needing email address to sign-up for LifeLine program 
  2. coordinating with guests during limited pilot hours
  3. troubleshooting for guests with existing LifeLine accounts that could not remember their info and were locked out
  4. tablet logistics (tracking, distribution, incentives for returning, thefts and damage)
  5. missing identification of required documents to enroll in LifeLine

Factors to Repeat the San Francisco Pilot Learning Processes

For state and local Health and Human Services departments exploring the best approach to enroll recently-displaced vulnerable populations onto a connected phone service, building prototypes to learn from and deliver the best experience should include the following steps:

Leadership and Management Teams

  • Gather voices across impacted teams: Talk to a variety of stakeholders in managerial and non-supervisory roles, in different departments, and to clients themselves to understand what’s working and identify frustrations and barriers. 
  • Establish metrics or KPIs: Define success using clear realities, resources needed, cost of setup feasibility, and time to implement.
  • Create strategic buy-in: Start with on-the-ground staff, and then move to Community Partner Organizations (CPO), hotel site leads, hotel site managers and clients/guests.

Direct Service, Service Design and Policy Teams

  • Map barriers to enrollment: Identify barriers for different enrollment paths and plan for them upfront. Potential enrollees, for example, may not have an email address required for enrollment registration.
  • Troubleshoot with guests: Sometimes guests will not have official documents available such as a government-issued ID. Working through these types of barriers will reduce guest frustration and lack of trust. 
  • Manage challenges with third-party phone vendors: Carefully research third-party phone vendors to ensure clients are not a victim of fraud. Contact information for third-party vendors is not commonly available, as most community interaction is done on the ground and face-to-face. This means it’s important to go through a process of vetting reputable phone providers, and following up to ensure guests received the phones they registered for if done through third-party vendor distributors.
  • Keep everyone’s “eyes on the prize”: Remember, and share in, the excitement and gratitude of having a phone again.

January 20, 2021 – By Alberto Rodriguez Alvarez + Dana Chisnell

Over the past year, we’ve seen human-centered design move upstream in the policy process. Rather than being brought in only at the implementation stage, designers and design practices have been active in rulemaking and in problem definition. Designers are working side-by-side with policy analysts, sketching and prototyping new policy programs, running design sprints to revamp delivery processes, and even setting up collaborative and iterative digital teams to implement policy and deliver government services.

Policymaking has a lot of design processes embedded within. Most of policy design as it is taught in graduate schools relies on data, cases, and white papers that abstract the human experience. Design practices offer ways to make the needs of the public less abstract. But it may not be obvious to policymakers how and when policy making matches up with the processes that designers use.

We saw an opportunity to help both policymakers and designers translate their methods so they can collaborate and ultimately deliver better policy outcomes. So we stacked the processes into a new map to visualize simple design techniques and tools, and how they can help during each phase of the policy cycle. We call it the UCP Cycle Map (or User-Centered Policy Cycle Map). You can also review our working document for more in-depth information on policy cycle explanations, user needs, stakeholders and user-centered methods and techniques.

The User-Centered Policy Design Map

We designed this visualization to meet policy makers and designers where they are. Through examples and shared vocabulary, we matched up a classical policy analysis framework to select design methodologies and tools that make it easy to bring the public into policymaking. It is a unified visual guide that shows new ways of approaching policy design. We hope policymakers will use this map to find frameworks that suit their level of involvement with a policy process and make it easy to learn first hand about the needs of the people they want to solve problems for.

This tool can help everyone involved in government policy implementation and service delivery choose the right framework to ensure better results for both their work and the impact they strive for.

To develop the UCP Cycle Map, we interviewed practitioners and instructors from the Delivering Better Outcomes Working Group, a mix of experts brought together by the Beeck Center in 2019-20 to develop resources for human-centered design in the policy-making process. Those interviews helped us understand common characteristics between policy design and product design, and identify effective methods that should be easy to implement in the policymaking process.

We also identified a classical model of policymaking that depicted a process that most policy analysts are familiar with from the Handbook of Public Policy Analysis. It divides the policymaking process into stages according to the actors and activities typically involved. We analyzed these stages through a user-centered lens, and used what we learned from our working group members to map the common policy practices and design tools that are best suited to help policymakers depending on the stage they normally work in.

Like all models, both the policymaking model and the design process model we chose to match up are simplifications. So the UCP Cycle Map does not mark the only stages or the only stakeholders involved in public policymaking, but instead centers around the most visible. The idea is to ease anyone in the policy world into matching accessible design tools and frameworks. It focuses on the most used design frameworks and design tools that are easily available. This simplification takes into account that both the public policy and design worlds have a significant body of research.

The UCP Cycle Map is a companion to builds on our initial tool, the User-Centered Policy Organization Assessment, which we released to help policymakers assess whether a user-centered approach could be used in their processes. The Assessment tool includes the basic steps for user-centered policy design. In true agile form, we want to take user experience to continue iterating. If you test it out in your own work, we want to hear about it so we can continue making improvements and providing useful resources – reach out at dana@ncoc.org.

Read Part 2 – Harnessing the Policy Power of Stakeholder Mapping

Creating a User-Centered Stakeholder Map

Alberto Rodríguez Álvarez is a former Beeck Center Student Analyst and a recent graduate from the Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. He is Currently a Senior Program Manager at New America. Prior to joining the Beeck Center he was an advisor to the National Digital Strategy at the Office of the President in Mexico. Follow him at @arodalv.

Dana Chisnell is a Senior Fellow at the National Conference on Citizenship and a Non-Resident Fellow in the Belfer Center Technology and Public Purpose project at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was in the founding cohort of the U.S. Digital Service in the Obama White House, and a co-founder of the Center for Civic Design. Follow her at @danachis.

A Tool for Policymakers

The Delivering Better Outcomes Working Group aims to design an easy, step-by-step guide directed at policymakers and public servants to help them better understand how their projects impact different actors and organizations in a policy ecosystem.
We developed a stakeholder mapping tool to help public service teams focus on the people the policy is serving. By using the stakeholder mapping template and prompts, teams develop shared understanding by creating a visualization of the different relations among stakeholders.

Why stakeholder maps?

Service designers use stakeholder maps to create visual representations of all the possible actors that can influence a particular project. Product teams in the business and financial sectors use stakeholder maps as tools to ensure that projects are successful by preparing thorough strategies to engage the stakeholders and understand their needs. If you’re a designer on a policy implementation team, you probably already create some version of a stakeholder map to identify the core user. But you might not think about the power that each of the stakeholders may hold and the political acceptability of the policy proposal or the solution you’re helping to implement.

More resources:

If you’re a policy analyst, you probably already do some version of stakeholder mapping. You probably have a list of stakeholders, in order of priority or the amount of power they have in the problem space, but you may not create a visual map of stakeholders. In the policy world, any person or organization can represent difficult obstacles or powerful allies. A stakeholder map is an easy tool that has the potential to bring the user to the center of focus. At the same time, by looking at the political acceptability and power in the ecosystem, it helps policy projects and processes be more successful.

By pulling these ideas together into one visualization, a cross-functional team now has a clearer understanding of the relationships among the actors in the problem space, as well as the dependencies among them. In addition, we can anticipate second-order effects by examining the impact not only on the core user but on all of the stakeholders in the map.

Running Your Policy Stakeholder Workshop

Whether you’re a policy analyst, a design researcher, or someone else on a cross-functional team practicing user-centered policy design, the best way to create a robust stakeholder map is collaboratively. We recommend a workshop, which you can do in person or remotely. What follows is a quick guide to help you and your team identify all the stakeholders in a policy problem space and analyze the underlying questions needed to understand their stakeholders.

The workshop is divided into two sessions of 50 min, and includes these activities:

Session 1 – 50 min

Goal Setting (5 min)

Setting a central goal of the policy or program. This could be the mandate for the project or the general change you want to create with the policy intended.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • What is the goal of your policy or program?
    • What is it that you want to achieve?

Goal: Anchor the activity on a common goal.

List All of the Stakeholders (10 min)

Identify all of the organizations and actors (or individuals) that are related to the policy project in a list. The list should focus on identifying 2 types of stakeholders: those directly affected by the policy or program and those indirectly affected by them. List the stakeholders in order of priority.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • Who are all of the types of individuals or organizations who have a stake in the problem you want to solve?
    • Who is directly affected if your policy is successful?
    • Who is indirectly affected if it is successful?

Goal: Identify all stakeholders relevant to the policy or program.

Identify the Core User (5 min)

As you list your stakeholders in order of priority, put the key person or actor who you want to solve the problem for at the top. This is your core user.

For example, in a policy project around student loan debt forgiveness, your policy might make the borrower the core user, or the lender may be the core user in your policy design. Depending on who you choose to serve as the core user with the policy solution, you’re going to propose very different goals and objectives. (Ultimately, you may end up with multiple stakeholder maps for multiple policy proposals.)

Place and Cluster (10-15 min)

Using the first list, place each stakeholder on a Ripple map with the core user in the center. The closer to that user, the more affected by the policy or program they are. Document the answers to these questions.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • If this policy is successful, who is it successful for?
    • Who is directly affected by the policy being successful for the central user / beneficiary?
    • If the policy is successful for the core user, how does the problem space change for the other stakeholders in the map?

Goal: Identify the actors that need direct and indirect engagement.

circular target-chart for stakeholder map

Categorize (10-15 min)

To understand the relationships among the stakeholders, cluster them in the map according to some affiliation, such as whether they’re private or public, what part of government they might be, topics, nature, and so on. Non-profit organizations tend to have similar characteristics and having similar engagement strategies is easier for the general project.
In a map for student loan debt forgiveness, for example, there will be multiple federal agencies. You might want to cluster those together. There will also be multiple financial institutions. You might want to cluster those together, too.

Goal: Identify the main characteristics of the relationship between the team and the relevant stakeholders.

Session 2 – 30 min

Catch-up (5 min)

Brief summary of the last session’s insights.

Goal: Making sure the participants are comfortable with the upcoming process.

Political Analysis (15-20 min)

Answer the following questions to assess the capacity and “weight” of your stakeholders clusters. You can answer the questions for each stakeholder or for each cluster depending on how you want to engage them. Document your answers.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • How trusted by the public is this stakeholder?
    • How much power do they have in the policy process?
    • What expertise do they have?
    • What is their capability to mobilize?

Goal: Understand how to prioritize engagement with key stakeholders.

Setting Actions (10 min)

After the map is done, and you’ve assessed each stakeholder, the next step is to use it! Start with the stakeholders that directly affect or will be directly affected by a change that benefits the core user and set an action.

At this stage, you may only have guesses – then you can investigate your guesses and assumptions during the project and update this to reflect what you’ve learned.

Your New Stakeholder Map Informs Policy Design

At the end of the workshop, the stakeholder map can be a great foundation to mount any strategy for a new program or policy. However this map will change as you advance with your process. And as we said, you may end up with multiple stakeholder maps for multiple policy proposals. We recommend that your team periodically check back on it, and update accordingly.

Read Part 1: Bringing Design to the Public Policy Cycle

How to lead a workshop for stakeholder mapping

January 21, 2021 – By Hayley Pontia

In a perfect world, policymakers and designers work together to better understand the services they create. Working in a cross-functional team in government shouldn’t be a rarity but it’s still new to many. This blog describes how to pair policymakers and designers to use their skills to understand stakeholders so governments can design services specifically to meet stakeholder needs.

If you work in policy analysis or policymaking, you’re used to examining who holds a stake in the policy space and what they might support. Hopefully, you’ve looked at the users of a certain policy you’re implementing, too. But you might not be so sure where to begin or who your most important user is. It can be daunting to define the interconnected audiences, but it’s a necessary step to take before continuing your policy process.

Service designers use stakeholder maps to create visual representations of all the possible actors who can influence a particular project. Product teams in the business and financial sectors use stakeholder maps as tools to ensure projects are successful.

It’s not hard to start thinking about stakeholder mapping. As a policy analyst, you may have a list of stakeholders that appear in order of priority or power in the problem space, but you may not have a visual map of stakeholders. In the policy world, any person or organization can present obstacles or be powerful allies. A stakeholder map is an easy tool that has the potential to bring the user to the center of focus. At the same time, it helps policy projects and processes be more successful by clearly defining key players across teams.

If you’re a designer on a policy implementation team, you probably already create some version of a stakeholder map to identify your core users. But you might not think about the power that each of the stakeholders hold.

One simple visualization can give a cross-functional team a clearer understanding of the relationships of different actors who have a stake in the problem your team is trying to solve. They can begin seeing the dependencies among stakeholders. Through mapping this way, you can anticipate second-order effects by examining the impact not only on the core user but on all stakeholders in the map.

This is where the policy stakeholder workshop comes in.

Whether you’re a policy analyst, a design researcher, or someone else practicing user-centered policy design, the best practice is to collaborate. A workshop, which you can do in person or remotely, is a great place to start.

The Delivering Better Outcomes Working Group, led by the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation designed an easy, step-by-step guide directed at policy makers and public servants. The goal is to help them better understand how their projects impact different actors and organizations in a policy ecosystem. Here’s an example of what an early first draft of a stakeholder map might look like.

target-like graphic with titles listing indirect and direct stakeholders and core users
Example of stakeholder mapping

The stakeholder mapping workshop can help public service teams focus on the people the policy is serving. This works through an adaptable template and simple steps for identifying and prioritizing people and organizations that care about a proposed policy. For the workshop, the guide includes scripted instructions about how to map the stakeholders in your problem space with a team. By looking at a visualization of various stakeholders, teams can create a shared understanding of the work they are doing. After mapping stakeholders, participants will have a clearer understanding of how a policy affects the core users.

Workshop Outline

The workshop is divided into two sessions of 50 minutes, and includes these activities:

Session 1 – 50 minutes

  • Goal Setting (5 minutes)
  • List all stakeholders (10 minutes)
  • Identify the core user (5 minutes)
  • Place and cluster (10-15 minutes)
  • Categorize (10-15 minutes)

Session 2 – 30 minutes

  • Catch-up (5 minutes)
  • Political Analysis (15-20 minutes)
  • Setting Actions (10 minutes)

A more detailed stakeholder mapping workshop template is available here.

Hayley Pontia was a 2020 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and graduated with a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology from Georgetown University. Follow her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/.

January 18, 2021 – By Megan Nguyen

The 2020 U.S. presidential election occurred during one of the most critical periods of our nation’s history, as our governments simultaneously navigated multiple crises. Especially during such periods of transition, one of our government’s cornerstones is providing stability to our country, and digital technology plays a significant role in making that happen. In November 2020, the Beeck Center’s Cori Zarek led an Ideas That Transform event with government technology experts Cass Madison, John Bailey, Natassja Linzau, and Shannon Sartin to surface lessons and recommendations to ensure data, design, technology, and other modern tools and practices can support key decision-makers during presidential transitions.

Watch Ideas That Transform: What It Takes to Support Data and Tech Capacity in Government Transition

Technology and data are imperative to governments because of how they make policy outcomes possible. Digital services are increasingly used to implement policy. For example, the House of Representatives passed House Resolution 965 in response to COVID-19 to allow for virtual congressional deliberations with remote proxy voting. Another example is found in The Chief Data Officer in Government playbook, which discusses how the data collected from digital channels can then be leveraged “to gain greater insights and formulate better policies.” People moving into government positions should have an understanding of both the priorities and the challenges of technology and data in order to build a more comprehensive roadmap to follow for their agencies, particularly for the early days in their new roles.

Takeaway #1: Guiding Documents Preserve Ideas

A more seamless transition can be facilitated by studying any guiding documents created by outgoing agency teams. This allows incoming teams to preserve the value and ideas of previous teams’ work, which might otherwise get lost during the transition. When incoming teams begin their roles with more insight into their predecessors’ work, they are better equipped to continue or build upon it.

Takeaway #2: Evaluate Continuity Between Outgoing and Incoming Teams

It is also important to be cognizant of who started any work that is intended to be continued. For example, Shannon Sartin shared that political appointees typically stay in their positions for around 18 months, which is enough time to get a specific program started, but may not be enough time to see its complete results. For many appointees, the success of their work depends on their successors’ abilities to carry it forward. Those wishing to continue the work of their preceding political appointees must be mindful that the outgoing and incoming teams may have different capacities, skill sets, and training. It is critical for incoming teams to determine whether they are compatible to advance their predecessors’ efforts, otherwise, it may be necessary to restructure the vision of the work.

Takeaway #3: Embrace Transitions as Potential for Meaningful Changes

Finally, government transitions should be viewed as opportunities for success as much as they are viewed as periods of disarray. Cass Madison described transitions as “the heart and soul of government.” They are opportunities to repitch ideas to incoming government leaders, especially those with aligning interests. The Beeck Center’s 2016 Architecture of Innovation report discusses how transitions should “embrace innovation and build the necessary architecture to promote and institutionalize its use as a means to achieve outcomes.” Transitions can invite moments of crisis that give government agencies the momentum to make immediate, impactful change. Key decision-makers must understand how to mitigate concerns of transitions and leverage these transitions to best serve public needs.

Megan Nguyen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. As a Student Analyst, Megan explores how data practices and digital services can help governments better serve public needs.

November 16, 2020 – By Anna Gorman

Bored in their homes with nowhere to go, quarantiners worldwide turned to Netflix — earning the company an astonishing 15.77 million new subscribers between January and March of 2020 and increasing their subscriber base to more than 195 million. But when just one of those 195 million people clicks “play” on, say, their eighth episode of the Great British Baking Show, what happens? What is the cost?

At the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, as we strive to leverage technology and data for social change, it’s important we understand how the decisions we make regarding technology impact the environment we live in. When you watch a webinar or binge “The Mandalorian,” you activate a massive network of computer servers, allowing your personal computer to download the content bit-by-bit in real-time, aka streaming video. Each of these video streams comes with energy costs — the computer needs to charge, the Wi-Fi needs to connect to its network, and the bytes of data that comprise the stressed baker’s perfectly-iced cake need to travel from data centers to your computer. While your monthly bills may demonstrate some of the energy cost of streaming on your end, the costs accrued beyond the “play” icon are a little less obvious.

Illustration by the author.

At its core, every data center that allows a user to binge their favorite show is part of the internet’s “brain” — they store, process, and communicate data to personal devices across the globe. To provide these services, data centers require a significant amount of electricity, which can, in turn, translate to carbon emissions. The energy used to power these centers is converted to heat, which must then be removed from the center using cooling equipment that uses more electricity. Advancements in technology and transitions to renewable energy have allowed data centers to become increasingly energy efficient, offsetting much of the overall recent increase in web traffic. However, in many places worldwide data centers are still powered by electricity from fossil fuels, leading to questions over the environmental footprint of spending a quarantine day watching Netflix. While the energy usage of operating a data center can be significant, recent studies indicate that streaming yet another episode of the Great British Baking Show may not be as detrimental to the environment as previously thought. 

In July 2019, French think tank The Shift Project published a study on the “unsustainable and growing impact” of online streaming, claiming that the carbon emissions of streaming an hour-long show are equivalent to driving almost eight miles. This claim was repeated in a number of recent articles in reputable popular media like Reuters and BBC as recently as March 2020, and continues to influence media coverage. However, more recent fact-checks and new studies have cast doubt on this claim and the assumptions it rests upon, which have led to an over-exaggeration of streaming’s energy use. According to Carbon Brief, a science-based news website covering climate change developments, the flaws in the Shift Project’s assumptions “seriously exaggerate the electricity used by consuming video.” Carbon Brief claims the study overestimates bitrate, the amount of data transferred per second when streaming, assuming it to be six times higher than Netflix’s global average bitrate in 2019. It similarly overestimates the energy used in data transmission networks, leading to an overall exaggeration of the energy intensity of video streaming.

Additionally, the electricity use of data centers themselves have often been dramatically exaggerated, according to new research published in the academic journal Science in February 2020. Various mathematical models can be used to estimate data center energy uses, though it’s difficult to estimate electricity usage and carbon emissions because no official statistics are compiled at national or global levels, and not every data center discloses this information. The mathematical model implemented in a study can vastly influence conclusions, and variance in results leads to general confusion around data centers’ true electricity usage. The most recent literature favors a comprehensive “bottoms-up” approach to calculating data center energy uses, cautioning that the use of older, more simplistic mathematical models that do not take into account efficiency gains have led to gross overestimations, and thus have over-exaggerated the environmental threat of watching one’s favorite mindless -or prestige- television online. According to this new research, an hour spent on Netflix is not equivalent to driving eight miles — it is much closer to driving approximately four blocks.

This is not necessarily an all-clear for the future. Today, data centers consume approximately 1% of the world’s electricity, but demand for these centers is expected to grow. As more and more of our world becomes digital, it is increasingly likely that the efficiency gains of current technologies may not be able to offset the growing digital demand. Though there is always potential for technological improvement, there is similarly potential for growth in compute-intensive technologies (like artificial intelligence) to outpace the efficiency gains that have historically limited data centers’ electricity usage and carbon footprint. 

Everyone has an important role to play in minimizing the environmental impacts of data centers and video streaming. Governments can — and should — actively encourage investments in improved efficiency strategies, and as always, should encourage the decarbonization of energy supplies and the transition away from fossil fuels. Technology companies need to be held accountable to release their energy usage data to the public, and themselves should invest in more efficient technologies in favor of their bottom line and the greater health of the planet. Within the technology sector, the growing green technology movement encourages the development of environmentally-friendly innovations, particularly in regards to clean energy.

Social impact organizations like the Beeck Center, which exists to drive social change and focuses on using technology and data to do so, can play a role in watching the environmental impact of technology and online work. All online activities, including binge watching, attending Zoom meetings, and leveraging data for the public good, accrue energy costs. Moving into the future, we must be mindful of the environmental costs of the digital demand, related to both social impact and personal enjoyment. 

Nothing comes for free. All of our actions in the coming years can determine whether “Ready, set, bake!” is about cupcakes or the planet.


Anna Gorman is a student analyst at the Beeck Center and is majoring in Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University.

This is the last in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce. 
Read the previous blogs: Encouraging the Next Generation of Digital Service Professionals to Work in Government and Why Governments Should Prioritize UX for Everyone

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

At the Beeck Center, our work in Public Interest Technology Field Building is focused on establishing greater credibility and capacity for those working to deliver services to the public.

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
Read the Report

As a part of my research surrounding emerging professionals in the government digital service delivery field, I interviewed leaders within the field to learn more about the skills, experiences, programs, and personality traits relevant to the field. The more I interview people who work in the field of government digital service, the clearer it becomes that our federal government needs workers with different experiences to be involved in decision-making processes. Although no team is complete without those who’ve worked in government before, our perceptions should be shifting towards a skillset and mindset more representative of younger workers. Increasing the talent pool with a more diverse set of voices who bring a unique set of skills and identity makeups should be a main focus of all government teams. However, just because a team actively makes space for a diverse group of individuals, it doesn’t always mean that space is inclusive. Actively making decisions to improve existing staffing systems and how jobs are traditionally evaluated is an important note to make. Considering this, I asked 10 government digital service workers what they believed to be the most important skills for emerging professionals within their field. Many of their responses echoed one another and centered on these themes.

1. Focus on mission-driven work 

“Government is really behind. Don’t judge employees within the government who are working to fix these problems. Don’t come in with a savior complex.” – Former USDS Director 

A passion for mission-driven work empowers emerging professionals as a common core value. They are dedicated to serving others and are willing to educate themselves on topics that are important parts of users’ lives. Real impact is a main priority for the products and services they create. Within local, state, or federal government alike, they realize the magnitude of their work’s ability to drive change. 

2. Bureaucracy hacking and preparing for slow wins 

“Doing big things in government takes a long time. Don’t be that afraid of multiple year projects.” – Chief Technology Officer  

Unlike the private sector, rapid change has an increased risk when implemented in the public sector, so a willingness to adapt and understand procedural nuances is an important part of a government digital service. Ideas, creation, and implementation may take much longer to enact, requiring patience and ability to reiterate innovations consistent with emerging technologies.

3. Explaining technology to various users

“Don’t be afraid to step outside of the box – take an effort to learn other things in your role.” – Former USDS Director 

It is important to understand how technologies work without actually implementing them yourself. A broad understanding of the way technologies serve people and what they are capable of is key to serving on digital service teams. Members of a digital service team all have varying backgrounds that brought them to their roles; it is important to maintain an interdisciplinary approach when problem solving and working together as a team.

4. Advocating for underrepresented issues

“One thing that is challenging for me is far more difficult for someone else and for them to be taken seriously. We need to make more space for those people.” – Former 18F Consultant 

There are many instances when certain groups are left out of the equation whether intentional or not. It should be every level of the government’s duty to shine a light on these inequalities and how a historically underrepresented group may be affected. This includes providing ample research and support to address these issues, and requires moving past pushback. Serving as a sounding board for those who may traditionally be marginalized is also necessary. 

5. A surplus of empathy

“I had a long standing understanding of the importance of trust in relationships and empathy towards those who are in hard situations. Government is an everyday hard situation.” – Former 18F Consultant 

Government is often stereotyped as monolithic in process, leaving little room for understanding and humanistic qualities, but this is most certainly not the case. Most public service employees must possess high levels of empathy, navigating different experiences and circumstances by understanding others’ wants, needs, and pain points. Their jobs are to represent and understand those who they are serving. Without a semblance of awareness of the needs of residents, it is difficult to make accurate decisions that represent the population. An emphasis on human-centered design thinking allows professionals to understand, create, and modify systems to better serve those they are affecting. This allows for great amounts of quantitative and qualitative research in order to understand the environment. 

6. Development of “power skills”

“A job in this field is 90% about building trust and relationships.” – Former USDS Consultant 

In one of my interviews, a leader in the field described often overlooked skills, traditionally labeled as “soft skills,” or more ideally, “power skills,” as some of the most important to government success. Power skills are commonly defined as technical and non-technical, serving as a hybrid for effective problem solving and communication. There are seven power skills: (1) problem solving, (2) decision making, (3) judgment, (4) communication, (5) self management, (6) collaboration, and (7) value clarification. Each skill builds off of the other serving as an ideal ecosystem of productivity. Whether as a combination of multiple or expertise in one, these skills help produce successful outcomes in government digital service teams and other innovative teams within government. 


Although there are currently limited entry-level positions available in the field, it is important to know that there is an acknowledgement of the relevance of emerging professionals in the field. It is also important to recognize the importance of transparency and accessibility of resources in order to establish a workforce prepared to use these skills. Expecting all digital service professionals to have access to developing these resources is not a fair way to judge success considering the current ecosystem. Providing more resources for emerging professionals is a key objective in our work at the Beeck Center. 

While this list is intended to provide a macro view of what may be valued of government digital service professionals, it is important to celebrate differences in approaches, experiences, and exposure to obtaining these skills. Providing clearer, more accessible pathways for emerging professionals is just the beginning. 

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com.

This is the second in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce.
Read the first blog: Encouraging the Next Generation of Digital Service Professionals to Work in Government and the final: Skills Needed for Government Digital Service Professionals

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

Before starting graduate school, I thought I knew little about user experience (UX) and what it meant, but I soon realized that it actually encompassed what I’d already been doing since I began my post-secondary education. I studied psychology and communication at the University of Pittsburgh before coming to Georgetown to pursue a career at the intersection of social impact, design, and research. Working with nonprofits and organizations such as the Beeck Center, I realized the value user experience brings to serving all people for whom government was intended, not just those government thinks they are positively affecting. What I really appreciated about the premise of UX, was the inherent effect of serving the public by creating new or modified solutions to existing, systemic problems.

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
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Those with lived experience know best what can help them and how they would like to receive support. Although this concept of UX research is still relatively new in government, it is becoming the norm as more governments focus on the best way to serve the public. At the core of UX is ensuring that users find value in what you are providing

In any public sector organization, UX methods are imperative to successfully create, deliver, implement, and improve systems. It is easy to rely on third-party vendors that offer easily accessible service delivery, tailored to their specific team and there is nothing wrong with that. But a basic understanding of human-centered design within the public sector organization can help create efficient, innovative, and cost-effective solutions in-house, and ensure that any services provided by vendors align with the same characteristics. For example, the New Jersey Office of Innovation and Colorado Digital Service have both created dedicated teams that are able to cost-effectively deliver services, such as a streamlined unemployment website and COVID-19 Information Hub through human-centered design (HCD) influenced procurement processes. Making these efforts standardized and easily accessible is an imperative towards better serving all people.   

In fact, it’s helpful for any government employee to receive HCD training so they can ensure their work truly values the ideas of others alongside their own. What becomes difficult is sourcing and providing a healthy space for UX professionals in government teams and the needed bandwidth for establishing this government wide initiatives similar to Usability.gov’s stance on a user-centered approach. Alongside those with more technical skills, the voices of those historically considered to possess “soft skills” should be seen as compliments rather than opposites. Without the ability to analyze and deconstruct complex systems, language, and products, our government remains at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering services. 

honeycomb graphic of 7 basic traits of user experience
Factors that Influence UX. At the core of UX is ensuring that users find value in what you are providing to them. Credit: Usability.gov

In order to better understand the breadth of problems UX research and design can solve, the table below describes potentially effective examples of UX within government. These, along with other methods, can be taught through various platforms such as online training, bootcamps, and educational YouTube videos in order to better develop an iterative process of service delivery through internal teams. Bloomberg Philanthropies funds innovation teams (i-teams) that encourage  city leaders to use a design and innovation lens to tackle big problems and deliver better results.

Each method can be used in almost any stage of the digital service lifecycle, although the Nielsen Norman Group suggests specific guidelines in their UX research cheat sheet. Usability.gov suggests in order for there to be a meaningful and valuable user experience, information must be useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, and credible.

Effective Examples of UX in Government
MethodDescriptionWhat This May Look Like in Government
Card SortingA technique that asks users to group content and functionalities into open or closed categories giving input on content hierarchy, organization and flow.Asking users of the FAFSA website to describe key elements of the digital service, then categorize into schemas.
Needs Assessment
A systematic process for determining and addressing needs or "gaps" between current conditions and desired conditions or "wants".
Asking users internally + externally of a service, such as Veterans Pension Program, what needs to happen in order to make the interaction successful.
Empathy Mapping

A collaborative visualization used to articulate what is already known about the user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to create a shared understanding of user needs that aids in the decision making process.Learning more about what the users are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing while filling out their 2020 Census questionnaire online.
Persona Creation for Journey Mapping

A relatable snapshot of the target audience that highlights demographics, behaviors, needs and motivations through the creation of a fictional character. Then, a diagram that explores the steps taken by the user(s) as they engage with the service is created.What the average user experiences while accessing a SSA-16 form while applying for disability and what steps they experience throughout the process.
Rapid Prototyping

An iterative approach to the development of the services involving quickly creating mock-ups of a system before it is built in production.In line with Agile Product Management, New Jersey Office of Innovation’s creation of the New Jersey Career Network, an online career coaching tool to help people experiencing long-term unemployment plan and manage their job search.

To aid in this process, the Beeck Center’s work on Public Interest Technology Field Building is focused on ways to build credibility and capacity for the field of government digital services. Within the umbrella of digital services, roles such as UX researchers and designers are slowly becoming more common in government innovation teams. Through our research understanding the government digital service field and what workers in this field need, we want to help strengthen those existing roles and establish more pathways for promotion and career support, as well as help other teams recognize the value of these skills and create new roles. We are partnering with and building on the work that people in the civic tech and digital government community have been leading for years, including organizations like the AGL Association which is providing support for the community of government professionals working in tech and digital service roles. 

Becoming more informed about what residents experience when using different government platforms will not only improve the quality of the platforms and the work of the employee teams, but the reputation of the government as committed to serving people. It ultimately leads to greater trust in government when the systems work well and services are seamlessly delivered.

Often, collective memory will reinforce the narrative that the government is just “doing the best they can” with the resources they have, but we should be asking more of our government, while also expressing patience, to create better services when they affect such a large population. The foundations of UX make this possible. By employing empathy and methodological research we are able to expect thoughtful solutions to these complex problems that have the potential to change our lives. 

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com

This is the first in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce. 
Read parts two and three: Why Governments Should Prioritize UX for Everyone and Skills Needed for Government Digital Service Professionals

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

It should be startling that less than 5% of federal government employees are between the ages of 22-29. Not only are young professionals willing to adapt and learn potentially more readily than those fixed in a system, but they may also be more capable of helping governments overcome technological problems by proactively using data and technology to better carry out their missions in this digital age. 

Ironically, some of the most knowledgeable people in the areas of technology and digital services are those Generation Z and Millennials who grew up with technology and are newer to entering the workforce — those same 22-29-year-olds barely represented in state, local, or federal government. They are the “digital natives” who can quickly adapt and learn new technological skills. They already possess the foundation that many in government may actively be working toward or relying on others to support. Because this talent pool is eager to jump into public service roles, technology and innovation leaders should focus more efforts on the recruitment and career development of this cohort of emerging professionals. Digital natives are a valuable asset to any organization and need career pathways towards government digital service. 

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
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In March 2020, a group of student Mozilla Builders launched Impactful, an online platform for technologists to develop their careers in social good by connecting them with socially-impactful opportunities and with other impact-driven technologists. Recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, community platforms such as Remote Students serve as a place where students and recent grads can share opportunities, events, resources, and help each other achieve their career dreams within the tech field.

Those of us coming out of current university programs are learning cutting-edge skills in human-centered design, focusing on how to put people at the center of systems and processes. These skills mean newer, digital native workers are more oriented towards public service, but there are still not as many opportunities available as there are in the private sector. Existing government teams that work in these modern ways, such as the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, Veterans Experience Office, New Jersey Office of Innovation, and San Jose Civic Innovation team are still in early days themselves and most have not yet been able to fully fill in this early part of the career pipeline. 

This isn’t to say that those already in the field aren’t trying to create more opportunities for emerging professionals. It is important to recognize the many barriers that existed for the inception of digital service teams as they exist now. But as those teams mature, agency leaders must focus more effort on the career development of this junior part of the pipeline.

Technologists, data scientists, and designers are changing the way government approaches carrying out its mission, and those individuals are also acknowledging the importance of creating entry points to civic tech-related jobs for recent graduates. But government leaders need to provide incentives and pathways obtainable for those seeking digital service in the public sector. 

This requires supporting the current ecosystem of professionals in order to allow them space to mentor those entering the field. Coding it Forward launched in 2017 to establish summer fellowships for current students in the federal government and those students are matched with mentors working in the public interest technology field. It’s a great model, but is limited in scope and duration. Roles in places like USDS, 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship allow mid- and senior-level professionals to focus on following created pathways through these organizations. But what is missing from the equation are pathways for people looking to gain experience in the more interdisciplinary field of public sector technology as junior- or entry-level professionals. Using the framework from research conducted by fellow students last summer, and through the work of the Upskilling the Government Technology Workforce project I’ve been leading at the Beeck Center, we are supporting public sector and public interest teams to prepare to bring in a younger generation digital service skills to actively challenge systems that require modern solutions. 

The Beeck Center is tapping into the network of digital service professionals through user research in order to better understand what makes current digital service individuals successful and what they are looking for in those new to the field. 

This year, I have been working to enable change for new talent by researching, listening, and creating useful resources for those relatively new to the field of government digital service delivery. As I head out into the workforce myself, I hope to challenge these existing systems that make it difficult for someone eager to use technology for good.

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com.

Friday, October 30th | By Jenn Noinaj

There’s a collective sense of purpose and responsibility in the public interest technology field that I’ve never experienced in any other job. The public service sector is about delivering better outcomes to the public, such as improving how individuals might receive their benefits or access services that they need, and public interest technology helps do just that. The field uses design, data, and technology to help achieve those outcomes, and ultimately serve the public good.

Since this is a growing space, it’s important for us to be intentional and design ways we can positively impact this growth. Designers, product managers, and engineers come into public interest tech for the mission. People are passionate about the work. Yet, there are still opportunities for us to improve: increasing diversity numbers, championing a more inclusive culture, forging career paths for professionals with various levels of experience, and fostering knowledge-sharing between communities, to name a few.

Building upon the great work that’s already been done, including by leaders at New America and the Ford Foundation, I’m excited to join the Beeck Center as a fellow this year to find and create solutions that will help contribute to the growth of individuals, teams, and communities in the public interest tech sphere. Our team aims to deliver on outcomes that are intersectional, equitable, and rooted in context for everyone to be successful, making sure we’re inclusive and supportive of diverse talent. This field is vast, and understanding the ecosystem, the people, organizations, and structures that make up this space, will help us ensure that our work is sustainable.

headshot of Jenn Noinaj
Beeck Center Fellow Jenn Noinaj

Prior to the Beeck Center, I was at the United States Digital Service (USDS) where I worked on transforming digital services across government by building capacity in design and technology and championing a user-centric culture. I supported multiple hiring actions at various agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, partnering with human resource specialists to recruit and hire diverse candidates. My team worked on revamping job announcements and position descriptions to attract people from non-traditional backgrounds and established a new process to improve federal hiring practices, ensuring a fair and equitable process for applicants. I also helped shape USDS’ hiring practices for designers, participating in recruiting, updating our competencies to align with the latest hiring needs, and conducting resume and portfolio reviews and interviews. I’m excited to bring these experiences and my background in human-centered design to carry the Beeck Center’s Public Interest Technology Workforce project forward.

We’ll be kicking off a stream of research to delve further into the field and identify findings and opportunities for us to tackle. We’re partnering with the United States of Technologists and the Tech Talent Project to produce an onboarding guide to serve as a starting point that can be customized by teams as needed. We’re looking at ways of building up a professional association to facilitate knowledge-sharing, community building, and training for folks interested in this field. I’m also excited to help out on other projects at the Beeck Center, and am currently putting together a guide on Discovery Sprints, a method to quickly understand a problem space and identify actionable next steps. These projects will build upon all of the existing resources that the Beeck Center already has published, such as how to get started in the public interest tech field and recommendations for digital transformation in government.

How You Can Help Us Now

Our project is looking at ways we can support those who work in this field, ensuring the workforce has the skills, tools, and resources they need to deliver on outcomes to the public. In order for us to identify how to institutionalize career support resources like professional development opportunities, mentorship models, and training programs we need to understand how best to meet the needs of those currently doing the work. I’m working with the Beeck Center’s Vandhana Ravi to conduct a Public Interest Technology Workforce Survey aimed at capturing the experiences, backgrounds, and demographics of the individuals in the field. We’re hoping to hear from anyone who identifies as a public interest technologist (researchers, designers, engineers, product managers, contractors, volunteers, students, etc.) to make sure we are considering the broadest perspectives and experiences. Based on the results, our plan is to publish a demographics report with the trends and opportunities from the survey, as well as follow up with individuals to have more in-depth conversations.

If you’re a part of the Public Interest Technology field, please consider taking the survey and helping us share it far and wide with your colleagues. The survey will close at 11:59PM EST on November 30th and we will look forward to sharing the findings with you so we can all work to improve a more inclusive field.

Jenn Noinaj is a Beeck Center Fellow leading our Public Interest Technology Workforce portfolio. You can follow her on Twitter and find her on LinkedIn.

October 30, 2020 – By Sara Soka

Millions of Americans rely on the social safety net to provide basic economic, food, and housing support when experiencing hardship. When COVID-19 killed millions of jobs and drove benefit demand to unprecedented levels, the often-difficult steps to receiving benefits — submitting documents about your income and household at a government office or by mail, waiting for a decision on your application, and needing to recertify your eligibility often if your situation doesn’t improve quickly — got even harder. Applicants have been dogged by outdated, manual systems for years, and they can be especially tough for people in precarious situations to maneuver. In March, Simon Tung told Reuters his attempts to get unemployment payments were a struggle.

“He called hundreds of times. When he did get through, sometimes he would get a message saying the system was overwhelmed and to call back. On April 2, he received his first direct deposit from New York state – for $0.”

cover of social safety net benefits report
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The good news is that there are successful examples of government bringing social safety net benefit delivery up to contemporary standards. In the last decade, a small but growing number of local, state, and federal government agencies have worked with nonprofits and public benefit corporations to make many steps in the benefit application process easier. The Beeck Center’s latest report, Technology, Data, and Design-Enabled Approaches for a More Responsive, Effective Social Safety Net examines tools and methods that are working, presenting opportunities for scale to reach more Americans in need. Government executives, policymakers, and philanthropic organizations can use the examples and case studies to leverage the renewed interest in improving the functionality of these systems in the wake of COVID-19. With the likely passage of new stimulus legislation after the 2020 general election, this is an opportunity for a large federal investment to improve the social safety net, and the chance to learn from the people who have been working in this field for years.

For instance, the nonprofit design studio Civilla worked with benefit applicants and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to combine five benefit applications into one. The new application is 80% shorter and takes half the time to process. It’s also available in a mobile-friendly online format allowing users to manage changes to their benefits, upload documents and photos, and receive text notifications.

We started working on this project in February 2020, just prior to the onset of the pandemic. The report’s recommendations are overarching and tactical, drawn from case studies and white papers from leading organizations in this field including Code for America, Benefits Data Trust, and Nava, interviews with practitioners, and news reports. The report focuses on needs with particular resonance now, when the pandemic has tried the capacity of existing benefit systems and racial justice continues to be a primary concern for the nation. Reports like this are only as useful as they are actionable, and this one offers the chance to apply the hard-earned insights of leaders in the field, who we’ll continue to partner with to implement the lessons we’ve uncovered and scale what works, making these systems work better for everyone.

October 27, 2020 – By Vaishant Sharma and Shaily Acharya

Around the world, one billion people are unable to properly prove who they are. That’s one billion people who are potentially barred from accessing critical government, healthcare, and financial services. Moreover, one in five people can’t open a bank account due to a lack of documentation. Even for those who do have some form of identification, accessing services digitally is inefficient due to verification issues and a generally lacking digital infrastructure.

The COVID-19 pandemic spotlights and renews the urgency to solve these challenges. While many countries (including the United States) struggled to deliver social and financial assistance services to those in need, over 200 countries with some type of effective identity system were able to respond much more rapidly and effectively.

Solving digital identity challenges plays a critical role as we look to strengthen our larger digital infrastructure. The Beeck Center recently hosted an Ideas That Transform conversation to explore this topic with experts from the global development, private, and public sectors. This conversation is part of a series hosted in partnership with Flourish Ventures, which aims to catalyze insights on how we might spur digital infrastructure towards a more inclusive, people-centric financial system. While the discussion touched on specific ideas on data needs and sources, verification, assurances, and standards, there was unanimous consensus on the critical roles that privacy, trust, and inclusion play if we are to move solutions forward.

Watch the conversation on Digital IDs

There are models working globally. Vyjayanti Desai, Practice Manager for Identification for Development (ID4D) at the World Bank, pointed out that while there are many successful global models for digital identity, there is no universal solution. There are a few key differentiators across the various ID systems in place.

  • What’s being implemented. Countries use either a single, centralized ID system (India, Austria, Estonia) or a federated approach that relies on different institutions and inputs (U.K. and Thailand).
  • The data needed for verification. Governments and private institutions rely on different inputs for ID-creation based on the standards in place.
  • The authorizing sources for verification. Countries must rely on sources that validate identities that are created for there to be a high-level of trust.

For every country with a developed digital identity system, there are many countries that are still grappling with the above to ensure a strong ID system can be built.

“Saying no to Digital ID is like saying no to cooking with fire. It’s there, so use it.”

In the U.S., effective approaches are emerging at the city and state levels. Miguel Sangalang, Deputy Mayor for Budget and Innovation in the City of Los Angeles, described how his city launched Angeleno accounts to better connect residents to city services. The contactless nature of the Angeleno accounts made meeting residents’ needs during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic faster and easier. Using a people-centric framework, approximately $30 million were dispersed during the pandemic when economic support was needed most. Traditional systems could have been used, but the city embraced the tools at their disposal for a safer facilitation of services. As Miguel said, “saying no to Digital ID is like saying no to cooking with fire. It’s there, so use it.” Moving forward, he views Angeleno accounts as the “digital key to LA city services”. The program has now expanded to ensure that every resident, business, and tourist can have an account, while the next step is strategizing how to scale the program.

“Digital ID is just a continuation of problems that we’ve had in the US with identity.”

Scaling in the US Requires Solving Dual-Challenges. Building a strong digital payment system infrastructure will require the public sector to effectively address both its fragmented legal identification system and its lack of digitization. Of these issues. Robin Carnahan, Data + Digital Fellow at the Beeck Center and former Secretary of State of Missouri, notes: “Digital ID is just a continuation of problems that we’ve had in the U.S. with analog identity.” The issue is less about available technology, but rather the absence of identity standardization across cities and states. Without a national ID, equal access to services becomes especially difficult. While cities (like Los Angeles) and states are turning to the private sector for identity solutions, there are some increasing successes within government. One example is login.gov, currently managed by the General Services Administration: eighteen federal agencies can now use this for government services, and it recently expanded to provide provisional services at the state and local levels during a time where digital services are essential. As Robin notes, while we can certainly use the private sector more in the short term – in the longer term, we need to figure out how to implement this in government.

“Digital ID is an evolving term. It’s not a what, it’s a how.”

Leaders are looking to the private sector. Travis Jarae, Founder + CEO of One World Identity, has worked on identity challenges across sectors, focusing on the finance industry with Deloitte, and then Google’s “know your customer” systems and the challenges to include people with no registered identities. He notes that digital identity is actually more about how people access services, rather than what services are being offered. While earlier efforts focused on building the data “pipes” (content),there has been a transformational shift to playing a data alchemist – asking what data elements we need, for what services – and combining these to provide people services at the highest level of assurance. Travis is also an advocate of private-public models, noting there are many pre- and post-COVID organizations primed for partnership with the public sector to deliver services. However, the lack of standards is becoming an increasing challenge that the private sector has not met, and are frankly looking to the government to lead. He acknowledged that there is a high-burden for the public sector to create standards, and the importance of trust and privacy. While the private sector has been able to solve some issues around trust through transaction interaction insurance and user experience, as we see in gig economy models like AirBNB, Travis noted that there is a lot of older software that breaks down trust and prevents the growth of digital identity at scale.

“An overarching goal we want to see is trust in the system and inclusion in the system.”

Trust and inclusion are fundamental to moving forward. As Vyjayanti aptly noted: “all of this comes down to managing privacy and ensuring trust.” Civil society needs to trust that the creation of a digital ID will be protected through proper laws and regulation, and that privacy will be ensured through both technical tools and “privacy by design.” For example, the identity data needed to get a dog license is quite different from what’s needed to pay your bills or access funds: the more you move towards financial and other value transactions, the more levels of assurance play a critical role. This is where the government needs to come in – particularly in regulated sectors – and all the panelists agreed on the important and much needed role for government in assurances and setting standards. The question is no longer on how the government will do this, but when. The digital economy is here and we have many models across sectors and countries showing us how to get this done. The urgency to do this is clear: governments will not be able to do public service delivery going forward unless we get this right.

Digital identity and verification has become increasingly important in our modern societies, and all of our panelists agreed on the importance of improving service delivery and access through a people-centered digital identity system that prioritizes trust, transparency, and inclusion. Specific recommendations focused on issuing government standards, leveraging existing government capabilities, and learning from international examples.

The Beeck Center is grateful to Flourish Ventures for supporting this conversation, which is part of a series of discussions this fall that aims to spur digital infrastructure toward a more inclusive, people-centric financial system.

The Beeck Center is conducting a U.S. Public Interest Technology Workforce Survey to help us understand how best to support the individuals who make up this growing field. We want to ensure that we’re considering the perspectives and experiences of the people who are doing this work. To do this right, we hope to document and learn from those who currently make up the field and have forged some of the career development models and resources that exist today. Based on the results, our plan is to publish a demographics report of the trends and opportunities from the survey, as well as follow up with individuals to have more in-depth conversations. This will help us identify how to institutionalize career support resources like professional development opportunities, mentorship models, and training curriculum that are specifically designed for public interest technology professionals.

We define public interest technology in the broadest sense of the phrase: studying, applying and/or leveraging data, design, technology, and innovation in service of the public interest. We recognize that this work has taken place for many years and consider similar terminology such as civic technology or digital government to fit within this field as well. Anyone who identifies as working in this field is encouraged to participate in this survey, including practitioners, students, volunteers, and researchers.

To ensure that your experience is accounted for in this work, we hope you will please fill out the survey and share with any others who we should also hear from. The questions ask about individual and organizational demographic information and details about your work experience. It should take about 10 minutes to complete and participation in this survey is completely voluntary. Your responses will remain confidential, anonymous, and all results will be compiled only in the aggregate.

Once you’ve completed the survey, we would appreciate it if you would please share it with your networks and those who have inspired your career in public interest technology to ensure that we are learning from their unique experiences as well. This survey will close at 11:59PM EST on Dec.4, 2020.

If you have any questions or concerns, please contact us at beeckcenter@georgetown.edu.



How does the Beeck Center define Public Interest Technology?

The Beeck Center defines public interest technology in the broadest sense of the term, i.e. studying, applying and/or leveraging data, design, technology, and innovation in service of the public interest. We acknowledge that this work has been occurring for multiple decades now under many different banners: Civic Technology, Digital Government, and now Public Interest Technology. As the opportunities and bounds of this field continue to be defined, we believe that it is important to bring in as many people to the conversation as possible. We know that this work cannot and will not be defined by a single voice. Thus, we include individuals across a wide range of experiences and skill-sets into our understanding of the field.

As New America’s Public Interest Technology University Network defines it, the field “can—and should—include people who may not identify as technologists but are at the forefront of equalizing access to technology and promoting inclusive tech policy, such as those working in the ecosystems of access, open source and creative commons, digital literacy, inclusive design, movement and activist tech, community tech, and digital privacy and security.”

Can students be a part of this survey?

Absolutely. We believe students are at the forefront of this work and that their experiences and identities must be accounted for as we continue to build the field.

Are volunteers a part of this survey?

Yes. Since the Beeck Center is dedicated to comprehensively supporting all individuals who make up the public interest technology field, we encourage responses from anyone with experience in this field including volunteers and other professionals alike.

I don’t work in the U.S. Public Interest Technology field. Should I still fill out this form?

We are only considering responses from those who identify as part of the U.S. Public Interest Technology field. However, we encourage you to share this form with others you may know working in the field for them to voice their experiences.

How is my personal information going to be used and stored?

If you choose to share your personal information with us, we may request you to provide us with your name, email address, job title, employer, details about your professional background and skills, and additional demographic information. Your survey responses will be kept confidential and anonymous. The data will be stored securely and we will actively protect your information; however we will use this information to share aggregate statistics on who represents the field today and in what capacities. Additionally, if you opt -in, we may use this information to contact you as part of our efforts to understand how to create a more inclusive work environment for the public interest technology field. To ensure consensual and ethical data use, we adhere to the data privacy policy and principles of Georgetown University.

Can I get access to the raw data?

If you or your organization is interested in accessing an anonymized version of this data, please send us an email at beeckcenter@georgetown.edu.

October 16, 2020 – By Matt Fortier

Traditional models in higher education, centered on classroom learning, lectures, and  textbooks, have fallen short of preparing the next generation of leaders. Fortunately, innovators from within and outside the institution of higher education have developed compelling models, centered on applied and experience-based education, to prepare students to have a positive impact in society. Through “gap years,” experience-based semesters, and problem-based courses, students are developing self-awareness, learning how to work with communities, and gaining a nuanced understanding of how to tackle the complex challenges of our time. 

Experiential learning is not new – educators have long-recognized the value of providing students with opportunities to apply theoretical knowledge to real-world problems. These immersive experiences enable students to get their hands dirty while pushing them out of their comfort zone, where they learn both from “failure” and “success”. As COVID-19 has forced students out of the classroom, we can seize the moment to take a closer look at these experiential learning models and how they help form the types of leaders our world needs.

This is the conversation we hosted in the third installment of our Ideas That Transform (ITT) Series, as we examined the question What if Colleges Designed Impact-Oriented Bridge Years. We dug into the transformative potential of bridge years and other experiential learning programs, while seeking to understand both the challenges and opportunities of integrating this model within the institution of higher education.  

Watch the entire conversation now.

Going Beyond the Comfort Zone 

After completing high school, Jamie Cohen made the difficult decision to go against the grain, overcoming pressure from peers, parents, and society by deferring her acceptance to George Washington University and enrolling in Global Citizen Year’s bridge year program. She worked in Ecuador for a year, learning Spanish and Quechua from her host family, while apprenticing at a fair-trade jewelry company focused on elevating indigineous women in the community through access to jobs and healthcare. 

Living in a host community and not speaking English for weeks on end, she developed “grit, adaptability, and cross-cultural communication skills,” giving her a better understanding of self and of how to best take advantage of the education offered to her at GW. She had transformed into an agent of her own journey, equipped with self-awareness and purpose, ready to navigate her undergraduate experience with a level of intentionality unmatched by her peers. 

In 2016, Jamie was among the 1-2% of students to break from the high school to college pipeline, avoiding the fate of excellent sheep by undertaking a bridge year program. Due to the impacts of COVID-19, schools like Harvard are seeing a 20% deferral rate, and nationally, first-year enrollment is down 16.1%.we’re seeing a huge increase in that number. This is a tremendous opportunity – what students do after they defer will have a formative impact on their personal and professional journey. As educators, we need to go beyond the classroom to meet students where they are and to ensure that the time “off” is not time lost rather, a positive and pivotal moment in their education.  

In founding Global Citizen Year, Abby Falik has worked for more than a decade to intentionally design a year-long experiential learning program between high school and college to do just that. She helped rebrand the term “gap year” – a metaphor implying you’re falling into a hole you may never escape into a “bridge year” that offers a safe passage to your destination. By designing a year-long experience between high school and college that is more than simply backpacking across Europe, Global Citizen Year created a deliberate transition that draws on the theory of the aptly named William Bridges. He notes the difference between the type of change that happens to you, and the type of change that puts the student in the driver’s seat, empowering them as agents of their own journey. 

Abby’s goal is to encourage young people in their curiosity and to help them build the courage to follow their convictions. She wants them to figure out who they are when they’re out of their comfort zones, to discover what it means to be human in the world, and how they can use their higher education to further their interests and goals. Her mission has increasingly resonated with educators who recognize the value of these experiences, though our conversation also highlighted some of the key challenges. 

Challenges to Colleges & Universities

When Jamie started at GW after her bridge year experience, she encountered a disconnect. She did not receive credit towards her graduation requirements, making her feel that her experience was not valued by GW. She also found it difficult to connect with her fellow first-years who came straight from high school. During our conversation, she suggested that in the future, GW could formally partner with or directly offer bridge year programs, provide programs to integrate students as they matriculate, and offer credit for the experience so that students could better afford these opportunities, highlighting the important topic of equity and access.

While there is widespread agreement among educators regarding the transformative impact of bridge years and other forms of experiential learning, changing established models within the institution of higher education is very difficult. Randy Bass, Vice President for Georgetown University’s Strategic Education Initiatives, spoke to the root challenge of implementing these innovations in institutions of higher education. He noted how “Universities like Georgetown are very invested in a very particular model. You’re either here, or you’re not. You’re either in traditional classes, or you’re not. You’re either immersed in this community, or you’re not. You’re either around people who will become your mentors, or you’re somewhere else.” The “COVID disruption” however, has changed that.

Georgetown’s Randy Bass discusses the new situation universities find themselves in.

“We have jumped the binary.”

“That you can be here and be elsewhere is newly imaginable,” Bass continued. In the wake of the pandemic,  students login to their class from anywhere in the world, or take a break from class all-together, choosing either a formal bridge year program or an independently driven experience. In fact, he noted that innovating our approach to education is no longer a luxury for some to consider but rather, a matter of survival for many universities, as enrollment numbers wane and students around the world question the value proposition and price tag of a traditional university education.

Randy summarized the idea aptly, asking 

“How do we meet the moment – this moment that is characterized by a sense of trauma for large numbers of people in our world, deep, polarization – a growing gulf of people trying to talk to each other but who don’t see eye to eye. There is a looming question: what is the role of higher education in helping to develop the next generation to be part of the world that increasingly feels disintegrative rather than integrative? How can higher education help students figure out how to be human in the world?”

Bass talks about the goal of higher education to do more than just educate.

While Georgetown does not have its own bridge year program or partnership, it recently launched the Capitol Applied Learning Lab (CALL), which provides a semester-based off-campus opportunity in DC, enabling students to center their semester on an internship, rather than their classes, and then wrapping the coursework around that experience. He referenced other burgeoning programs, from summer global immersions, social justice immersions, and alternative break programs, which enable students to “step outside the bubble of the Hilltop and meet the world.” He also shared pragmatic opportunities for the integration of applied learning to more traditional sources, such as “field work, community-based work, and client-based work, all of which can be incorporated into the formal curriculum.” 

“If you’re a parent, don’t let your kids schooling interfere with their education,” advised Abby, quoting Mark Twain as she noted that high school is increasingly a high stakes game to get into college, with diminishing room for risk-taking, failure, and authentic experimentation. 

Abby Falik from Global Citizen Year speaks directly to students and parents.

She spoke to the institutional partnerships that Global Citizen Year has successfully made, where universities like Tufts directly offer admitted students the opportunity to defer and undertake a bridge year program, with varying forms of tuition and credit integration to make the opportunity accessible to students of all financial means. These partnerships also enable students like Jamie to “find their people,” through programming that integrates students as they arrive on campus.

Seizing the Opportunity Ahead

To be clear, these innovations were underway and necessary well before the impacts of COVID-19. But amidst an incredibly difficult year that continues to test us, there are a few silver linings. In the “before times,” mainstream institutions of higher education shied away from innovations for the very reasons Randy underscored – they were heavily invested in a particular model and it was working, at least well enough. The model is no longer working, and COVID-19 has made that abundantly clear. 

Moreover, the pandemic has made clear that the landscape of education is shifting and that forward thinking organizations like Global Citizen Year, pioneered by inspired thought leaders like Abby, will deservedly gain an increasing foothold in the higher education space to form students like Jamie, equipping them with the mindsets and skills necessary to tackle the big hairy problems of our time. At the Beeck Center, we’ll continue to work both inside and outside the institution of higher education to catalyze these critical innovations and improvements while developing new models that anticipate and address the needs of the future. 

Interested in how you can drive impact in your communities, check out our Project Builder.

Interested in how you can work directly on Beeck Center projects while developing your skills as a future leader for social impact leadership? Check out our Student Analyst Program.

Stay connected with the Beeck Center for future opportunities through our Social Impact Opportunities Newsletter.

Interested in more events like this? Stay up-to-date on the latest from our Ideas That Transform Series.


October 15, 2020 – By Shaily Acharya

Every month, my dad sends a portion of his income to his parents in Nepal. This transfer of money, typically sent back to a person’s home country, is known as a remittance payment. Nepal’s remittance inflows account for about a third of their GDP, and has a bigger impact on the country’s development than foreign direct investment and net official development assistance. Without realizing it, I’ve been part of one of the largest remittance economies in the world for my entire life!

World map showing remittance inflows as a percentage of GDP
Remittance payments are significant parts of many global economies. Credit: Pew Research Center
elderly man and woman stand side-by-side in Nepal
The author’s grandparents in Nepal. Credit: Shaily Acharya

My grandparents were fortunate enough to work in formal industries their whole lives, which gave them access to regular banking services and technology, making the remittance process much easier. However, in Nepal, 70% of the economically active population is involved in the informal economy, which means they face barriers to accessing key financial services. This problem is not unique to just one country – globally, unbanked and underbanked populations face obstacles when trying to access both financial and digital services. 

As more of these remittance payments move electronically across the globe, three main obstacles must be addressed to include unbanked and underbanked populations: Infrastructure, Information, and Trust. 

INFRASTRUCTURE: Underbanked populations are more likely to lack critical resources, such as a phone with banking capabilities, a bank account linked to their phone number, language inclusivity in mobile applications, dependable internet connections, etc. Even if the remitting population has access to the basic infrastructure (through their workplace, for example), it is very likely that the recipients of the payments will not have adequate resources to allow the person-to-person transaction to be completed. This problem is systemic globally as women and minorities around the world bear the brunt of this issue far more than other populations. 

Public-private partnerships between governments and technology companies are needed in order to give the capacity to digitize remittance payments to underbanked populations. For example, India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) allows for digital remittance transactions on feature phones, not only smartphones, opening the system to a larger portion of the population. While the public sector is effective in creating initial infrastructure policies, its risk-averse nature leaves experimentation to the private sector to come up with more innovative solutions, so taking some of these risks must be incentivized. For example, Vodafone in Kenya implemented M-Pesa, a digital payments platform that followed national regulations to bring unbanked populations into the formal financial structure.

The author goes deeper into the topic of digital remittances.

INFORMATION: Even if technologies are available to ease the process of sending and receiving remittances, much of the target population is unaware of them. And if they do know the technologies exist, they likely lack the basic financial and technological literacy needed to best utilize the tools, putting remittance application usage squarely on the fault lines of the global digital divide. For anyone who has struggled to get a parent or grandparent to use a new app to chat, imagine how much harder it gets when money is involved.

Technological financial literacy education would mitigate this issue. A field study by IDinsight and Good Business Lab (GBL) in Bangalore, India, looked at how different training sessions for female garment factory workers would change digital remittance usage patterns. Ultimately, they found that both group and individual training sessions on the use of digital payment applications to send remittances were effective. When the training is conducted locally, over a long period of time, in individual communities, it has the ability to truly transform how migrant workers and their families understand remittance technologies. 

TRUST: The most common method of making payments among unbanked and underbanked populations is through informal networks of trusted local leaders, business owners, and merchants. The risks of this system are obvious – there is no way to ensure that the “middle men” of the transaction actually complete the job or if they take a portion of the money for themselves. Despite that, for those accustomed to this method of remitting money, it is very difficult to trust a mobile application to do the same job, especially if the benefits are not self-evident and the process is not transparent. According to Xavier Martin Palomas of the Digital Frontiers Institute, “even though, on average, online services are less expensive than cash-to-cash services, most remittance customers seem happy with their money transfer agent.” The issue of trust builds off of the lack of information, but there are a variety of other individual-level factors that are not as easily addressed. 

Sometimes, even education and information are not sufficient in building trust in these unfamiliar technologies – the use of the technology by trusted individuals, however, can signal the acceptance of digital remittances in individual communities. If the current “middle-men” of the informal remittance pathways increase their use of digital payment apps, we will get closer to reaching the target population than training and education alone.

These obstacles to the digitization of remittances do not exist in isolation: in order to create effective change, all three must be addressed simultaneously, requiring large-scale collaboration between private sector foundations and businesses, community organizations, and government institutions, along with any other actors in the space. For my grandparents and millions like them, the need is obvious and now is the time.

Shaily Acharya is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. As a Student Analyst in the Fair Finance Portfolio, Shaily explored issues of equity and inclusion in our current financial systems in order to create a more even financial playing field for all.

Beeck Data + Digital projects featured in Ideas That Transform series

October 13, 2020 – By Cori Zarek

Since 2014, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University has led the way with new ideas and approaches to reimagine our institutions to ensure they are designed to serve the people who need them most. 

We know we can track our package or pizza delivery every step of the way, but not an application for unemployment insurance. The technology exists, it’s just not accessible to everyone—and of course public services are far more complicated than packages and pizzas. We’ve looked at many of these systems to understand the tools and practices needed to make them better so we can work with institutions to implement change. Our Data + Digital portfolio now features nearly 30 fellows, students, and staff, and has organized around three main pillars to reimagine and rebuild trust in our institutions: Public Interest Technology Field Building, Data for Impact, and Infrastructure for Opportunity.

In the coming weeks, we’re partnering with our collaborators to feature some of this work as part of the Beeck Center’s Ideas That Transform series—we hope you’ll join us to hear more about what we’ve been up to.

see the schedule button

Public Interest Technology Field Building

The past decade has seen the founding and rise of what our friends at the Ford Foundation and New America have identified as public interest technology—using the tools and practices of modern design, data, and technology to work toward better outcomes in society. As the field matures, we’ve been thinking a lot about  how to raise its profile for greater credibility, to support public interest technology workers through skills building and mentorship opportunities, and how to cultivate community among those of us doing this work. Here are a couple events where you can learn more about our Public Interest Tech Field Building work.

  • Book club: The Beeck Center’s Taylor Campbell talks with public interest tech leader Cyd Harrell on lessons from Cyd’s new book, A Civic Technologist’s Practice Guide, on Tuesday, Oct. 20 at 1pm ET. Taylor and Cyd will focus on ways that curious, passionate people who work in private-sector tech can become civic technologists and use their careers to make a different kind of impact. Register
  • Managing change: Transitions are a way of life in government—whether there’s a change in management, new policies to carry out, or even a new administration—and we’re bringing together colleagues who have navigated a number of government transitions with a focus on continued support for data and tech through those changes. Join us on Thursday, Oct. 22 at 1pm ET for this conversation. Register

Data for Impact

The Beeck Center has long known that data can drive economic prosperity, more effective policies, and help us measure what matters. In projects pressing for data-driven approaches at all levels of government and throughout communities, Beeck fellows have led the way to make the case for data as a priority and to train teams to best use data to carry out their work. Chief Data Officers in government have a critical role helping governments prioritize data as a way to achieve their policy goals, and since September 2019, the Beeck Center has been leading states in this work as the home of the State Chief Data Officers Network. We’ll feature their work in an event next week.

  • Data-driven recovery: Join Tyler Kleykamp and Katya Abazajian on Monday, Oct. 19 at 12:15pm ET for a conversation about how neighborhood data can support state and local economic recovery from this pandemic in an event held in partnership with Smart Cities Week. Register

Infrastructure for Opportunity

When our systems use leading-edge practices and tools, they’re better equipped to serve people and to make it easier for the workers administering them. From reimagining foster care licensing, to scaling tools to make it easier for families to apply for social safety net benefits, to developing open source software for high-priority policy needs like unemployment insurance and paid family leave, our fellows and partners are rebuilding the infrastructure we need for greater opportunity and better outcomes. Learn more about some of this work in these upcoming events.

  • Follow the money: Government technology policies and projects often come with big budgets and relatively little oversight—and, unsurprisingly, most fail. Beeck fellows Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith spent four years at 18F pushing for better ways to budget for and oversee government tech projects to make them less risky and documented it in the recently released De-Risking Guide for government technology. Join them on Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 3pm ET for lessons that other government teams can adopt to avoid costly projects that don’t deliver. Register
  • Fostering better outcomes: Child welfare programs across the country help some of our country’s most vulnerable children and do so with limited resources. Non-governmental organizations such as Foster America and Think of Us work with partners, parents, and children to support and reimagine what’s possible. Beeck fellow Emily Tavoulareas has partnered with New America fellow Marina Nitze, these organizations, and public servants across the country to co-create the Child Welfare Playbook that captures tested best practices in a manner that is easy for others to adopt and replicate. Emily will facilitate a conversation with child welfare leaders on the results of recent field research examining how to improve life outcomes for youth of the foster system. Join us on Wednesday, Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. ET. Register

Through all of our efforts, we aim to work in the open and document what we find so others can learn from it and scale what works. We also work collaboratively with others—these efforts rely on entire ecosystems to be successful and we aim to convene and coordinate networks and communities of practice to work together for greater impact. Finally, we know this work is never done, so we invite you to pull up a chair and hear what we’ve been up to through this series and we look forward to adding more chairs at the table so we can do this important work together.

Cori Zarek is the Director of the Data + Digital portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. Follow her at @corizarek.

Shannon Blevins has often been recruited for positions outside Southwest Virginia, where she grew up and is rearing her own family. Blevins, the Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA Wise, has always said no. She researches the other offers, but “I can never check the box of the heart,” she says.

Instead, she is turning UVA Wise, a small rural institution with about 2,000 students, into a nationally recognized economic development actor (last year, Forbes and Sorensen Impact Center recognized one of its projects for enabling opportunity fund investments.) In an interview, she listed some of the rules she lives by to collaborate with many stakeholders and government agencies active in the central region of Appalachia. Some initiatives can move slowly, and many of the players stay the same. UVA Wise works across states, through Virginia’s higher education system and with regional and private sector actors.

You can learn more about her work in our profile, UVA Wise and Entrepreneurship in Appalachian Virginia, but here are some other words of wisdom she passes on to both students and members of the community.

cover of report showing students walking across campus
Read the Profile
  • A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’
  • Don’t hold grudges. Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.
  • If you get something started, but there’s a partner that’s better suited, step aside.
  • You have to continuously remind yourself, you can’t be married to your programs.
  • Don’t have all the answers. Somebody in the room, other than you, has the answer.
  • Be intentional about developing the norms of the group, and “don’t ostracize folks that are territorial.”
  • Don’t get above your raising. No one group could do those projects on their own. It is messy work. It is messy, messy work, and it can be emotionally draining.

Data + Digital

  • Modernizing Government

  • 2020 Census

  • State Software Collaborative

  • U.S. Digital Response

  • Data + Justice

  • State CDO Network

  • Other


Fair Finance

  • Inclusive Community Impact Investing

  • Creating Equitable Capital Markets

  • Reimagining Community Investing for the 21st Century

  • Other

Sustainable Student Impact



This is part 2 of a series. Read Part 1

September 21, 2020 – By Betsy Zeidman, Cristina Alaniz and Iliriana Kaçaniku

Since America’s inception, immigrants and refugees have come to the U.S. in search of a better life. They settle with or near family and seek employment using the experience they bring from their home countries. They may access resources provided by government or social service agencies, or in the case of refugees, resettlement agencies. They receive services for a set number of weeks and success is determined by how many find a job upon completing the program. But little incentive exists to find a “quality” job, that is, one with equitable benefits and compensation, support in and out of the workplace, and growth potential. They often end up working in grocery stores or as home health aides, and are frequently overlooked by their customers and clients.

But this may be changing. The global COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our country on the value of “essential workers,” and heightened awareness of the large numbers of immigrants and refugees that compose this workforce. At the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, we see the many barriers these workers face in trying to integrate and advance in the workplace, and the long-term impact of such barriers on our society and economy as a whole. With the support of the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund, we have explored expanding the economic integration and mobility of immigrants and refugees through financing workforce training.

Recognizing that this is a multi-faceted challenge requiring multi-faceted approaches, we recently convened two meetings of individuals, intentionally selected for their diverse expertise in workforce training, immigrant integration and finance. During the first session, we focused on development and training programs and identified a number of best practices for programs serving this population. Our second session explored ways to finance effective training programs, which we summarize here.

The workforce development field is large and scattered with many players and fragmented funding, with the path for immigrants and refugees even more complex (See Figure 1). We also have little data on many critical elements, such as how many immigrants and refugees participate in workforce training programs (as they are not tracked as a discrete group); and how much it costs to train a worker (as important ancillary costs are rarely tabulated). We do know that money for these programs comes from government (federal, state and local), philanthropic grants, the immigrants themselves, and employers seeking to upskill their workers – with some supporting the programs and some offsetting the cost to workers. These funds then get distributed to organizations through charitable grants, loans, “earn & learn” apprenticeships, public-private partnerships, and more. Together, these financing efforts are important, but a large capital gap remains, as workforce development’s demand for funds simply outweighs its supply.

Chart of Marketplace of Immigrant Workforce Development and Funding
Figure 1 – Marketplace of Immigrant Workforce Development and Funding.

In seeking options to fill that gap, discussion participants agreed that capital supporting workforce development programs should be patient and flexible; how to find and deploy such capital is the question. There were multiple options, but six key recommendations emerged.

Clarify the problem, identify the program(s) that could solve it, and then determine the most appropriate source and form of capital to cover the cost. Discussions around funding often submit to the lure of innovative financing vehicles that can become overly complex and difficult to implement, and organizations lose sight of the problem at hand – immigrants and refugees need quality jobs, and employers need trained workers. Focus on those needs first, and then figure out the best funding tool.

Structure financing to reward and incentivize measurable outcomes. If the goal is higher wage jobs, establish benchmarks for measurement, track data rigorously, and share results. Pay-for-Success (PFS) models champion this type of outcomes-based financing, and there are several workforce PFS pilots underway. Two examples include:

  • The Massachusetts Pathways to Economic Advancement Social Impact Bond (SIB) raised over $12 million from private investors to front the cost of expanding vocational English language lessons designed for immigrants & refugees in Boston. Launched in 2017, investors received returns early, and trainees saw increased earnings as measured by administrative wage data.
  • Philadelphia Works, the city’s Workforce Development Board, is piloting a slightly different SIB, one that trains workers for a single employer. The employer (in this case, Comcast) is the ultimate payor, reimbursing the non-profit based on preset targets for both employment and retention. A third party monitors and measures results. Comcast’s involvement at the outset ensures that the training supports actual jobs.
  • There are also publicly funded programs that tie payment to performance measures. For example, Texas State Technical College receives payments from the state based on the earnings of its students over their first five years post graduation.

Align financing with growth. These variations on the PFS models use growth as the proxy for success and help mitigate risks to the trainee. Examples include:

  • An Income Sharing Agreement (ISA) allows people to enroll in education programs for low or no cost, and pay tuition over time as a share of their earnings. These have traditionally been the province of students in 4-year college programs and challenged due to their high interest rates. The San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP) is piloting a student-centric ISA: interest rates are reasonable and no repayment is due until a student’s annual salary is at least $40,000. SDWP is the first Workforce Board to try an ISA.
  • The Career Impact Bond (CIB), developed by Social Finance, is similar to the ISA and the SIB, as it draws together a wide variety of stakeholders (employers, training organizations, donors and investors) to advance economic mobility among overlooked communities. The model integrates incentives and aligns risk among all parties:
    • the training entity fronts some of the initial costs, with repayment from investors;
    • high quality training for sectors in need of workers (in this case IT) maximizes job placement;
    • building in philanthropic support allows the CIB to finance wraparound services (linked to higher completion rates), and
    • student-centric terms similar to those used by SDWP increase repayment.
  • Revenue-Based Models: Where ISAs enable individuals to access training and pay for it once they generate income, revenue-based financing allows commercial entities to access capital and repay it once they generate income. This financing (also known as royalty financing) could serve as an alternative to debt for training organizations that support immigrants and refugees (and is of particular interest to Muslim immigrants whose tradition rejects paying interest). However an organization must have a clear plan to generate revenue, e.g., a contract to train the workforce of a stable employer.

Braid in different streams of capital – public, philanthropic and private – in two key ways:

  1. Staging: Program needs evolve over time, so staging sources and structures of capital may make sense. Government and philanthropy support training for basic skills, such as English language learning. As workers seek more specialized training, employer support kicks in.
  2. Blended Models: Workplace solutions increasingly appeal to impact investors and foundations seeking opportunities for mission-related investments. A blended capital fund may support a training program, where sources with low- to no-return expectations (e.g., philanthropic funds’ program-related investments) could absorb risk that private capital generally wouldn’t bear.

Research all available pools of capital. Important sources of capital for workforce training and development can sometimes be overlooked or underutilized, so supporters should be sure they are looking into all available options. A few examples include:

  • Government funds resting in federal, state and local programs. For example, many community colleges providing workforce training can receive funding for administrative services from SNAP E&T (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education and Training). SNAP E&T also covers a student’s tuition and fees, and a portion of ancillary expenses, such as books, dependent care and transportation, as do Pell Grants. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) channel funds to local workforce departments.
  • Equity to help build businesses that provide or support training, participate in purchasing cooperatives and make investments in social enterprises that provide critical support services.
  • Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) as useful (and underutilized) partners. They exist amid the targeted populations and know the communities’ needs. They are patient and flexible, and often provide a bridge to mainstream capital. In the recent economic crisis, they have been invaluable and are largely limited only by their size.

Keep it local. Local community partnerships can finance effective, sustainable workforce training programs. As an example, the Alamo Colleges Westside Education and Training Center is a specialty campus for workforce development of immigrants and refugees on the West Side of San Antonio, Texas. It represents a collaboration among the city, local economic development department, community college, school district, small businesses, nonprofits and funders, and offers targeted academic programs and social service services. When the last Levi’s plant closed the facility became available and the full community rallied. Government, foundations, and employers provide financial support.

In partnership with the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, the Beeck Center began exploring effective ways to finance and expand the economic integration of immigrants and refugees through workforce training a little over a year ago, when the world was a very different place. The arrival of COVID-19 clarified the importance of these efforts, and highlighted areas of opportunity, including:

  • We must get better data on the immigrant and refugee population. They are not simply a subset of low-income communities.
  • We know that these efforts work best when all stakeholders have skin in the game, so we must embed such mechanisms into partnerships of all sorts: labor-management partnerships; public-private partnerships; community collaborations, to name a few.
  • We know the field needs patient, flexible capital, so we must tap the ultimate patient capital, philanthropy. However, funders must not simply hand over grants. They should lean into risk mitigation and use their funds to catalyze the participation of new providers of capital.
  • We must determine which outcomes-based models work best, and for whom and replicate those with attention to each market’s local context.
  • We must consider the systemic issues that hinder immigrants and refugee workers, and advocate for incentives that support pro-worker programs.
  • We must remember that amid all these challenges, opportunities exist for those who remain aware. For instance, the Building Skills Partnership (BSP) recognized that before businesses could reopen after the COVID19 quarantine, they would need deep cleaning and sanitizing. Given the numbers, this would create a huge demand for workers. The Labor-Management Partnership created a program to train its janitors to meet this need.

We look forward to sharing these and additional lessons we’ve learned over the past year, and hope to help inform the broader diversity of stakeholders in the workforce development field as they move forward.

Betsy Zeidman is a Fellow in the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center

Iliriana Kaçaniku is a Consultant in the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center

Cristina Alaniz is a Student Analyst in the Fair Finance team with the Beeck Center.

September 16, 2020 – By Cristina Alaniz 

Understanding key components that drive successful social service programs, specifically centered around workforce development training, is a theme that I have explored over the course of the last year. As a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, I focused on a project, supported by the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, to identify approaches that could drive additional capital to workforce training and development of immigrant and refugee workers. 

As the world enters its eighth month of the pandemic and ongoing economic uncertainty, vulnerable communities face increasing barriers to economic prosperity and social inclusion. During this trying time, the world must not forget to continue to support these populations and equip them with the tools necessary for survival. Refugees are a group especially at risk. According to the United Nations High Refugee Commissioner (UNHCR) the current global refugee crisis has hit a record high of approximately 79.5 million forcibly displaced people. As the pandemic hinders the ability of countries to welcome refugees and provide adequate resources, digital gaps and disparities in access to healthcare will likely heighten the frustrations and needs of this population.  

Resettlement States provide refugees with legal and physical protection, including access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals. (UNHCR)  By way of this, the States adhere to the delivery of a “social inclusion framework” that creates opportunities for refugees to develop their ability to reach self-sufficiency. According to the World Bank, social inclusion barriers include not only legal systems, land and labor markets, but also attitudes, beliefs, or perceptions. This is crucial, as cultural barriers are predominant factors that may prevent immigrant and refugee communities from reaching social inclusion rapidly or at all. As resettlement and welcoming efforts are made around the world, societies begin to recognize that a social inclusion framework is multi-faceted and blends with the economic development of the State. 

Unfortunately, the health of our global economy is weak and is predicted to shrink by at least 5.2% this year. U.S. unemployment continues to fluctuate and stands at 8.4%. These uncertainties decrease opportunities for vulnerable populations, as well as pose a major problem for States; a capital problem. With funding fragmented across government-funded programs and an expected uptick in demand for social services from both refugees and national citizens, how can States look to private funding to help solve the capital problem and create a sustainable social inclusion framework? As impact investors seek to use their capital to address structural barriers, can we rely on them to make blended capital (a mix of government, non-profit grants, equity investors and lenders) a more permanent solution for funding social services programs?

A Solution: The Social Impact Bond (SIB) 

The Social Impact Bond (SIB), “is an innovative financing mechanism that shifts financial risk from a traditional funder — usually government — to a new investor, who provides up-front capital to scale an evidence-based social program to improve outcomes for a vulnerable population. If an independent evaluation shows that the program achieved agreed-upon outcomes, then the investment is repaid by the traditional funder. If not, the investor takes the loss.” (Urban Institute) 

Chart of Social Impact Bond
A model of a social impact bond. Credit: “A Critical Reflection on Social Impact Bonds”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, May 1, 2018

Over 175  SIBs exist around the world. These vehicles have largely focused on financing social welfare and employment projects and can help reduce the cost of public services for taxpayers. The U.K., home to the first SIB (2010) has the largest market exposure, followed by the U.S. As of 2015, SIBs have gradually made their way into the developing world, where they are often called “Development Impact Bonds”. The average life of a SIB is typically 2-5 years and the number of individuals served varies by motivation for project, project objective and issue area. As an example, we look to Nordic efforts, where social inclusion frameworks are well thought out and incorporate beneficiary feedback. Finland, a country who sought impact investing initiatives, designed a SIB that solves for rapid employment integration of immigrants and refugees, satisfying a key measure of its innovative social inclusion and participatory framework for arriving immigrants and refugees in Finland. This project also helps the country reduce resettlement/social expenditures.

Finland: A Case of Compassion for Inclusion of Immigrant Blue-Collar Workers 

In Finland the admission limit of 750 refugees is set in consultation amongst various government agencies. The “Koto-SIB” program is an integration social impact bond structured to help with integration of immigrants who have been granted a residence permit, but are not Finnish citizens. The demand for rapid employment was evident and Finland knew that an influx of asylees and refugees would benefit from the Koto-SIB. This €10 million project attracted strategic partnerships amongst various stakeholders and diverse employment sectors, that enable immigrants to train and work in blue collar jobs. From 2015 to 2016, project evaluators explored blue collar job pathways that would prepare immigrants and refugees to enter the Finnish workforce, by designing a model that would develop an individual’s work life skills, societal and cultural capabilities. Susanna Pieponnen, a senior advisor at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, who helps oversee the Koto-SIB program, provides insights on the structure of the model, outcomes and some of the lessons learned thus far. We spoke via phone, the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Who was your target group?

Susanna Pieponnen: Our target group: unemployed immigrants between the ages of 17-63, who were ready to work, had a desire and motivation to learn Finnish and accept blue collar jobs. We aimed to target 2,000 individuals over a 3-year period beginning in 2016. The first cohort began in 2016 and currently we are in our 4th cohort. 

Tell me about the feasibility and structuring of Koto-SIB. What do you think Finland did differently from other SIB models that target immigrant challenges?

The program aims to place immigrants in jobs within 4-6 months. It is designed for adults who know what type of job they want. The program helps participants learn basic language, navigate cultural settings in the workplace and material that is sector specific. So, it’s very cultural. But mostly, it is flexible. 

How is success measured?

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment will commission an external evaluation after the trial. In the evaluation, the taxes paid and unemployment benefits received by those who participated in the SIB project are compared to the taxes paid and unemployment benefits received by the control group. From the State’s perspective, the trial is a success if the taxes paid by those participating in the experiment are higher and unemployment benefits they received are lower than in the control group. We believe that all parties will benefit, so this is a win-win approach for employers, immigrants, investors and society. 

What are some of the lessons learned? 

One mistake the government learned early on was assuming immigrants and refugees had to study for a longer period of time and go through a traditional 4-year college. When end-users were asked what they thought of blue collar jobs (ie. drivers, kitchen cooks, hospitality roles), they believed that once a bus driver, always a bus driver. Their confusion about blue collar jobs was contributing to exclusion.  Culturally, the jobs were not up to par, but explaining the value of blue-collar jobs and providing them with pathways to advancement, made job placement easier. There seemed to be more understanding of how they could transition from blue-collar jobs to white-collar jobs as we delivered training and reminded them that every job is valuable. 

Can the U.S. apply lessons from the Finland SIB model to solve for rapid employment of refugees in the U.S.? If so, why or why not? 

The U.S. holds the largest refugee admissions in the world, but recently has welcomed the lowest numbers in its history, with less than 8,000 refugee admissions in 2020. Federal, state and local governments contract with social service delivery organizations to deliver  resettlement services, such as job training, English language instruction, similar to the structure in Finland. Refugee admission processes are similar between both countries. Finland welcomes refugees under the refugee quota determined by the state budget; in the U.S., refugee admissions are determined by a presidential determination in consultation with federal and state offices. However, a significant difference amongst the two countries is the timeframe of integration for a refugee. In Finland it is a 3 year process assessed by local employment offices from the day of arrival. In the U.S., a refugee is expected to reach integration within 6-8 months and interacts with multiple service providers. With limited time for integration, the U.S. could use rapid employment advancements as a universal framework. Another key difference is that Finland has leveraged the need of rapid employment as a solution, not a problem. With fragmented funding and a dismantled resettlement program in the U.S., now is the time to revisit the existing gaps of our domestic social inclusion framework and adapt to better solutions. 

The first U.S. workforce SIB, the JVS/Social Finance “Massachusetts Pathways to Economic Advancement Pay for Success Project,” is already demonstrating success, both in terms of returns to investors and impact for participants. The SIB launched in 2017, to support 2,000 adult English language learners seeking to transition to employment, higher wage jobs, and/or higher education. Centered around English language needs, the model includes a workforce development component and rapid employment. The Massachusetts PFS model targets English learners who are potentially past the 6-8 month integration period. Both SIB models serve their States’ social inclusion frameworks, however, Finland has implemented the model from  initial points of resettlement and integration, whereas in the U.S., it picks up where initial resettlement efforts end. There are many commonalities between both models, so why is this not replicated beyond the state of Massachusetts and integrated to initial resettlement and social inclusion efforts?

As funding for social adjustment programs becomes scarce across all levels of government in the U.S., innovations such as the “Koto-SIB” model, may help serve as a blueprint for local U.S. state governments to advance rapid employment placement and integration of immigrant and refugee communities. The “potential” if applied, could help generate a win-win approach across governments, local communities, emerging employment sectors (e-commerce and agriculture) and investors looking to expand corporate social responsibility (CSR).

*A special thanks to Susanna Pieponnen of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment in Finland and Mika Pykko of The Finish Innovation Fund Sitra, for their support and collaboration. 

NOTE: Cristina also spoke about her work with WES Mariam Assefa Fund. Read her interview.

Cristina Alaniz was a student analyst with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University and continues to be a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service (SIS).
Linkedin: http://linkedin.com/in/cristinalaniz Email: ca3919a@student.american.edu

September 15, 2020 – By Amen Ra Mashariki

The myriad issues we are dealing with around the spread and impact of COVID-19 in city centers reminds me that we must be forever vigilant when it comes to ensuring government, local NGO, relevant private sector and national and global health data is updated, available and accessible. In 2015, 128 New Yorkers were infected and 12 people died as Legionnaires bacteria spread through untreated water in a building’s cooling tower. During that time, I was New York City’s Chief Analytics Officer, leading the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics. My job was to translate challenges like this into questions that could be answered using analytics, and get agencies to use their data in a new way.

What I learned then is that Legionnaires can be a fatal form of contagious pneumonia that preys hard on the elderly and people with compromised health. Legionella bacteria are found in different freshwater environments, such as water tanks, hot and cold water systems, and cooling towers, but it grows especially well in warm water. People become infected by inhaling contaminated droplets and mist released from water systems.

One of the main sources is contaminated central air conditioning cooling towers. There are over one million buildings in New York City, many of which are decades old, and the city has limited resources for inspection. Where do you begin?

Machine Learning Can Help a Human Crisis

During the 2015 outbreak, we began with data to identify locations with the biggest risk for potential outbreaks. At the time, New York City did not have an existing list of cooling tower locations. The team worked around the clock for weeks pulling in fragments of information from multiple agencies. We built a data management process from scratch to gather, integrate, and ensure the quality of cooling tower inspection data on a daily basis. From this, we built a machine learning algorithm.

Machine learning refers to a set of data-driven algorithms and techniques that automate the prediction, classification and clustering of data. Machine learning can play a critical role in spatial problem solving like this one — where do we even begin to look for deadly bacteria in a city of 8.5 million people?

We used machine learning to identify buildings likely to have contaminated cooling towers by understanding cooling tower locations based on building types and land attributes. The team was able to raise the hit rate for identifying cooling tower locations from 10% to 80% with data. That means, every 8 in 10 attempts to identify a building with a cooling tower was successful. The bottom line? Building inspectors were able to identify contaminated cooling towers faster and save lives.

From this machine learning project, the Building Intelligence tool was born. The tool is a 360-degree reconciled database for buildings that provides information more quickly and easily to agencies across the City.

computer generated map showing New York City buildings
The New York City Building Intelligence Toolkit identifies which buildings have been inspected and gives officials a fast way to react to problems. http://coolmaps.esri.com/NYC/BIT3/

The Legionnaires cluster was located in buildings without a cooling tower, but they were connected and shared a hot water supply. Three became infected and one died over the course of a year. The simple fact that a common variable was identified in these separate cases over this long period of time is thanks to the City being prepared and having data at the ready.

Emergency Drills are for Data too

I’m confident that New York City will be able to contain this cluster so it doesn’t lead to an outbreak like what we had three years ago, but during the next emergency, invariably, we will find we need access and answers to something we don’t know we need. This is what I call the unknown unknown – data we don’t even know we don’t possess.

How can we possibly collect data on everything we may possibly need? That’s where data drills come in handy. When faced with an emergency, we come upon challenges and significant data gaps. As a result, we become aware of needs we could have never predicted prior to that crisis and can fill those demands before such emergencies get completely out of hand.

Data drills are a concept that started in New York City. They are developed and conducted based on a specific operational challenge involving data and require multi-organizational cooperation to achieve a desired result. They can be designed for individual scenarios such as a Legionnaires outbreak or capacity building, asking questions like, “Do we have data on cooling towers and plumbing city-wide?” Data drills can also be used for operations development as well as software testing.

Overall, data drills are a mechanism for helping a city to baseline citywide data practices. They’re also a mechanism for guiding a city towards improving the ability to identify, understand and use data to solve a city challenge when requested in real time.

Data drills make a city smarter about the information it holds and that is key to using data and analytics to make a city safer, smarter, healthier, more efficient, resilient, sustainable, and equitable. Regardless of whether or not urban analytics are immediately necessary to remediate a situation, for any city, data drills should be considered phase zero — constantly running in the background at a cadence that keeps the city’s data ready to be put into action.

Amen Ra Mashariki is a fellow at the Beeck Center and Global Director of the Data Lab at the World Resources Institute. Follow him at @AMashariki.

Stillman College, the historically Black college founded in 1870, has an ambassador extraordinaire: its choir, which tours across the country and often brings its audiences to tears. Its performances have changed lives.

Bob Herrema still remembers a performance of the Messiah in 1969, when he and a fellow church member organized a combined performance, with the Stillman Choir and string students from the University of Alabama. Before Herrema raised his baton, he turned to look at the audience – and saw Stillman’s Brown Chapel filled with faces of all colors. Before the performance was over, some would be in tears.

Stillman College choir in robes sing onstage
The Stillman College choir performs. Credit: Stillman College

“Stillman turned out to have an impact for the rest of my life,” he says. Herrema, who is white, had arrived at the school to take the job knowing how good the music of the Black tradition was. He left knowing how easily people could connect across race through music, and how much they would be moved by the connection. For the rest of his long career as a professor and a chorus leader, most of it in Pennsylvania, he incorporated composers like Moses Hogan in the repertoire.

The choir’s power has resonated many times over the years for others, says Jocqueline Richardson, an alumna and the choir’s director. “When we sang Somebody’s Praying – when we sang that in St. Charles, a church that was in Hurricane Katrina, you understand, the members were crying.”

There are about 40 choir members; a more select group tours each year. Richardson ticks off other performances that were meaningful, including one in the church where former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is a member. The choir’s tour of churches near San Francisco included performances of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, O Freedom, and I ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, among others.

The repertoire, she believes, is key. It consists of, among many others, Handel’s Messiah and Ernani Aguiar’s Salmo 150, and spirituals arranged by William Dawson and Moses Hogan. The choir has the diction, talent and passion to move across the traditions and give each one equal weight.

Charlie Mitchell, a student in the 1970s, went on to get a PhD in music and became a music leader, now in Louisville, Kentucky. Herrema remembers him as a tall, lanky young man, with his sleeves too short. “I found him at the piano one day, saying “This is the music I want to play,” remembers Herrema, who introduced the choir to such hymns as Give Ear To My Word – a phrase Mitchell remembers to this day as foreign to his.

Watch the Stillman Choir perform at Westminster Presbyterian Church – Birmingham, Ala., February 3, 2019

Today, Mitchell, who is an organist, plays Bach in the same performances as Ulysses Kaye. At a performance in southern Indiana, he focused on the work of composers from the African diaspora, such as Ulysses Kaye, Florence Price and Fela Sowanda. A nationally known organist came up to him afterwards, and somewhat stiffly, but warmly, said the concert had been “well received.”

“I figured I’d arrived then,” says Mitchell with a laugh. “I grew up on a farm in rural Alabama. My people were farmers. The choir at Stillman and the touring we did … singing in those churches, listening to the organ, showed me what you could do with music.”

Learn more about Stillman College, and how it’s working with investment and development firms to use real estate assets to generate revenue, catalyze economic development in underserved areas, and provide workforce training for their student populations in Part 2 of our Impact in Action series, Untapped Assets: Stillman College And The Landscape Of HBCUs.

September 11, 2020 – By Joanna Moley

When I graduated from Georgetown University in 2018, I thought I should strive for a linear career path, one that would end in the all-important dream job. Now, I can admit I don’t even know what my dream job might be. Internship experiences and two years in the workforce have taught me to approach every professional opportunity with intentionality and embrace the skill-building process instead of narrowly focusing on a specific aspirational role.Thus far, I have started each of my jobs with a hypothesis about what I want to learn and where the opportunity might take me in the long term. Just like in school, I have found that it’s ok when your hypothesis is wrong, you simply figure out why and pivot.

During the summer of 2017, I had the privilege of being selected as a Beeck Center GU Impacts fellow working for Yanbal International, a global for-profit company with a social impact mission. I was based in Lima, Peru and despite being nervous about working in Spanish for the first time, I took the position in order to test the hypothesis that my Latin American Studies degree in the School of Foreign Service meant I wanted to work in Latin America. During my 10-week fellowship, I collected valuable information about what I wanted and didn’t want in my post-graduate career. While I loved the social impact focus of my work, I felt unsatisfied within the corporate structure of the enormous company. It was sometimes difficult to adjust to living abroad, but I also found traveling throughout Peru and making new local friends exhilarating. I noticed that the experience of living abroad was enriched by the support and mentorship provided by the Beeck Center back home, which clued me in to the potential structure of international work I might be interested in after graduation. I took note of every aspect of this professional experience and emerged at the end of the summer with more fully formed goals for my upcoming job search.

woman and man talking to group outdoors under a tent
Joanna Moley judges an English-language spelling bee for students served by the organization where she worked during her time in Medellin, Colombia.

During my fellowship, I solidified my desire to work in Latin America and gained the skills and connections to do so. For my first post-graduate job, I tested a new hypothesis that my ideal job would include working abroad at a small, local NGO, and accepted a position on the communications team of an international education organization based in Medellin, Colombia. I quickly realized that communications is not my calling, and positioned myself to earn a promotion to the role of International Volunteer Coordinator. In this role, I hired and managed a group of international volunteers, all older and more experienced than I was in international service. While I was initially intimidated by this dynamic, I reached out to my personal and professional network for support and resources that helped me successfully tackle challenges such as navigating the Colombian visa process and leading volunteer onboarding and trainings.

After working abroad for a year, I felt surer than ever that my career path was centered around Latin America and social impact work. However, the frustrations of a tiny organization led me towards my next hypothesis, that I would be most satisfied working at a large international NGO with a focus on Latin America based in the US. Specifically, I was looking for a position where I could gain grant management and other transferable administrative skills that my previous position in Colombia had not necessitated. This brought me back to DC, where I currently work on the Latin America team at a mid-sized international NGO. When I began this job, I felt intimidated by all the unfamiliar procedures I had to learn just to catch up, but, through hard work, I learned the administrative skills I needed to become a valuable team player. Additionally, my previous experience at a small, local NGO in Colombia gave me unique insight into the operating capacities of our team’s partners in Latin America, which is invaluable to my programmatic work. Coming from such a small organization, I initially felt anonymous on a larger team. However, I soon learned how to advocate for myself in order to earn more responsibility, and how to lean on my team members for support and mentorship.

As ridiculous as it feels to write “looking back on my career so far…” when that career has only spanned two years, I have learned some valuable lessons that would certainly surprise my college self. I now believe that building a career is not a linear exercise, but is an ever-evolving process, and the jobs you end up in at the beginning of the journey are not as important as the skills you build and the connections you add to your network along the way. I am extremely grateful to the people who have mentored and supported me throughout my professional experiences thus far, and I have no regrets about the paths I have taken. In every position, I built the skills and contacts to help me to move on to the next one, each time getting closer to the fulfilling career that I am striving toward. The key has been seeking out professional experiences and mentors who give me room for growth and push me out of my comfort zone. Each new professional opportunity should be a tiny bit terrifying, and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed, because that’s when you’ll find the exciting opportunity to grow.

Thinking about how to navigate your career journey with intentionality? Check out the Beeck Center’s Social Impact Navigator to gain a better sense of self and the mindsets and skills you want to develop in becoming a social impact leader.

Joanna Moley is a 2018 graduate of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and 2017 GU Impacts fellow. Connect with her at joannamoley[at]gmail[dot]com

September 9, 2020– By Elizabeth MacBride

Rowan University was an early leader in online learning. In 2010, the second-tier state school in New Jersey launched a division that now enrolls 12,000 students annually. Over the past 10 years, online learning has generated more than $128 million for the university by serving both adults returning to college and younger students with more than 55 course offerings in fields such as education, health administration, business, criminal justice and public relations.

headshot of Jeff Hand
Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, Rowan University (Photo courtesy Rowan Univ.)

We sat down with Jeff Hand, Senior Vice President of Student Affairs, to ask him for his thoughts about how online learning is likely to evolve as the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout continue.

Hand said once a higher-education institution goes online, it’s instantly up against every other online learning company or institution. As people retool for new and different jobs that may emerge after the pandemic, he said, the market is likely to change considerably. That shift to market responsiveness can be difficult for a higher education institution, he said — but Rowan is used to it. “We’re looking to morph along with those changes,” he said.

What has been the key to Rowan’s success so far?

We were founded as a teaching school. Pedagogy and curriculum is important in everything we do. As we had to move students online this spring, we had our quality standards already in place.

You’ve said one of the drivers for Rowan to start online learning was to keep costs low for non-traditional students. How low are they?

They’re about $460 per credit hour. We took out the fees that on-campus students pay for things like the Student Union and facilities fees. (Online students are allowed to use the Student Union, but they’re not charged). It’s about two-thirds the cost of in-state, on-campus tuition by credit hour.

How many New Jersey vs. out-of-state students are there online?

On campus, about 96% of our students are from New Jersey. Online, it’s 80%. You see, you’re competing with everyone. You have to be really good.

Given the financial pressures on students, families and the university itself are likely to face next year, will the pricing change?

We have committed to keeping tuition the same. We’re looking to expand student aid, to make it available to online students. We are also in discussions with financial technology companies, to offer students a way to finance their education by agreeing to pay back the cost of tuition after they start working.

Rowan would essentially extend them credit while they’re taking classes, and get paid later?


modern school building on Rowan University campus

September 3, 2020 – By Elizabeth MacBride

At the South Jersey Technology Park, a garden plot is being grown with some of the tastiest (and hottest) varieties of peppers, from long hots and beaver dams to ghost peppers and the scorpion butch.

The plot is tended by students at nearby Rowan University, which helped develop the Tech Park, and by Ali Houshmand, president of Rowan. Houshmand has been growing peppers and making his own special recipe of hot sauce for years. After the sauce became popular among family and friends, Houshmand decided to create a bottled version to sell as a fundraising tool for student scholarships. Asked by the university’s marketers to describe how it tastes, Houshmand said, “It’s nasty hot.”

The entrepreneurial venture, Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauce, makes three varieties: Ali’s Nasty, Nastylicious and Nastyvicious.

bottles of hot sauce with flames behind them
Houshmand’s Hazardous Hot Sauces

Houshmand collaborated with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton to get the hot sauces to market. They’re sold through the university’s website, for $10 a jar, along with swag like t-shirts and pint glasses.

case study cover of Rowan University: A Blue-Collar Soul

The company has earned over $130,000 in revenue that has been used for emergency scholarships for students at Rowan University who experience an unexpected financial crisis or need. With other donations, the scholarship fund has disbursed more than $3 million in assistance since its founding in 2016.

More than 65% of all Rowan undergraduates receive need-based financial aid.

“I grew up in a poor family with nine brothers and sisters. My mother and father couldn’t read,” said Houshmand in an interview, who immigrated to England from Iran just before he went to college at the University of Essex. “I’ve been through a tough time.”

Houshmand said he is committed to giving students from working class families a first-rate education at Rowan. “Give me the kid from Camden with a single mother, the one whose roof leaks when it rains. The real honor and the real accomplishment is serving that kid,” he said.

The Technology Park is also home to a technology business incubator designed to support a broad range of startups, including those led by Rowan students. Most recently, two Rowan grads set up a company which designed a new kind of reusable flexible drinking straw. In the next few years, as the economy emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, entrepreneurship – both startups and an entrepreneurial mindset at institutions – will be crucial to recovery. Rowan has already frozen its tuition for next year and is seeking ways to reduce costs further for students. “We have to recognize that a lot of our families have gone through serious financial issues,” Houshmand said. “So how can I make this easier? Increase the need-based scholarships.”

One pepper at a time.

This is part 1 of a series. Read Part 2

August 28, 2020 – By Betsy Zeidman + Cristina Alaniz

In the past six months, the U.S. has lived through the convergence of three crises: the worst pandemic in 100 years, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, and multiple incidents of police violence that triggered unrest in many cities as society attempted to reckon with longstanding racial disparities. These events have generated chaos and insecurity; and forced us to rethink how to live and work, how to educate ourselves and our children, and how to keep our families healthy and safe. However, while everyone feels unsettled, some communities face greater disruption than others. This imbalance aggravates existing disparities and challenges the ability of our entire country to rebound.

The most affected groups include native-born communities of color and immigrants and refugees. They are more vulnerable to COVID, generally have less access to medical care and fewer resources to pay for it. The economic hits hit them the hardest. Twenty percent work in industries most affected by the downturn, and many are not eligible for the emergency funds provided by the government. Those who do have jobs fill our “essential” workforce: e.g., home health aides, janitors, grocery store employees, and bus, metro and taxi drivers. If they don’t work, their families suffer, but we suffer too. They need a way back into the workforce, and a way up from their entry-level, subsistence jobs.

With the support of the World Education Services Mariam Assefa Fund, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation has been exploring how targeted training might help immigrants and refugees integrate into the economy and build career paths. Recognizing that this is a multi-faceted challenge requiring multi-faceted approaches, we recently convened two sessions with a brain trust of experts in not only workforce training and adult education, but immigration integration and finance as well. We included employers and employees from the private sector, the social sector, and government. During the first discussion, we aimed to understand what makes a workforce development program that is high in quality, reasonable to implement and likely to generate measurable impact – providing workers with skills needed by employers; and placing workers on the road toward higher quality, higher wage jobs. The participants’ diversity of experience generated a wide-ranging discussion and some best practices emerged:

  • Engage key parties in designing the program. These parties include: workers, employers, training organizations, immigrant-support groups and funders. Incorporating input from everyone affected by a program increases its likelihood of success. Employers certify that the skills being taught are those for which they have jobs to fill; and it is important to include information and buy-in from the employers’ various stakeholders (e.g., management, human resources, C-Suite). Workers ensure the program will meet their needs with appropriate contextualized English language learning and life demands like child care. 
  • Invest in trusted intermediaries and foster ongoing connections among providers and immigrant groups to generate career pathways. Many of the training organizations noted that the insular nature of immigrant support groups limited their interactions, so spots in the programs remain empty. It makes sense to work with familiar intermediaries, such as community-based organizations, immigrants’ rights groups, and churches. Additionally, in the current climate, immigrants will be much more comfortable participating in something which has been “blessed” by a known party.

Bawi Za Muang fled Burma due to severe and increasingly threatening mistreatment by the military. After struggling to survive for many years without a home, Muang and his family arrived in Des Moines, Iowa in 2013, speaking no English. They persevered, taking English classes and driving lessons, and eventually, Muang found a job with Tyson’s Food. In several of its markets (including Des Moines), Tyson’s has solved the problem of an aging workforce by hiring from local refugee populations. Muang advanced at the company, earning higher wages and eventually buying a house. Along the way, he benefitted from Tyson’s partnership with EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center), a local refugee-led organization. EMBARC attunes Tyson’s to the real needs of its immigrant employees and provides services that help employees acclimate and thrive. In 2019, EMBARC’s Legal Navigator Program helped Muang and his wife obtain citizenship.

  • Incentivize programs that enable immigrants and refugees to access “good” jobs, as opposed to any job. Success in the current system tends to be defined by outputs (number of program graduates, number of placements in jobs) rather than outcomes (wage growth, jobs with benefits, etc.). In addition to providing more to the workers, the immigrants will have more money to spend in the local economy and will pay higher taxes, both of which return value to society. Some new initiatives are trying to focus on outcomes, but the system also needs incentives that enable workforce organizations to support the immigrants in their path toward better jobs (e.g., funds for ongoing assistance, access to networks, etc.).
  • Address digital literacy and digital access. Even before the pandemic heightened the need for facility with technology, digital skills were becoming important to almost all jobs (restaurant workers need to be able to enter orders electronically, much of healthcare uses technology, etc.). Immigrants are less likely to have access to the necessary technology or be able to afford broadband, limiting their ability to access training.

Maria Chavez has been studying English since 2018. She found it difficult to make progress because she didn’t have uninterrupted periods of time to go to class. When mobile-first learning company Cell-ED launched its Million Learner Challenge offering workers in low-quality jobs free access to its curriculum, she jumped at the chance. She listens to lessons over the phone, or receives them by text or message. ”It’s so practical because the class is always there.”

  • Emphasize other transferable skills such as capacity with English, and customer relations, both central to many jobs, in addition to sector-specific training. Formalize certifications, badges or other means of validating skills learned to communicate progress to employers and the broader community.
  • Bring the training to the workplace, including providing employees with the tools they need to participate. This ensures that the training includes the most relevant skills, and acknowledges the challenges immigrants face in trying to build training into a day that may already include more than one job, as well as family care responsibilities. 

Leonor, a janitor at Water Garden business park in Santa Monica, CA, recently completed the Infectious Disease Certification Program; a partnership among the nonprofit, Building Skills Partnership, her labor union, SEIU-USWW, and her employer, Allied Universal. She was grateful that her employer and instructors were committed to investing in her education at work. “It helps to have a supervisor who is very involved in the entire process,” she says. “One thing that stood out to me was that our supervisor was taking the class like everyone else, as if he was one of our peers.”  After the training, Leonor was able to explain to a building tenant at Water Garden the changes that she and her coworkers are making to help mitigate community spread.

  • Create apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship programs. Partner with employers, trade unions or other relevant entities to develop a clear pathway to more stable employment.

Forrest Sebba was born in the Philippines and had struggled to secure steady work in the U.S. As a transgender person, he was subject to discrimination and suffered from depression. Cooking gave him joy, as it brought back memories of his grandmother. The Los Angeles Hospitality Training Academy’s Registered Culinary Apprenticeship Program, provided in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor and the State of California, taught the skills he needed, allowed him to build confidence, and introduced him to potential employers. Before completing the apprenticeship, he secured a job as a union cook with the Loews Hollywood Hotel.

  • Build wraparound supports acknowledging the multiple demands on an immigrant’s life. These may include stipends to cover childcare, loaned tablets to trainees that don’t have access to computers, transportation vouchers for in-person training, and more.

There is no single solution to the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee workers (and aspiring workers). Furthermore, because of their tight community bonds, there shouldn’t be a single solution: programs must be culturally sensitive and aligned with the needs of the local community. That said, the lessons highlighted here can be applied toward building effective programs that generate opportunity for immigrants and refugees and unleash a workforce that will contribute to our wellbeing. Our second meeting with the group drilled into financing considerations. 


Betsy Zeidman is a Fellow in the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center

Cristina Alaniz is a Student Analyst in the Fair Finance team with the Beeck Center.

As COVID-19 moves through the United States, our divisions are cast into stark relief. We are separated by politics, geography, race and class. Against this backdrop, higher-education institutions can be their communities’ strongest anchors, keeping people moored to a space – physical or virtual – in which they interact and find what they share, instead of what divides them.

Next week, we launch “Impact In Action: Profiles of Higher Education,” a series exploring how three innovative higher-education institutions, Rowan University, Stillman College and University of Virginia-Wise, help produce impact-centered economic development in low-income and overlooked communities. “Everything boils down to resources,” Ali Houshmand, the president of Rowan University, told us. “Our first instinct is survival. Once we survive, we want to do better. How do we turn an institution that was reactive into one that is moving forward?”

“That, to me, is fundamental.”

These three profiles,

contain ideas and context for impact investors looking for trusted partners and high-leverage opportunities in the current fraught environment. They also offer higher education decision-makers insight into their peers’ actions to support low-income and overlooked communities while establishing new partnerships that help maintain institutions’ financial bottom lines. Collectively these post-pandemic stories underscore the three lessons featured in our Assets For Impact Insights Report.

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet.’”  

“A ‘no’ for me does not burn a bridge. I look at it as just ‘not yet,’” said Shannon Blevins, Associate Vice Chancellor, Economic Development & Engagement at UVA-Wise. “Even if someone is late to engage with you on a project, make room for them at the table.”

This project began before the pandemic and, obviously, ended in a different place because of it. We set out early in the year to look at the role of higher-education institutions working in an area that has been a media lightning rod: Opportunity Zone development. Tax breaks passed in 2016, under the Trump Administration, have been used by wealthy developers to create projects that likely could have been financed in the private markets.

Yet, a deeper narrative has evolved in Opportunity Zones – one that is missed in the politicized media. Some communities are turning the legislation to its overt purpose to propel development in low-income communities. In many cases, higher education institutions are at the center of those positive developments. We are, for instance, seeing OZ projects evolve slowly, with the help of higher education institutions, in Baltimore, Kannapolis, North Carolina and Merced, California, as well as the highlands of Appalachia, the West Side of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and in Glassboro, New Jersey. The latter three are covered in this series of profiles, produced as a collaboration between Lumina Foundation and the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, with research and writing by Times of Entrepreneurship.

The Beeck Center was a leader in establishing the Guiding Principles and Reporting Framework for Opportunity Zones. These guiding principles include: community engagement, equity, transparency, measurement, and outcomes. Successfully investing requires careful attention to existing community assets, needs and priorities. Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available for all. Times of Entrepreneurship explores the way deep innovation can propel communities and individuals.  For all involved, a clear approach guided by a shared set of principles and implemented through a common and flexible framework is critical. 

At the Beeck Center our goal is to capitalize on the investment and work to-date to catalyze non-traditional partnerships within our network of influential investors, community intermediaries, government officials and foundations to help scale efforts and develop guiding principles, tactics and resources to empower businesses and organizations to align their assets to respond to the immediate community needs as well as to ensure an equitable economic recovery and sustained community investment post COVID-19.

As the pandemic evolved, we felt responsible to look deeper into higher education institutions’ role as anchors in low-income communities. The pandemic and the economic recession are devastating the most vulnerable people. Institutions cannot afford to put their own futures at risk. The role they play in those selfsame communities is too important.

Thus, the focus of our profiles became how these three leading institutions innovate to find paths forward that benefit the low-income communities that rely on them. These profiles are not about trade-offs. They’re about long-term strategy even in the face of short-term pressure. The long-term strategies usually rely on partnerships that benefit low-income communities and strengthen the institutions. The institutions’ well-being is tied deeply, then, to the health of low-income communities that are part of its world.

As Cynthia Warrick, the president of Stillman College, told us: “it’s hard to turn your back on poor children.” 

These institutions didn’t – and find themselves stronger because of those decisions.

August 28, 2020 – By Angela Guo

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of the social safety net amidst historic losses and tragedies: mass unemployment, food insecurity, and uninsured healthcare, to name a few. And when it comes to race, a deep dive into the numbers is jarring: Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, both financially and health-wise — the Black and white unemployment gap widened to 5.3 percentage points in June and the coronavirus is killing Black Americans at a rate three times that of white people. This isn’t a coincidence.

The Black Lives Matter movement is radically changing how we look at our public institutions, personal actions, and historical relationships through the basis of race. The movement has led to the removal of confederate statues, discussions about representation in media, and legislation regarding police funding. These groundbreaking changes result from overdue analyses of how race is integrated into our systems and symbols, in ways many had never thought twice about. The social safety net system consists of welfare programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance, that provide basic economic, food, and housing support to millions of low-income Americans. As one of our nation’s most prominent systems in a time of crisis, the social safety net must be examined in the context of race.

Overt to Covert: The History of the U.S. Social Safety Net

“I understand they’re going through a fraud situation, but that doesn’t pay my bills,” Karen Womack told The Washington Post. After Karen verified her identity for unemployment benefits with the state of Washington and the state’s unemployment office cut her aid anyway, she found herself caught up in a system that has institutionalized racism since its founding in 1935.

The U.S. government passed the Social Security Act of 1935 providing an early safety net for elderly, unemployed, and disadvantaged Americans, described by President Franklin Roosevelt as “some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family.” Yet, lawmakers codified the first formal safety net with racism; unemployment insurance was a key component of that law, but agricultural workers and personal service workers were ineligible, leaving 65% of Black American workers without access to unemployment insurance, compared to 27% of white workers. Again, this isn’t a coincidence.

Racist sentiments have echoed throughout the years of discussion around social safety net policy. In 1976, Ronald Reagan leveraged the “welfare queen” narrative in his presidential campaign to describe a Black woman who used “80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.” This narrative further fueled racial animosity towards Black Americans and unfairly associated them with using fraud to exploit the safety net.

A Brief History of the Social Safety Net in the United States

Expand this timeline to full screen

Politicians today replicate the welfare queen narrative with a focus on preventing fraud instead of finding ways to effectively deliver benefits to vulnerable Americans. The Beeck Center’s Social Safety Net Benefits Research details the technological barriers in the social safety net imposed by, for example, the digital divide and remote identity proofing when accessing benefits. While current safety net policies don’t share the same overt racist language used to construct the first policies, structural racism compounded over decades still poses obstacles for Black individuals from equitably accessing the safety net. Not only does structural racism prevail in the social safety net, but it also presents itself in other institutions in the United States such as the criminal justice system, education system, and child welfare system.

Patterns of racism in our social institutions often go unacknowledged and unchallenged since they have become ingrained in our society. We must create and implement data and technology solutions that focus on eliminating the racial inequities found in the social safety net system and other public institutions. Working through the lens of anti-racism is a critical requirement for the work of social impact.

What We Can Do

After looking at the history of the social safety net in the United States, we can begin to go beyond the surface of the problems we aim to address. As leaders in the social impact space, we must:

  • Understand the institutionalization of racism in our systems and institutions while designing direct solutions. Without deepening our understanding of racism in the foundation of our social institutions, we may inadvertently scale ideas that are merely the modernized versions of the exclusionary practices from the past.
  • Constantly analyze the tools we use for social impact. We often see technological advances as efficient tools for advancing social impact. Ruha Benjamin’s book Race After Technology details the intersection of race and technology, and how emerging tech and data tools covertly leverage racism in design solutions. Though unintentional, there can be harmful effects on the populations they were meant to serve when we use tools that were historically meant to discriminate.
  • Emphasize process over product in our work. Product-oriented work often neglects the complexities of the problem itself, and the product instead becomes a blanket on the problem we aim to address through social impact. When taking more time to explore the process of our work, we can be better equipped with the methods and capabilities for achieving equitable and sustainable social impact through the lens of racial equity.
  • Evaluate the positions we hold, both personally and professionally. Are leaders in decision-making and social influence BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)? Are we designing solutions with and for oppressed communities, or are we instead pushing them aside when making decisions?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of steps we can take in our role as social innovators. Anti-racism is an ongoing process that requires active learning coupled with meaningful action. By acting intentionally with a deep comprehension of the intricacies of structural racism in social impact, we can begin to break down the systems and patterns that perpetuate racism and exclusion within our systems and ensure that our social safety net is there to equitably serve all Americans when they need it.

Angela Guo was a Summer 2020 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center supporting the Social Safety Net Benefits Research Project. She is a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studying Economics and Public Policy.

August 26, 2020 – By Katya Abazajian

A pandemic may seem like the worst time to fix slow-changing, infrastructural data challenges, but there is no better time to begin correcting systems that just aren’t working. 

Chief Data Officers (CDOs) manage critical data infrastructure that helps states innovate and make data-driven policy decisions. Earlier this month, we published Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery, a report showing how CDOs can focus their work to guide states to equitable economic recoveries. But within state governments, CDOs often struggle to make the case for sustainable data reforms when there are more pressing demands on frontline workers.

Data is an essential asset states should use to make emergency response processes more effective and efficient. Through responsible data-sharing, advanced analytics, and publishing robust open data, states can leverage data as critical infrastructure for disaster recovery.  

Many states have set up centralized COVID data dashboards that serve as the main source of information for CDC reporting and national COVID tracking by civic hackers and journalists. Based on conversations with states, we’ve found that while some dashboards have been developed in coordination with data teams’ best practices, others used ad hoc, paper-based processes to gather and publish data from public health officials. This means in states where cross-agency data sharing is not common practice, public health agencies have had to establish new information sharing processes on top of the existing strain of the health crisis. 

While national data-sharing configurations continue to evolve, states are left to fend for themselves in determining what needs to be collected, by whom, and for whom.

Many states develop mechanisms for data-sharing based on internal legal guidance that may or may not not mirror decisions made by other states. This introduces discrepancies in different states’ interpretations of what data is considered public or private, particularly with regards to sensitive health data. During COVID, each state has had to develop its own solutions for data challenges.  

Suddenly, public health agencies need immediate, open channels of communication and data-sharing across departments to inform how schools, employers, social safety net providers, and other practitioners are supporting disaster recovery. 

The CDO role has proven essential to developing multi-agency emergency response functions to COVID-19 in states that have leveraged their data capacity to enable collaboration. CDOs bring exactly the kind of systemic expertise on data use that governors and executive decision-makers need in order to empower quick action and collaboration as the pandemic’s effects continue to shift. 

CDOs can implement the steps outlined in Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery to find key opportunities to open up data-sharing across agencies. They can also champion internal cultural shifts that will allow public servants across agencies to work better together through open data and data-driven decision-making. 

Often, the changes that public servants need to see in their data systems require adapting tech procurement language and shifting data collection processes. CDOs are particularly well-positioned to advise on these decisions alongside Chief Information Officers (CIOs) by streamlining which tools and data best practices are being applied and replicated across government agencies. 

Not only is better internal data use essential for improving the efficiency and efficacy of states’ public systems, but open data and public communication around information are becoming increasingly crucial for navigating the national crisis. Journalists and advocates have demanded better data reporting on racial and ethnic disparities in the effects of social policies and programs and the spread of COVID-19. But states often lack the data capacity to even collect the right data to report these statistics from the ground up. Resolving these challenges and allowing CDOs to inform how data is collected across agencies will require a fundamental shift in how data is treated as critical infrastructure in state government.  

City officials like Beeck Center Fellow Amen Ra Mashariki, former Chief Analytics Officer in the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics in New York City, were the first to pilot the idea of “data drills,” a nod to the fact that just as emergency systems need to be primed for immediate response, data systems need to be primed for effective use in an emergency. Running data drills can be as simple as setting up theoretical scenarios in which data owners across departments are tested on protocols and best practices for gathering and disseminating data in an emergency. This kind of systemic thinking about how to apply data in the long-run can help states integrate data use into other emergency response functions. 

The key to better collaboration in a pandemic is enabling sustainable frameworks for data-sharing, integration, analytics, and open data. States must advance in how they are applying data in order to be prepared for the next natural disaster. And CDOs have a crucial role to play in bringing states up to speed on innovative data uses for public good. 

Katya Abazajian is a researcher with the State Chief Data Officers Network at the Beeck Center. Follow her at @katyaabaz.

Program Overview

The Student Analyst program is an immersive learning experience in social impact, centered on paid-employment at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. In addition to working at the Beeck Center, student analysts engage in a curriculum of workshops, dialogues, and team-building activities. 

The Work 

The Student Analyst program is grounded in an experiential approach to education, providing students with hands-on opportunities to tackle real world problems. Student Analysts (SAs) work alongside expert practitioners within our Data+Digital, Fair Finance, and Sustainable Student Impact portfolios. Students conduct research, write reports, communicate impact, and manage projects that contribute towards the Beeck Center’s mission to actively re-imagine policies, systems, and partnerships in service of the public good.

Watch past SA Capstone presentations to see the sort of things you’d work on.

The Curriculum

While students are integral to how we do our work, we are also committed as a training ground for students to preparing emerging leaders for social impact. The work serves as a central part of this preparation, which we complement with our social impact curriculum. The curriculum helps students build a community, reflect, develop resiliency, and better understand a cross-sectoral, systems-level approach to social impact. 

Workshop examples include:

  • Social impact @ scale – systems level change
  • Human Centered Design: Designing with, not for communities 
  • Wellbeing in Social Impact: Discernment & Reflection 
  • Working in social impact spaces: (a) giving and receiving feedback, (b) advocating for yourself, navigating team dynamics
  • Social Impact Storytelling

Students typically spend about 20-40% of their time engaging with this curriculum, with the majority spent on project-based work within the portfolio. 

How to Get Involved

  • Get to know us: a great first step to engaging in our work is to learn about it! Take a look at our website, read our blogs and reports, and discover which areas of our work interest you most!
  • Attend our events: we host workshops, convenings, panel conversations, and more. Watch videos of our past events, and get notified of upcoming events.
  • Apply: we recruit for new positions every semester. Be among the first to know by subscribing to our newsletter (below), check our careers page, and read our FAQ to learn more!
  • Connect with us: Subscribe to our weekly Social Impact Opportunities Newsletter, and follow us on social media (we’re @BeeckCenter on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, and coming soon, Tik Tok).

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What Our Student Analysts Say

“The Discern + Digest dialogue series was such a great experience and so worthwhile. I learned so much about myself and my fellow SAs. I liked the vulnerability created in this space to foster candid discussions about difficult issues.”

– Brooks Watson, MSB’21

“I learned that workspaces can be inclusive, thoughtful, and provocative in the best of ways if the effort is made to create it. I can expect future employers to create a similar space because I know it’s possible, and if they don’t, I know I can take the initiative to do so.”

– Saumya Shruti, COL’20

The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation is hosting a student-led team to participate in The Opportunity Project’s (TOP) Fall 2020 University Sprint. Our student-led team will be participating in a 12-week sprint facilitated by The Opportunity Project to leverage federal open data to create a public-facing digital prototype that illustrates the amount of plastic on local beaches and in the ocean and actions that can be taken to alleviate the problem. This sprint is sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and The Wilson Center.

The deadline to apply is Friday, September 4 at 9pm ET.

Watch the information session with Anna from TOP and the Beeck Center! WATCH NOW!

Learn More  –  Apply Now


August 25, 2020 – By Andrea McGrath, Saumya Shruti and Shaily Acharya

For decades, foundations and donors have followed a similar approach to helping communities – evaluating, designing and funding what seem to be appropriate interventions – and achieving various levels of impact. While most would agree that the local communities themselves have critical insights on needs and challenges, as well as the expertise to build solutions, funders more often than not design solutions for communities rather than with communities. Globally, however, there are a variety of funding models that recognize the expertise of individuals and communities to design or choose the solutions they need, and empower them to do so. There are also a number of grassroots efforts in the U.S., with an increasing interest to do more. Beyond philanthropy, we see other models emerging that prioritize community, such as participatory budgeting, community designed development, and crowdfunding. 

After many years of utilizing similar funding models, perhaps it’s time to try a new approach – one that invites the community to design, inform and select solutions, and provides opportunities for local investment and community wealth building. Beeck Center Executive Director Sonal Shah recently welcomed two pioneering leaders from organizations championing this new approach to our second Ideas that Transform conversation. Emphasizing the need for both community participation and community-led decision making, Dana Bezerra, President of the Heron Foundation and Lucas Turner-Owens, former fund manager of the Boston Ujima Project, challenged funders and investors to rethink and redesign their traditional approaches to investing in communities.

Nothing About Us Without Us

The idea for the Boston Ujima Project emerged from conversations among local activists, advocacy groups, impact investors, business owners and entrepreneurs, which highlighted the need for a catalytic vehicle to address the disconnect between impact and philanthropic investors, and local, grassroots community efforts. To ensure inclusive input, they hosted multiple community feedback events that provided free food, childcare, translation services and fun activities as a way to engage the community members and make it easier for them to participate. They used an asset-based lens to evaluate potential investments, and leveraged the social capital of the founders to bring in grassroots, community voices to give them guidance. As Turner-Owens emphasized, ultimately this work “has to start from a place of (asking) what is here, what needs capital, what is already loved – not the idea that you should add something new – but what might need a facelift? Once you have sized the pipeline, you can determine what kind of capital you need.”


From those early community meetings, and after a few years of planning and piloting, the Ujima Project creatively designed what is often referenced as the first democratically managed fund in the country. The local community drives four critical aspects of the fund:

  1. Identify the investment opportunities (and community needs).
  2. Define and prioritize the desired social and economic impacts.
  3. Help conduct the community due diligence.
  4. Vote on what businesses should be funded.

Perhaps most importantly, the Ujima fund is structured to incentivize community investment and wealth building by utilizing a ‘capital stacked equity’ model (designed by Ujima Fund visionary Aaron Tanaka) which prioritizes smaller dollar investors through higher rates of return and shorter terms. This is what shifting power looks like.

Walking the Talk: From Net Extractor to Net Contributor

The Heron Foundation has been a leader in pushing forward new boundaries in philanthropy by constantly embracing experimentation and risk taking. As Bezerra describes, it’s been an evolution to move from its first 20 years of more “traditional” approaches where they decided on appropriate interventions (which worked well), to its pioneering leadership in moving 100% of its assets towards mission. Along the way, they learned that investing 100% towards impact didn’t necessarily mean 100% towards mission. As they moved forward to reconnect with their mission to help communities help themselves, and speak more deeply to the communities they served, Heron had a “reckoning” moment: instead of extracting community knowledge to inform their strategies to deploy funds, why not simply hand over the money (and the power) and assist the communities in deploying the funds?

That is now the new path for Heron, and they are “all in”. This is not a program strategy – this is their wholesale strategy. But change is challenging, and Bezerra was candid in describing how these shifts have brought “two kinds of hard” to light. The first is uncovering community needs when there are power dynamics with funders and communities. Heron is spending time learning how to uncover community agency and culture and determine how best to work within it. The second is that Heron was not structured or staffed to do this work, so they are doing significant organizational development to figure this out. Their strategy shift brings a variety of changes, some driven by staff opting out of its new direction and some driven by organizational needs. As Bezerra admits, these changes are hard and painful, but necessary work to change the paradigm.


In addition to rethinking its philanthropic funding strategy. Bezerra argues that foundations need to look inwards at all of their practices – from procurement to technical assistance to advocacy to investment. Moreover, foundations should leverage their roles as both philanthropists AND investors to get the wheels of capital moving. Our current economy is broken, but our next economy has not yet materialized, so funders need to get more comfortable (and honest) in leaning in to tinker at the edges to improve things today.

Moving Forward: Calls to Action

While Bezerra and Turner-Owens noted that the work of these models is just beginning, Shah observed that in some ways these models are not new at all, but rather represent ideas whose time has come. Here are some takeaways from the conversation:

  • Build Trust: Funders must build relationships with their target community. Turner-Owens recommended connecting with trusted entities and networks in the communities, as well as starting with an asset lens and utilizing an expansive “we” in engaging the community.
  • Deploy Your Capital: Bezerra noted that foundations can do more and that they are tax-advantaged for a reason. Foundations are financial institutions that need to look beyond just their programs to opportunities across their enterprises (as philanthropists, buyers and investors) to do more.
  • Get in the Arena: While this work is hard, today’s challenges are too great to sit on the sidelines with the critics in the ‘cheap seats’. Stumble forward, knowing you’ll make mistakes, and be transparent. As Bezerra says, “nobody cares about your perfect story.”
  • Scale Down: Shah challenged everyone to rethink the focus and pressures on scaling up and instead consider how we might scale down towards what the community needs and starting where they are.

Watch the entire conversation on Shifting Power from Investors to Communities

We hope this is just the beginning of important conversations on shifting more power and capital from investors to communities. You can see the full conversation above and share your ideas or questions using the #BeeckIdeas on Twitter. Please join us September 29 for our next Ideas That Transform conversion exploring What if Colleges Designed Impact-oriented “Bridge Years”? And be sure to check #BeeckIdeas on Twitter every Tuesday at noon where we’ll share a thought prompt to foster further conversation.

Andrea McGrath leads the Fair Finance portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation

Saumya Shruti is a recent graduate of Georgetown University’s College of Liberal Arts

Shaily Acharya is a rising sophomore at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service

August 14, 2020 – By Rachel Wilder

I arrived at the Beeck Center two weeks after graduating with my bachelor’s degrees in Economics and International Studies from the University of Central Florida. I came to D.C. from Orlando with two suitcases, a cloud of after-college uncertainty, and many questions. I wanted to make a career that let me follow my interests and work for something good – but what should that look like? What paths were possible for someone like me? And with so many potential paths, how could I choose? I suspect these questions are more common than not for students, especially those who are interested in or currently working at the Beeck Center. If that’s you, I hope that parts of my experience resonate and serve as encouragement to make the most of the opportunity.

With all my questions, the Beeck Center was the perfect place for me to land. I stepped into the Student Analyst role alongside a team of undergraduate and graduate students with academic backgrounds ranging from mathematics to sociology to public policy. I split my time each day between projects with two different fellows and the communications team, engaging in a fascinating cross section of social impact work.

At its heart, the Beeck Center is a community. My summer there was defined by the connections I made through coffees, seminars, brown bags, and countless casual but important conversations with students, staff, and fellows over laptops in the center’s open workspace. The people I met brought big ideas and practical advice from their diverse life experiences, helping me digest and reflect on the questions I had.

This community in turns challenged, taught, and reassured me. We passed an advance copy of Anand Giridharadas’s “Winners Take All” around the office and had an ongoing, spirited debate about the role of elites in social change. In one of our weekly Student Analyst workshops, I was excited to map the path from inputs to impacts in a social program for the first time. I worked with and learned from Lisa Hall, whose decades-long dedication to economic justice was modeled in her daily efforts to ensure the value of inclusive community impact investing. Through the Beeck Center I attended gatherings of the Women Innovators & Leaders Network and Women of Color in Community Development, where I connected with still more people who inspired me. Betsy Zeidman discussed her nonlinear career path with the Student Analysts over a brown bag lunch, assuring us that a life of meaningful work is often not conventional or planned from the beginning; I exhaled in relief.

I met too many important mentors and friends that summer to list, so I won’t try. I will say that just as we mapped the impact of our projects at the Beeck Center, I see the impact of the Beeck Center on me. The many conversations I had helped me narrow down my goal for my next step to pursuing work in my mom’s home country, India. Once I made that decision, the Beeck Center team rallied to give me support and help with connections, including a referral to the Indian nonprofit where I secured my first full-time job.

three women looking at a clipboard
The author (center) doing some event planning with colleagues in India, January 2020.

In the fall of 2018, I moved on to what would be an amazing 16 months living and working in Hyderabad at Naandi Foundation. During that time I analyzed data and created presentations for policymakers, designed a qualitative program evaluation, spent a month running around in fields as a facilitator for a girl’s sports project, and ate a lot of dosas and biryani. It was often joyful, sometimes a little messy, and always educational. My time at the Beeck Center gave me tools to get more from the opportunity. I felt more comfortable reaching out to and engaging with a range of people in the social sector, from social entrepreneurs to policy officials, because of my exposure to those working in similar roles through the Beeck Center. I also brought with me a useful schema for discerning and evaluating impact in the work I was a part of, remembering that first input-to-impact chart.

Now, back in D.C., I’ve just started my role as a Project Associate in the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Division at Dexis Consulting Group. I’m excited to be supporting a team that’s working to increase the effectiveness and impact of international development, and I’m looking forward to the community I will build and lessons I will learn here. I still have just as many big questions – but from my Beeck Center summer, I know the process of answering them is truly the best part.

Rachel Wilder was a Beeck Center student analyst in the summer of 2018.

August 10, 2020 – By Katya Abazajian + Tyler Kleykamp

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, state governments have used data to respond to real-time needs for critical information. Every day, governors review data and visualizations to react to the evolving challenges of the pandemic. As we learned from state Chief Data Officers in May, CDOs are working overtime to create the dashboards that governors use and share with the public, map food distribution sites, and integrate testing and hospitalization data across disparate sources. 

While state governments must react to immediate, shifting conditions on a daily basis, they’re left with little time to plan for economic recovery from the fallout. As of June, over 30 million Americans had filed jobless claims. Early reports of economic impacts outline tough times for small businesses, renters, working parents seeking childcare, food insecure households, and others in vulnerable situations. To account for these staggering shifts, states’ recovery efforts must be sustainable, infrastructural, and forward-looking. 

cover of leveraging data for economic recovery: A roadmap for statesREAD THE FULL REPORT

Policy makers need to decide how to respond to each new wave of the virus over the coming years. They’ll need to understand how separate social programs interact with one another, when cutting support to one system may overburden another. States should lean heavily on data to make these difficult decisions on the path toward economic recovery.

cover of Social Safety Net Benefits report
Beeck Center report on Social Safety Net benefits

States that have begun long-term recovery planning are doing so under a framework that was created after Hurricane Katrina nearly 15 years ago and predates the existence of state CDOs along with other modern data and digital service approaches. While we know that the pandemic has disproportionately affected poor communities and communities of color, we still don’t know what the long-term effects will be on these communities. By improving the way they use data, states can go beyond restoring the pre-pandemic conditions that enabled these disproportionate impacts to an environment that supports equity and mobility from poverty.

Leveraging Data for Economic Recovery: A Roadmap for States is a guide to rebuild the system to be better than it was before. The roadmap is initially focused on four main areas where data can be used in recovery efforts: workforce and education, health and benefits, neighborhood well-being, and budget reallocation. Each of these areas contains a series of use cases where states are uniquely positioned to leverage their data or policy making ability to improve recovery efforts. Some use cases outlined in the report should be feasible and actionable across states, while others require stronger enabling conditions that could shift the landscape of data use for economic recovery. Busting silos and enabling better statewide collaboration remains key to ensuring that public servants across agencies can build on and support each others’ efforts. This report not only points CDOs toward the future of their work, but outlines the powerful assets that CDOs already have at their disposal.

State CDOs play a critical role in advancing on the road to recovery. The role has proven essential to developing multi-agency emergency response functions to COVID-19 and will continue to be crucial in coordinating statewide data-driven plans for economic recovery. CDOs can implement the steps outlined in the roadmap by building more sustainable frameworks for collaboration and consulting on technical issues such as data integration, visualization, or privacy. However, CDOs need support. CDOs need comprehensive data sharing agreements and support in shifting states toward more data-driven culture to run successful data programs. Top-level leaders, including governors, must commit to leveraging data as critical infrastructure for COVID-19 response and recovery. This roadmap provides them with clear steps to take on that path.

Katya Abazajian is a researcher for the State Chief Data Officers Network, and an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society. Follow her at @katyaabaz.

Tyler Kleykamp is a Beeck Center Fellow and Director of the State Chief Data Officers Network. Follow him at @tkleykamp.

August 10, 2020 – By Grace Rector

As a freshman, I thought I knew everything – what job I wanted, what I was interested in, my future path. So when I wasn’t selected for GU Impacts during my freshman year, I was disappointed, but little did I know how this rejection would change my life. As I start my senior year, so much has changed. My interests, expectations, and personal goals are new in part because I didn’t give up on the Beeck Center, and in return, I received the opportunity to discern, reflect, and ask questions.

My sophomore year, I returned to campus determined to be a part of the GU Impacts cohort. I visited the Beeck Center to speak with Matt Fortier, the Director of Student Engagement. I explained how much I wanted to take part in the program, and I asked for feedback on how I could improve my application. He complimented me on my ability to pursue feedback. To my surprise, Matt asked if I had an interest in working for the Beeck Center as a student analyst. This was not part of my linear plan that I envisioned, but I decided to take a risk and say yes.

woman in red dress giving presentation in front of a yellow wall
The author giving a presentation to Women for Women International in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

My first day of work at the Beeck Center was terrifying. I had no idea what to expect. But I took a breath and focused on listening until I better understood how I’d fit in. I met incredible and brilliant individuals that made up the Beeck Center family, and I found my place. Matt came to me for feedback on projects, and even asked me to improve existing programs. He did so because he trusted me. He even encouraged me to create new projects where I saw fit and he gave me the freedom to innovate. I’d never been in a space with so much emphasis on creativity, innovation, and collaboration like the Beeck Center promoted.

After my first semester working for the Beeck Center, I understood the flow of the office, and the team had doubled! I was so excited to help onboard new student analysts and to share this incredible space with them. I hoped that they would learn as much about themselves and their professional interests as I had. At the Center, I learned the importance of having a cohesive team when aiming for innovative work. The closer I felt to my coworkers, the more responsibility I felt to produce excellent work. Upon the arrival of the new student analyst cohort, I made it my goal to make them feel included and part of the family.

With time on the team, I became comfortable giving feedback. I was audacious enough to propose new projects and ideas! With support from Nate Wong and Matt, we created and formed the Discern + Digest program (D+D) as a space for students to engage with their work, ask questions about the social impact space, and explore how their experiences inform their perspectives. Bringing students together deepened our community, and gave me the confidence to reapply to the GU Impacts Program, where I’d soon find another community. My fellowship sent me to Women for Women International (WfWi) in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Summer 2019. I brought values the Beeck Center taught me to this position: the importance of constructive communication, collaboration, humility, and a playful attitude. As a storytelling intern for WfWi in Sarajevo, I embodied these values and worked hard to make a sustainable impact on my partner organization. With every job comes difficulties, and after a few weeks I acknowledged that I wanted more from my role. I wanted to lead a storytelling project for the organization, so I navigated a constructive conversation with my boss. She supported me because I presented my proposal well and, ultimately, I published several interviews with women that the organization served.

student (right) performing video interview with subject
The author (R) interviewing a Bosnian woman during her fellowship in Sarajevo.

The Beeck Center not only provided me with tools to navigate social impact work, but it also affected my professional goals. During my internship, I took a Bosnian language course to support my cultural immersion. This course allowed me to build deep relationships with locals, who taught me more about their country’s history. Exposure to Bosnia’s history pushed me to take a related course in the spring of 2020 and ultimately enabled me to do research for a professor on the role of the arts and culture in post-war reconciliation between Bosnian citizens.

GU Impacts also deepened my passion for education. During the fellowship, I created my own skill-building workshops used during the Democracy Academy for Young Women in Bosnia. Upon my return to Georgetown, I continued this new passion by declaring a minor in Education, Inquiry, and Justice. It also influenced my decision to take part in a comparative education study abroad program in Chile and Argentina in Fall 2019.

Over the last two years, I’ve discerned what I care about and what spaces I should explore to further uncover my interests. This past February, before the outbreak of the coronavirus, my single mother passed away. It was and is a devastating loss. Soon after, I received a package from the Beeck Center containing handwritten cards from every team member. That’s when I knew it was time to go back to work for the Center.

This summer and fall, I am managing Discern + Digest so that it can continue to impact other students the way it has me. The Beeck Center is not just an organization that thinks about ultimate outcomes of its projects, innovates audacious ideas, and then acts on them. It’s a team of extraordinary people who care deeply about their work and the people that they work alongside. Working at the Beeck Center is like being part of a family because the staff challenged me to grow but also supported me 100% of the time, and for that, I can’t thank them enough.

August 6, 2020 – By Ananya Amirthalingam

The following is a diary from a GU Impact fellow, on her experience with a distributed work environment this summer.

March 27, 2020: “All summer academic offerings will use remote delivery platforms and summer study abroad programs have been suspended”

screenshot of email from GU Provost
Screenshot of email from Georgetown University

The message from the Georgetown University Provost was disappointing but understandable. We were (and still are) in the middle of a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while, and the University’s decision was a practical one. Weeks earlier, when I officially committed to be a part of the 2020 GU Impacts cohort, I knew there was a slim chance that I’d be actually traveling abroad.

What I didn’t know: if I wasn’t traveling abroad, would I still have a fellowship?

I had been planning on working with the Mann Deshi Foundation, in rural Maharashtra, India, helping the Foundation serve local women entrepreneurs and the community with programming ranging from business school courses to sports education to farmer cooperatives. In my conversations with Prabhat Sinha, one of the Foundation’s heads, Mann Deshi’s region had limited resources and little internet access.

I readied myself for more bad news.

April 9: “We are happy to share that Mann Deshi has committed to working with you over the summer, remotely!”

I was overjoyed! I had a fellowship! This is happening! I am going to be working remotely!


Screenshot of email from GU Impacts
Screenshot of email from GU Impacts

At this point, I had only been in virtual classes for three weeks. Getting to roll out of my bed and into a Zoom call was beginning to lose its charm. A twinge of doubt set in. What would I be able to do remotely? Would I be able to connect with people? I already had to deal with a language barrier, and now I had to tackle time zone differences and spotty internet, not to mention the overall awkwardness of virtual interaction over Zoom and WhatsApp. Would I even be making a difference?

June 2 (at 3:50 AM ET to be exact): “Here are some projects: a report on COVID-19 relief work, a report on our Youth Development Center, a report on our Champions sports program (we are especially trying to get funding for traveling and coaching), a case study on the Mann Deshi Community Radio …” the WhatsApp message proved there was plenty of work to be done.

Screenshot of What'sApp chat
Screenshot of What’sApp chat

As someone with an interest in education, I started on the Youth Development Center (YDC) report. Researching and reading through past reports left me with endless questions, and each question brought a new idea. What resources are available to teachers? Let’s make a resource. My cohort-mates (Danny and Kia) and I can compile suggestions into a Teacher Toolkit for Interactive Lessons. How do Zoom classes or recorded WhatsApp videos differ from regular in-person lectures? Let’s interview the YDC students and teachers, I can include their first hand experiences in my report.

June 12: “Over the lockdown, she’s been getting more info on exams. For fun she plays an interesting game – I’ve never heard of it before. There are certain roles …”

10 days later, Omkar, a Mann Deshi staff member, was translating one of the YDC’s student’s answers to a question I had asked. Things move at rapid-fire speed at Mann Deshi, and a nine and a half hour time difference was no deterrent.

As I listened to him explaining this ‘interesting game’ I began to laugh. It was Mafia – a game I had just learned about. Sure the roles were different (they had kings, queens and soldiers while the game I played had sheriffs, detectives, and gang members) but the general premise was the same: the uninformed majority trying to outsmart the informed minority. Everyone’s faces lit up as I marveled at the similarities aloud.

It was a small thing to be sure. A glimmer of silliness, during our otherwise serious interview about the impact of COVID-19. I remember wishing I could be there in person, but I wasn’t feeling wistful or disheartened of what could have been. Rather, I couldn’t stop beaming thinking about how in spite of the time zones, language barrier, and internet reliability, I was doing it – I was connecting.

July 7: “ I have been a teacher since 1994, and no one has ever done an event like this for teachers. This was amazing!”

Or maybe it was July 8. I had stayed up until 4 AM for two consecutive days; my concept of time was definitely distorted. But this comment, made by a local government school teacher attending our conference – made it all worthwhile.

Read More: GU Impact Interns Organize First of Many Teacher Conferences in Rural India

Two weeks earlier, the Teacher’s Conference had been a spur of the moment suggestion by my teammate Kia, who believed as we all did, that a lockdown didn’t have to stop learning, and that this time could be used to bring innovative methods, resources and support for Mann Deshi and local government school teachers alike. From that idea, in just over a week, we researched, contacted, connected with, and secured Indian experts in child psychology, pedagogy, and technology. While my teammates designed pre-assessment surveys, posters, and schedules, I grappled with Zoom. I familiarized myself with breakout rooms, mute features, and live streaming capabilities as I prepared to be the host of the two-day conference.

But as prepared as I believed myself to be, running the logistics of such an unprecedented event was by no means an easy feat. Suffice to say, I ran into multiple technical problems. Many participants were unfamiliar with Zoom – unsure of how to change their names or rejoin when they got kicked out because of their internet connection.

As I was panicking and trouble-shooting, I remember receiving text messages from Mrunal (another Mann Deshi staff member who had worked with me extensively to help make the conference run smoothly): “You are doing great! The teachers are loving this!” She told me how teachers were sharing things they had never shared before, and how this experience was all at once new and exciting.

I thought it was a cute sentiment meant to make me feel better for what I thought was a profound failure on my part. But when the conference ended and Prabhat shared some of the teachers’ comments I found myself filled with pride.

We had done this: Prabhat, Omkar, Mrunal, Danny, Kia and me. I was making the impact I had dreamed of.

Screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference
The author (upper left) with Youth Development Center students and teachers during a recent interview.

July 18: It’s been nearly two weeks since the conference. Work hasn’t slowed by a bit! I continue churning out reports, and am going to be reinterviewing some of YDC students soon. Working remotely has far exceeded my expectations. I’ll be the first to admit, it hasn’t been easy – what with all the late nights and Zoom fatigue. But it certainly has been worthwhile and definitely impactful (pun intended!)

August 6, 2020 – By Kia Muleta

“I have been a teacher since 1994, and no one has ever done an event like this for teachers. This was amazing!” said one attendee of the Mann Deshi Foundation’s Teacher’s Conference, the first of its kind in Maharashtra state.

screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference

This spring, I proposed the idea of a teacher’s conference to my peer GU Impact fellows as a means of sharing knowledge among teachers, developing a support system for them, and providing lessons on topics like communicating with students, and developmental psychology, areas that most Maharashtra teachers haven’t been trained in. We’d design a conference for government school and Mann Deshi Youth Development Center teachers who are rarely given opportunities for training, especially in identity development, gender equity, the impact of poverty on academic performance, and several more avenues.

Read More: Remote but not Removed: Making an Impact through a Virtual Fellowship

Everyone enthusiastically agreed, and in less than 10 hours of opening registration, 100 people had signed up. Teachers were more than eager to share and improve their teaching strategies.

Due to COVID-19, the event was held virtually, and was a smashing success with 80 teachers, 4 education experts from various fields, a member of Parliament, the State Minister of Human Development (Education), and the District Commissioner in attendance. We were honored to have Brookings Institute Fellow and Study Hall Founder Dr. Urvashi Sahni as our keynote speaker to talk about the application and vitality of Critical Feminist Pedagogy in Indian classrooms.

screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference
Brookings Institute Fellow and Study Hall Founder Dr. Urvashi Sahni addresses the Mann Deshi Teacher’s Conference.

Goals of the Workshop

To help Government and Mann Deshi Youth Development Center, teachers:

  • Implement and create their own innovative and interactive teaching strategies and curriculum
  • Become familiar with digital learning models and technology
  • Close the authority gap between teachers and students
  • Develop closer relationships between teachers and students
  • Become more efficient and effective in educating students to become confident, creative, knowledgeable problem solvers, leaders, and lifelong learners.
  • Create a support group for teachers and offer tangible resources

Teachers and students in rural Maharashtra face a number of challenges to getting an education. Many students struggle to finish school: some families rely on marrying their daughters to men if they need financial support, electricity/internet is unreliable, many students are wage laborers or farmers. Due to major issues in food insecurity, public health, and infrastructure, training for teachers is limited or nonexistent as the government focuses on other regional challenges. As such, training occurs once every 1-2 years and is often organized by the state, which means there are 1,000+ teachers in the state training program. In order to ensure a close knit teacher community and interactive workshops, our conference Zoom breakout rooms had a teacher-to-expert ratio of only 13:1.

Dr. Yajyoti Singh, an expert on developmental educational psychology, led lessons on efficient and emotionally conscious communication between teachers and students. She created a safe space for a research- based workshop that allowed teachers to be vulnerable with their challenges as teachers as well as successes.

screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference
Dr. Yajyoti Singh, an expert on developmental educational psychology speaks to the Mann Deshi Teacher’s Conference

During her workshop, Mrunal, a Mann Deshi staff member, excitedly clapped, smiled and messaged me:

“They shared experiences where they made some mistakes in their classes without considering the student’s perspective and how they felt bad about it later. Many teachers do not usually share such experiences. Now they are sharing some of the best moments in their lives as a teacher…This teacher is sharing how he wasn’t happy with his students as they didn’t study for one of the competitive exams. Later, when the results came out, 5/7 students passed the exams with good grades.”

“Education is not about filling the buckets. It’s about lighting the fire.”

In another session with Sushant Kamble, another educational psychology expert, Mrunal explained, “[Kamble] is explaining how adrenaline generates in our body when we are scared and how it could also happen in a classroom if the teacher communicates in a loud voice or if you yell at students it could affect them for a lifetime.” I watched as teachers took notes, nodded, and raised their hands for further questions. In a region where authority is an important part of culture, Kamble explained how authority can both negatively and positively affect the success of students.

As an aspiring lawyer in international politics and development, engaging teachers, education researchers, government, and an NGO in supporting local schools taught me that education is far more complex than standing at the front of a classroom. Education has a historical legacy, a cultural footprint, is a means of inquiry and validation of one’s identity, and cannot be directed by one person or group but rather requires the consistent and unified cooperation of multiple fronts. And most of all, teachers are incredible and genuinely care about the prosperity of their students.

As Kamble said, “Education is not about filling the buckets. It’s about lighting the fire.”

August 3, 2020 | By Waldo Jaquith

We started the State Software Collaborative to facilitate sharing open source software between states, but the idea of governments sharing software is hardly novel. Governments around the world are sharing custom-built software already, and have done so for many years. It’s vital, cost-saving, and meets the needs of users.

Software can be shared via many different models. Here are a few examples that run the gamut, ranging from the deliberate and parochial clear to the incidental and popular.

Tax Appraisal Software

An important source of revenue for localities throughout the U.S. are taxes on real estate, and many have a similar tax on vehicles. Those taxes are on the current value of the property, which means that states and localities need to routinely reappraise the value of everything that they tax — every parcel of land, every car, every RV, every house. This means that every state has to maintain their own database of every taxable property — this “computer-assisted mass appraisal” software (or “CAMA”) has been around for decades, and there are several major vendors selling CAMA software.

But Georgia didn’t go the commercial route. In the late 1980s, before CAMA software was commonplace, Georgia wanted to modernize, but didn’t see a lot of options. So the Georgia Department of Revenue collaborated with the Tennessee Valley Authority and a Mississippi professor to build their own software to track the value of taxable property. They did this on a budget of just $20,000 ($43,000 in 2020 dollars), and in 1989 they deployed their Georgia Appraisal Program to 12 counties. The state continued to support the project for several years, in the form of technical staffing. They’ve evolved the software over the decades, and today the software travels under the name of WinGAP CAMA. This Windows-based software includes client software, runs on the desktop, and relies on a SQL Server back end. Every member county runs their own copy of the software with their own server.

screenshot of WinGAP CAMA data entry screen
Screenshot of WinGAP CAMA data entry screen.

Today, WinGAP CAMA is in use by 149 of Georgia’s 159 counties (the Atlanta metropolitan area uses commercial software) who collectively make up the membership of the GAP Group, a non-profit organization governed by a small executive board. Every member county pays modest dues of $1,500/year, which gets them both the software and access to the help desk. That $223,500 in annual dues — plus a state-operated help desk — is enough to fund everything.

The GAP Group attributes their success to their iterative development model and their relentless focus on the needs of end users. Going strong after 31 years, they’re a model of the value of user-centered design.

Public Transit Route Planning

Large cities need multimodal trip planning software — websites where people can plan travel via light rail, bus, bike share, etc. In 2009, there were three open source software programs that did portions of this. So TriMet, Portland OR’s transit agency, brought the creators of those programs together and persuaded them to collaborate, funded with a grant from Portland’s Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Two years later, the result was OpenTripPlanner, an independent, open source project that can be used by any transit agency to provide a public route-planning website.

Screenshot of Portland, OR TriMet Trip Planner
Screenshot of Portland, OR TriMet Trip Planner.

Today, the developers who created OpenTripPlanner have created a consultancy named Conveyal, where they continue to support OpenTripPlanner development.

The Java-based tool runs on a web server, consuming data feeds of routes and schedules. Over 100 people have contributed to the code in the past decade.

OpenTripPlanner isn’t a TriMet project. Its creation was fomented by TriMet, but today it’s used around the world, including by TriMet, and by New York and Vermont. The project has a documented governance process, with a project leadership committee that includes representatives from transit agencies around the world.


Every government in the U.S. needs detailed maps, so they can track parcel ownership, where their water pipes are, the locations of their sidewalks and roads, even where every government-owned tree is. These are called Geographic Information Systems, and they can be enormously expensive.

And then there’s QGIS. This open source program was developed by Gary Sherman in 2002, and graduated to being housed by the Open Source Geospatial Foundation starting in 2007, and reached a version 1.0 milestone in 2009. As desktop software, it runs on Linux, macOS, Windows.

It’s a true community project — features have been contributed by hundreds of people over many years. But QGIS is essential to government, too — not only is it widely used at all levels of government throughout the world, but governments actively contribute to the advancement of the software.

Screenshot of QGIS Map
Screenshot of QGIS Map.

For example, sponsors of QGIS include Ireland’s Office of Public Works; the state of Vorarlberg, Austria; the municipality of Syddjurs, Denmark, Bathurst Regional Council, Australia; the Tasmanian Planning Commission; and City of Canning, Australia.

Governments also contribute to QGIS by sponsoring new features — paying to add functionality that they need. For example, the town of Megéve, France funded a new trim/extend feature, and the canton of Zug, Switzerland funded JSON support for GeoPackage files. By covering the development costs, Megéve and Zug got the functionality that they needed, but so did everybody else who uses QGIS.

It’s important to agencies that they be able to call somebody when their software breaks, and that sort of support is available for QGIS, via the dozens of private vendors that sell support contracts, many of whom are also contributors to QGIS.

QGIS did not originate with government, and it does not live within government now. But it is nonetheless software relied on by governments, shared between governments, and contributed to by governments, via mechanisms that exist entirely outside of government.


Intergovernmental software sharing is not new — as we can see here, this practice is decades old, quietly powering government right under our noses. There are different sharing models that make sense for different types of software, and these mature projects have all found the model that works for them.

This powerful, effective approach to software production and maintenance is a top-tier method of procuring software within government, at a cost 10–100 times cheaper than traditional methods of software procurement. Before they write a solicitation, agencies would be wise to research whether there is an existing shared software product they can use, or if they could team up with other agencies to share the cost of procuring software to address their collective needs.


Waldo Jaquith is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the co-founder of the State Software Collaborative. Follow him at @waldojaquith.

What’s it like to be a student analyst?

Who is eligible?

Do student analysts have to be located in Washington, D.C.?

What is the background and experience that a student analyst is expected to have?

Are student analysts paid?

What are the time commitments for a student analyst?

How will work happen across different time zones?

Who can I reach out to for an informational interview or coffee chat?

Do you have a referral process?

How can I apply?

What is the hiring process and timeline?

Given the distributed and virtual work plans for Fall 2020, can I work with the Beeck Center as an international student?

Can applicants apply to multiple positions?

What are you looking for in a writing sample?


Student Analysts at the Beeck Center

The Beeck Center provides students with experiential learning opportunities for social impact. The Student Analyst program engages a cohort of students through semester-based, paid positions across our three portfolios: Fair Finance, Data+Digital, and Sustainable Student Impact. In addition to work-based experience, student analysts participate in programming designed to equip them with the knowledge and skills for social impact leadership.

What’s it like to be a student analyst?

Students gain experience working on projects alongside Beeck staff and fellows, including seasoned practitioners from the public, private, and social sectors. While each position varies depending on the portfolio and project, each involves substantive work and often includes a combination of research, writing, project management, and programmatic support. 

In addition to the project-based experience, our Student Analyst program builds community and teaches reflection, while providing professional development opportunities through mentorship and workshops. Students participate in our program onboarding and orientation, weekly reflection dialogues, workshops, team-building activities, and receive mentorship, concurrent to their day-to-day responsibilities within our portfolios.


Who is eligible?

Enrolled graduate and undergraduate students are eligible to apply. 

For Fall 2020, we are restricting eligibility to Georgetown University students, due to hiring restrictions resulting from the pandemic. Typically, we are delighted to bring students from a wide variety of higher education institutions and hope to reopen our program in the near future.

The Beeck Center strongly encourages those who hold the following intersecting identities to apply: Black, Native or Indigenous, People of Color, LGBTQIA+, non-binary, poor or working class, persons living with disabilities, neurodivergent, young, undocumented, speak English as a second language, and others with lived experience in overlooked and/or underestimated communities.

Do student analysts have to be located in Washington, D.C.?

We are a distributed, remote-friendly team and many of our fellows and staff members are not located in Washington, D.C. We rely on tools like Slack, Zoom, and Asana to keep in touch with each other and on track with our goals. That said, we do have offices located on Georgetown University’s Main Campus and downtown near the Georgetown Law Center and once campus reopens, we plan to responsibly transition our student analyst program back to an office-based work environment. 

Please also note that the Fall 2020 Student Analyst Program will take place in a remote and distributed work environment. The Beeck Center’s team, including students, will not have an on-campus presence in the fall semester. Applicants should be prepared to work in a remote environment and through this experience, you will learn how to effectively work on a distributed team.

What is the background and experience that a student analyst is expected to have?

Our students have a wide range of backgrounds, experiences and skillsets. We thrive as an interdisciplinary center that brings together students with a variety of interests, majors, and career goals. Student Analyst position requirements are tailored to the specific needs of the project and are detailed in position descriptions, found on the Careers page of our website.

Are student analysts paid? 

Yes! We believe our internship opportunities should be paid. Wages for hourly student employees are based on Georgetown University’s Student Employment Office guidelines, starting at minimum wage for undergraduates ($15/hr) and $20/hour for graduates.

In addition to financial compensation, student analyst positions serve as a valuable professional development experience, providing critical exposure and experience in social impact work and connecting you with a tremendous network of professionals who are dedicated to leveraging the tools of education, finance, and data and technology, for the common good. 

What are the time commitments for a student analyst?

During the fall and spring semesters, student analysts can work up to 20 hours/week, though typically hours fall in the 10-15 hours/week range. Applicants must be able to commit a minimum of 10 hours per week. 

During the summer semester, students can work part-time or full-time, up to 40 hours/week. 

Position descriptions will state whether or not there is a preference. 

Throughout the semester, we work with students to enable flexible schedules that help students prioritize their academics. At the same time, we encourage applicants to be thoughtful about their other commitments before deciding to apply. 

How will work happen across different time zones?

We are a distributed, remote-friendly team and many of our fellows and staff members are not located in Washington, D.C., thus we are well equipped in working across time zones within the continental United States. We believe that work can be done asynchronously but also value meetings so that the team can connect and engage collaboratively on work in real-time. As mentioned, the Beeck Center works with students to enable flexible schedules that help students prioritize their academics. If any issues arise or if there is an extenuating concern, we encourage you to let us know your specific situation. 

Who can I reach out to for an informational interview or coffee chat?

To ensure that we are conducting a transparent and fair recruitment process for all applicants, we do not schedule meetings outside of the application process. We make it a point to ensure that our position descriptions are as detailed as possible and provide the general context and background for our work that is needed for a successful application. Position descriptions also list an email address to contact for questions or clarifications about information present in the position descriptions or application forms.

If you do have a question you can’t find the answer to, go ahead and ask us, we may even add it here!

Do you have a referral process?

We encourage our students and staff to get the word out about our opportunities but do not have a formal referral process, once again in order to ensure that we are conducting a transparent and fair recruitment process for all applicants. On the application form, you can identify any connections in responding to the “how did you hear about us” question. Most importantly, we encourage you to research our Center, our core values, and our work, to discern the alignment between your goals, our work, and the position description.

How can I apply?

All applicants must complete the application form, which has three sections. Section I is meant to collect key demographic and logistical information. Section II includes short answer questions and requires you to upload a resume/CV and a writing sample. Section III asks how you learned about the Beeck Center, while also providing you with the opportunity to share any additional information that may be relevant to your application.

Please ensure that in addition to the application form, you carefully review the job description for the position you are applying to. Job descriptions can be found on the Careers section of our website.

What is the hiring process and timeline?

The application is due August 9th at 9pm EDT, though we encourage early submission and will consider applications on a rolling basis. 

Our review process includes both application review and interviews for select candidates. A more detailed timeline is included in the job description and application form.  

How selective is the process?

This is a very selective process, though if you think you are a good fit that should not deter you from applying. We’re always looking for a mix of experiences and skills in order to develop a dynamic cohort, and that means that we’re interested in bringing in first-year students at the undergraduate level all the way to second-year graduate students. 

To give you a sense of the competitiveness by sharing some data, we received 101 applications for 6 positions for our Summer 2020 program. The number of applications per position varied, with as few as 6 applicants for one position and as many as 21 for another. 

Given the distributed and virtual work plans for Fall 2020, can I work with the Beeck Center as an international student?

Based on guidance from the University, it is our understanding that international students are eligible to apply and that there are no U.S. immigration restrictions barring GU-enrolled international students from seeking employment at the Beeck Center. Please do take into consideration time zones as well as internet connectivity if you would be working from abroad. The Beeck Center operates in multiple U.S. time zones and works asynchronously, but some work requires real-time collaboration and meetings which could prove difficult if there are major time zone differences or connectivity issues. 

The University is actively working to develop further guidance on information security and tax implications for student employment from abroad, so we encourage you to keep yourself informed. Specific inquiries regarding work eligibility for international students should be sent to the Georgetown Office of Global Services: internationalservices@georgetown.edu

Can applicants apply to multiple positions?

Yes, applicants can apply to multiple positions and have two options to do so. You can submit multiple applications or you can apply to a primary position and note your interest in other positions through the “anything else you would like to know” question at the end of the application form. The advantage of submitting an individual application for each position to which you wish to apply is that you will be able to customize your short-answers and your writing sample. 

What are you looking for in a writing sample?

First and foremost, choose a writing sample that best demonstrates your writing ability. We’re looking for strong writers who can express ideas with a strong focus on the audience and in a clear and concise manner. Next, choose a writing sample that relates to social impact or even better, to the specific portfolio or project to which you are applying. Consider this second consideration preferable while the first is a must – we want you to showcase your writing ability!

July 24, 2020 – By Sara Soka + Chad Smith

“Build back better” is a phrase borrowed from disaster recovery. At its core it means when a system is damaged (or exposed as being damaged), the optimal repair uses all available resources to build back a stronger, more effective, and more resilient system. 

Federal social safety net programs provide basic economic, food, and housing support to millions of Americans, but their eligibility, enrollment, and delivery processes are notoriously difficult to navigate. As demand for benefits grew with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the insufficient capacity and burdensome processes of the social safety net became painfully apparent and widely publicized, though these conditions are not new. At the Beeck Center, we have been researching the leading-edge examples where data, design practices, and technology are being leveraged to more effectively deliver benefits. This ongoing research effort is showing what is possible and where governments, companies, and service-providing nonprofits are leaning into novel and ambitious approaches to help more people, faster, and for less cost.

Earlier this month, House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth led a Congressional hearing about the longstanding need for federal investment in modernizing state and federal IT systems, made more urgent in the wake of COVID-19. “State unemployment offices, already underfunded and understaffed, were left completely unprepared for the massive influx of need,” Rep. Yarmuth said. “The federal government has long sought to prioritize modern, secure, and shared IT solutions, but funding uncertainties, stemming from constrained discretionary funding under budget caps, shutdown threats, and continuing resolutions have made agencies more likely to update instead of modernize.”

cover of Social Safety Net Benefits report
Read the Complete Report

To support the ability of agencies to modernize at scale, our research details successful models for bringing social safety net benefit delivery up to contemporary standards. This living report — which we will update at regular intervals throughout 2020 — examines the data, design, technology, and innovation-enabled approaches that make it easier for eligible people to enroll in, and receive, federally-funded social safety net benefits. 

Through our research, we seek to understand what tools and processes exist, which can be replicated, and what experts identify as overarching needs. We will present what new approaches are possible and can be replicated and scaled, especially if there is the political and popular will to drive a large federal investment in a tech-enabled social safety net in the wake of COVID-19. We anticipate that this living report will be of particular interest to leaders able to take integrated, system-wide action, including government executives, policymakers, and philanthropic organizations. We also hope it promotes aligned efforts between the nonprofits, public benefit corporations, and government agencies that are changing benefit delivery for the better.

“We cannot afford to pour time, attention, and enormous sums of money into a process for building and buying software that hasn’t worked for decades.”

– Jennifer Pahlka, U.S. Digital Response

Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America and co-founder of the U.S. Digital Service and U.S. Digital Response testified before the House Budget Committee, saying,

“We must invest in modernizing the technology that runs our services, but I am deeply concerned that the urgency of the moment will cause us to forget that we must also change how we make these investments. We cannot afford to pour time, attention, and enormous sums of money into a process for building and buying software that hasn’t worked for decades…. To fix this, Congress will need to be more than a checkbook. This body will have to become a staunch and visible ally of hybrid tech-policy teams who practice agile development and user-centered design wherever they exist.”

Our report highlights many organizations that have been developing tech-enabled approaches for years, including Alluma, Benefits Data Trust, Civilla, Code for America, Nava, and others. In gathering and presenting the hard-earned experience of innovators in this space, our report complements a forthcoming analysis of the scope and reach of organizations from the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program, as well as timely policy and process analysis from our colleagues at New America’s New Practice Lab

For too long, structural inequities based on race, class, gender, and other factors have kept many Americans struggling for economic security. These existing inequities have intensified the pandemic’s economic and health impacts, which have hit Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and immigrant households disproportionately hard. Design, data, and technology can make the social safety net faster and more reliable, providing a meaningful push toward equity and a more resilient system during crisis.  Going forward, we will keep sharing the work of innovative governments and organizations that are modernizing the social safety net in future installments of our report. We welcome your feedback and insights at sara [dot] soka [at] georgetown [dot] edu and cs1934 [at] georgetown [dot] edu.

Sara Soka and Chad Smith are fellows in the Digital Service Collaborative at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.

A shorter version of this article appears in Fortune Magazine

July 2, 2020 – By Erika Seth Davies

READ PART 1: Hiding in Plain Sight: Racism in the Room Made Visible by COVID-19 and How to Create New Pathways

“I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.” – Amy Cooper

“I’m a tenant of the building; are you?” – Tom Austin

Amid the unrest, anger and outrage at the sheer injustice of systemic racism, Amy Cooper and Tom Austin are just two examples of white people using their privilege in an attempt to control Black people who dared to exert personal agency in shared spaces. After being called out publicly, Cooper lost her job, and Austin lost his office lease. Why point out these incidents instead of the thousands of other examples? Because while both apologized and stated “I’m not a racist,” they had tremendous influence in their leadership positions in finance.  There are real questions as to how these implicit biases influenced hiring, advancement, and access to capital.  Their actions in these moments provide a spotlight on the points of view informing their decision making within the institutional context.

The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity defines implicit bias as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.” While both Cooper and Austin were both clearly conscious of their intentions, what were the underlying biases that drove their decisions, both large and small?

Join the Beeck Center and Common Future webinar, Wednesday, July 29, 3pm ET to discuss racism in the asset management industry. Register now and join the conversation.

In an industry overwhelmingly driven by personal networks and relationships, opaque decision-making processes, and dominated by pedigree, the personal quickly becomes (and remains) structural as a reinforcing system in which decision makers give preference to peers and managers who look like them.  This then conflates and reinforces the assumption that white managers are associated with low risk and strong performance. 

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that, as of July 2018, the U.S. population was 61% white (non-Hispanic or Latino), 18% Hispanic, 13% black, and 5.7% Asian, yet investors and players in the financial services industry do not reflect the racial and ethnic composition of the country. In the asset management industry, 88 percent of professionals in executive committee level positions and 86 percent of managing directors are white

pie charts of diversity in the asset management industry
Chart from Money Management Institute, “Ethnic and Racial Diversity at Asset Management Firms

Among 14 consulting firms representing $1.4 trillion in assets under management, Black and Latino representation was remarkably low across participating firms at 5.7 percent and 5 percent, respectively.

Lack of representation is far from the only problem in the industry. Research shows that a homogenous workforce leads to additional issues such as:

Bias informs decision making which becomes policy and practice which results in outcomes that reinforce and perpetuate bias. All of it benefits and advantages those who are white at the expense of opportunity, access, and economic growth for Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. This is how institutional racism works. Ironically, decision makers many times think they have to choose between performance or diversity.  In fact they might actually be undermining their fiduciary responsibility as highlighted in the Illumen Capital study which concluded that “…racial bias could potentially result not only in the unfair treatment of fund managers of color and their grantees, but also in leaving significant financial opportunities on the table, thus hurting the entire financial ecosystem.”  

So now what?

As Ibram X. Kendi has shared in his groundbreaking book, How to Be an Anti-Racist, claiming that you’re not racist is not enough. We must move in a way that is anti-racist and operate with intention to dismantle the barriers and structures holding the system in place. Here are a few more actions asset owners can take:

 Be uncomfortable. Anti-Black bias is a central feature of systemic racism, so take a minute to actually understand your bias by taking the implicit bias test. This is not a point of judgement. It is a point of awareness. If you value diversity yet every decision results in a predictable outcome of non-diverse firms collecting fees to build wealth, then we should be  questioning the validity of these choices.  This includes what questions are being asked?  Who is invited?  How are the questions being asked?  What are you weighting in the answers?

  • Address institutional accountability through a race-informed investment policy statement. Your policy is a statement of purpose that will orient you towards equity. Then hold yourself and your decision making body accountable by using metrics and adding quarterly or annual reporting requirements to the Investment Committee/Board/staff regarding diversity. This might include the demographic composition and ownership of all firms, the number of firms with majority BIPOC ownership, how many meetings you are taking with diverse firms, and how much funding is allocated across your portfolio. 
  • Know who you’re doing business with. Include diversity performance and metrics in your consultants’ scope of work and require regular reporting on your decision maker’s progress towards meeting these goals. Require your consultant to provide information regarding internal diversity and inclusion policies and practices as well as asset manager selection.
  • Change the environment, including where and how you spend your time. Attend, sponsor, and speak at diverse manager events, and invite those managers to speak at industry events in your sector. 
  • Pursue relationships with different industry affinity groups (NASP, NAIC, AAAIM, NAA, Opportunity Hub, etc.) to establish regular contact and connection with diverse managers and add to your media list (Emerging Manager Monthly, The Plug, etc.)
  • Make the allocation!

Erika Seth Davies is a Beeck Center Fellow and Founder of the Racial Equity Asset Lab. She has extensive background in racial equity advocacy and launched the first field-wide philanthropic initiative designed to incorporate a racial equity lens in foundation endowment practice. She authored white papers promoting policies and practice in support of this approach, including Foundation Investment Management Practices: Thoughts on Alpha and Access for the Field and Diverse Managers: Philanthropy’s Next Hurdle.

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June 30, 2020 – By Sixto Cancel, Sherry Lachman, Marina Nitze, Katie Sullivan, and Emily Tavoulareas

This content also appears on Foster America, New America, and Think of Us.

Carol* has been caring for her two young grandsons for the last six months because her daughter (their mother) is struggling with an opiate addiction. She is 63 and struggles to cover the costs of her grandchildren’s food, clothing, and school supplies with her job as a cashier at a local grocery. She knows a foster parent license would help her cover these costs, so she began the process in January. After providing a notarized divorce decree from her divorce 24 years ago, providing proof of her childhood immunizations, even though she is 64, and completing 35 hours of training, in person, with no childcare provided, she’s still waiting. And the final background check–from a state she briefly lived in four years ago–will take another year to complete. It feels like a struggle at every turn, and sometimes she just wants to give up.

In the United States, approximately one in 17 children will spend time in foster care. While the need for foster care services is great, in many states the process of licensing foster families can exceed 200 days largely because of cumbersome processes and outdated requirements. This leads children to spend time living in group homes or with strangers while waiting for relatives or other known adults to navigate a complex and often frustrating bureaucracy.

While these challenges are not new, the unique circumstances posed by COVID-19 are exacerbating complexities in the licensing process and adding to the delays. As families contend with the impacts of the virus, caretakers like Carol will need even more support and flexibility from foster care agencies.

In response to these existing and escalating challenges, the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative launched a partnership with Foster America and New America.** Together we created the Resource Family Working Group, which consists of representatives from 15 states and counties working with us on this effort to share best practices and test new ideas. Through this collaboration, the partnership created an actionable resource for anyone serving children in foster care and their families: the Child Welfare Playbook.

The Child Welfare Playbook outlines tangible, proven best practices that child welfare agencies can implement to improve their efficiency and impact, with an emphasis on low-cost, practical solutions that can be implemented in the short-term. It is written in plain language, designed to be as simple and usable as possible, and will be updated regularly with new practices. It is available to the public and can be freely replicated, adapted, and scaled by child welfare practitioners nationwide.

Today, we are pleased to digitally release the first four chapters of the Child Welfare Playbook:

While these tested practices or “plays” are often small changes to office workflow, information management, and employee training, they ultimately help agencies provide better and faster services. For people like Carol, this means that instead of spending hours trying to get a clear answer, she can call a phone number and receive a prompt return call from a social worker. That social worker can check disqualifying criminal history standards in her Background Assessment Guide (a playbook best practice), and then nonjudgmentally explain that her single shoplifting arrest will not disqualify her from licensure. As a result, both Carol and her grandchildren can be better served by the system.

Bringing this group together, opening the conversation, and sharing best practices across the country is a success in itself. In just a few months, the working group has shared a number of easily implemented ideas, captured in the playbook, including:

  • Safety inspection checklists, which have reduced the need for follow-up visits and helped one state cut licensing time by over half: from over 200 days to under 90.
  • A statute-aligned checklist that helps decision-makers clearly understand the source of a problem, asking if it should change the requirement or if the policy behind this requirement needs to be modernized. For example, one state requires foster parents to have a landline phone, creating an unnecessary obstacle to licensing.
  • Providing temporary licensing to deal with delays due to COVID-19 related state staffing shortages.

To develop solutions to more substantial challenges raised by states, working group members are collaborating on a number of licensing issues, like designing new home study tools that better account for the specific needs and realities of kin families. The best practices developed by these project groups will be incorporated into the playbook as they are created.

By making the Playbook openly available, we encourage other jurisdictions to join so we can capture a broader range of best practices and case studies to share back into this growing community of practice. By helping people understand how to better navigate the licensing process or complete background checks, we give the thousands of people like Carol the chance to get kids placed into homes more quickly with the people they know and love.

*Carol is a composite of various foster care parents.

**This work is also in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.


Sixto Cancel is the Founder and CEO of Think of Us.

Sherry Lachman is the Founder and Executive Director of Foster America.

Marina Nitze is a Public Interest Technology Fellow at New America.

Katie Sullivan is a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation.

Emily Tavoulareas is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation.

June 29, 2020 – By Conor Carroll and Giuseppe Morgana

COVID-19 has made the work of government agencies more critical than ever. States are fostering greater inter-department collaboration, innovating with the public, and ensuring their services are accessible to people in need. 

Digital service teams are partnering closely with experts across the government to accelerate this work. The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University launched a research project on these teams to learn from and share their approaches to implementing innovative methods. The State of New Jersey’s Office of Innovation is a partner in this project. The team’s work has informed this list of four important things to keep in mind for a faster, more coordinated COVID-19 response across government (whether or not your state has a formal digital service team).

#1: Design people-centered platforms for sharing information with the public

The COVID-19 crisis highlights the importance of our government’s communication with the public. As policies frequently change and impact people’s daily lives in unprecedented ways, widespread public compliance with COVID-19 precautions is made possible by clear and broadly-accessible public information. The Office of Innovation focused on this imperative early on, and prioritized collaborating across government, and with private sector and non-profit partners to develop the tools needed to connect New Jerseyans with consistent, plain-language information about COVID-19

screenshot of New Jersey's Innovation Hub website
New Jersey’s COVID-19 Information Hub – covid19.nj.gov

A parallel effort, in collaboration with the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), led to the creation of a user-friendly Q&A tool providing evidence-based information about COVID-19. This information was later integrated directly on New Jersey’s main COVID-19 Information Hub, and also made accessible to other government websites. Through a partnership with Yext, a cloud-based search provider which built the Information Hub with New Jersey, users are connected with the most relevant answers across these different sources via natural language search terms. To ensure the State’s websites reflected the latest policy updates, the Office of Innovation worked with the governor’s office and various other agencies to make the constant flow of updated information useful for the general public. Team members translated executive orders from complex “legalese” into easily-understandable answers to common questions, made content available in Spanish, and studied search analytics to determine which information to feature based on user demand. These content teams were able to coordinate effectively thanks to existing relationships from previous cross-agency projects catalyzed by the Office of Innovation.

This approach provided a great benefit to New Jersey as State employees focused on keeping State-specific information accurate and up-to-date, while also seamlessly providing fact-checked general information about COVID-19 directly on the site, powered by FAS through Ask a Scientist.

Translating an executive order to clear information for residents on covid19.nj.gov

Executive Order 107 mandated the closure of non-essential businesses. Examples of essential businesses could be found in the text of the order. 

screenshot of NJ Executive Order 107


The executive order was translated into a FAQ, easily searchable via covid19.nj.gov

Screenshot of NJ list of businesses that could remain open

The detailed information was translated into easy-to-understand responses, providing users immediate answers and enabling New Jersey to get the most accurate, current guidance directly to the public. 

Screenshot of "are pharmacies open" from NJ COVID-19 info page

#2: Identify and partner with external experts who can bring unique skills to augment internal capacity 

Unprecedented demand for public services and supplies, such as personal protective equipment (PPE), has put significant strain on existing IT and supply chain systems, requiring immediate responses. Traditional government processes for adopting new technologies and hiring new talent may not be designed for the urgency of these issues. But in this crisis environment, additional channels of support are available to augment and expand the capacity and capabilities of the public sector. 

The New Jersey team recognized the urgency of technology and supply chain shortfalls, and are addressing them with the support of skilled volunteers. Volunteers from the U.S. Digital Response, the national effort to provide data and digital support to all levels of U.S. government, were critical to developing the State’s Small Business Emergency Assistance Eligibility Wizard. Additionally, the innovation team worked closely with the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and Rutgers’ Business School to recruit a team of volunteer supply chain experts from the private sector to perform a rapid assessment of the state’s supply chain situation and recommend industry-proven approaches to pilot and improve the State’s ability to make proactive, data-driven decisions about purchasing supplies. A team from the United States Digital Service also recently joined forces with the Office of Innovation and the State’s Department of Labor to conduct interviews with individuals who filed for unemployment benefits and use the insights to modernize aspects of the Unemployment Insurance Weekly Certification website, including an upcoming improvement to make the site mobile-friendly. 

Small Business Assistance Eligibility Wizard

This tool helps business owners check their eligibility for multiple state and federal assistance programs by answering a series of simple questions

Screenshot of Small Business Eligibility Wizard tool

#3: Use the urgency to address tech and design debt so problems are solved long-term

Innovation teams should work with procurement colleagues who understand options that exist both in normal times and during this crisis to expand or develop impactful partnerships that are in the best interest of the state and its residents. Many private sector partners have made their products, talent, and services available to be deployed in innovative projects at no cost at this time. Innovation teams can add value by understanding these opportunities and performing the diligence to ensure they follow best practices in building modern, responsive technology and will not be detrimental to the state in the long-term. In New Jersey, this has translated to multiple engagements with trusted vendor partners, meaning the team was able to bring in new types of external help more quickly. 

This crisis has revealed the true cost of delayed human-centered modernization of the systems that power our public services. Administrative systems have collapsed under the weight of unprecedented demand for public services. It is through these systems that our government delivers the services that we have legislated and prioritized, making it incredibly important that we ensure they work effectively in good times as well as in times of crisis. Our technical systems are a primary vehicle through which residents experience and interact with their government. The capabilities of our systems directly correspond to our ability to be responsive to the needs of the public. 

Digital service teams should use this time to address long-standing technical issues that have been on their reform agendas for years. There is an opportunity to partner closely with public agencies across government to understand their needs at this time and concurrently address long-standing technical debt – including supporting teams that are already working on these challenges across government.. Depending on capacity and resources available, modernization efforts can roll out in phases. The New Jersey team is working to make public-facing improvements to the user experience of legacy systems during this crisis, such as building an updated mobile-friendly Unemployment Insurance certification website, while also looking ahead to deeper engagements in the future—with considerations to add more functionality and move applications to the cloud for improved scalability. 

The upcoming improved, mobile-friendly unemployment insurance certification website developed in collaboration with the Department of Labor and United States Digital Service

screenshots of old, new, and mobile versions of New Jersey weekly unemployment certification sites

#4: Empower agency partners to co-develop and own new solutions 

Strong agency partners, and specifically the front-line agency workers, are crucial to successful innovation projects, with or without a public crisis. These partners bring subject matter expertise, local knowledge, and the ability to grow the solution after it is implemented. As government becomes increasingly digital, the design and resiliency of technology systems often define how responsive government can be in delivering services to the public. Given how essential these systems are to an agency’s mission, the agency must be empowered to own and refine these systems. Even the most well-designed technology solution will need to adapt to changing user needs, policies, or on-the-ground circumstances, and it is critical that the owning agency partner is positioned to continue to iterate and make the changes needed to be responsive in the long-term.  

Acting on values central to leading civic tech organizations, the New Jersey innovation team takes the approach of building with, not for, partners and users. This means taking the time to understand partners’ priorities and know what other projects they are working on. Teams across government are doing critical work to respond to the crisis, and it is important that partnerships are respectful of colleagues’ other efforts. Office of Innovation staff collaborates not only with the staff directly overseeing the issue, but also with other important stakeholders, like IT, legal, and communications teams. This approach cultivates a sense of ownership among partners and develops their capacity to deliver future projects with less direct involvement from the innovation team. By being directly involved in the work, agency colleagues contribute their expertise, become aware of existing resources available to them and develop new skills for delivering projects.

Conor Carroll is a researcher with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, conducting research with the New Jersey Office of Innovation. 

Giuseppe Morgana is the Digital Director for the New Jersey State Office of Innovation.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Boston Globe. It is shared here with permission.

Radical transparency in policing would be an important departure from the status quo. Here are five data sets departments should start sharing widely.

June 15, 2020 – By Clarence Wardell and Denice Ross

Prompted by the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, protestors are demanding a wide range of changes to policing, including abolition, shifting funds to other community services, and more tactical reforms. A common thread across these demands is that American policing must be held accountable to the communities it serves. Accountability, however, requires transparency — and transparency is a concrete step that local leaders can take right now.

After Michael Brown was killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, the Obama administration launched the Police Data Initiative as part of a detailed national response to racialized police violence. At the time, few if any police departments in the country published data about their own actions in sufficient detail for community members to check for evidence of bias.

These days, information about police officers’ actions in addition to the arrests they make is more commonly released. But most of these data sets still lack key details and crucial context, such as corresponding body-camera footage, or published policies on what is allowed (and not) when officers use force. In most cases, the commitment to releasing data isn’t mandated by law; it depends on what leaders want to do. The Boston Police Department, for example, stopped publishing its annual data on stop-and-frisk incidents after 2016. It took months of public calls for transparency, public records requests, and finally a subpoena to restore the flow of data just last month. BPD’s excuse for the three-year gap in publishing data? Nobody had asked for it.

Americans shouldn’t have to beg for data from agencies that have such extraordinary powers. As Art Acevedo, then the police chief in Austin, Texas, and now the chief in Houston made clear five years ago: “This isn’t our data, it’s the people’s data.”

“This isn’t our data, it’s the people’s data.”

– Art Acevedo, Former Police Chief, Austin, Texas

Governments should lean into the idea of being held accountable by their community members in ways that would represent a radical departure from the status quo. It is necessary for both legitimacy and trust. Leaders can start immediately by ordering the release of these five data sets:

  1. Use of force, including shootings by officers. Is force more likely to be applied in communities of color, adjusting for other factors? What are the results from internal investigations into whether the force was justified? Seattle Police Department’s use-of-force data is updated automatically in near real-time, and Orlando’s officer-involved-shooting data includes detailed review letters from the State Attorney for each incident.
  2. Complaints against officers. What complaints are people filing about police officers? How are these complaints against officers resolved? The Citizen Complaint Authority in Cincinnati helps the public understand this data in graphs, charts, and maps, making it easier to devise better policies.
  3. Police force demographics. Does the police force look like the community it serves? Are they failing to retain women and people of color? Wallkill, N.Y., publishes an annual spreadsheet that details rank, years on the force, gender, and education levels of the 120 people in their department.
  4. “Stop-and-frisk.” Which populations are police most often stopping in the field, and for what reasons? The Boston Police Department’s newly liberated data includes the name of the officer and their supervisor. NYPD releases annual data with demographic details and the reason for the stop.
  5. Traffic stops. Are people of color disproportionately likely to be pulled over? Are police actions biased, whether they let someone off with a warning or ask to search the vehicle? The San Diego Police Department, in accordance with the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015, releases demographic details on the people stopped, as well as reasons for the stops and any actions taken by the officers.

Numbers alone won’t tell the whole story, though. Radical transparency will require police and other government agencies to publish complementary records and documents, such as the department’s policy handbook (including the rules on the use of force), police union contracts, prosecutorial and review board decisions, and internal disciplinary records. Departments should promptly make body-worn camera footage available when an incident is being reviewed to clarify, for example, whether a person “tripped” or was actually pushed by officers.

We need to also ensure that all data are released responsibly, protecting privacy so that victims of crimes and police misconduct feel comfortable reporting. Greater transparency will also, in some communities, require revisiting outdated laws and obstructionist police union contracts that are holding back data to which the public is entitled. Leadership is essential to breaking these logjams.

The lack of transparency has not only left our law enforcement apparatus unchecked and unaccountable to the community, but it also has made it harder to understand what actually works to reduce police violence. After the death of George Floyd, we learned Derek Chauvin had at least 18 citizen complaints filed against him. Accountability starts with transparency. We must face the difficult truths hiding in the unopened vault of police data.

Clarence Wardell is director of City Solutions for What Works Cities at Results for America, a research organization that advises governments.

Denice Ross is a fellow at the National Conference on Citizenship and Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. They co-founded the White House Police Data Initiative in 2015.

June 9, 2020 | By Tyler Kleykamp

As the world becomes increasingly digital, what’s become clear for both the public and private sector is that data needs a leader. Since 2010, states have been establishing Chief Data Officer (CDO) roles and most major cities and large federal agencies have them as well. As the number of CDOs has grown to over 25, and the size of their teams have increased, the role has evolved and matured from being primarily focused on open data, to ensuring data is shared and used effectively across their states.

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests against police brutality highlight the unique role the state government plays and how it directly impacts people’s lives. Data is already in the spotlight and will play a critical role in how states recover from the pandemic and address systemic racism if leveraged properly. For years, Connecticut has been collecting traffic stop data in an effort to determine whether drivers are being stopped due to racial profiling. A growing number of states are providing COVID-19 case data broken out by race, illuminating the disproportionate toll the virus has taken on communities of color. States must also recognize that years of systemic and structural racism has resulted in overrepresentation of racial and ethnic groups within their data systems. With their ability to engage across agencies and departments, the CDO will be a hub for state governments moving forward.

cover of report: The Evolving Role of the State Chief Data Officer
Read the full report

The goal of the State Chief Data Officers Network is to surface and scale best practices and opportunities for collaboration across states. We also aim to support states in the creation of a CDO role. This means we need to better define what the CDO roles and responsibilities are. While there are case studies and playbooks to support CDOs in various levels of government, most aren’t geared toward the unique challenges states face. City CDOs are often focused on open data and analytics. Federal CDOs roles are generally defined by the Foundations for Evidence Based Policy Act. To help states improve their use of data, the State CDO Network created a core framework to guide them in structuring effective data programs.

Through the insights collected from state CDOs since November, and drawing upon resources from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Results for America, six core elements of a successful state data program have emerged:

  • LEAD – Designate an executive level data leader as the Chief Data Officer
  • PLAN – Create a strategy, governance structure, and inventory of data
  • BUILD – Increase the capacity of stakeholders to effectively use data
  • SHARE – Establish clear and predictable processes for data sharing
  • ANALYZE – Provide mechanisms and platforms to enable data integration and analysis
  • SUSTAIN – Ensure ongoing support exists for data efforts

To implement this framework, we’ve created two tools states can use. The Evolving Role of a State Chief Data Officer will help policymakers and state CDOs alike shape the role and responsibility of a CDO. State Data Policy Options is a guidebook with examples of effective legislation from states that can be used to support efforts to implement this framework. The policy options will grow over time as states continue implementing effective solutions.

States don’t need to implement this framework all at once. Rather, it should be used as a roadmap to help them mature in their use of data over time. Just as the CDO role has evolved since its inception, it’s likely this framework will too. These tools will help get states moving in the right direction.

Tyler Kleykamp is a Beeck Center Fellow and Director of the State Chief Data Officers Network. Follow him at @tkleykamp.

June 4, 2020 | By Matt Fortier

“The Student Analyst Program allows students to meaningfully immerse themselves in these initiatives and start their own social impact journeys.”

– Shaily Acharya, SFS’23

Between the pandemic and growing protests over racial inequity, the need for leadership in social impact is critical, and we’re proud to work with individuals dedicated to that goal. This week, we’re excited to welcome fourteen students, budding leaders for social impact from across the country, to participate in our Student Analyst Program. This summer’s cohort includes 10 Georgetown students, joined by colleagues from American University, Fordham University, University of Michigan, and University of North Carolina, bringing diverse perspectives from outside the Hilltop to enrich our community and learning environment.

We had a record number of applicants representing over 30 different institutions of higher education. Some of these students are brand new to our Center, while others engaged us through other Beeck Center programs, such as our events, workshops, and Discern + Digest discussion series. 

As we highlighted in the spring, we are adapting student programming to continue our mission in equipping students with the mindsets and skills for social impact leadership. The distributed environment has presented both challenges and opportunities in driving this mission forward, and we recognizeare proud of our students for the flexibility and resilience in the wake of these changes. 

“My passion lies in ensuring communities marginalized by our current economic system have equitable access to the financial resources they need to thrive. I hope my work at the Beeck Center and beyond is able to contribute to the enrichment of these communities for years to come.”

– Brooks Watson, MSB’21

Our students have been proactive in sharing their ideas, exemplifying our experimental attitude in helping us adapt our programming. This spring, we experimented with programs to promote community, piloting virtual office hours and using tools like Slack and the donut app to recreate the types of water cooler moments we’re all missing. We’re looking forward to further codesigning solutions and developing more best practices as we work and learn this summer. 

While the students have had a couple of months to work on distance learning, some of our new alumni shared advice on maximizing their time here at the Center:

“Your favorite word this summer should be Question: Ask questions; Question the status quo! Today what we need more than anything else is the ability to rethink our existing models. The Beeck Center is doing exactly that: to reflect, research and redesign cutting-edge ideas. And you are the instruments for scaling this process.”

-Ali Shahbaz, SFS’20

“Don’t treat your role as a Beeck Center Student Analyst as just another campus job – immerse yourself in the opportunities to reflect, to consider your own growth, and to set goals. Insert your own creativity and voice into projects and seek the insights of others. Your coworkers will become your friends and mentors, so enjoy each and every minute with the Beeck Center community.”

-Casey Doherty, College’20

Welcome to the summer 2020 Student Analyst cohort, we can’t wait to see what you produce in the coming months.

Grace RectorGU - School of Foreign ServiceLos Angeles, CA
Josephine GrahamUniversity of MichiganSt. Clair Shores, MI
Divjot BawaGU - School of Foreign ServiceSterling, VA
Angela GuoUniversity of North CarolinaChapel Hill, NC
Natalie WardFordham UniversityPortland, OR
Alberto Rodriguez AlvarezGU - McCourt School of Public PolicyVeracruz, Mexico
Hayley PontiaGU - Graduate School of Arts & SciencesPittsburgh, PA
Elaina FaustGU - School of Foreign ServiceSouthborough, MA
Taylor SavellGU - School of Foreign ServiceNashville, TN
Katie SullivanGU - School of Foreign ServiceBarrington, IL
Saumya ShrutiGU - College of Liberal ArtsSan Ramon, CA
Shaily AcharyaGU - School of Foreign ServiceRockville, MD
Brooks WatsonGU - McDonough School of BusinessAnnapolis, MD
Cristina Alaniz-RamirezAmerican UniversityBrownsville, TX

June 3, 2020 | By Betsy Zeidman

Khudaier arrived in Austin, Texas as a refugee from Iraq five years ago, with only a high school diploma in hand, leaving a wife and two daughters behind. He found work as a security guard, and drove for Uber, earning $800 a week getting people to and from the airport. When the pandemic shut down flights, and offices closed, like millions of others, he found himself out of work. Like many refugees and immigrants, English is still a challenge, and he made mistakes filing for unemployment, which kept him from having any income until the end of May. He would love to find other work, but building the skills for a different job takes time and money.

Like Khudaier, over 40 million Americans have applied for unemployment since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, and the virus has hit marginalized communities well beyond their share of the population. We know African-American, Latino and Asian-American communities fall ill, and die, at significantly higher rates than white Americans; and can reasonably extrapolate to assume the death rate is high in immigrant and refugee communities as well.

Unfortunately, these communities’ impact on the country is often underrepresented. Just look at how critical they are in getting food on our table:

infographic of The Essential Role of Immigrants in the U.S. Food Supply Chain
Infographic from Migration Policy Institute

And that’s not the only industry. While the foreign-born comprise 17% of working civilians they represent a significant component of frontline jobs: 38% of home health aides, 25% of nursing assistants, 41% of janitors, 18% of essential retail (groceries, pharmacies and gas stations), and 34% of bus, metro and taxi drivers. This puts all these systems in precarious positions as these workers rarely have sick leave, have less access to health care, and many live and work in places with little opportunity for social distancing.

Getting our economy moving requires confident consumers willing to spend and healthy workers willing to work. This includes immigrants who are projected to represent 83% of workforce growth between now and 2050. We need these immigrants, but there are challenges to reengaging them in the workforce. Many of these predate the emergence of COVID-19 in the U.S. and are similar to those plaguing native-born people of color. They arise from structural aspects of our economy, such as their over-representation in lower-paying industries. Others include language and cultural barriers. When immigrants do seek to advance, they confront obstacles to obtaining necessary training: lack of funds to cover the cost of training, lack of time off from their jobs, unreliable transportation and sporadic, often costly, childcare. Few are lucky enough to access training through their employer or union if they are part of one.

With the pandemic triggering more remote work and online learning, the barriers grow more prohibitive. Lower-income immigrants are less digitally literate than their higher-skilled counterparts, often lack access to computers and broadband connections. These factors complicate training and make integration into an increasingly digital economy challenging, perpetuating the inequity.

The country needs these immigrants to have a pathway back to work. With the support of the World Education Services Mariam Assefa Fund, we are exploring ways in which the tools of finance might facilitate such training at a greater scale. We’ve built a network of diverse experts in immigration, workforce development and finance. With COVID-19 now a part of all our lives, we are focusing on two areas necessary to enable a safe return to work by immigrants and refugees: workforce training and workplace safety.

Thinking creatively about how to pay for these efforts is even more important now. Government funds (federal, state and local) will be reduced – due to increasing costs of caring for the sick and decreasing tax revenues from the economic slowdown. Blending diverse sources of capital will be important.

While early in our exploration, we have identified some promising models:

  • Income-share agreements (ISAs) provide college students tuition in exchange for a share of their future earnings. The San Diego Workforce Partnership, a funder of job training programs, is piloting a new ISA to fund workforce training. They seek a stable, equitable model aligning the interests of workers, trainers, employers and investors.
  • Labor-management partnerships support sustainable workplaces that aim to meet the needs of all stakeholders. California-based Building Skills Partnerships connects largely immigrant janitorial workers, their union, and their employers to provide language and vocational skills. Their pioneering Green Janitor Education program set a standard for providing a growth path for this community. With the onslaught of COVID-19 and its impact on janitors, BSP is building an infectious disease training program that, if successful, can be leveraged to other sectors.
  • Pay for Success (PFS) programs base payments to training providers on the successful job placement of trainees. Successful efforts link clearly identified target outcomes, proven providers, data collection, cross-sectoral partnerships and catalytic capital. The first workforce training PFS, the Massachusetts Pathways to Economic Advancement, has had early success with entry-level workers and pivoted to a virtual model with minimal loss of participants.
  • Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) know their markets as well as any source of capital because they remain so close to their communities. In recent years, they have moved beyond their traditional support of housing and small business to invest in workforce development. Those who received funds from the recent Paycheck Protection Program deployed those funds at a much faster rate than the larger banks.

We know the factors critical to a successful workforce training program: employer engagement to focus on most usable skills; jobs available upon completion; contextualized English language learning, and supportive wraparound services. Linking financing to programs that include such elements will help scale them and bring more immigrants and refugees into the workforce, helping all of us move through the COVID-19 crisis, even as we continue to manage it.

Betsy Zeidman is a Beeck Center Fellow where she explores ways to drive social impact at scale using lessons from behavioral economics, investments in emerging domestic markets and corporate responsibility initiatives.Follow her @BZeidman

May 28, 2020 | By Franchesca Rybar

Universities everywhere are wrapping up what turned out to be an unusual spring semester. Virtual classes, virtual graduations, virtual meetings– and yet, there was no other choice, and things worked out for the most part. As teachers breathe a sigh of relief before diving into fall planning, students are starting internships– or are they? 

A survey conducted by Yello revealed 35% of students nationwide had their summer internships cancelled. For many students, summer is a time to take their classroom learnings and put them to the test in the “real world” while also discovering what they still don’t know. Internships are also a huge networking opportunity for students to wow their colleagues and hopefully return to a full-time role with the company after graduation. Other students use the summer to study abroad, volunteer, or gain additional income– all of which have been affected by COVID-19. 

With “Innovation” in the title, our Center grouped up to discuss the implications a remote-shift would have on our summer programs: we had already extended offers to 21 undergraduate students for GU Impacts, a global fellowship program centered around a 10-week social impact project with one of our eight partner organizations. After having individual conversations with each of our partners to understand the effects the coronavirus was having on their organization and community, five committed to supervising their fellows virtually for the summer, foreseeing helpful contributions despite the distance. The Kunde Social Cafe in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan offered a common explanation for continuing to work with us,

With restaurant businesses closing and in-house customer numbers dwindling, we embraced the need to develop online business models at Kunde.

We are confident that GU Impacts students will create great impact for our mission: to help people with mental disabilities to stay employed and included in the society. We will be working on developing online market, adapting our rehabilitation procedures to online formats, and expanding our reach this summer.

Unfortunately, the other partners were facing larger disruptances and could not commit to summer fellows this year, though we look forward to working with them again in the future.

After figuring out what was in our partners’ capacity, we had individual check-ins with each fellow – our sympathy and support in identifying other opportunities was extended to the students whose partners could no longer facilitate a summer project. Of the 13 students who still had an opportunity, all of them re-committed to working with their organization. The commitment each student made to continuing social impact work, despite no longer being able to travel and interact with a new community, was truly inspiring. 

For the past 7 years, the Beeck Center has prioritized holistic experiential learning opportunities for students to engage in social impact. With commitments from students and partners in hand, we’ve worked endlessly to adapt the GU Impacts program to the current situation. Embracing our core value of experimentation, this summer we’re launching the Sustainable Student Impact (SSI) Project Builder. The builder, a guideline for any student to self-guide a research project using human-centered design, was created in an attempt to fill predicted gaps in community-learning the GU Impacts program may face switching to a virtual environment. While this summer will be a true pilot session, the pandemic has forced us out of our comfort zone and potentially created a new, more accessible way for students to learn about and get involved with social impact. The GU Impacts cohort is typically dispersed across 7 different timezones working full-time with their partner organization; however, with fellows following Georgetown policy and staying indoors, we look forward to seeing how our implementation of the program may improve and evolve with the “hands-on” opportunities we have to work with our students this summer. 

We’ve transitioned our onboarding workshops from “health and safety abroad” and visa applications to “equity and privilege” and “navigating your social impact learning.” Our hope is that our students can still provide value and see their contribution to social impact working with our partners, but also feel empowered and confident in leading their own learning journey. We can’t wait to be a helping hand along the way. Congratulations to our 13 GU Impact fellows!

GU Impacts PartnerPartner Location
Arnav KumarFederal City CouncilWashington, DC, USA
Jacob VanderZwaagCenter for Civic InnovationAtlanta, GA, USA
Michael XuCenter for Civic InnovationAtlanta, GA, USA
Sophie StewartCenter for Civic InnovationAtlanta, GA, USA
Yingying MeiCenter for Civic InnovationAtlanta, GA, USA
Anika VenkateshŽene za Žene InternationalSarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Claire BeezleyŽene za Žene InternationalSarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
John MucklerKunde Social CafeNur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
Sydney YinKunde Social CafeNur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
Victoria LeiKunde Social CafeNur-Sultan, Kazakhstan
Ananya AmirthalingamMann Deshi FoundationMhaswad, India
Daniel WolfeMann Deshi FoundationMhaswad, India
Kia MuletaMann Deshi FoundationMhaswad, India

May 27, 2020 | By Amen Ra Mashariki

In September 2015, I was sitting in the NYC Office of Emergency Management’s (NYCEM) famed “war room”. It was packed. Literally standing room only. Yet somehow the steady influx of important looking people into the room continued. Was the crisis an impending storm, or a blackout? Neither. This was a “Tabletop,” a simulated emergency situation. In this exercise, the Commissioners of most NYC agencies and their senior staff, some state personnel, and private sector entities (i.e. gas/electric utilities) gathered to review and discuss the actions they would take in a particular emergency, testing their emergency plan in an informal, low-stress environment. This made it easy for everyone to calmly rehearse their roles, ask questions, and troubleshoot problem areas.

people sitting around a conference table with projection of data behind them
NYC Emergency Management “tabletop” exercise. Photo by Amen Ra Mashariki

After 9/11, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy and the Legionnaires outbreak, we knew very well that it’s the unknown unknowns that hurt you the most. This is when I along with a few colleagues created data drills. Data drills help a city baseline where they are with citywide data practices. They also help improve a city’s ability to identify, understand, and use data to solve a challenge when requested. Data drills help a municipal data team move faster and better, but it’s also a very important tool to understand exactly where the holes and problems in your data operations are.

Why was I, the Chief Analytics Officer and Director of the Mayor’s Office of Data Analytics (MODA) at a tabletop emergency management event? To understand, rewind to the beginning of summer 2015 and the outbreak of Legionnaires disease in the city.

Legionnaires—a type of pneumonia—was spreading in the Bronx and Manhattan through contaminated water in cooling towers sitting on top of buildings. My office was brought in to build a machine learning model to help find where every building with a cooling tower existed, and to count and track the registration and ultimately the cleaning of those towers. This was a citywide emergency effort, and because MODA played a key role in its successful conclusion, from that point on it was clear to city leadership that collecting data was key to emergency response efforts. Hence the invitation to the tabletop.

As I watched these agency heads work out their emergency response muscle so they could improve, I realized my former office, as well as the data teams or personnel in other agencies, should find a way to get better at finding, accessing, integrating, and sharing data during an emergency. Agency data leaders needed our own tabletop exercise, because when we weren’t thinking about using analytics to solve a particular problem, we needed to be thinking about data all the time.

We understood that there is data that we know we have, data that we know we don’t have, and data we know absolutely nothing about, including even the fact that it exists (Donald Rumsfeld’s famous “unknown unknowns”).

Related Links

In general, data drills are developed and conducted based on some operational challenge that involves data and will require multi-organizational cooperation to achieve a desired result. Drills can be designed for (but not limited to):

  • Specific scenario: hurricane flood zone, homeless counts, data center disruption
  • Capacity building: collecting data, learning how to operationalize a specific dataset
  • Operations development: down trees clean-up operations between two agencies
  • Testing Software: testing new features in a data sharing platform

Data drills help us take on that challenge by having organizations across the city surfacing, sharing and integrating data. A drill takes place with specified start and end times, forcing all participants to work within real life time constraints. Every data drill results in overall citywide-data I.Q. growing ever so slightly.

Data drill deliverables should be defined early in the planning phase. They may include (but not limited to):

  • Identification of data sets with metadata and data dictionaries
  • Organization-specific operational workflow relevant to data and use-case
  • Interagency workflow for operations, analysis and/or network infrastructure
  • List of organization contacts, roles and responsibilities
  • Documentation of activities and observations
  • Report with recommendations

NYC’s first interagency emergency data drill was conducted by MODA with assistance from NYCEM’s GIS and Training & Exercises divisions, and the 1st Deputy Mayor’s office, from October 14 – 16, 2015. It included an initial data call, assignments for agencies, and an in-person concluding session. Fourteen agencies were participants in the drill, and there were over 60 individual participants.

The scenario for drill play was an extended power outage in an area of downtown Brooklyn affecting 97,000 residents. Eleven agencies contributed data sets to test data sharing mechanisms and MODA’s data integration effort. Immediately after the completion of the drill, a post data drill review showed the drill successfully tested the capabilities it was designed to test.

Capability to TestGoalResult
Points of Contact (POCs)It is important to define and rely on data POCs for responding agencies so when an emergency happens you already know who to reach out to for data.In sending out invitations to the drill, we used a list of data POCs from the various agencies we had developed over the previous two months. In the course of the drill, additional POCs were identified.
Data Call
There must be an existing mechanism in place to convene data leaders across agencies so when a crisis breaks out, communication across data leaders can happen instantaneously.We successfully conducted an initial data call on the 14th and simulated a second data call “in-person” on the 16th.
Data Sharing Mechanism
The need to be able to swiftly share data during an emergency with metadata templates for tracking is key to executing a successful emergency response. A data sharing mechanism was successfully used by all participants.
Data Integration
Data integration is one of the most complex things to do in general, but when you attach this need to the timeliness and precision requirements that must be met during an emergency, data integration without planning, process and skill is almost impossible. MODA successfully integrated data from a large sample of the data sets provided by the agencies, even when given a few hours to complete the needed integration.
Reporting Metrics
Leaders within the city, first responders and other stakeholders during a crisis require immediate, accurate and consistent reporting during an emergency.MODA led the effort to work with agencies to propose draft reporting metrics. The 1st Deputy Mayor’s office reviewed and commented on the draft metrics.

A key takeaway from this blog is that we built the concept of data drills in NYC up from a simple idea to a very complex, citywide, highly impactful undertaking. This wasn’t just because it was a good idea. Good ideas come a dime a dozen.  This was an idea that every agency in NYC government felt was overdue. This was something that we all knew needed to happen. Therefore, high participation and ultimately impact was inevitable. For every city, domestic or international, data drills should be a key part of their data strategy. These drills should constantly be running in the background at a cadence that keeps the city’s data ready to be put into action. Data drills make the city smarter about their data, and that is key to being able to use data and analytics to make a city safer, smarter, healthier, more efficient, resilient, sustainable, and equitable.

COMING SOON: Executing a Data Drill

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May 27, 2020 | By Erika Seth Davies

Historic discriminatory policies and practices intentionally designed to eliminate access to economic opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) have ensured that everyone doesn’t enter a level playing field when it comes to the world of finance. Less than 1.5% of the $70 trillion handled by the asset management industry each year is overseen by BIPOC and women managers. That’s a problem.

Although it has long been touted as a system built on meritocracy and market-driven performance, access to capital markets, like all other facets of American society, is influenced by the same policies, practices and cultural representations that accumulate advantage and disadvantage along the lines of race. We haven’t “found ourselves” in this predicament. The disparities in access and opportunity are the result of intentional decision making. Dismantling the barriers that have resulted requires equal intention and naming the difficult truth of institutional and structural racism in the room. In this unprecedented moment of crisis, we have the opportunity to learn important lessons and move differently to advance a system that generates shared prosperity.

Racial literacy is crucial in the age of COVID-19. We do not stand a chance of advancing shared prosperity for all unless and until we address the racism in the room. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Fundamentally, this pandemic puts the racism inherent in the structures of the American economic, political, media, and social systems on full display. From disproportionate rates of infection and death, the lack of funding to businesses owned by people of color, the rhetoric regarding reopening state/local economies, and violent attacks are deeply rooted in the structures of U.S. society and a basic language for describing it matters deeply to advancing change.

The time has come to reframe and redefine risk to challenge commonly held beliefs. We are witnessing what happens when we view risk through a binary of winning and losing, protecting and mitigating loss, but we are not weighing the risk of inaction. When we allow the status quo to remain, when we don’t change what is clearly not working, our economy and social fabric face an even greater risk of failure.

Over the coming weeks, the Equitable Access to Capital Markets project will explore the intersections and implications of placing the invisible influence of institutional racism on display through an analysis of common policies and practices, governance structures, and the role of implicit bias in generating current outcomes.

We’ll share insights and more importantly, offer solutions for owners of asset capital to transform their processes and approaches to engage overlooked and expand access to opportunity. Ideas like understanding and mitigating implicit bias in your process, why “color blind” policies and practices result in racialized outcomes and how to be more intentional, why equitable access requires a systems approach, and what are frameworks for race lens investing to shift capital. But this won’t work unless an open dialogue exists about this issue, so in July, we are partnering with Common Future for a series of conversations with people working to deliver systemic change. The longest journey begins with a single step, and we look forward to you joining us on this one.



Erika Seth Davies is a Beeck Center Fellow and Founder of the Racial Equity Asset Lab. She has extensive background in racial equity advocacy and launched the first field-wide philanthropic initiative designed to incorporate a racial equity lens in foundation endowment practice. She authored white papers promoting policies and practice in support of this approach, including Foundation Investment Management Practices: Thoughts on Alpha and Access for the Field and Diverse Managers: Philanthropy’s Next Hurdle.

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May 21, 2020 | By Tyler Kleykamp

The COVID-19 pandemic affects each state differently, but data is a valuable asset and state Chief Data Officers are taking on increasingly central roles as the crisis evolves. Creating the dashboards that governors use everyday, troubleshooting state unemployment insurance systems, and even supporting secure access to data in the shift to remote work are just a few ways CDOs are scrubbing into COVID response.

Last week, the Beeck Center hosted its second convening of the State Chief Data Officers Network. Twenty-five of the nation’s state CDOs gathered from their home offices to share experiences and collaborate on ways to further leverage data to support recovery. In times of crisis, community support is critical. Deepening the connections with their peers builds morale knowing they’re not alone in their journey. “It’s good to know others are going through similar throes as I am” one CDO commented as we wrapped up.

screenshot of Zoom meeting with 24 attendees
Members of the State CDO Network gathered on May 12-13, 2020 to discuss their work in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

What’s happening in state-level data?
Every state is using data to communicate with the public using online dashboards and in governors’ briefings. Every number produced for the public represents infrastructure and analytical capabilities behind the scenes, often orchestrated by CDOs. What might be less noticeable is that state governments also had to ensure the integrity of state data as they quickly set up remote work environments for offices that were unaccustomed to operating remotely. Ensuring state employees had access to the data and systems they need to continue providing critical services was a key early focus. As the pandemic’s effects spread outside of the public health threat, the CDOs’ roles grew to supporting unemployment insurance call centers and small business loan applications. As states plan for reopening, CDOs are measuring economic impacts, supporting contact tracing efforts, and developing dashboards to show progress toward meeting reopening milestones.

“Map Everything!”
As in real estate, location may be the most critical aspect of the pandemic response, and one CDO’s advice was “map everything!” Creating the maps that show the spread of the disease, where vulnerable populations exist, and where to get tested have been central to state efforts. Beyond disease-specific issues, CDOs are supporting mapping of critical facilities like child care, transportation hubs, and food banks. These resources help both governments and the people they serve understand where services exist, where there are gaps, and how to support the people who need it most.

screenshot of Pennsylvania Hospital Preparedness Dashboard
Hospital Preparedness Dashboard from the Pennsylvania Department of Health

Coordination is Critical
As the pandemic grew across states, the use of data increased far beyond testing and case counts. Initially it was availability of personal protective equipment and documenting hospital capacity, but expanded to data on prisons, businesses, and employment. These data come from a variety of different departments in states, and having a CDO to coordinate across agencies has been vital. CDOs often found themselves in a coordination role, ensuring that subject-matter experts were able to access the data they needed to support their work. Some states have “agency data officers” who are a single point of contact for data issues in a department. This structure helps streamline data discovery and access in states. Where states lack this structure, CDOs facilitate conversations directly with the individuals that manage specific data sources within a department.

For state CDOs, the pandemic highlighted the need for umbrella data sharing agreements in states. COVID-19 didn’t wait for states to develop the legal infrastructure necessary to share data, and the next crisis won’t either.

cover of Sharing Data for Social Impact reportWant to learn how best to share data with other organizations? Download “Sharing Data for Social Impact: Guidebook for Sharing Responsible Governance Practices” from Beeck Center Fellow Natalie Evans Harris.

With an economic crisis bearing down and a second wave of the disease looming, data-driven decisions are now at the forefront of policies and actions taken by states. Arizona’s Jeff Wolkove pointed out, “the data ‘nice-to-haves’ of a few months ago are now mission critical and we should leverage this opportunity to build what we need for the future.” In particular, centralized access to data resources solved many challenges. State governments are also going to need to become more agile. We’re still learning about the diverse impacts on state operations resulting from the pandemic, and the ability to adapt quickly to changes will be imperative.

As states transition from response to recovery, and prepare for a potential additional waves of the pandemic, CDOs brainstormed ways they can support their states. This exercise generated nearly 300 ideas in under 20 minutes. Three themes emerged:

  1. Relationships matter. Data sharing is built on trust, and ensuring that the departments and individuals they work with trust them to use data responsibly will accelerate the state’s ability to share data.
  2. “Demos not memos.” This is the mantra of the Beeck Center’s State Software Collaborative, and it seems CDOs are of the same mindset. Quickly prototyping data dashboards on potential emerging issues can help state leaders understand what’s possible and help surface any underlying barriers so they can be addressed early on.
  3. Know your data. An inventory of what data each department collects, what information the data contains, and who can access the data will help states be better prepared. This information also lets states begin to map out various data sources and start developing processes and infrastructure necessary to pull data together in advance. For example, CDOs are expecting greater demand for data on economic impact, and vaccine distribution in the future.

State CDOs continue to step up and support their states in new ways, and at the Beeck Center we are committed to highlighting those efforts so they can be replicated across the country. We published best practices on using data for COVID response and are building a roadmap to address recovery related issues and use cases for states. The State CDO Network will continue to convene online and we look forward to meeting in-person when it’s safe to do so.

Tyler Kleykamp is a Beeck Center Fellow and Director of the State Chief Data Officers Network. He is the former Chief Data Officer for the State of Connecticut and you can follow him at @tkleykamp.

May 6, 2020 | By Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith

Only 13% of major government software projects succeed, and the successful and failed ones alike cost 5–10 times more than they should. When those projects fail, so too do the public policy initiatives that depend on them: unemployment insurance, small business loans, paid family and medical leave, SNAP, Medicaid, etc.

As we’ve seen in the response to the COVID-19 crisis even if lawmakers move quickly to pass legislation to get money to laid-off workers, small businesses, and hospitals, those policies can’t be implemented effectively when the technology tools used to apply for, distribute, and track funds can’t be easily modified or don’t work.

This is an egregious state of affairs. But we know it doesn’t have to be this way. At a time when technology allows us to order a new pair of shoes on our phone and have them delivered the next day, it’s increasingly clear that technology isn’t the problem, but instead how government currently procures technology and uses it to deliver service to the public.

Today, in an effort to begin solving this problem, we are starting the State Software Collaborative at the Beeck Center, in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation.

States need to take back control of the systems they rely on to fulfill their mission. Our goal is to help them do that, through a combination of teaching legislative staff about best practices to budget and provide oversight for major software projects, coaching agencies through using modern procurement practices, and teaching states how to center all of that work in modern software development practices (Agile software development, user-centered design, product thinking, DevOps, etc.)

By knitting together states’ agencies based on common needs, we can help states collaboratively procure, develop, and maintain the software they depend on, so instead of 50 states buying 50 versions of near-identical, overpriced software, they can procure high-quality, fair-priced software just once, and share it among themselves.

States’ needs differ substantially — because of different policies, laws, cultural norms, and technical environments — so it would be a mistake to expect as-is reuse of monolithic software projects. We expect the resulting software to be something like 80% complete, leaving room for the customization necessary to serve each state. We’ll coach states through procuring and managing scrum teams to complete the final 20%, documenting emergent best practices for other states to follow.

State governments have the subject-matter expertise, the funding, the technical knowledge, and the digital infrastructure that is necessary to deliver high-quality, technology-intermediated services to the public. They just need a little help bringing together that expertise from across states and establishing the processes and governance structure to execute on that promise, and that’s where the State Software Collaborative comes in.

We come to this project not as an academic exercise, but as practitioners with decades of experience in this subject. Robin is deeply familiar with government procurement processes from her time as Missouri’s Secretary of State and knows that states are the linchpin to our nation’s COVID-19 response, but as we’ve seen in the past few weeks, too often that work is made harder by old, hard to update and maintain legacy technology systems.

For the past four years we have helped state and local governments through our work at 18F, a tech consultancy inside the federal government General Services Administration, developing and promoting best practices for government procurement of custom software. At a time when states are on the front lines of the government’s COVID-19 response, they must take back control of systems they rely on to fulfill their mission.

The current crisis has shown how important it is for states to both learn from each other and work together in procuring critical supplies. We’ll continue to build on that collaborative spirit and states get the tools they need to support the country as we recover.

Robin Carnahan and Waldo Jaquith joined the Beeck Center as fellows in Spring 2020. They will support the State Software Collaborative project as part of the Data + Digital portfolio. Follow Robin on Twitter at @robincarnahan and Waldo at @waldojaquith.

Photos by Mackenzie Weber & Shahadat Rahman on Unsplash.

May 6, 2020 | By Jen Collins and Ryan Goss

This is part of our ‘Impact in Action’ series, co-produced with the Centre for Public Impact, highlighting innovative models and lessons for driving positive community impact through investment and development projects across America. Read the other stories from Baltimore, MD and Kannapolis, NC.

A central valley city on the rise

Merced, California is a city of many slogans. Known as the Gateway to Yosemite, Merced’s 83,000 residents are nestled just 80 miles west of the Yosemite park entrance and a two-hour drive southeast of San Francisco. Though it is located on the outskirts of these attractions, Merced is sometimes forgotten – a sentiment poignantly captured on the Chamber of Commerce website which reads, Merced. Who Knew? But, in recent years, Mayor Mike Murphy has introduced a new slogan for his city, one that reminds of past economic struggles and paints a vision for a prosperous future: Merced: A City on the Rise.

Although Merced has seen steady economic growth in the decade following the 2008 Recession, a closer look reveals a truth shared by communities in the state and across the country: not all have not benefited equally from the last decade of economic growth. This truth stands to worsen as the impacts of COVID-19 damage local economies and exacerbate pre-existing geographic and racial inequalities.

Merced’s renaissance – one forged through key private and public investments – reveals important lessons that could help communities chart a course towards renewal.

Guiding Principles for Impact in Low-Income Communities

Alongside its partners, the Beeck Center created the Opportunity Zone Reporting Impact Framework, a voluntary guideline designed to define best practices for investors and fund managers looking to invest in low-income communities through incentives such as Opportunity Zones (OZ). In the sections that follow, we explore the redevelopment projects in Merced, extracting the lessons to help communities and investors bring the five guiding principles of effective and equitable investments to life:

    1. Community Engagement
    2. Equity
    3. Transparency
    4. Measurement
    5. Outcomes

A city grows quieter

Merced’s story between the 1940s and 1990s is one of a hard-working community with a bustling Main Street. As with many counties in California’s central valley, Merced’s regional economy was, and is, powered by agriculture. Merced county is the fifth top producer in the state, growing 90% of California’s sweet potatoes and generating $500 million annually in almond sales alone. For fifty years, the city of Merced also revolved around a large Air Force base and its proximity to Yosemite. These assets funneled consumers downtown, where military families and park visitors were frequent diners and shoppers along Merced’s Main Street. Celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, and President John F. Kennedy would pass through town, often checking-in at the downtown Hotel Tioga. Just down the road, the 1920s art deco Manzier theater housed decades of live stage shows and indie film screenings. According to Merced’s Chamber of Commerce President Sara Cribari Hill, “30 years ago, downtown was the place to be.”

But Merced soon saw economic changes. In 1995, Castle Air Force base shut its doors, damaging local retail and real estate markets. A decade later, in the midst of the Great Recession, Merced saw one of the nation’s worst declines in housing prices. In the surrounding county, increasing globalization made the agriculture-powered economy particularly susceptible to economic downturns and trade wars.

Today, in downtown Merced, Main Street is much quieter than it once was. The Tioga – now an apartment building – as well as the Manzier theater have struggled with ownership turnover. As one resident described it, downtown became a “place in waiting.” In 2017, seven census tracts – mostly clustered in downtown Merced – were marked as Opportunity Zones. A further look into these zones reveals economic troubles.

Along certain indicators of economic health, downtown Merced has lagged California and the U.S. averages

MetricDowntown Merced Opportunity ZoneCalifornia AverageNational Average
Growth of per Capita Income

(% change in 5 years)
Net New Businesses Growth7.6%35.2%34.4%
Labor Market Engagement

Composite metric that measures employment, labor force participation, and % with bachelor degree
Minority / Women-owned Business

As a percentage of all businesses
*A commitment to measurement is one the five guiding principles of equitable and effective investments. Through tools such as Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth Inclusive Growth Score, you can track the degree to which the environment, economy and community in a given census tract benefit from equitable growth.
Source: Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Inclusive Growth Score

But, if you look even closer, it’s clear that Merced has signs of promise.

An Integrated Model for Economic Revitalization

The old way of thinking

Community development projects often fail unless they are connected to the community’s economic priorities and a regional growth strategy. For example, when a 10,000 person capacity convention center opened in downtown Niagara Falls in the 1970s, the surrounding downtown infrastructure was ill-equipped to provide visitors with a cohesive one-stop-shop for dining, lodging, and entertainment. In 2002, the city replaced the convention center with a casino, and while it brought many dining and entertainment options, it remained disconnected to the community around it.

Niagara Falls has since taken steps to create a more economically integrated community, but the lesson from the area’s stagnant growth remains true: when investment strategies in under-developed communities focus on revitalizing single buildings and businesses, rather than strengthening blocks or ecosystems of activity, they often fail to unlock a community’s economic potential.

A multi-stage strategy takes shape in Merced

For years, Merced seemed destined for a similar fate. But recently, the community has begun to bounce back. In 2005, Merced became home to the latest University of California campus: UC Merced, which rests a few miles outside downtown. In the subsequent years, UC Merced has become the fastest growing public research university in the nation. “People saw Merced was growing but not fast enough to keep pace,” shares Ed Klotzbier, the Vice Chancellor UC Merced, “So we did something unprecedented.” Through an innovative public-private financing model, the university launched a $1.3 billion redevelopment effort to double UC Merced’s campus by 2020.

Though the main campus sits outside of downtown, the expansion stands to have a significant impact across the community. “We didn’t want to just be five miles outside of city proper,” Ed shares, “We also wanted to be right downtown. We wanted to let the community know that we’re here and that we’ll help create a place where our best and brightest will want to live.” Recognizing the importance of its downtown presence, the university built a three-story Downtown Center right across from City Hall.

As Mayor Mike Murphy learned, an integrated approach to revitalization requires more than a single institution. “We’ve had a tremendous amount of state investment in the form of UC Merced, and now we have a great deal of private sector investment,” says Mayor Murphy. “An important part of success is to have both public and private sector investment partners.” In 2018, construction began on a privately-funded $65 million multi-year renovation of three historic downtown landmarks: the Tioga Apartments, the Manzier Theater, and El Capitan Hotel, all of which rest within two blocks of one another.

Together, the university, the city, and private developers are creating a cohesive corridor of revitalization, reflecting elements of what community development experts call the street corner thesis. The thesis “focuses on creating a dense ecosystem of businesses, properties, and residences — mixed-income, mixed-purpose and mixed-use — at vital intersections or along historic business corridors of a community.” This multi-pronged approach reinforces the economic, social, and cultural importance of central community corridors. “Downtown is the heartbeat of our city,” reflects Mayor Murphy. “It’s everyone’s downtown. It’s where we gather as a community. It gives us a sense of place that reflects our goals, aspiration and values.”

Though construction on these development projects is not yet complete, downtown is already beginning to show signs of renewal.

The impacts of Merced’s economic renewal have begun to show positive signs in downtown Merced

MetricDowntown Merced Opportunity ZoneCalifornia AverageNational Average
Growth in Average Spending per Capita31.4%8.3%7.2%
Commercial Diversity

Change in business types as percentage of total possible business types
Overall Spend Growth

Growth of spending overall
*A commitment to measuring and reporting outcomes is one the five guiding principles of equitable and effective investments.
Source: Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, Inclusive Growth Score

Lessons Learned & Recommendations

The journey towards a rejuvenated Merced is far from over, but the process to-date – along with six months of research into strategies for driving positive impact through private investment – yielded some valuable lessons for unlocking inclusive growth and economic recovery.

Opportunity to Impact: An Investment Assessment*

The Centre for Public Impact – alongside its advisors at Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation – set out to better understand the process of generating positive community impact through private investment and development. The resulting tool, Opportunity to Impact, is a simple, yet rigorous guide for evaluating an investment project’s potential for positive impact. Some of the findings from this research is embedded in the section below.

Set impact objectives early

As redevelopment plans began coming to life in Merced, there was skepticism among some long-time residents. Indeed, in economically distressed communities across the nation, this trend holds. To convert skepticism into buy-in, open communication is required among public officials, developers, and investors alike.

A transparent process begins with setting clear objectives – early in the development process – for how the investment will translate into positive community impact. Investors, public officials, and residents should identify the specific impact results the investment aims to achieve – whether that includes bringing high-quality jobs, creating accessible housing options, supporting transportation connectivity, or improving lives in other lasting ways. These objectives should be set early in the process, align with a community’s economic development priorities, and address an area of clear community need. Creating a document to demonstrate a community’s economic development priorities – such as an Opportunity Zone prospectus – can be a valuable tool – for residents to showcase their needs and for investors to understand how projects fit into a broader strategy.

Refine the approach and gather feedback often

In order to achieve these impact objectives, it is critical to get feedback early on and throughout a project. A report from the Urban Land Institute featuring strategies for creating healthy urban corridors recommends establishing formal channels for communication and feedback with the community. It suggests surveying local businesses and residents to understand their needs and establishing teams to guide the redevelopment process in a particular corridor of the city. A redevelopment steering committee, for example, can play an important role in bringing voices to the table and guiding the vision for how business owners and community groups will each contribute to a vibrant neighborhood. In Merced, creating this forum would help the university community and residents weigh-in on how assets like the Manzier theater might serve their needs. In other places, a community benefits agreement has proven to be a useful mechanism of accountability between residents and developers.

Tell the story

Ultimately, unlocking a community’s economic potential revolves around communication. “Storytelling is hugely important,” reflects Merced’s Chamber of Commerce President Sara Cribari Hill. In order to convince others that Merced is indeed a city on the rise, “it’s critical to find new and interesting ways to tell our story – whether that’s through social media or through personal connections,” Sara reflects. This requires all actors to have a visible presence in the community, gaining feedback on how the downtown properties are addressing areas of community need at regular intervals in the development process.

Making a City Rise Together

The story of revitalization is never simple and never short. A deliberate effort between public officials, the state, developers, and residents must be marked by shared goals, open communication, and constant refinement. “It’s important to never lose sight of shared goals.” Mayor Murphy notes, “With that as the starting point, we can focus on how we achieve that.” Merced, as with many communities navigating the economic fall-out of a global pandemic, must continue writing its own story of renewal. But, with its commitment to collaboration, the city has the right pieces in place to once again make Merced “the place to be.”

Jen Collins is a Fellow-in-Residence for the Beeck Center. Follow her on Twitter @JenCollins24

Ryan Goss is a Senior Associate at the Centre for Public Impact, where his work focuses on helping governments and their partners improve people’s economic mobility and flourish over time. Follow him on Twitter @R_Goss1

May 6, 2020 | By Jen Collins and Ryan Goss

This is part of our ‘Impact in Action’ series, co-produced with the Centre for Public Impact, highlighting innovative models and lessons for driving positive community impact through investment and development projects across America. Read the other stories from Kannapolis, NC and Merced, CA.

Below the surface of disrepair, a vision of hope

For the last two years, it would be easy to drive by the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center without noticing it. If you caught a glimpse as you passed through Northeast Baltimore, you might notice a pair of broken pay phones, one listing 45° to its side. You might notice the row of boarded-up storefronts.

You might not realize that the once segregated shopping center was the site of historic Civil Rights activism. You might not realize that a renowned academic institution is producing the next generation of leaders next door. You might not realize that there’s been a decades-long struggle to create a new vision for the complex, and that this vision is about to become reality.

Below the surface, the story of Northwood Plaza reveals important lessons about the long and often difficult process of community revitalization. As neighborhoods across the nation look to rebuild following the economic and social devastation of COVID-19, reflecting on these lessons is as important as ever.

Guiding Principles for Equitable Investments

Alongside its partners, the Beeck Center created the Opportunity Zone Impact Reporting Framework, a voluntary guideline designed to define best practices for investors and fund managers looking to invest in low-income communities through incentives such as Opportunity Zones (OZ). In the sections that follow, we explore the projects in Baltimore, extracting the lessons to help communities and investors bring the five guiding principles of effective and equitable investments to life:

    • Community Engagement
    • Equity
    • Transparency
    • Measurement
    • Outcomes

To prioritize equity, it is critical to understand a community’s history

The shopping center’s deserted storefronts reveal the truth that prosperity has not been evenly spread across the city of Baltimore. Only four of Baltimore’s 200 census tracts have per-capita incomes greater than $100,000, and in these tracts, only 5% of residents are black. Yet, in Baltimore City overall, 62% of residents are black.

This disparity is rooted in a long history of systemic racism in Baltimore and across the nation. When Northwood resident Paula Purviance first attended Morgan State College in 1968, the communities in Northeast Baltimore were still in the throes of a turbulent racial integration process. “To walk along one of the main roads to campus, many students felt uncomfortable and minimized,” Ms. Purviance remembers. “As a result, students would walk to the campus by way of the rear alley of Cold Spring Lane.”

Throughout the middle of the 20th century in Northwood, as in many neighborhoods across Baltimore, white property owners used racial covenants to prevent property from being sold to or occupied by black and Jewish residents. Though the Supreme Court struck down these covenants in 1948, the language still remains in many official property records.

As the Civil Rights movement spread across the nation, Northwood Plaza Shopping Center became a hub of activism. In 1955, an interracial group of students from next door Morgan State College – what eventually became Maryland’s largest Historically Black University – were denied entry to segregated Northwood Theater. In 1963, the theater again became the site of anti-segregation protests, where hundreds of students were arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct.

crowd in front of a movie theater, 1955
Apr. 30, 1955: In a test of Segregation laws, an interracial group of about 150 students seeks entrance to the Northwood Theatre, none were admitted. Published in Morning Sun. Baltimore Sun Photo
African-Americans being refused entry to a theater in 1963
Feb. 19, 1963: A man blocks the entrance to the Northwood Theatre where some 150 members of the Civic Interest Group demonstrated last night. All were arrested and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct during the protest against segregation at the theater. Photo by Sun photographer William L. LaForce.

These remaining markings of institutional racism reveal the barriers that have long prevented people of color from having a voice in, owning, or making decisions about their community in Northeast Baltimore. This reality often gives rise to skepticism in residents when investors try to upgrade community assets. “Oftentimes, there’s a natural skepticism and distrust within communities of outside or institutional investors who, either intentionally or unintentionally, disregard the best interests of the community and do more damage than good to existing residents and businesses,” notes Ben Seigel, Baltimore’s Opportunity Zone Coordinator. But with collaboration, cooperation, and accountability, Ben believes that there can be common ground.

Mistrust turns into a unified vision

While the Northwood Plaza Shopping Center eventually became integrated and overseen by new owners in the 1970s, the neighborhood still struggled with violence. In 2008, former Baltimore City Councilman Ken Harris was shot and killed outside a nightclub in the complex. In the decade following, the death of Councilman Harris lingered over the property and by 2017, Northwood Plaza had fallen into disrepair.

Before the businesses officially closed, a struggle to reimagine the shopping center was decades in the making. “There was massive mistrust of all the different stakeholders when we first started this project,” remembers Mark Renbaum of MLR Partners, the initial developer involved in re-developing the complex. “When I first got involved in the project, I thought it was going to be easy – and that everyone would embrace change necessary to redevelop Northwood into a first-class destination. But what we learned is that there are a lot of stakeholders with a lot of different visions for what they thought it could be. And all of those voices needed to be heard first before anything could get done.”

By all accounts, the over 20-years of negotiations among community leaders, Morgan State leaders, public officials, and the owners was exhausting and contentious. And yet, with patience and compromise, political interventions and financial subsidies, Northwood Plaza will soon become Northwood Commons: a new $58 million shopping center with retail and restaurant space, as well as office space for Morgan State University. At the November 2018 groundbreaking ceremony, Morgan State President Dr. David Wilson remembered the students once arrested on those grounds. “They could see this location from across the street, but they could not experience it.” 60 years later, Northwood Commons intends to become a safe and vibrant place for students and residents alike.

Theory of Change: Creating Dynamic, Livable Communities

The story of Northwood Plaza reveals the often overlooked importance of dynamic, mixed-use spaces in underserved communities. In the last half century, many community developers have focused poverty-alleviation efforts on the development of low-income rental housing. While affordable housing remains critical for millions of Americans, this approach has done little more than concentrate low-income families into smaller geographic areas farther from opportunity. The resulting concentration undermines access to good jobs, healthy food, and safe spaces with diverse commercial options. This consolidation, in part, fuels the cycle of economic inequality that leads some neighborhoods to thrive and others to flounder.

Meanwhile, some cities are experimenting with new ways of creating economically integrated neighborhoods. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo introduced the idea of a ‘15-Minute City’, suggesting that every resident should have their needs met within 15 minutes of their doorstep. This bold plan will require a sort of “anti-zoning effort” across the city to improve access to the essential functions of life, such as work, shopping, health, and culture. Similarly, East London’s Every One Every Day initiative is working to radically expand community-organized social activities, training, and business development opportunities within walking distance in one of London’s lowest-income boroughs. These cities are recognizing that “hyper-local” approaches to community development can reduce barriers to unlocking economic and social vitality.

A new space to meet community need

In Baltimore, Northwood Commons will fill some critical needs for Northwood residents and students. “This is a food desert,” says Sidney Evans, Vice President of Finance and Management at Morgan State. “I have to drive three miles to sit down and have a nice lunch with someone.” Since joining Morgan State in 2014, Sidney has participated in the negotiations to bring Northwood Commons to life. “This shopping center is going to give the community much more flexibility to fill their basic needs.”

artist rendering of Northwood Commons project
Artist rendering of Northwood Commons project. Courtesy MCB Real Estate

Beyond providing food and retail options, the space aims to foster community. The forthcoming Morgan State bookstore “will create a venue for socialization,” Sidney predicts. “It will give our community a place to talk about social issues and civil rights issues, a place for older citizens to mingle with younger people and vice versa.” Northwood Commons will also contain the Morgan State public safety department, providing a feeling of safety and security to the area. Evans hopes this safe, vibrant space will help encourage Morgan students to remain in Northwood after graduation.

Effective community development projects address clear areas of community need and have investors commit to measuring outcomes over time

Evidence of community need can be found by consulting resources such as the U.S. Census Bureaus’ Data Archive, and from community engagement activities such as town hall meetings, listening tours and community needs assessments.

Collaboration is key

In many under-served communities, investors fear that creating these types of dynamic multi-use spaces will not be financially viable. Dave Bramble is the Managing Partner of MCB Real Estate, one of the developers behind the Northwood Commons deal. Dave, who grew up just miles from Northwood, has experienced the challenge of getting these projects financed, but believes that, with the right ingredients, impactful development projects can get done and generate returns.

These deals often require sizable anchor partners – like Morgan State – to invest in the growth of a surrounding community; they require patience to create a project vision that meets a critical mass of community and financial needs; and they frequently require subsidy from the state, city, or other sources. “Deals in under-invested communities do not work in a vacuum” Dave notes. “To make a non-traditional real estate project actually work, you need other types of support – in this case, investment from a public university, funds from the state in the forms of bonds and grants, infrastructure support from the city, and federal tax credits.” Either with direct public subsidies or incentives, such as those offered by Opportunity Zones, these types of deals can overcome the seemingly insurmountable financing barriers and generate returns.

Lessons Learned

Opportunity to Impact: An Investment Assessment

The Centre for Public Impact – alongside its advisors at Georgetown’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation – set out to better understand the process of generating positive community impact through private investment and development. The resulting tool, Opportunity to Impact, is a simple, yet rigorous guide for evaluating an investment project’s potential for positive impact. Some of the findings from this research is embedded in the section below.

While Northwood Commons will not be completed until the end of 2020, the journey has yielded valuable learnings for those engaged in meaningful community development projects.

Engaging and defining “community” is not easy, but it is essential to a project’s success

Most people involved in community development will acknowledge the importance of engaging the community. But defining – let alone engaging – the community is rarely straightforward. There are over 20 neighborhood associations in Northeast Baltimore, each representing diverse subsets of Baltimore residents. Multiple of these organizations were directly involved in the Northwood Commons negotiations and they often had vastly different visions.

The largest disagreement centered on whether Morgan State student housing would be part of the complex’s future. These differences seemed destined for stalemate until the involvement of State Senator Joan Carter Conway. Senator Conway introduced a bill to block the student housing proposal and soon became an important broker for talks between the community organizations, the university, the owners, and developers.

Private developers and investors also have a critical role to play in this community engagement process, but do not always show up to the table. “The reality is that if you don’t need zoning, or you don’t need anything, it’s rare that developers will engage with the community,” notes Dave Bramble. But these forums provide information that is critical to a project’s success. “When you go to these community meetings and you really get to know these people, you realize that what you assumed they want or what they might be okay with is not necessarily true,” reflects Mark Renbaum. As the Northwood Commons project demonstrates, identifying, listening to, and compromising with community stakeholders can be the difference between continued inaction and project getting off the ground.

Meet some of the people involved in the Northwood Commons project.

Building a vision requires compromise, transparency, and assurances of accountability

Countless proposals for the shopping center circulated since the Northwood theater closed in 1981. At various points, ideas included a new hotel and conference center and a community-led design center. But each of these proposals failed to gain steam, for one reason or another, often forcing working groups to start over after years of negotiation.

Ultimately, building consensus and gaining buy-in required compromise and transparency among all parties. “It’s about being honest,” Dave Bramble notes. “When I say honest, I mean telling people stuff they don’t want to hear. Everyone might not get everything they want because, ultimately, the math has to work.” Sidney Evans knew Morgan State had to understand this perspective. “We understood that investors need a viable project, one that has a direct impact on the community, but also generates a fair return on the investment.” Evan adds, “as I talk to other University Presidents about these types of projects, you can’t just come up with any type of development project, it must add value to the community and to the investors. Capital just isn’t free.”

Ultimately, navigating these conversations required an honest broker: someone – or something – to ensure accountability. Together, developers and community leaders eventually drafted a Community Benefits Agreement. This contract between community groups and the developer guarantees certain amenities and mitigation of certain risks. With concrete accountability measures and a bold yet achievable plan in place, the long talks began transforming into action for Northwood.

An Honorable Path Forward

Beyond filling commercial needs or achieving returns, Northwood Commons is about pride. As Ms. Purviance remembers, “the community residents felt there was no pride in the look of the shopping center.” But she was motivated to help build a vibrant and safe community for her child. This inspired her to again become affiliated with the community association, volunteer as one of the co-chairs of the Northwood Shopping Center Task Force, and become the President of the Hillen Road Community Association. At the November 2018 groundbreaking ceremony, Ms. Purviance addressed the crowd: “This morning gives me a ray of hope, and we need that ray of hope… Each of us here today, is looking forward to what can be a grand shopping center, that will be seen as an asset to the Northeast communities and to the city as a whole.”

Jen Collins is a Fellow-in-Residence for the Beeck Center. Follow her on Twitter @JenCollins24

Ryan Goss is a Senior Associate at the Centre for Public Impact, where his work focuses on helping governments and their partners improve people’s economic mobility and flourish over time. Follow him on Twitter @R_Goss1

May 6, 2020 | By Jen Collins and Ryan Goss

This is part of our ‘Impact in Action’ series, co-produced with the Centre for Public Impact, highlighting innovative models and lessons for driving positive community impact through investment and development projects across America. Read the other stories from Baltimore, MD and Merced, CA.

A community that changed in a day

Overnight, 4,340 people lost their jobs.

The closing of Cannon Mills textile factory in Kannapolis was the largest one-day layoff in North Carolina history. Entire households lost their incomes in a flash. Once the world’s largest producer of towels and sheets, Kannapolis transformed from a bustling middle-class community to a town with an uncertain future.

While the sudden nature of the 2003 closing was a shock in Kannapolis, the consequences of declining manufacturing industries had already affected communities across the southeast. Nearly two decades later, many of the towns most affected by this economic disruption continue to lay dormant and devoid of opportunity.

But something different is happening in Kannapolis: construction has begun on a $52 million baseball stadium, a $17 million streetscape renovation is near complete, and a 350-acre Research Campus now rests on the mill grounds. Private capital is working alongside public investment to rebuild Kannapolis. After decades of decline, Kannapolis’ emerging downtown brings hope of economic opportunity and renewed pride for residents.

As the economic impacts of COVID-19 spread across the nation, many communities are experiencing devastation similar to Kannapolis after its sudden mill closure: residents are out of work, downtown businesses are folding, and the promise of an economically vibrant future seems an uncertain reality. As the world transitions from crisis management to economic recovery, the lessons of Kannapolis’ transformation will be as important as ever. While the journey of recovery has been neither fast nor easy, it reveals the promise of a revitalization thesis centered on the power of partnership to turn a community around.

Guiding Principles for Equitable Investments

Alongside its partners, the Beeck Center created the Opportunity Zone Reporting Framework, a voluntary guideline designed to define best practices for investors and fund managers looking to invest in low-income communities through incentives such as Opportunity Zones (OZ). In the sections that follow, we explore the projects in Kannapolis, extracting the lessons to help communities and investors bring the five guiding principles of effective and equitable investments to life:

    • Community Engagement
    • Equity
    • Transparency
    • Measurement
    • Outcomes

A model for change

In the early 1990s, downtown Durham was struggling. Like Kannapolis, Durham was hit hard by declining industry. For several decades, the historic business district lay devoid of significant investment. With rising crime rates and a downtown falling further into disrepair, the city’s future looked bleak.

Downtown Durham began to change when local officials realized the power of strategic public investments. The city pursued creative public financing measures to build a new minor league baseball stadium and fund public infrastructure. Private developers soon acquired vacant properties, created large scale redevelopment plans, and transformed factories and department stores into offices and apartments. At the same time, Duke University expanded its off-campus presence downtown. Today, Durham is seen as one of the most striking downtown turnarounds in the nation, and it was forged through bold public-private partnerships.

Durham's Downtown Turnaround at a Glance

Downtown Durham Metrics19932019% Change
# of Residents1,4507,200+397%
# of Employees3,80021,300+460%
Office Occupancy70%91%+30%
Source: Downtown Durham, Inc.

While the city has undoubtedly rebounded, Durham still struggles with challenges such as poverty, affordable housing, and racial inequality. These persistent issues remind us of the often overlooked need to ensure economic growth is equitable, particularly for a community’s most marginalized residents. While challenges remain, elements of Durham’s decades-long growth reveal the potential when private and public dollars work together to spur change, an approach that offers promise for places like Kannapolis.

The Small Cities Thesis

A revitalization experiment

The economic value of small and mid-sized cities is often overlooked1While there is no single definition of a small and mid-size community, here we are referring to cities or towns with a population of about 50,000 to 250,000 people on the outskirts of larger regional economic hubs. These might also be called “tertiary” cities nationally. . As a recent report explains, many of these communities struggle to create “pull” factors that overcome the “push” factors that drive prospective residents, employers, and investors elsewhere, such as obsolete infrastructure, an over-reliance on traditional industry, and a limited human capital base. The reality is that, for some communities, the severity of these challenges means wholesale revitalization is out of reach absent some sort of radical disruption.

But in other communities, there is economic growth waiting to burst. A group of investors, developers, and government partners have been working on a new experiment to unlock the potential of these places, what they call the “small cities thesis.” The thesis advances the idea that long-term private and public capital can work alongside each other to spur sustainable economic growth and generate risk-adjusted returns to investors in small cities that have otherwise been left behind.

Shekar Narasimhan, one of the investors driving this experiment, notes “there are places where the ingredients for success have always been there, but all they need is a spark.” This spark is often initiated by local leaders who build a vision, take a risk to launch investment downtown, and bring along partners to achieve that vision. The thesis suggests that this spark can unlock growth in cities with certain characteristics:

Community Identification Characteristics

The thesis aims to unlock the economic potential of small cities that have:

  1. Seen a decline in population density but have a downtown infrastructure in place
    When a major employer closes its doors or relocates to the suburbs, once densely populated downtowns often become under-utilized and dilapidated. Instead of displacing existing residents, the thesis expands on the existing infrastructure and aims to fill gaps with people and investment.
  2. Community-minded developer(s) or a public entity that owns, and is willing to transform, a critical mass of distressed assets
    Launching a unified vision for revitalization is nearly impossible when a large share of a downtown’s distressed property has disparate owners. But when a city, state, or team of developers own these assets, it’s possible to overcome the inertia that often prevents projects from getting off the ground.
  3. Community assets that lend themselves to growth
    Community assets such as transportation options (e.g. rail and highway access) and anchor institutions (e.g. universities, hospitals, and government bodies) are critical to ensuring a place can benefit from and contribute to the growth of its surrounding region.
  4. Strong local leadership and a plan for growth
    Achieving a bold vision for growth requires leadership and investment from local public officials and residents. Without it, private investment is likely to be ineffective.
  5. Investors with a commitment to a long-term vision
    Investors must be willing to uproot the short-term investment mindset and work with local partners towards a long-term vision for rejuvenation. This requires patient capital and long-term investment.

Focusing investments in the downtown corridor aims to positively impact the community. In many small cities, downtown is the lifeblood of the community: a place for jobs, a venue for entrepreneurs, a space for convening, and a hub for transportation. If re-modeled with resident input, a vibrant downtown can inspire pride, improve quality of life, and fuel access to economic opportunity. When deciding where to locate and attract talent, employers increasingly look for vibrant and walkable downtowns. For the Kannapolis residents still struggling with the aftermath of layoffs, the stability of their future is tied to attracting employers offering equitable job opportunities.

Bringing the experiment to life

To test this thesis, a group of private and non-profit partners launched the Remergent Fund, a qualified Opportunity Zone (OZ) Fund that will invest in emerging main streets and local entrepreneurs in small cities in the Southeast. Beginning in their backyard markets of North Carolina and Virginia, Rivermont Capital, Enterprise Community Partners, and Beekman Advisors capitalized enough funds to invest in five cities, but ultimately aim to spur dynamic growth and track outcomes in 10 cities within the next 15 years.

Incentives that reward long-term investment, such as Opportunity Zones, are an important ingredient to the Fund’s prospective success. Based on the turnaround stories of communities like Durham, the partners behind the Fund estimate it can take 15 years to see signs of recovery after decades of decline. Because investors must keep their holdings in Opportunity Zone funds for 10 years to maximize their tax advantage, OZs are a critical tool to attract and scale the long-term capital that’s needed to revitalize many communities across the nation.

Commitment to measurement and outcomes

Measuring progress towards positive outcomes are essential for equitable and effective OZ investments. To understand whether the Remergent Fund, and others like it, unlock dynamic growth in the next 10 years, it’s important to track quantitative metrics such as those listed in the IRIS + Catalogue or as captured on platforms such as City Builder by CitiBank. Additionally, qualitative metrics, such as resident testimonials, will help investors better understand their impact in OZs.

Transformation becomes reality in Kannapolis

Years before the Remergent Fund or Opportunity Zones, Kannapolis city leaders were already forging a new future for their city. Mike Legg took over as Kannapolis City Manager in 2004, just a year after the closing of Cannon Mills. Having lived in the town since 1995, Mike witnessed the plant’s steady decline but did not expect it to disappear in a single day. “It was a body blow to the community,” Mike reflected. “The social impacts were devastating.”

Soon after its closing, the mills’ owner, David Murdock, partnered with the state and the University of North Carolina to convert part of the plant into the North Carolina Research Campus, a 350-acre laboratory designed to contribute to the region’s growing life sciences sector. The city realized that for the Research Campus to become an anchor that sparks community growth, Kannapolis needed a revitalized downtown.

Through active engagement with residents, the city realized that the community was eager to see the historic downtown occupied and vibrant once again. In 2015, the City Council negotiated the purchase of most of its downtown from Murdock. “As far as I know, no city our size or larger has bought its entire downtown,” says Mike. With this purchase, the city’s downtown revitalization strategy was underway.

artist rendering of 1085 Vida Kannapolis project
Artist rendering of 1085 Vida Kannapolis project. Courtesy Kaufman Lynn Construction

Kannapolis also benefited from its proximity to Charlotte, one of the nation’s fastest growing regions and home to expanding finance, banking, and research industries. While this proximity brought jobs to Kannapolis, many of the residents most affected by the plant closure do not have college degrees and worry about the availability of job opportunities. But there are, however, some signs for optimism. In response to concerns, the local community college system is expanding training options for residents and some companies have announced plans to open up shop in Kannapolis. Amazon, for example, will open a distribution plant that will initially offer 600 jobs and another 600 jobs in the years to come.

While steadfast local leadership and some external factors have fueled Kannapolis’ transformation to-date, the community needed commitment from the private sector to reach its full potential. Recognizing this, the Remergent Fund – powered by the Opportunity Zone incentive – backed a $58 million residential development in the heart of downtown. With nearly 300 housing units and a 420 car parking deck, the space will cater to downtown’s growing demands.

Lessons Learned

While Kannapolis’ journey is far from over, the effort so far has yielded valuable lessons for how strong public-private partnerships can inject new life into a community:

Opportunity to Impact: An Investment Assessment*

The Centre for Public Impact – alongside its advisors at Georgetown’s Beeck Center – set out to better understand the process of generating positive community impact through private investment and development. The resulting tool, Opportunity to Impact, is a simple, yet rigorous guide for evaluating an investment project’s potential for positive impact. Some of the findings from this research is embedded in the section below.

Revitalization is hard, but it is worth it

The path from decline to vibrancy is long, difficult, and often un-guaranteed. Raising capital to jump-start this process has been challenging for the Remergent Fund. “We focus on communities that are significantly under-performing relative to their market potential, but no one wants to assume the risk if they’re surrounded by boarded up buildings,” notes Andrew Holton, Managing Principal of Rivermont Capital. Until recently, convincing large institutional investors to buy into this mission was particularly challenging. But given their scale, institutional investors are essential to actualizing the small cities thesis around the nation. “The Goldman Sachs Urban Investment Group is proud to be part of the revitalization story in Kannapolis, in close partnership with the City and other partners like Enterprise [Community Investment],” says Margaret Anadu, Goldman Sachs Partner and head of the Urban Investment Group. “We believe that with sustained private and public sector investment, combined with a clear vision, communities like Kannapolis are poised to reach their potential and see widely shared economic growth. We are honored to be a partner in this important project.”

On the government side, Mike has learned the importance of translating a vision to generate buy-in from his many stakeholders (e.g. residents, the City Council, community leaders). This requires skill and grit. Though these efforts are not easy, Kannapolis’ and Durham’s stories reveal the potential of perseverance.

Strong public-private-partnerships are built on transparency and communication

Peter Flotz is the developer overseeing Kannapolis’ downtown revitalization projects. He credits downtown’s success, in large part, to a transparent relationship with the city government. “We didn’t wait until the flames were licking at the roof to say we smelled smoke. We told Mike everything,” Peter shared. This type of relationship does not always exist between local governments and developers. “I’ve worked with hundreds of developers over the years and I’ve never experienced anything like this,” says Mike. “We realized that we were never going to get this to work unless we had frank and honest conversations with each other.”

It’s also important to have an open relationship and regularly engage with the public. In a 2018 PBS interview, Kannapolis Mayor Darrell Hinnant candidly responded to the residents who hoped that their city’s new downtown would look like the old downtown. The Mayor remarked, “the reality is that it is not going to be like it used to be. It’s going to be something totally different … but it is going to have lots of jobs, it’s going to have lots of activity.” Managing expectations among the many people with vested interest in a community requires openness and honesty.

Looking Ahead

Some may argue that the stories of Durham and Kannapolis are anomalies. How many communities have a Duke University or a single owner willing to sell downtown back to a city?

While each community faces unique circumstances, the small cities thesis aims to prove that creating vibrant downtowns in places with the ingredients for renewal does not have to be anomalous. As small cities grapple with the devastation of COVID-19, they will need sparks to ignite an equitable recovery. While a spark can come in many forms, a deliberate partnership among residents, government, and the private sector is what transforms a spark into a vibrant and inclusive city center.

Jen Collins is a Fellow-in-Residence for the Beeck Center. Follow her on Twitter @JenCollins24

Ryan Goss is a Senior Associate at the Centre for Public Impact, where his work focuses on helping governments and their partners improve people’s economic mobility and flourish over time. Follow him on Twitter @R_Goss1

April 30, 2020 | By Tyler Kleykamp 

The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the critical role data plays in keeping the public informed and keeping ahead of the crisis. On a daily basis, governors report on new data related to COVID-19 cases, hospital caseload, and weekly jobless claims. The pandemic also shows the importance of integrating data sets across agencies and programs. For instance, the new Pandemic EBT program needs to match data so that families who are losing access to free and reduced-price meals at school can continue receiving important nutritional resources at home. 

The 25 state Chief Data Officers (CDOs) across the country who make up the State Chief Data Officers Network are stepping up to support their states’ efforts to use data. Whether accounting for supplies of personal protective equipment, noting which hospitals are nearing capacity, or reporting accurate testing data to the public, state CDOs play an important role in improving how data is shared and used.

Adopting effective practices in the COVID-19 response will help states move from crisis to recovery. Right now states are focused on sharing data about testing, infection rates in nursing homes and correctional facilities, and unemployment. In the future, state leaders will need the right data to inform policies on how to best reopen child care centers, economic sectors, and schools.

Our review of State of the State speeches found that data was rarely mentioned, and often not at all. Now, virtually every governor is basing their decisions on when to reopen state economies on data. If state leaders want to ensure that they have data readily available to support their decisions, the status quo won’t help them. We don’t have six months to negotiate one-off data sharing agreements, and we can’t continue keeping data in silos.

What can state leaders do to advance their use of data? The State CDO Network has issued a report on best practices to improve states’ ability to share and use data:

  1. If a state doesn't have a CDO role, appoint one. We've crafted guidance on establishing a CDO role and compiled a selection of sample job descriptions. We're available to support states, so please reach out.Coordinate data management. Establish an interagency data coordinating body, ideally led by the Chief Data Officer (CDO). 
  2. Remove barriers to data sharing. Several states like Arizona and California are leveraging enterprise memorandums of agreement (MOA) to create streamlined and transparent legal processes necessary for data sharing. 
  3. Make data discoverable. Even when data is protected, the information about what data each state agency has are generally not. Virginia recently released a public metadata catalog detailing the data holdings of many of its agencies
  4. Format data to be useful. Ensure any data exchanged is in a machine-readable format (searchable, sortable, and digital) at the finest level of granularity allowed by law that’s necessary for the intended use. 
  5. Centralize data access across agencies. Indiana and North Carolina have statewide data warehouses that can readily secure new sources of data and make them available to appropriate individuals for analysis. Data that can be shared within government should be accessible through a centralized clearinghouse or repository. 
  6. Publish public data as open data. When data is public, make sure it’s available through the state’s open data website. Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York are publishing COVID-19 and other related datasets on their open data portals.
    screenshot of Connecticut data site
    Map of Health Facilities in Connecticut. Via data.ct.gov

    PDFs and Dashboards are great for communicating top-level findings, but should be accompanied by machine-readable data.

  7. Lead with the analysis. Not everyone is comfortable with or has the time to work with raw data. State leaders and the public often need easily digestible information at their fingertips. Readily available reports and dashboards can help people answer questions quickly. Maryland’s COVID-19 website provides easy access to top level statistics.

With executive support, Chief Data Officers can play a critical role in supporting emergencies like COVID-19 by using their centralized position to get the right data to the right people in a timely fashion. As state governments adjust to remote work, these practices will improve the way agencies communicate about and use data. It will also better prepare states for any future outbreaks that may impact the people and families they serve. 


Tyler Kleykamp leads the State CDO Network for the Beeck Center, and is the former Chief Data Officer for the State of Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter at @TKleykamp

For many low-income children, school is where they get their meals. It is not just about education, but because it’s where they receive nutrition– free and reduced-price meals five days a week. Last month, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which created a Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) emergency response program allowing families whose children qualify for those meals at school to receive funds on an EBT card to use at grocery stores. Each state administers these benefits differently and all needed to move quickly to get this support to families relying on it.

The Beeck Center launched our Social Safety Net Benefits project this year to study systems and tools being developed to make it easier for people to apply for benefits like food assistance, housing support, and healthcare. Our mission—to surface actionable recommendations for leveraging data, digital, and innovation-enabled solutions for eligibility screening and enrollment in federally-funded social safety net benefits—is now more important than ever as civic tech teams and government agencies race to meet the overwhelming demand. 

The Beeck Center’s Data + Digital Lead Cori Zarek also co-founded U.S. Digital Response (USDR) to provide pro bono data and tech support to governments as they respond to COVID-19. USDR has offered to help states implement P-EBT alongside existing EBT processes with data engineering support to manage the systems on the back end and a front-end web application built by Code for America, another organizational co-founder of USDR. The USDR coordination is being led by Beeck Fellow Sara Soka who co-leads the safety net research project.

Since it launched in mid-March, USDR has recruited nearly 5,000 volunteers from all 50 states and Washington, D.C. who bring skills in data science, engineering, design, operations, research, policy making, and more. USDR has talked to dozens of government teams to learn about their needs and matched volunteers to 150 projects including:

The USDR P-EBT project is actively rolling out in states this week starting with California. Beeck Fellows Robin Carnahan, Tyler Kleykamp, and staffer Taylor Campbell are supporting additional USDR projects, and student analyst Alberto Rodriguez Álvarez has worked with colleagues in his home country of Mexico to adapt a version of the effort called Brigada Digital.

April 24, 2020 | By Lorelei Kelly

Dodge City, Kansas is the American symbol of frontier lawlessness. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the gang from “Gunsmoke” all represent its storied history. It’s also where my mom’s homesteading ancestors landed in the USA from Switzerland. So it was with some irony that as I drove across the country to be with my mother during COVID-19, Dodge City served as the backdrop for what could be the future of America’s legislative process.

With members of Congress scattered across the country, and uncertainty over if and when they could return to D.C., our small Continuity-of-Congress working group organized a virtual mock hearing, the first of its kind in the U.S. as a test of remote systems that would allow for continuity of government during a crisis.  We were even able to secure bipartisan participation. Former Member Brian Baird (D, WA) and former Member Bob Inglis (R, SC) served as co chairs. 

“There were the usual teleconferencing woes. There were home-schooling background noises, and Johnson’s microphone echoed. But other issues were more specific and became apparent as the exercise proceeded – how were the participants playing staffers supposed to whisper guidance to the members of Congress they served? What was the best way to offer an amendment? Could the parliamentarian offer real-time feedback to the chair? Were people voting both yea and nay during voice votes, knowing they were off-screen and wouldn’t get caught? What if a member yelled “point of order”—a parliamentary move that can force a crucial stop in proceedings—and the chair simply refused to hit “unmute”?

Still, to a reporter watching from home, it felt a lot like the real-world activity it was meant to simulate: a congressional hearing and bill markup.” – Why Is Congress Still Meeting In Person? [Politico]

Since that first test run, it has become clear that social distancing guidelines and critical health precautions should preclude Congress from travelling and meeting en-masse, in person until medical professionals determine that it is safe. Equally urgent is a technically-enabled solution that enables the legislative branch to carry on. Last week, we worked with American Enterprise Institute, the Brookings Institution, Bipartisan Policy Center, Congressional Management Foundation, GovLab at New York University, Lincoln Network, and POPVOX to host an even larger event, led by former members of Congress (and +60 former members as participants).  We heard testimony from retired Army General David Petraeus, representatives from Microsoft and Zoom, and a member of the U.K. Parliament, which just shed over 700 years of tradition to hold its first session online. Per normal committee prep, we created a Briefing Book for the mock hearing that provides deep background and context on Congress’ options and democratic continuity. 

Watch the mock hearing. YouTube

Tomorrow, I will be providing testimony in a virtual hearing in the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. While the vital debate continues about remote voting and the Constitution, the deliberative process of committees is moving on. Committee hearings, after all, are how the “business” of Congress that is referred to in the Constitution–is carried out.  Hearings are a vital bridge to the American public. They provide the due diligence for policymaking and they must continue to inform, discuss and account for national priorities, even during a pandemic. 

This upcoming hearing and others that follow will demonstrate resilience; that our elected leaders can pivot and surge using popular platforms until we have the rules in place for a system built for Congress and all its unique needs. Looking to the future, this progress brought about by COVID-19 is evidence that modernizing Congress is possible and that it is gaining support every day.

I’m now home with my family in Northern New Mexico. Out here in San Juan County, I’m having the full rural broadband experience (it’s not great!)  High-speed internet access is something that I’ve known about and advocated for but never actually had to worry about from my fully wired workplaces in Washington, DC. Nonetheless, I’ve figured out a way to make my internet more consistent by commandeering a Nest camera on a work shed near the horse corral.  Indeed, as people across the country have found solutions allowing them to continue working, so should the world’s most powerful national legislature. 

Here are my workmates:

dog sniffing flower horse in stall

And my office:

brick workshed

Photos courtesy Lorelei Kelly. Header image courtesy Rory Kelly Denman.

April 28, 2020 | By Amen Ra Mashariki

Governments should protect the data and privacy rights of their communities even during emergencies. It is a false trade-off to require more data without protection. We can and should do both — collect the appropriate data and protect it. Establishing and protecting the data rights and privacy of our communities’ underserved, underrepresented, disabled, and vulnerable residents is the only way we can combat the negative impact of COVID-19 or any other crisis.

Building trust is critical. Governments can strengthen data privacy protocols, beef up transparency mechanisms, and protect the public’s data rights in the name of building trust — especially with the most vulnerable populations. Otherwise, residents will opt out of engaging with government, and without their information, leaders like first responders will be blind to their existence when making decisions and responding to emergencies, as we are seeing with COVID-19.

As Chief Analytics Officer of New York City, I often remembered the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, especially with regards to using data during emergencies, that there are “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, and we will always get hurt by the unknown unknowns.” Meaning the things we didn’t know — the data that we didn’t have — was always going to be what hurt us during times of emergencies.

“City officials admitted at trial that there were no emergency plans specific to evacuating or providing life-saving services to the most vulnerable population during disasters.” – Disability Rights Advocates, dralegal.org

Case in point, after 2013’s Hurricane Sandy, a federal court ruled that New York City discriminated against vulnerable populations including people experiencing homelessness, the elderly, and disabled in its failure to plan for their needs in large scale disasters. John Watson, a resident of the Coney Island Housing Projects in Brooklyn, testified about living on the ground floor of the housing development, and being flooded during the storm. After his family got rid of all of their soaked belongings they “endured living in a moldy apartment for over two months until the New York City Housing Authority finally moved them into a hotel to make repairs.” Or, like the many stories coming out of Brooklyn’s Gowanus projects, also in a predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhood, where Paula Diaz spoke of how she and other residents, many who were elderly and disabled, were “forcibly confined” to their apartments because the projects went without electricity for weeks. According to a release from Disability Rights Advocates, “expert witnesses testified about major deficiencies in the city’s planning for a wide range of emergencies, including such events as explosions, terrorist attacks, and hurricanes. City officials admitted at trial that there were no emergency plans specific to evacuating or providing life-saving services to the most vulnerable population during disasters.”

It was clear that while the city may have responded to this catastrophe, the leadership knew little about the most vulnerable in the community, including where they lived, their needs and services needed. There could be many reasons for this gap, including 1) limited data sharing capabilities, 2) overly stringent data regulations, and 3) lack of trust in government leaders having access to their information. However, more could have been done before and during that crisis to protect the vulnerable and ultimately have a successful and complete response to the challenges NYC faced during Hurricane Sandy.

There are three key steps that governments can do right now to use data most effectively to respond to emergencies — both for COVID-19 and in the future.

Seek Open Data First

In times of crisis and emergencies, many believe that government and private entities, either purposefully or inadvertently, are willing to trample on the data rights of the public in the name of appropriate crisis response. This should not be a trade-off. We can respond to crises while keeping data privacy and data rights in the forefront of our minds. Rather than dismissing data rights, governments can start using data that is already openly available. This seems like a simple step, but it does two very important things. First, it forces you to understand the data that is already available in your jurisdiction. Second, it grows your ability to fill the gaps with respect to what you know about the city by looking outside of city government. How do you do this?

  • Start with what is on your open data portal and extend to the data that city/state agencies may host on their websites.
  • Look at data from academic institutions in your community that is already public (i.e, research papers, web portals, etc.).
  • Reach out to county, state and federal government partners to get their public data.
  • Work with NGOs in your municipality, who likely have publicly available data.
  • Work with private companies that can make their data available (e.g. Mastercard, Zillow).

The advantage of prioritizing open data is there are already stewards of this information, and it’s likely been used before, or has been vetted to maximize “responsible use.” By using open data during emergencies governments can both improve effectiveness and accountability without infringing rights.

Show Your Work

Reporting to communities how data is being used puts accountability into action and builds trust. It also shows the public how open data can be useful and effective. But, transparency should not just be about open data, but also when using closed or private data sets. This data has been managed or purchased over time. By showing communities and citizens how their data is being used starts to build grounds for trust. Reporting ALL data use on a consistent basis should be a best practice and it will help cross the chasm of trust between citizens and their governments.

Learn from First Responders – Practice, Practice, Practice

First responders constantly train for emergencies. They don’t just create processes to respond to emergencies. They run preparedness drills to understand the best tools, processes, and tactics to utilize during emergencies. They continue to refine these steps; practice further; and report publicly on their efforts. We should do the same for data during emergencies.

I learned this when I participated in a tabletop (simulation) exercise with the Mayor’s office and the Office of Emergency Management (OEM) in NYC. This exercise is a simulated emergency situation where leadership across all city agencies review and discuss the actions they would take in a particular emergency, testing their emergency plan in an informal, low-stress environment. With that in mind, my office, the Office of Data Analytics, developed a concept called “data drills” in conjunction with OEM. A data drill is a multi-agency collaboration exercise that is used to gain greater insight into how a city collectively thinks about, manages, shares, and uses data.

Data drills help cities create a baseline on types of data available, how well agencies work together and build city-wide data practices. Done well, these drills help cities improve their ability to identify, understand, and use data to solve city’s challenges as needed. Data drills also help address privacy concerns around data sharing. It shows which data will likely be used, the data rights implications of that data, and the best way to use it while remaining transparent and accountable. Through practice, we can know when and how to manage data privacy and protect the rights of citizens.

It is not acceptable that the most vulnerable members of our communities remain invisible during emergencies and crises. Government can restore trust with residents to ensure that their data rights are protected and data privacy is taken into consideration — both on a daily basis and during emergencies. This is an important first step to closing the chasm of trust that exists between residents and governments.

Amen Ra Mashariki is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and is the Global Director of the Data Lab at the World Resources Institute. He is the former Chief Analytics Officer of New York City. Follow him at @amashariki.

Photo by Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

April 24, 2020 | By Elaina Faust

Economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak have challenged America’s social safety net in unexpected and unprecedented ways. Temporary closures of non-essential businesses across the country have led to large-scale layoffs, and as a result the country is experiencing record-breaking numbers of unemployment claims. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps,” is also facing a rapid increase in demand, overwhelming government service delivery systems.

The Beeck Center launched our Social Safety Net Benefits project this year to study systems and tools being developed to make it easier for people to apply for benefits. Our mission—to surface actionable recommendations for leveraging data, digital, and innovation-enabled solutions for eligibility screening and enrollment in federally-funded social safety net benefits—is now more important than ever as civic tech teams and government agencies race to meet the overwhelming demand.

In response to the outbreak, the federal government is putting billions of dollars into the safety net through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Together, these two measures extend the time limits on SNAP and WIC (food assistance for Women, Infants, and Children), boost the amount of unemployment insurance available per week, and open unemployment eligibility to self-employed and gig workers who ordinarily wouldn’t receive these.

Additional changes are happening at the state level to waive work requirements and automatically extend existing benefits, postponing the need for in-person renewal meetings.

This unprecedented test of the system reveals important lessons and highlights strengths and weaknesses in current eligibility screening and enrollment practices. Here are a few lessons COVID-19 has taught us:

Remote eligibility screening, application, and enrollment tools are must-haves, not nice-to-haves.

Tools for online eligibility screening and safety net benefits enrollment have begun to emerge in recent years, yet, according to research by Code for America’s Integrated Benefits Initiative, at least 30% of benefits applications still aren’t available online. In this era of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders, the ability to remotely apply for and enroll in social safety net benefits is essential for applicants to access the assistance they need without putting themselves and their communities at risk. State governments should take advantage of newly-available opportunities to waive or delay in-person application requirements if they have not already, and continue to expand online alternatives to paper-based applications.

Mobile-first solutions are needed to reach low-income populations.

In the United States, 17% of adults rely on a smartphone as their only means of accessing the internet at home. Smartphone dependence is disproportionately high among low-income individuals, impacting more than a quarter of those earning less than $30,000 a year. With public libraries, coffee shops, and other public internet sources closed in an effort to flatten the curve, accessing the internet is even harder for those without a broadband connection at home. Organizations creating digitally-enabled tools for applicants and participants of safety net benefits programs must design and optimize their solutions for use on mobile devices. Likewise, state government officials must favor mobile-friendly technology in vendor and product selection processes if they are to reach the most vulnerable among their target populations.

Digital solutions must be equipped to handle increased volume in times of crisis.

Unprecedented levels of traffic crashed unemployment application websites across the country in recent weeks, evoking painful memories of the 2013 launch of Healthcare.gov. New York State experienced an almost 900% increase in web traffic, leading the government to request that New Yorkers file for unemployment only on designated days of the week, assigned alphabetically. Illinois implemented a similar system in an effort to keep existing resources up and running. Whether online application systems are designed by internal government teams or by external vendors, system designers—and those managing the systems—should equip them to handle increases in volume where budgets allow. When budgets are lacking, state governments should at least establish non-tech-driven protocols for distributing website traffic to prevent undue added stress for applicants during difficult and scary times.

Self-service digitally-accessible information saves time for applicants and administrators alike.

As millions work through the benefits application process, many are navigating it for the very first time. Organizations that connect eligible individuals with safety net benefits are experiencing huge upticks in call center volumes in addition to increased online traffic, and applicants are spending hours on hold waiting to be helped, if they can get through at all. Resources allowing benefit applicants or participants to locate relevant information quickly and easily on their own are critical to lowering wait times and decreasing demand on overwhelmed administrators. Up-to-date online guides to the benefits application process, such as One Degree’s COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Resource Guide, allow applicants to find the answers they need, without the wait time. Mobile push notifications or in-app updates can help program participants understand how they are affected by updated legislation and help them navigate the recertification process.

In times of crisis, it can be difficult to find time for reflection. But learning from the challenges we face today is an essential part of creating a stronger and more resilient social safety net for tomorrow.

Elaina Faust is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation working on the Social Safety Net Benefits Research Project. She is a first-year graduate student in the Global Human Development program.

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Photo by Andrés Canchón on Unsplash

April 22, 2020 | By Jen Collins

Undaunted. Optimistic. Courageous. Excited.

Hopeful. Focused. Anxious. Grateful.

What a difference six months can make. Last October, the Beeck Center’s Investor Council, a group of influential fund managers, investors and developers committed to creating positive impact in low-income communities, met and talked about the promise in Opportunity Zones. When they met again a few weeks ago, the mission hadn’t changed but the conversation centered on a new challenge.

Thanks to COVID-19, business is being interrupted, there is great uncertainty in the markets, and the need for access to capital in underinvested neighborhoods has never been greater. This pandemic is highlighting the imbalance of strength and power as it’s negative effects are being disproportionately felt in low-income and underinvested communities. Furthermore, it is underscoring the need for sustained investment with a focus on innovation by maximizing assets and leveraging relationships to positively impact social outcomes.

Capitalizing on the investment and work to-date in OZ’s at the community level is an ideal conduit for immediate implementation of creative ideas for urgent, location-based community needs. Thankfully, the Investor Council has an attitude of innovation as well as their commitment to help vulnerable communities. Members were eager to share and showcase their ideas with each other for how to put assets they already have – physical, financial, and interpersonal – to work.

Originally, the meeting was scheduled for Baltimore’s Hotel Revival, a property owned by one of the Council members. But while the crisis turned this event into a virtual meeting, appropriately, the hotel itself has been busy listening to the community, and working to meet its needs. They’ve opened the kitchen so local chefs can use it as a base for food prep and takeout orders. Rooms that would have gone unused are now offered free of charge to first responders and health care workers who need to stay close to downtown. And on Easter Sunday, staff put together Easter baskets for folks in the neighborhood.

Interview with Hotel Revival General Manager Donte Johnson on CNN, April 12, 2020


Members agreed that while this crisis is significant, the opportunity to deliver positive impact on communities is still there and necessary more than ever before. This crisis has further exposed the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on vulnerable and low income communities and will increase the call for more sustained investments in communities of need across the country. With millions of Americans in all communities living one health incident away from financial disaster, we cannot avoid the inequities in our systems any longer.

People need to work together and collaborate with new networks to find solutions, look at how the future of work will change, and adjust projects to meet that future. Opportunities will exist in this new economy, whether in affordable housing, broadband access, or short-term financing requests for businesses making pivots, and investors and developers should consider those as they plan for a post-COVID-19 world.

I recently penned an Op-Ed for The Hill outlining how local businesses will drive the economic recovery, and I wrote, “While the crisis our nation confronts is challenging, it is also a powerful opportunity for visionary leadership to prevail and for local businesses to reimagine community impact.”

That’s why I’m excited to announce our latest effort – Assets for Impact. Inspired by Council members like Think Food Group and LISC, we’re collecting stories from across the business community on how they’re using what they have for a new purpose. Then using the Beeck Center’s network of networks, we’ll spread these ideas across the country and around the world for others to put into action wherever they are.

If you have a story to share, please visit our site and add it to our growing collection. Use the hashtag #Assets4Impact on social media and inspire others to build the community we want and deserve. We’ve seen how people can come together in crisis, let’s continue to work together for when we return to whatever future normal looks like.

Jen Collins is a Fellow-in Residence at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. Follow her on Twitter @JenCollins24

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April 20, 2020 | By Alberto Rodrìguez Álvarez and Margarita Arguello

Have you ever needed a copy of your birth certificate, but realized it was stuck in a box hundreds of miles away? Or have you forgotten your wallet at home, only to need your ID for something? These are common problems around the world, and as digital technology is improving, governments are setting innovation hubs to develop groundbreaking solutions to broaden their reach and streamline the delivery of citizen services. 

From digitizing medical records to creating entire government portals, public sector technologists are continuously working to incorporate data and design into their operations. They are applying agile methods learned from the tech industry to deliver better services and using human-centered design techniques to transform programs and services. And they are doing this all over the world. Over the past several months, we conducted in-depth research in our home region of Latin America to better understand and document two case studies showing digital government transformation in action: digitizing driver’s licenses in Argentina and digitizing birth certificates in Mexico. These efforts show that other nations are ahead of the United States, and demonstrate that innovative solutions are available from a variety of sources.

One of the co-authors discusses Argentina’s Digital Drivers License during her 2019 Capstone Presentation

Our case studies were conducted as part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative, a project in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, and describe both the political transformations that accompany new digital services, as well as the services themselves.

In both case studies, while the design and execution of the specific digital services is the focus of the reports, we also describe the broader digital transformation strategies that were needed for these national governments to take major digitization efforts to two services that touch most, if not all, residents in a society.

cover of online birth certificate case study
Download the Online Birth Certificate Case Study

Argentina and Mexico are two of many countries that have begun national digital transformation efforts and enabling these innovations has required diverse strategies. Some countries started by embedding small teams into key offices with high-level political support, as is seen with the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK (part of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office), or the U.S. Digital Service team embedded in the White House. These teams have successfully deployed digital service solutions with both national and local governments copying their models. 

We have also seen councils and committees formed across national governments with digital mandates, like in Estonia and Finland, who jointly launched the first international data exchange between commercial business registers and are renowned for their digital government efforts.

In Latin America, there is a middle ground. Countries have created ad-hoc ministries and agencies with broad directives to drive digital transformation efforts. Uruguay’s AGESIC and Brazil’s Secretariat of Digital Government are great examples of teams that are implementing national digital systems like digital identification and digital government dashboards. Latin America is also at the forefront of international cooperation among digital governments, with the Digital Government Network of Latin America convening annually for digital ministries to share best practices. 

cover of Digital Drivers License Case Study
Download the Digital Driver’s License Case Study

Despite these successes, in order to have successful results, governments everywhere need to overcome internal barriers to innovation such as outdated practices, restrictive regulatory frameworks, and resistance to change by public servants and decision makers. It is not uncommon to see failed deployment of digital technologies because governments have not undertaken the reforms and negotiations needed to introduce tools that are already standard in other sectors. Public innovation is not only achieved by using new technologies, but by understanding the particular obstacles that every political ecosystem must overcome to enable transformational change. 

Overcoming political barriers should be as important a priority as any final innovation product; since it provides a sort of multiplier effect. When government innovation hubs succeed in this, they transform the underlying legal and political frameworks of agencies and offices and open the door to further digital services. These teams set rules, standards, and even interoperability schemas along their process, which then create roadmaps for future innovation everywhere. 

Alberto Rodrìguez Álvarez is a Beeck Center Student Analyst currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter at @arodalv

Margarita Arguello is a Beeck Center Student Analyst currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University.

Photo by Hector Iván Patricio Moreno on Unsplash

April 9, 2020 | By Matt Fortier

On Friday, March 6, Georgetown students put their laptops and books away and left Washington, D.C. for spring break. But while they were taking that much-deserved rest, COVID-19 exploded across the U.S. and students were told not to return to campus. Since then, the pandemic has affected every facet of student life. Students found themselves separated from family or suddenly living back at home, striving to maintain focus and motivation in virtual classes, while grappling with this crisis and its far reaching impact, from health to economic hardship.

As educators around the world work to adapt the ways they support students, here at the Beeck Center, we’ve had to rethink how we prepare students to be effective leaders for positive social impact. As we recalibrate our work and lean into the core strengths of our student programming, community-building, reflection, adaptation, and resilience will be of paramount importance. 

One of our core values is Authentic & Constructive Communication, so when Georgetown announced its transition to a remote environment, we quickly reached out to our entire team, including students, providing information, sharing resources, and beginning contingency planning. With genuine care for one another, we have consistently emphasized that the health and well-being of our staff and their families is vital. We’ve backed this up by providing flexible work schedules, sharing tips for personal care, and listening to each other through frequent “pulse checks”. By opening a dialogue and demonstrating our commitment to each individual student, we’ve set a healthy foundation from which to move forward.

screenshot of students in a Zoom meeting
Students engaged in our second virtual Discern + Digest, discussing the question: How do you tell your story when you’re still figuring out what it is?

Our Discern + Digest series, a safe and brave space for challenging and often uncomfortable conversations, is a big part of the feedback loop our student analysts participate in. But body language cues, much better conveyed in person, are critical so it would have been easy to postpone or cancel. Instead, we felt strongly that in the wake of COVID-19, a space for dialogue and reflection was needed more than ever, so we doubled-down on our effort, switching to a virtual environment and adapting the conversation to acknowledge the pandemic and its impact on all of our lives. By modeling resilience and adaptability, we sent a clear message–we can unite and collectively problem-solve to overcome a common challenge. 

Led by Forrest Gertin (SFS’20), more than a dozen students joined from remote positions across the United States to share their workspace, their lunch, and their ideas. They reviewed their community guidelines, discussing modifications and additions for a virtual format, most notably, how to acknowledge that the “no technology zone” was now anything but. In (re)establishing norms, we shared a vision for rediscovering our community.

screenshot of adapted community guidelines
Screenshot showcasing our adapted community guidelines.

The speaker, Molly Porter, opened by sharing some personal reflections before asking how we could reconcile our understanding of community with others while physically distancing in an effort to “flatten the curve.” Students responded eagerly, sharing their challenges and highlighting new ways to connect with their community. The conversation made it clear: we are resilient, we can adapt, and now more than ever, we need to listen to each other and reinvigorate our human connections.  

 “I was in a pretty bad space. I decided to join the call because I knew it would be full of positivity and compassion. Also, I would be able to give myself time to reflect on how I’m feeling amid everything. I am very grateful for the D+D sessions because it provides space for me to find community and reconnect with myself without pressure.” -Donovan Taylor, MSB’20 

We are fortunate to have strong collaborators across Georgetown University, from the Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship, which readily deployed tools and resources for instructional continuity, to the Cawley Career Center, which has adapted its career support to provide virtual advisor meetings while working with employers to move events to virtual formats and reaching out to alumni to cultivate networking opportunities. 

We are excited to witness an inspired spirit of collective problem-solving and sharing of ideas and resources from these partners and the greater social impact community. The Beeck Center remains firm in its belief that to solve the most complex problems of our time, we must work across sectors, leveraging all the tools and knowledge at our disposal. Today’s pandemic is no exception and we hope we can model an approach to our students through how we adapt, collaborate, and rise to the challenge in front of us.

 Do you have a best practice or resource to share? If so, please let us know!

Here are some resources that we’ve shared with our students:

Career Planning

Managing Remote Work


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April 7, 2020 | By Lorelei Kelly

Last month, as Congress was navigating pressing priorities from COVID-19, the U.S. House of Representatives took action for the first time in 50 years in passing a reform bill to help Congress itself work better for all Americans. 

The Moving our Democracy and Congressional Operations Towards Modernization (MODCOM) resolution, H.Res.756, includes 30 of the recommendations made by the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress. It addresses vital needs such as cybersecurity training, staff diversity, and technology upgrades. 

“The House just showed that bipartisan work is possible, and that it can produce important bipartisan reforms that will begin to give Americans the 21st century Congress they deserve.” – Issue One Executive Director Meredith McGehee

Here at the Beeck Center, our guiding mission is to provide impact at scale. Our research looks at the roles of government, the private sector, and nonprofits in achieving positive societal outcomes. In practice, it means we identify methods and interventions that include and increase beneficial results for more people. At the policy level, this could mean updating a public service, evaluating the balance between public good and private profit, or figuring out a sustainable business model for social mission nonprofits. 

At the institutional level, such as with Congress, it means we are working with methods that are part of a centuries-old, out-of-date institution. In Congress, the rule of law is the process, and scaling social good requires changing the communications systems of democracy itself. Over the past three years at Beeck Center, this has been our priority in research we’ve led to help modernize the U.S. Congress. 

There is no better way to scale social good than to change the law. And there’s no better way to scale a systems change than by reconfiguring how democratic institutions govern themselves. The MODCOM legislation is historic in that it is the first time since the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 that a reform bill has succeeded. Even more groundbreaking, it also takes vital first steps toward building a more informed, effective and responsive governance model for one of our nation’s cornerstone institutions. 

For nearly two decades, I’ve worked with a small group of individuals inside and outside of Congress including members of Congress, the Congressional Management Foundation, the Democracy Fund and my tech partner, Popvox. We are collaborating to build modern information sharing capacity within our national legislature so it can serve the highest ideals of American democracy. The Beeck Center’s Data + Digital portfolio surfaced at exactly the right time to tip the balance of this collaborative effort. The urgent need for action is conveyed in the stark introduction to our recent report:

Congress is knowledge incapacitated, physically disconnected and technologically obsolete. In this condition, it cannot fulfill its First Branch duties as laid out in Article I of the U.S. Constitution.

But all of these challenges could be vastly eased if we act now to implement durable changes in Congress’ digital infrastructure. 

Our ability to productively surge into the institutional gray area revealed by COVID-19 is because of our focus on scaling social good. But our ability to move with speed and confidence is due to long-standing investment in trust and relationship building. In just hours, our modernizing Congress team pulled together an online expert briefing for Hill staff on Continuity of Congress. Within the same week, we helped organize a “mock” committee hearing. We were even able to secure retired Democrat and Republican members of Congress to roleplay the committee chairs.  

Meanwhile, Congress itself is taking steps to adapt new digital infrastructure and distance methods for its operations. COVID-19 is a difficult and scary time, but the silver lining can be an improved democracy that serves all Americans. We will keep working to make it so.

Lorelei Kelly is a Fellow at the Beeck Center on the Data + Digital Team. She is an expert on building inclusive and informed democratic systems and leads the Resilient Democracy Coalition (RDC), which assesses how data, technology and new engagement methods can help build a trustworthy modern legislature–specifically focused on the U.S. Congress. Follow her on Twitter at @LoreleiKelly.

April 1, 2020 | By Cori Zarek

About two weeks ago, as the realization of what COVID-19 might mean started to sink in, many of us instinctively checked in on our networks of family and friends. “Are you ok?” “Are you prepared to stay home for awhile?” “How about a Zoom catch-up?” “Do you have enough toilet paper?” 

The same was true for the network of civic-minded technologists we’re part of at the Beeck Center, only the calls were a bit different. Apart from checking on each other’s well-being (and toilet paper supply), our questions were more like this: “Are you ok?” “How bad is this going to be on our government systems?” And, perhaps most important, “What can we do?”

Most technologists in our network are not healthcare experts, epidemiologists, or otherwise qualified to opine on what front-line healthcare workers or average citizens should do to respond to COVID-19, but we are well equipped to understand the systems, websites, and people who keep our governments running and what they’re up against in a crisis like this. Many of us have spent time in government, navigating crises that strained or even shut down our websites and systems. We know the questions to ask, the decisions that need to be made, and where we can (and can’t) add value.

That’s why a handful of us formed U.S. Digital Response two weeks ago to support governments as they respond to COVID-19, to help them keep their websites and systems up and running so they can provide uninterrupted services like unemployment benefits, small business loans, or food stamps to people relying on government day in and day out. In just two weeks, 3,000 data scientists, engineers, human-centered designers and other tech leaders across the country have raised their hands to pitch in. 

Drawing on a trusted, well-networked coalition of organizations and individuals can set you up for greater success at any time, not just during a crisis. Over the past year at the Beeck Center, we have approached the public interest tech field as a coordinator and convener, bringing together data and digital leaders working in and around governments to collaborate on solving shared problems and scaling solutions back into the network in a project called the Digital Service Collaborative launched with The Rockefeller Foundation. Public interest technology projects — like many projects — draw partners who run fast at problems and work toward rapid solutions and, once solved, quickly turn to the next. This approach is understandable given government structures and the need to keep critical services running, but can inadvertently lead to problem solving in silos and doesn’t incentivize collaboration and information sharing. It can sometimes leave behind more vulnerable communities as well. 

At the Beeck Center, we are working to fill that gap in collaboration, information sharing, and trust building through all of our work. From streamlining the foster family licensing process to providing easier enrollment in safety net programs to standing up new user-focused service delivery teams, the projects we select and the networks we build around them intentionally identify government partners — both subject-matter experts and more traditional tech leaders — and bring together the organizations, researchers, and even companies working to advance the public interest aspects of the work. With a dedicated, action-oriented network around each project, we document what steps these leaders are taking, distill it into recommendations for them and other stakeholders, and cycle those learnings back throughout our networks for continued application and improvement.

Having this established model for organized strategy around networks is powerful in an ordinary setting to test ideas, advance strategies, and compare follow-through. It’s downright crucial when we need to rapidly organize around what’s working so we can share and scale solutions as quickly as possible when lives and livelihood are on the line.

U.S. Digital Response launched quickly by drawing on networks created through the Beeck Center and the longstanding efforts by other leaders in this field including Code for America’s 10 years of networked civic technologists in more than 80 brigades all across the country. Because our networks are organized around areas of expertise, region, government size or structure, and more, we could quickly scan across them to see what early lessons could be distilled and shared back with one another. And for networks such as these to work well together, we rely on some — often unspoken — shared principles and norms.

Put people first: In every problem to solve or issue to advance, people should be at the center and should be directly asked what they want and need and how a particular solution might impact them. Talk to people; put them first.

Scout, then scale: If you’re working on an important problem, chances are someone else is also working on it — or has already solved it. Before starting anything, look around, ask around, and understand who else is already on it. When you find them, consider joining forces or lifting up their work and moving on to something else altogether — there’s plenty else to do.

Work in the open: Only when your work can be easily found and accessed can it be useful to others. Using APIs (application programming interfaces) and sharing resources like software code as open source and information as open data allows others to find your work, adapt it for their own purposes, and improve upon it. 

Come for the work, not for the credit: Working in the public interest is about helping people. It’s about doing the work, or, if you can’t, then getting out of the way and supporting those who can. It’s not about thought leadership, getting credit, or anything other than helping people in need.

The Beeck Center’s mission of impact at scale underpins our efforts with U.S. Digital Response. Government organizations at all levels are under strain and will continue to be tested in the weeks and months ahead — and the same is true for friends and neighbors. We will need people openly sharing what is working and actively helping others to keep both our networks of family and friends and our government systems online and running.

Cori Zarek is the Director of Data + Digital at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. She is a former Deputy U.S. Chief Technology Officer and worked in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy from 2013-2017. Follow at @corizarek.

March 5, 2020 | By Amen Ra Mashariki

Pursuing impact is at the core of everything I’ve done in my career since my nephew Sam was diagnosed with leukemia 18 years ago. I left my job as a software engineer at Motorola and enrolled in a Ph.D. program with a focus in bioinformatics and cancer research. In the course of that research I developed open source software that I called System Agnostic Medical Middleware (S.A.M.M.) in honor of my nephew. From that moment on, I have only sought work where my science and tech skill set would be used to make lives better. I am excited to take all of those experiences, best practices, and lessons learned over the past 18 years and apply them to big, complex, timely, and meaningful problems as a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.

young boy and man standing in office
The author and his nephew Sam at the Univ. of Chicago Cancer Research Center.

I’ve lived my entire life in communities where residents experienced any number of socioeconomic challenges — I grew up in New York City, and over the past 20 years I have lived, worked, and gone to school in Baltimore, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. I have experienced the variety of challenges these different communities faced, and the ways government, academic, non-profit, and private sector organizations have attempted to solve complex issues facing these modern, fast-growing communities. 

At the Beeck Center, I will work at the forefront of the movement to utilize data and data science to ameliorate many of these issues. I look forward to researching and writing about the current landscape of how we can use data science and artificial intelligence to make lives better for people across the world in many different circumstances. And as the use of data and data science to solve problems grows in the social justice space, I will delve into new challenges and work with institutions and organizations to identify novel and appropriate solutions. I also look forward to spending time discerning, defining and documenting the difference between analytics, data science, and artificial intelligence, and when, where and how it can be used in these sectors in order to maximize impact.

As a presidentially-appointed White House Fellow in 2012, and subsequently the Chief Technology Officer for a federal agency, I had a front row seat to how public sector leadership took on challenges facing people in communities across this nation. Later, while serving as the Chief Analytics Officer of New York City, I had the opportunity to tackle the myriad of challenges facing local residents head on and learn how data and data science could be harnessed as an effective solution to local problems. These experiences, along with my time as an urban analytics executive at a large tech company engaging with international municipal leadership around the world, gave me a deeper understanding of core issues facing today’s communities and how governments leadership can use data-driven solutions to address them. 

Over the last few years I’ve published articles, blogs, and thought leadership pieces that illustrate how data science can have a clear and quantitative impact on government services, covering topics such as, developing a data-driven approach to solving homelessness in your city, how a chief analytics officer can strengthen the quality of services in local government, and how open data can connect citizens to their government. I am looking forward to taking those thoughts off of paper and putting them to action by shaping policy conversations with Tyler Kleykamp and the State Chief Data Officers Network housed at the Beeck Center. I will also collaborate with other fellows on the Beeck Center’s Data + Digital team to consider data-focused solutions that can address some of society’s most challenging issues and to support civic engagement with public institutions.

In everything we do in life, community is key. But when looking to be a catalyst for building non-trivial solutions to complex societal challenges, community is imperative. The Beeck Center community is one where I can contribute thoughtful insight that will no doubt have an impact on society at large, but most importantly,it is a community where I can listen, learn, and foster strong relationships. I am more than excited to grow as a member of the Beeck Center community while driving the technology and data science toward greater social impact. 

Amen Ra Mashariki joined the Beeck Center as a fellow in February 2020. He will support data projects as part of the Data + Digital portfolio. Follow him on Twitter at @AMashariki

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Starting with the states of Colorado and New Jersey, this project will document lessons learned to scale throughout the digital service network.

March 4, 2020

The Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative (DSC), in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, is launching a project to pair researchers with new government digital service teams to capture early steps, decisions, and strategies to understand what they are learning as they form and to serve as actionable resources for other governments establishing digital service teams.

In recent years, governments have increasingly begun advancing service delivery with modern technology, software development, and service design principles. As these efforts take shape, government teams are pioneering new approaches and adapting from their experiences. The DSC launched in April 2019 to bring together leaders in the government digital service ecosystem to conduct action-oriented research, share successful strategies, and work together to develop solutions that we can scale throughout this network. 

For this project, the DSC is launching its first phase with two researchers who will collaborate with state offices focused on digital transformation. The researchers will work alongside government teams to understand the decisions and strategies that arise in the early days of this work. This includes the barriers and challenges faced by public servants, policy makers, external partners, and recipients; the technical processes and decisions involved; and the key indicators being used to measure success both internally and externally. Research outputs will be highlighted through policy briefs, playbooks, blog posts, and other useful products for the DSC network. 

Colorado and New Jersey have joined for this first phase of the project. The Colorado Digital Service is a new team within the Governor’s Office of Information Technology. This small team of senior engineers, designers, and product managers work alongside dedicated civil servants in state agencies to develop user-centered solutions to Colorado’s most pressing technical challenges. Founded with a mandate to improve the lives of New Jerseyans by designing and deploying more effective and efficient government services, the New Jersey Office of Innovation works in partnership with the Governor’s office and state agencies to create innovative policies and technologies that address complex public problems by working differently. 

This work will join the DSC’s existing portfolio of projects ranging from developing a playbook on streamlining the foster care licensing process in states to bringing together data ethicists to develop a model to responsibly share data between the public and private sectors for better outcomes. 

This project will be led by Cori Zarek, Director of the DSC, and supported by the Beeck Center’s team of staff, fellows and students. The DSC is actively recruiting new digital service teams set to launch in U.S. cities and states to be part of a second phase of this project for later this year.

Two researchers are joining the DSC to support this project. 

Conor Carroll is a State of New Jersey Researcher with the Digital Service Collaborative. He is also a social impact fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy where he was lead researcher and author of a report on philanthropy and democracy. Previously, Conor worked as a senior research analyst with Gartner, where he managed a budget and staffing benchmark survey. He is an AmeriCorps alum and has served in research roles at the U.S. Treasury Department, and the Joint Economic Committee. Conor received his BA cum laude from Penn State University and his MPA from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University where he concentrated in economics and public policy.

Yeri Kim is a State of Colorado Researcher with the Digital Service Collaborative. Yeri is working with the newly announced Colorado Digital Service to analyze the team’s projects and processes to support the strategic design of similar innovation initiatives in other state and local governments. Yeri’s experience is in human-centered design research and strategy, specializing in making complex systems work for the people that use them. Her approach is informed by psychology & behavioral science, community development, and business strategy. Previously, Yeri was a Senior Design Researcher at IA Collaborative, a global design & innovation consulting firm, where she led teams to solve clients’ most complex problems such as new market entry, product & service development, customer experience design, and platform innovation. She has broad experience working in partnership with Fortune 500 companies, start-ups, and social enterprises on challenges in healthcare, finance, education, and housing & homelessness.

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Harnessing user-centered design and digital technology to improve the efficiency of licensing for foster families.

March 3, 2020

An estimated one in 17 American children will spend at least one day in foster care in their lives. Many end up separated from relatives, in group homes, or in poorly matched foster homes in part because the foster family licensing process, including for relatives, is cumbersome and often takes more than 200 days. To simplify this process, the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative (DSC), in partnership with Foster America and New America, is creating a playbook for states to make it faster and easier for foster children to be placed with people they already know. 

In most states, the process is especially problematic for kin families, as children can languish for months living with strangers or in group homes while waiting for adults who already know and love them to be approved as foster parents. Recruitment typically relies on roadside billboards and word of mouth instead of data. And the sense of urgency to safely place a child on a moment’s notice means initial placements are often not with family members or based on the child’s specific needs. 

Several states have been experimenting with creative practices that lead to tangible improvements and efficiencies in their support of foster children and families. Rhode Island, for example, significantly streamlined its process and was able to license more than 100 families over a single weekend. The DSC and its project partners are bringing together 12 states on the cutting edge of this work — starting with Indiana, Michigan, Washington, and Maryland — to create a public, actionable playbook documenting proven best practices that can be replicated and scaled by others. The playbook will document practices that create measurable improvements, such as reducing the time it takes for foster families to be vetted and matched with children, impacting the lives of thousands of foster children. 

Using practices rooted in user-centered design and digital technology, the project will improve the efficiency of licensing foster families, with a focus on making relatives available as placements for children in need, as well as how states match children in foster care with families. Through incremental and realistic changes to the foster care system, this joint effort will demonstrate the opportunity for new policy models that can improve children’s lives and will look beyond technology-first solutions to a more holistic assessment of systems, bureaucracy, and people.

This work will join the DSC’s existing portfolio of projects ranging from using human-centered design to deliver better policy outcomes, to bringing together data ethicists to develop a model to responsibly share data among the public and private sectors for better outcomes. The DSC is a project in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation that is activating the global network of public interest technologists to collaborate on solutions to improve people’s lives and scale those solutions back through the network.

Our fellows will be supported by Cori Zarek, the Director of the DSC, along with the Beeck Center’s team of staff, fellows, and students.

Emily Tavoulareas is a Beeck Center fellow who uses design and technology to make things—products, experiences, programs, policies, organizations—work better for people. From 2013-2018 she worked with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the White House to modernize the way the federal government delivers services to the public. From co-founding the first agency-level team of the U.S. Digital Service and modernizing the veterans application for healthcare, to piloting and scaling the human-centered design methodology with an intrepid team at the VA Center for Innovation, and serving as Senior Policy Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer at the White House, she has experienced first hand what it takes to modernize and transform large and complex organizations.

She is currently a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, teaching at Columbia University, an affiliate of Public Digital, and working as an independent advisor, helping leaders across industries effectively navigate the complex process of improving their product/service/organization. 

Katie Sullivan is a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center who works on this project with Emily Tavoulareas. She’s drawn to the Beeck Center’s innovative, multidisciplinary approach to promoting scalable and sustainable social impact. The U.S. is at a crucial moment when advances in data and technology have the potential to improve governance and livelihoods. However, these innovations may also cause harm if implemented without care and foresight. She’s excited for the opportunity to learn from the Beeck Center’s Data + Digital team while also working to amplify participation and resilience in the upcoming U.S. digital Census.

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February 24, 2020 | By Alberto Rodriguez Alvarez

So, why did you choose to apply for the Beeck Center Student Analyst position? As a grad student at the McCourt School of Public Policy, I get asked this question pretty often. And the answer is always the same: “Because it is and continues to be the best place to learn new skills as a student, while working to make an impact with the skills you already have”. I’ve been working as a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center since February of 2019, participating in four cohorts and supporting a variety of projects and initiatives. While the focus of my work has shifted over time, what has remained constant is that I’ve had the opportunity to learn and contribute in impactful ways. 

My work in the Beeck Center is within a project called the Digital Service Collaborative which is part of the center’s Data + Digital Portfolio. In this project, I lead action-oriented research on how governments are approaching digital transformation across the United States and around the world. My initial project was under the Exploratory phase of the Beeck Center framework and allowed me to tag along on more than 40 interviews with leaders in federal, state, and local governments who have been part of digital transformation efforts. I learned as they explained how digital tools were transforming their work, identified their pain points on using technology in public service, and developed an understanding of their views of how the government would adapt in the future. 

Related Story: Work With Purpose – The Student Analyst Program

Before coming to Georgetown, I worked in the Office of the President of Mexico at the National Digital Strategy supporting digital transformation efforts in my own government. My work at the Beeck Center offered me a chance to use my past experience to analyze and contextualize our findings and experience a level of access and direct engagement that is difficult to get in any job, let alone on a part-time position or an internship. But at the Center, the process went even further: under the guidance of my supervisors — expert practitioners in the public interest technology field including designers, data scientists, policy makers, and more — I learned human-centered design techniques to synthesize the data and information we collected from more than 70 interviews and turn it into a concise set of learnings and recommendations now published in Setting the Stage for Transformation: Frontline Reflections on Technology in American Government.  

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work at the Beeck Center full-time with new student analysts from other schools across the country who were also excited to work on making an impact through public interest tech. Being a part of this team allowed me to immerse myself in the civic tech ecosystem, this time on the Incubation phase of the Center’s framework. This started with the formal launch of the Digital Service Collaborative. To say that it was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a student is frankly an understatement. I piloted and used the HCD techniques that I’ve previously learned, I got to meet amazing teams doing great work, but most importantly I was pushed to create tools that could help other people, both inside and outside government, to enact change using digital tools for government. I even got to build a strategy around case studies to document how governments in Latin America are approaching policy innovation and speak in a national conference on Decolonizing Civic Tech which started a conversation still taking place today. 

All of this work takes place under the guidance of the Beeck Center Fellows who coach us every step of the way, and Beeck Center staff that hold workshops to teach us new skills and provide space to reflect on our journey towards social impact, through offerings like the Discern & Digest series where students gather each week to reflect on our unique journeys through school, work, and life.

As I complete my last semester as a student in Georgetown I am also finishing my journey in the Beeck Center, this time with the opportunity to lead a working group made up of government professionals, leaders from civil society, companies, and academia focused on Delivering Better Outcomes through User-Centered Policy Making, in partnership with New America’s Public Interest Technology team, the National Conference on Citizenship, and The Rockefeller Foundation. This working group now lets me apply skills that I acquired both in my classes as a Master’s in Public Policy Student and in my time working at the Center, all in the service of creating tools for public servants who want to have a greater impact on their communities.

As I look back and try to synthesize my journey at the Beeck Center, I find myself truly grateful for the opportunity to be in a space where great ideas are discussed, talents are fostered, and friends are made. I also see myself challenged by a cohort of experts and learners that perfectly complement my time as a student, without losing sight of working purposely to achieving a positive impact. And I honestly think there is nowhere else I could’ve done that. 

Alberto Rodriguez Alvarez is a Student Analyst, currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter at @arodalv


February 21, 2020 | By Lisa Hall + Andrea Levere

What will it take for impact investing to get big quickly, and can new corporate forms be a path to generating that kind of scale? Ever since the term “impact investing” was coined more than a decade ago, many practitioners expressed a desire to scale this approach in order to create more positive outcomes for people and the planet. As Fellows at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and the Yale School of Management, respectively, we are examining the potential for philanthropic equity to enable social enterprises, of all kinds, to scale. Last week, Andrea moderated, and Lisa participated in a panel at  the Yale Philanthropy Conference, entitled The Practice of Philanthropic Equity and Equitable Finance showcasing the idea of creating a new corporate form for social ventures. 

“A new corporate form, which is neither non-profit or for-profit, could enable social ventures that combine revenue models and a charitable purpose to raise equity.”

We are intrigued by the idea that a new corporate form, which is neither non-profit nor for-profit, could enable social ventures that combine revenue models and a charitable purpose to raise equity. A new tax advantaged type of corporation could provide the subsidy needed to solve big social and environmental problems that do not have pure market solutions. While tax-exempt bonds serve this purpose in the debt markets for mission-driven endeavors related to education, housing and healthcare, there is no parallel in the equity markets. 

Non-profits are restricted in building their net asset base or equity (assets less liabilities) because of tax accounting implications of unrelated business income and the dearth of grants dedicated to this purpose. Most foundations prefer to provide project-specific grants and, in rare cases, operating support. Net asset grants are an extremely scarce commodity. A new corporate form codified in the tax code could provide a way for social ventures with proven revenue models and measurable social or environmental benefits to build a long-term net asset base, rather than rely solely on debt. 

There are four key reasons why equity is critical to scale social ventures:

1) Growth: In order to grow, organizations need capital to fund upfront investment in people, equipment and research. This type of capital is ideally in the form of equity, not debt, as modeled by venture capital. 

2) Flexibility: Having equity as a form of capital enables flexibility in repayment since repayment is subject to available cash flow and liquidity events, like the sale of a business or assets. Dividends and exits are always cash flow contingent. In contrast, debt has fixed payments and required interest. Failure to match cash flow closely to debt structures can create unnecessary financial risk in a business and lead to constrained growth or business failure.  

3) Sustainability: Equity enables organizations to weather unanticipated downturns. Non-profits often build reserves to prepare for future unexpected difficulties but typically only the largest non-profits with extensive fundraising capacity (e.g., universities and hospitals) are able to build substantial reserves. Yet even these organizations are often constrained by boards that believe every penny raised should be dedicated to the mission and not set aside for a rainy day. Reserves of even 3 – 6 months of operating expenses are rare in the non-profit sector.

4) Risk Taking: Without an equity base, social ventures have no incentive to take risk. With thin financial cushions, one wrong decision could mean the end of an organization. The ability to raise equity would create more willingness on the part of social ventures to take the risks inherent in innovation which requires managing through failure to achieve success. The problems the social sector is attempting to solve are enormous and their solutions require creativity, which by definition requires risk taking. 

For these reasons, raising equity for social ventures is critical. And where there is a clear business model that generates cash flow, it is reasonable that social ventures should be able to raise equity without the constraints of traditional capital markets, which require high returns and emphasis on shareholder maximization. Even with the recent pronouncement by the Business Roundtable that corporations should not solely focus on shareholder primacy, but rather should consider all stakeholders — we know that in the end, investors will drive what companies do. We need a new legal form of corporation which is neither for-profit or non-profit, but that allows for revenue generation and a tax advantage in exchange for charitable purpose. 

At the Beeck Center, we are working on policy recommendations that will build upon the models that have gone before including B-Corporations, Equity Equivalent investments (EQ2) and C3 structures that allow organizations to meet the objectives of a range of stakeholders. Our proposal envisions a corporate form where taxes on dividend income and capital gains to investors would be reduced, and where taxes paid by the social ventures would be less than the effective corporate income tax rate. The relatively recent passage of Opportunity Zones legislation is just one example of how the tax code can be used to create real impact in the hands of mission-aligned investors. 

Lisa is drafting a policy brief for publication in late spring, which we intend to share with the policy teams of all presidential candidates in advance of the Democratic and Republican conventions. Join us in thinking through the design of a legal model which works for social ventures and mission-driven investors. In order to reach scale in impact investing, we need to think beyond the ordinary and innovate on policy ideas outside of the box. We believe that creating a new corporate form codified in tax law is a start, please reach out to us with ideas and suggestions.


Lisa Hall is a Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, and leads the Fair Finance portfolio. She has dedicated her 25-year career to economic justice, social impact and community development. Using the tools of impact investing and philanthropy, she has served in executive roles across multiple sectors in the United States and abroad. Follow her on Twitter @LisaGreenHall

Andrea Levere is President Emerita of Prosperity Now (formerly CFED), a private nonprofit organization with the mission of ensuring that everyone can gain financial stability, build wealth and achieve prosperity. In 2013, President Obama appointed Ms. Levere to the National Cooperative Bank’s (NCB) Board of Directors, and she is the Chair of ROC USA, a national social venture that converts manufactured home parks into resident owned cooperatives. She was the Chair of the Community Advisory Council of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, was a member of the FDIC’s Committee on Economic Inclusion, and was on Morgan Stanley’s Community Development Advisory Board. Follow her on Twitter @alevere

New Grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for Action-Oriented Stakeholder Recommendations

February 21, 2020

Every day, millions of Americans apply for public benefits, the critical funds they need to pay for housing, food, or transportation. But the process of completing applications and obtaining approval is complex and time consuming — it’s often paper-based and can require in-person filings with long lines. As a result, many people abandon applications or don’t bother at all and don’t get benefits they’re eligible to receive. 

New solutions leveraging data and technology have emerged in recent years to make it easier for people to apply for and enroll in these safety net benefits. To understand these existing tools as well as opportunities where new products and services can be developed, Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation is partnering with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to launch an action-oriented research project to detail data and technology-enabled solutions that can close the gap to give more people better access to priority federal public benefits. 

This new project will result in recommendations for a variety of stakeholders to increase enrollment of federal safety net benefits by leveraging data, design, technology, and innovation. It is part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative (DSC). 

The field of technology-enabled solutions that eligible individuals can use to efficiently navigate services available to them as they pursue greater economic security is small but growing. Organizations such as Code for America and the Benefits Data Trust are conducting research and developing products that simplify the process for both the applicant and the government workers processing applications. For example, Code for America’s GetCalFresh reduced the application time for Californians to apply for nutrition assistance from 45 minutes down to eight, helping close the gap of the 2 million Californians who are eligible for these benefits but not receiving them.  

Despite these successes, it is still early in the development and application of data and technology-enabled solutions in the public benefits space. This research project will: 

  • Map the early actors in this space to understand their work 
  • Identify gaps where activity is not yet taking place
  • Determine where to prioritize further resources and action 

The project joins the portfolio of the DSC which launched in April 2019 in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation. The DSC’s mission is to cultivate the network of people working on data, design, technology, and innovation in governments, and activate them to co-create and scale solutions to help advance their work, while documenting it so others can use it as well. The DSC’s existing portfolio of projects range from developing a playbook to help states modernize their foster care licensing processes to bringing together data ethicists to develop a guide for responsibly sharing data between the public and private sectors for better social outcomes. 

This portfolio of work is led by Cori Zarek, the Director of the DSC, with support from the Beeck Center’s team of staff, fellows and students. “There’s a range of critical public benefits from healthcare to nutrition assistance to transportation support that can be improved for all residents by leveraging data and technology to improve access and enrollment,” Zarek said. “Great work is already happening out there, and by bringing ecosystem players together, we hope to scale their efforts and ultimately help more people access the services they need to thrive.” 

Two research fellows have joined the DSC to lead the public benefits project: 

Chad Smith researches the operational, technological, and ethical practices of integrating continuous client data into programs offered by social services departments and providers. He is currently the founder of YourSeat, a data platform for collecting, measuring and reporting behavior change in Family First Prevention Services Act programs. Prior to YourSeat, Chad led human-centered design engagements for Accenture’s public, healthcare, telecommunication, and financial services clients undergoing internal system modernization efforts. Chad currently lives in the Washington, D.C. metro area. He earned a B.A in Political Science from Hampton University and regularly volunteers at Digital Pioneers Academy. 

Sara Soka is an advocate for human-centered policy, implementation, and service design. Sara brings a background in applied qualitative research and network leadership spanning public health issues, plus substantial experience in community engagement and strategic communication. She managed Berkeley, California’s successful soda tax campaign, the first to pass in the U.S., with resident-led policymaking, locally resonant messaging, and participatory budgeting as guiding principles. As a consultant and a Vice President of Policy for a national public health nonprofit, she monitored iterations of this policy and its implementation, the related impacts, and implications for equity. Recently, she gained experience in UX research, and has consulted as a policy analyst for Code for America.

February 21, 2020 | By Diana Acosta

Communities have voices, narratives, and histories that are powerful and steadfast. Way too often, we choose to ignore the voices of historically overlooked communities, perpetuating inequities throughout generations. Despite these challenges, communities persist and resist as I have witnessed and experienced throughout my life. This is why engaging with Georgetown TEDx’s Persist and Resist event was so important to me. It highlighted the resilience of many communities and experiences through the voices of inspiring speakers who were willing to share stories intimately tied to pressing themes of our time. Watching and listening to each speaker’s honesty, words, pain, and strength was a reminder that fortified the importance of each of their calls to transform the world. 

The talks throughout the day had a general theme: it is not enough to just be aware of or aligned with a cause. We must act now, continue to learn, and truly partner alongside each other because whether we acknowledge it or not, the pain spread affects all. In my story, I wanted to highlight communities’ resilience and power as strong foundations that continue to raise generations upon generations. The intentional, hard work of community-building that has been a key mechanism of survival within our experience and identities. The amazing power of comunidad and the humanity that propels it. The people who form part of such a transformative learning space and share that wisdom with others. Thank you for all you are. 

I am grateful to the people in my communities, from El Salvador, to Columbia Heights, to Hyattsville, who have shaped my journey. Through them we have learned the importance of seeing each other and taking action to create lasting change. Muchísimas gracias por lo que son y toda la fuerza y el corazón que le ofrecen al mundo.  


Diana Acosta is the Beeck Center’s Program Associate in Fair Finance. She is a graduate of Harvard University, and is involved with a number of youth development and mentoring programs in the DC area. 


February 11, 2020

Measurement can be messy, especially in the impact space! As we’re witnessing an explosion in efforts to deliver social change, we’re also experiencing how difficult it is to track performance toward these worthy and lofty social goals.

Beeck Center leader Nate Wong moderated a discussion with leading impact measurement expert Alnoor Ebrahim and Miriam’s Kitchen CEO Scott Schenkelberg on Tuesday, February 4, 2020 at Georgetown University based on the release of Ebrahim’s new book, “Measuring Social Change: Performance and Accountability in a Complex World.” The rich conversation covered both theory and practice, recognizing how difficult it is to translate strategy to reality. This conversation was part of the Georgetown University’s Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership class taught by Professor Kathy Kretman.

cover image of Measuring Social Change
Get the Book [Stanford University Press]
Three key takeaways are:

  • To start, we need to actually confront our assumptions of what are “good” metrics. While there’s a strong emphasis on long-term outcomes, “there are certain kinds of outputs where short term outputs make a great deal of sense (video),” Alnoor exhorted the audience in response to Nate’s question. Think about ambulances. Service delivery times are incredibly important – they are a matter of life and death… literally. So it’s more of a question around what do these metrics help drive? It’s more about strategy, performance, and accountability.
  • To measure social change, it first starts with the organization’s strategy and their theory of change. Organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen can shift strategies, in this case from a niche to an ecosystem strategy, but it takes a very different type of approach and skills. It requires radical collaboration. Miriam put a bold mission forth to end chronic homelessness in Washington, D.C., which dramatically reconceptualized how they operated. Instead of focusing on meals and programs, they needed to orchestrate the over 100 other players around joint goals and coordinated action. “I was skeptical at first (video),” Miriam’s Kitchen CEO Scott Schenkelberg admitted. “We were really good at delivering outputs, think of our meals for the homeless and holding onto our select sphere of influence. Going out there and saying that we can end chronic homlessness, that’s a big scary statement… When I say that we are going to end chronic homelessness, we better end it, or else it’s a really big failure. People said it’s going to take time Scott; here are the things that we need to do, Let’s explore this process by which we can do it so.”
  • The measurement strategy is only as good as the system that it sits within. As Ebrahim points out (video), “The funder ecosystem is highly fragmented, and there is a challenge for funders to be doing more in terms of collaborative fundraising, so there’s sufficient pools of resources to sufficient pools of executing organizations to address social problems at some sort of scale.” Making this move will entail shifting funders to articulate coordinated theories of change with a shared sense of objective measures. It will also take incentives for coordination and collaboration among implementers.

Ebrahim is a professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, whose current research addresses two core dilemmas of accountability facing social enterprises, nonprofit organizations, and public agencies: How should they measure and improve their performance? How should they address competing demands for accountability from diverse stakeholders?

The event was sponsored in part by McCourt School of Public Policy, Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership, Beeck Center, Georgetown College, and the Social Responsibility Network (SRN) of Georgetown College.

Read more about the event from the Center for Public and Nonprofit Leadership – Measuring What Matters: Strategies for Measuring Change in the Social Sector

This is one of the many events that the Beeck Center hosts throughout the year, everything from workshops to open houses to author events like this one. They are an excellent opportunity to bring together members of the student and broader social impact communities for spirited conversations on important issues. Previous guests include Ann Mei Chang, author of “Lean Impact,” and Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.”

Join us on March 31 for our next author event, as Henry Ramos discusses his new book, “Democracy and the Next American Economy.”

February 7, 2020 | By Kyla Fullenwider & Katie Sullivan 

Cover of 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook
Download the Playbook

Last month, the 2020 Census kicked off in Toksook Bay, a remote Alaskan fishing village, as the head of the U.S. Census Bureau, Steven Dillingham, arrived to personally interview the village elder and start the decennial process. While Bureau workers will travel around Alaska “on bush planes, snow machines, or snowmobiles, and dog sleds to get to villages,” this year, for the first time, millions of U.S. residents will have the option to respond to the decennial census online or over the phone, alongside the traditional mail-in form. Federal workers will use handheld mobile devices to conduct the count and social media channels will catalyze rapid, real-time sharing of census news and information. 

Though the first “digital” census presents an opportunity for a more participatory count, it also raises a number of obstacles that may threaten the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census. An incomplete census count leads to unrepresentative distribution of federal funding and political power while raising inaccuracies within the foundational dataset that is used by planners, policymakers, and researchers nationwide. An accurate census count is vital in ensuring the integrity of our democratic institutions for the next decade and beyond.

For the first time, issues such as data security, digital access and literacy, online form navigation, and social media driven misinformation and disinformation campaigns must be addressed.

Since the last decennial count in 2010, the political and technological landscapes of the United States have changed dramatically. While some challenges such as an increase in “hard to reach” populations persist across census counts, the digital nature of the 2020 Census raises new threats. For the first time, issues such as data security, digital access and literacy, online form navigation, and social media driven misinformation and disinformation campaigns must be addressed. With historic levels of distrust in the federal government, city and local governments will play a critical role in ensuring a complete count of their constituents. City leaders understand the importance of the census in allocating dollars and political representation to their most vulnerable communities. However, many cities lack sufficient preparation and resources to lead the charge in promoting an inclusive and accurate 2020 Census count. 

Today we are pleased to publish the 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook which helps address some of these challenges by providing a set of practical resources and explainers on some of the most challenging issues facing local governments as they prepare for the 2020 Census. The playbook provides:

  • A framework city leaders can use to understand the unique challenges posed by the 2020 Census including disinformation, cybersecurity, the digital divide, and data privacy. 
  • Accessible one-page overviews giving decision makers information they need to recognize threats to the census’ integrity.
  • In-depth how-to resources helping city leaders plan their response, avoid digital census pitfalls, and increase participation. 
  • Comprehensive answers to commonly-asked questions about new issues in the 2020 Census including the internet response option. 
  • A series of case studies highlighting how cities like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Indianapolis are developing new and innovative approaches fostering census participation.

The 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook was drafted in close collaboration with city officials, subject matter experts, and in partnership with the National League of Cities, Code for America Brigades and National Conference on Citizenship. We invite you to read and share the playbook to better understand the challenges ahead and to help ensure that everyone counts in 2020.

Additional Resources

The rollout of the 2020 Census Digital Preparedness Playbook complements other Beeck Center efforts to support an accurate and inclusive 2020 Census count. 


Kyla Fullenwider is a Beeck Center Fellow leading our work around the digital implications of the 2020 Census, specifically, what local governments, journalists, leading digital platforms, and the public can do to prepare and participate in this crucial function of our democracy. She previously served as the first Chief Innovation Officer of the U.S. Census Bureau. Follow her on Twitter at @KylaFullenwider

Katie Sullivan is a Beeck Center Student Analyst, currently pursuing a Masters in Global Human Development at Georgetown University. Follow her on LinkedIn or email her. 

January 30, 2020 | By Natalie Evans Harris

Society uses data for just about everything. Every day we hear about different ways organizations collect data about us for marketing purposes, insurance decisions, and improved delivery of social services including housing, education, and mental health. We also hear about data being used to deny home loans, set outsized bail, and often exacerbate existing biases within our social systems. It’s no question that, good or bad, data drives decisions by large organizations, small nonprofits, government officials, and everyone in-between. 

Through this expansive approach to using data, many government agencies are also experiencing the pains of governing how that data is shared, resulting in practices that are unsustainable, ineffective, and not forward-thinking. There is a fundamental need to evolve these practices into a governance approach that balances the need to protect people’s data with the need to uncover opportunities to better serve communities through data. 

As we head into 2020, it is already clear that a shift in how we make decisions with data is underway. The Federal Data Strategy Action Plan makes data governance processes a top priority. The California Consumer Privacy Act went into effect Jan 1, 2020, requiring entities to fundamentally change how they handle data with data governance standards as a main focus. And Congress continues to work on national privacy legislation that influences data governance standards, including nearly 10 bills under consideration for regulating the collection and use of personal data, individual consent, and even defining what constitutes personal data. Simply put, new data governance strategies are being developed and policy improvements are driving this conversation.

At the Beeck Center, I spent the past year leading a research effort to gather best practices and lessons learned on data sharing. In partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, I hosted collaborative discussions with multiple stakeholders and practitioners, conducted independent research with dozens of organizations, companies, and government teams, and drew on my nearly 20 years leading data practices. We are excited today to launch a new resource based on that research: Sharing Data for Social Impact: a Guidebook to Establishing Responsible Governance Practices.

cover of Sharing Data for Social Impact report

Thankfully, we aren’t starting from scratch as many government agencies have well-established use cases for sharing data in pursuit of improved social service delivery in areas such as K–12 education, public transportation, and healthcare. For example: 

  • In 2017, Florida’s Broward County saw the number of children moving into their Kinship Care Program — where kids live with grandparents or other non-parental relatives — had increased significantly. To improve services for these kinship providers, the county took data from a variety of sources — the public schools, Department of Children and Families, Department of Juvenile Justice, and others — and worked with the community to analyze the information, then put it into practice. This engagement of stakeholders and participants created community feedback loops on shared data between families and agencies, strengthening family outcomes through a decision making process that emphasizes collaboration, transparency, and shared interest in positive results.  
  • On the other side of the country, Los Angeles County wanted to study the effectiveness of a number of social service programs for people experiencing homelessness. While the data was available, it was trapped in individual agencies, making it difficult to understand if an individual used services outside a single agency. As a way to combat this siloing of data and link social service organizations, researchers created an integrated data system. This system, launched in 2015, “provided agencies with a comprehensive picture of the [homeless population] and their needs and helped these agencies consider different models for service delivery… The project was relatively easy to execute with the [integrated] data, but would have been impossible without it.” By not only linking data from several agencies but also outlining data-use practices and procedures for each agency, Los Angeles County is ensuring the delivery of vital services to a vulnerable population.

Another recent trend is private companies, governments, and nonprofits forming cross-sector data-sharing collaboratives in support of the social good, but these can be hampered by organizational rules restricting the availability of data to external actors. In an environment where data are only used for making funding decisions or to narrowly evaluate programs, this model can work well. But in pursuit of innovation or improved social service delivery, this model is less encouraging. I discussed the need to shift to a more equitable and sustainable governance process in a previous blog. 

As the amount of data and methods for collecting it increase, so have opportunities for drawing insights about society. Bringing together diverse data sources is crucial to ensuring that insights promote equitable growth. And as promising as data sharing is for improving societal outcomes, the analysis of integrated data (especially through predictive analytics) can easily repeat inequities learned from past service delivery. Contextualizing data analysis with methods used by social sciences and ongoing community engagement is crucial to ensuring data analytics do not replicate or worsen inequitable outcomes.

Through our research, we found three key phases critical to establishing equitable and sustainable data sharing governance practices for social impact. Our guidebook helps individuals and teams seeking a primer to better understand the key legal, technical, and cultural components to data sharing governance. The guidebook provides a holistic process detailing each phase and extensive resources to aid stakeholders.

Stages of Data Sharing Governance

Build the collective

Get everyone on board. Start with the policy problem. Identify stakeholders. Take stock of capacity, motivations, barriers, and potential data solutions. Demonstrate value and reduce uncertainty to generate buy-in. Establish a minimum viable coalition and enshrine your shared vision in a charter. 

Data Sharing - Build the Collective graphic

Define the operations

Get everyone in line. Create the governance framework tied to the charter. Design a feedback loop and integrate it into the governance framework. Formalize those two elements into a data-sharing agreement. Launch the operations of the minimum viable coalition.

Drive impact

Get everyone to improve and share. Re-evaluate assumptions, approach, and metrics. Survey impacted communities and stakeholders. Use feedback loops to enact iterative improvements to the governance structure. Repeat this process until feedback becomes minimal. Scale up. 

We recognize that many different actors will be involved in this process and that each one faces unique challenges, goals, motivations, and opportunities. This guidebook is for people looking to leverage data and data sharing towards evidence-based policy making. Moreover, it can be used by policy makers and organizations interested in giving agency to individuals over their data along with organizations interested in ethically and responsibly sharing data. 

Data Sharing Driving Impact graphic

While data use can sometimes lead to harmful outcomes, what will never change is that data can, should, and will be used for good. Because data plays such a large role in society, it is imperative that organizations and governments use and share it responsibly. While there are resources out there to do this, our Guidebook delivers the perfect framework with resources, advice and practical examples for tackling the complexities of data sharing going forward. We look forward to supporting organizations as they activate the lessons we captured and will continue recording and sharing good practices through that process.

Natalie Evans Harris is a Beeck Center Fellow and a sought-after thought leader on the ethical and responsible use of data after nearly 20 years advancing the public sector’s strategic use of data. Follow her on Twitter @QuietStormNat


January 22, 2020 | By Sheila Herrling and Audrey Voorhees

We are at an inflection point where the stakes are high to reimagine how capitalism and democracy work for everyone. Critical to that reimagination is a movement to evolve the thinking around the role of corporations in driving social impact at the scale that today’s challenges require. Milton Friedman’s notion that the only social responsibility of business is to maximize profit is increasingly being questioned by many, including investors, philanthropists, business leaders, policymakers, and perhaps most notably Millennials, who will represent the future workforce and consumers. People want to buy from, work for, invest in, and donate to companies that identify as social enterprises. Corporate CEOs stand poised to seize the greatest opportunity of their lifetime to deliver both greater financial returns and social returns at scale that could, quite literally, make the world a better, more equitable place.

That said, it’s complicated terrain. Accelerating the movement requires proof points of companies pursuing and achieving financial and social gains, how-to’s for those who are convinced of the value but don’t know where to start, and a solid understanding and appreciation of the counter-arguments.

As we set out to better understand the ideas, actors, flashpoints, and gaps in the corporate social impact (CSI) movement, we learned and built upon the work of others. You can see our full landscape analysis presentation here. As part of our work, we also pulled together what we feel is a “Must Read List” for anyone interested in the role corporates are and could be playing in driving social impact at scale and ensuring that capitalism works for all. We’ve done our best to share a diverse list of authors and viewpoints.

First, get situated in the early, foundational work; corporate social impact is not a new idea.

Second, make sure you understand all sides of the argument; you can’t advance a movement without knowing and truly appreciating all views.

On the pro side, we found these particularly interesting with…

…Compelling arguments 

…Key moments and decisions that served as flashpoints accelerating the movement

…A great new media series

…And many framed within the broader movement to reimagine Capitalism

On the counter-argument side, our thinking was informed by:

Third, understand the landscape of actors and activities that can drive the movement forward.

Once the foundational arguments were absorbed, we began to create the landscape of actors and plot them across a grouping of activities and historical flashpoints that were driving the movement forward. You can view that landscape analysis here. [link to the blog]. Among the gaps standing in the way of mainstreaming the movement, two seemed ripe to solve for in the near-term: how-to content for the already convinced, and the need for a uniform, involuntary impact measurement standard.

For those companies convinced of the need to embed social impact into their operations, there’s not a lot of public content out there. Here’s some we found useful and we hope to see more.

We are convinced that the movement will continue to stall without agreement on a uniform, involuntary impact measurement standard; here’s food for thought.

That’s our must list; for those wanting a deeper dive, here are some of the books on the topic that influenced our work. Dig in!



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Cover Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash


January 15, 2020 | By Nate Wong, Sheila Herrling & Audrey Voorhees

As public trust of business and markets wanes, there’s an ever important call for everyone to play a critical role in reforming the system “so that it delivers prosperity for the many, rather than the few.” The Beeck Center has been observing the trends in the corporate social impact (CSI) space for the past few years as mainstream rhetoric has shifted from a shareholder to stakeholder-centric view of capitalism, most importantly seen in the recent United States Business Roundtable announcement

The question remains, where does the CSI movement stand and where do we go from here? As a “grasstop” player, the Center links grassroot and institutional efforts poised for action, and puts our energy toward the messy infrastructure work that can accelerate and sustain positive social impact movements like corporate social impact. It’s what we’d call “Impact at Scale.”

CSI Defined: The increasing recognition that corporations need to rethink their role in society and embed social purpose into their business model in order to manage risk, maintain market share, and secure competitive advantage. For those more bullish, you could be more specific that purpose will drive higher profit.

We set out to explore the topic – who is doing what – and to identify gaps in the CSI landscape that require concentrated action to accelerate impact at scale. My colleagues Sheila Herrling and Audrey Voorhees conducted this analysis to consider potential roles for the Center, but believe it serves as a “global public good” for all interested parties to help move this movement forward.  

Analysis highlights include:

  • The CSI movement arguably began over 12  years ago… with at least 11 key flashpoint events that have been foundational in building momentum, but there is still more work to do to tip the movement. 
  • 22 actors stand at the forefront of accelerating this movement and their efforts are worth looking out for.
  • There are 4 major gaps standing in the way of mainstreaming this movement that require attention.

We have 7 gap-closing ideas. Dive deeper here.

Our hope is that this will ground people’s understanding no matter where you may sit in the space – a corporation finding its position relative to others, a policymaker navigating the shifting system, or an academic seeking to teach business through a more current lens – and empower coordination.

With all of the Beeck Center’s work, we pair learners and expert practitioners. Watch MBA candidate and Student Analyst Audrey Voorhees’ capstone presentation as she shares her own journey and some of the research highlights.

Engage with us. 

This is our first pass at creating a comprehensive landscape analysis of the corporate social impact movement. As a community of practitioners driving impact at scale, we want this analysis to provide value along the learning continuum, from initiate to expert. How does this analysis resonate with you? And the market? We’d love your feedback.

The potential for corporates to drive social impact is scale is enormous. If partnerships can be leveraged, strategic alliances formed and critical gaps in the movement filled, this movement just might tip!

Sheila Herrling is a Fellow at the Beeck Center, where she pursues initiatives in impact investing and measurement, inclusive entrepreneurship and social innovation at scale.

Audrey Voorhees is a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center. She is currently pursuing an MBA at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

Nate Wong serves as the Interim Executive Director at the Beeck Center, where he leads the Center’s pursuits and thinking on social impact at scale across its major portfolios. He previously helped launch social impact units at Boston Consulting Group and Deloitte Consulting LLP.

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January 7, 2020

2020 is the last year of the millennium’s first decade (fight me), and promises to be an interesting one with a presidential election, Brexit, 50th anniversary of the start of the disco era, and whatever other surprises will surely arise.

We asked ourselves what we might see in the year ahead in the social impact space, here’s what we see in our crystal balls.

Impact at Scale Means Accelerating Movements

Today, scaling impact is too often conflated with scaling programs or organizations. No single program or organization, no matter how great it may be, can truly solve the complex social ills vexing the world. Rather it will take a coordinated effort across numerous sectors– from social ventures to policymakers to local social service providers. 

In 2020 and beyond, we’ll observe a sea change as funders and impact organizations alike tackle intractable social problems through a coordinated ecosystem lens rather than scaling pointed solutions in silos. Donor collaboratives like the Tipping Point Fund (a $12.5M coalition of nine foundations and family offices) and radical coordination like Imperative 21 (a business-led coalition of 72,000 businesses across 80 countries) will continue to increase as more investment in field building is needed to sustain the impact we want to see long-term. We believe grassroot efforts need to reach institutions where change can be more widely adopted and ultimately create the intended positive impact for all.

For the Beeck Center, that means playing the necessary role as a “grasstop” player, linking grassroot and institutional efforts poised for action, and putting our efforts toward the messy infrastructure work that can accelerate and sustain positive social impact movements.

– Nate Wong, Interim Executive Director 

Thoughts from Outside the Center

CEOs Will be Judged Both as Commercial Leaders and as Social Architects

It is clear the current dynamic business environment, combined with evolving social, economic, and political realities, the role of the CEO is transforming faster than many had expected for both public and private concerns. Specifically, CEOs are realizing the need to take more active and/or vocal roles around stakeholder issues such as healthcare, education and retraining, climate change, affordable housing and the like. The most effective and most successful CEOs for the near future will need to be both strong commercial leaders as well as courageous social architects to ensure that the community of stakeholders they serve is as engaged and productive as possible.

– Tierney Remick, Vice Chairman and Co-Leader, Board & CEO Services, Korn Ferry. 20 Predictions for Business & Society

person holding clear glass ball

Photo by Jenni Jones on Unsplash

Students Want a More Hands-On Approach to their Education

Experiential Learning will continue to play an increasingly prominent role in higher education, with further blending of the curricular and co-curricular in equipping students for careers in social impact.

The Beeck Center will continue to break down silos at Georgetown, accelerating collaboration across campus as we’ll work with different schools and student groups to better educate students for social impact leadership.

Matt Fortier, Director, Sustainable Student Impact

Thoughts from Outside the Center

Rising Student Voice Will Prompt a Paradigm Shift among Professors

Today, students enter business school increasingly aware and concerned about the critical issues of our day. Faculty – charged with equipping these students with the context and skills to make responsible business decisions – will face louder questions about how the concepts they are teaching relate to issues like climate change and inequality.  These collective student voices will be hard to ignore, forcing faculty to make a conscious choice between teaching the seemingly discrete theories and models in the same siloed manner or exploring these challenging questions by looking at business concepts through a broader, more multi-faceted lens.

– Jaime Bettcher, Program Manager, Aspen Institute Business & Society Program, 20 Predictions for Business & Society

gray and yellow tape measures and rulers

Photo by William Warby on Unsplash

A Demand for Results Means a Need for Tools to Measure Impact

We launched our Fair Finance initiative last year with the goal of righting the rules for shared prosperity, and we expect to see more partners engaged in our efforts as the year progresses.

Impact management practices and processes will converge as companies and investors increasingly look not only for measurable results, but for standard guidelines, commonly accepted tools and aligned frameworks to achieve positive and sustainable impact in communities.

If unemployment stays low, awareness of the need and opportunity to employ refugees and immigrants will increase.

The legislation that created Opportunity Zones (OZs) has only been in place for a short time, and as early movers begin to develop projects, more positive narratives about OZs will continue to emerge.

For us at the Beeck Center, we’ll bring together more of the key stakeholders in these areas as we convene our OZ Investor Council and complete a landscape analysis of workforce training opportunities for refugees and immigrants.

Lisa Hall, Director, Fair Finance 

Thoughts from Outside the Center

Move Beyond Gender to Include Broader Diversity

Gender equality and the inclusion of women on boards and founding teams has been a big theme over the past year and will continue to be an important agenda item.

However, as more investors recognize that diversity translates into more representative, better informed teams, we’re likely to see a bigger drive to redefine diversity beyond gender alone.

When it comes to diversity, there is still a lot of work to do and we shouldn’t limit this scope to gender alone.

– Karma Impact: Top 10 Impact Investing Trends for 2020


person holding clear glass ball with QR code background

Photo by Mitya Ivanov on Unsplash

Public Sector Workforce Grows Its Digital Skillset

In 2020 and beyond, data and technology will continue to drive the way our society builds systems and delivers services and we will need a workforce in the public interest and public sector—not just the private sector—that is equipped with the hard skills and policy expertise to leverage the tools of data and digital to deliver better outcomes. We need technologists in government to buy smarter so we don’t keep spending taxpayers dollars on software and products that vendors can’t or won’t deliver. We need technical skills at the policy making table in the public interest community and in government so major initiatives consider data opportunities and risks as well as tech implications in their design and also plan for rollout and implementation from the start. 

At the Beeck Center, I predict we will continue identifying ways that society can invest in the public interest technology community to ensure a workforce that meets our needs, and investing in projects and partnerships to drive forward the changing future we want to see. 

Cori Zarek, Director, Data + Digital

Thoughts from Outside the Center

Companies Will Expand CSR to Include CDR

More and more companies will embed data responsibility principles into the way they do business — and embrace corporate data responsibility, or CDR. The acronym may be new, but in a digital world, it’s the logical next step for companies committed to meeting their responsibilities to individuals, one another and society as a whole. For the Center for Inclusive Growth that means leveraging Mastercard expertise, data, technology and philanthropy to help ensure the digital economy happens for people, not to them.

– Shamina Singh, Founder and President, Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth, EVP, Sustainability, Mastercard, and member, Beeck Center Advisory Board, 20 Predictions for Business & Society

In addition to our thoughts, here’s some of the predictions we’re seeing from outside our offices:

December 20, 2019 | By Margarita Arguello

As anyone choosing a college knows, finding the right balance of academic strength and affordability is incredibly difficult. In September 2015, in the midst of rising college costs and a changing U.S economy, the Obama administration launched the College Scorecard — a tool to help American families make decisions about college attendance by providing them “clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value.” 

By pooling together data from various government agencies and conducting hundreds of interviews with potential users, government teams from the Department of Education, 18F, and the United States Digital Service (USDS) created something so useful, that within a year, 1.5 million unique users had accessed it and Google integrated its data so that it appears front and center when users conduct college-related searches. 

screen capture of google search for Georgetown University
In this screen capture from a Google search, the data fields including “Average cost after aid,” “Graduation rate,” and “Acceptance rate” draw from data collected by the U.S. Department of Education that is made available as open data through the College Scorecard project.

The College Scorecard is one example of how, throughout the past decade, the U.S. government has worked to leverage the tools of technology, data, and design to create digital products and services that directly impact the lives of people across the country. 

As evidenced by the College Scorecard, data and digital are already proving to be powerful drivers of social impact. However, there is still much to figure out in terms of how to best use these tools to create solutions that actually work for people, while also being mindful of user privacy and safety concerns. This is what the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative and the Georgetown Technology Policy Initiative sought to explore this fall through its Data, Digital + Social Impact Seminar Series. Over five seminars, experts in the field joined Georgetown students to deconstruct the nuances behind digital transformations in government  and delved deep into the topics of open data, privacy, ethics, and design for social good. Providing students an opportunity to learn practical solutions for delivering positive social impact is a key element of the Center’s mission, and one way it generates impact at scale.

The kick-off seminar provided students with a basic understanding of the building-blocks of data and examples of how social impact leaders have worked to improve the lives of people around the world through the use of open data initiatives that is, by releasing data to the public in digestible formats that allows anyone to access the data, use it and republish it. For example, Beeck Center Fellow Denice Ross, who was previously a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow and before that led open data for the City of New Orleans, talked about how emergency planners in the city of New Orleans now use open data from various federal and state government agencies to better coordinate their hurricane response efforts to prevent disastrous scenarios like those seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

Similarly Erica Hagen, co-founder and director at GroundTruth Initiative,  spoke about her experience leading Map Kibera — a project that aimed to create a map of Kibera, a previously unmapped slum in the Kenyan city of Nairobi. By using GIS mapping technology and enlisting the help of the people of Kibera, Hagen and her team were able to produce a map giving residents of this neighborhood access to accurate and useful information, such as the location of clinics and pharmacies within the community.

These conversations raised the important question of how to use data to design policy solutions that actually work for the people they are intended to serve. During later seminars, the expert speakers weighed in on this issue and discussed basic frameworks for effective policy making in an era of rapidly changing digital technologies. 


Students sit around a conference table
Beeck Center Fellow Natalie Evans Harris discusses privacy implications of data use on Oct. 8, 2019.

The most prominent ideas that the experts proposed for solving this problem involved adopting some of the popular practices of the tech sector into the policy-making process. These include conducting thorough rounds of user research in the early stages of the policy-making process, designing experimental solutions that can eventually be brought to scale, creating a “Minimum Viable Product” and then iterating to improve it, and using tech-enabled methods to incorporate the views, habits and feedback of the people that their products and services are intended to help. 

Throughout every session of the series, the experts walked students through case studies that exemplify how these concepts have been applied in real life. For example, USDS founding member Erie Meyer, who is now a tech advisor at the Federal Trade Commission, talked about how, in leading the College Scorecard project, her team took a user-centered approach that involved conducting extensive user research and collecting feedback along every step of the process. 

Likewise, Rebellion Defense co-founder Chris Lynch spoke about his experience working to improve the lives of U.S. troops in Afghanistan through his work leading the Defense Digital Service at the U.S. Department of Defense. In this role, Lynch and his team revamped and reinvented the tools and practices that the DoD uses on the ground.

Although the conversations in these five seminars shed light on the complex processes that have made digital solutions like the College Scorecard a promising reality in the United States, much work remains to be done as policy makers and scholars alike navigate the process of digitizing social services. For this reason, the Beeck Center continues to explore the topics of data governance, digital service delivery, and tech policy through its Data + Digital portfolio. 


Margarita Arguello is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. She is a master’s student in the McCourt School of Public Policy and will graduate in May 2020.

December 10, 2019 | By Ben Lang

For someone interested in working at the intersection of cities and data, I didn’t find a clear pathway for either classwork or experiential learning here at Georgetown, at first. There simply is no guide for students to work in cities and data unlike the vast amount of resources on social impact at a national level. 

To fill this gap, I researched these types of opportunities and interviewed expert practitioners in this field to create the basis of a resource guide for students like myself seeking to formulate a career path through data and impact in cities.

“Lead your search with causes you’re passionate about, rather than working within data itself.”

– Natalie Evans Harris

As a starting point, I visited Georgetown’s Cawley Career Center last year to better understand what to prioritize when choosing a career. They gave me good input and a helpful framework. That led to a summer internship in my hometown of Atlanta working at a nonprofit devoted to community investment, social impact, and the leadership of Downtown Atlanta.

This semester, I came to the Beeck Center, where I’m working with fellows and partners who have built their careers working in this exact area. Current fellow and former director of Enterprise Information for the City of New Orleans Denice Ross shared with me the importance of finding local leadership that values the same type of innovation as you do.

I’m also supporting fellow Natalie Evans Harris, a former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and data expert for the National Security Agency, as we finalize a guidebook on responsible data practices. Through the process, I’ve learned the importance of engaging the community and data stakeholders every step of the way to help drive impact. On a more specific level, she’s shared with me the importance of leading your search with causes you’re passionate about, rather than work within data itself. 

As expected, despite my hours of research and interviewing, I did not come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Luckily, I was able to formulate a few best practices along with a basic framework of where students can enter the field at a local level. 

First, because at the local level you are directly engaging with a community, it is imperative to be aware of your own internal biases. Resources like “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and “Building Technology With, Not for Communities” are just the tip of the iceberg on the necessary perspectives to keep in mind when working inside any community. To effectively provide equitable solutions, we need to fully understand why and how data work will drive impact.

Second, we should try to find opportunities in impact that fulfill our own personal values before leading with data as a whole. Drawing on the framework I learned from Cawley to formulate my career path (prioritizing your values, interests, personality, and skills), if you do not recognize and pursue opportunities that engage all four categories, what you might gain in external recognition you will likely lack in personal drive. Additionally, the Beeck Center’s own Social Impact Navigator is a great tool for self-assessment before starting a career in social impact. 

With that in mind, here are three attainable ways for students and young professionals to get involved at the local level: 

  • Getting involved with your local Code for America Brigade
    • In cities all across America, the brigades meet regularly to educate, discuss and create tools for local government and impact. Involving yourself with these opportunities allows you to network and grow on a professional and local level.
  • Opportunities in city governments through data, technology, and innovation offices such as offices of CIOs, CTOs and CDOs
    • These offices of government provide the foremost opportunity to manage and use data for public impact from entry-level positions all they to the top. Moreover, outside of data offices, one can take advantage of data in many departments of local government like sustainability, transportation, and education.
  • Careers at nonprofits and foundations like Downtown Improvement Districts (DID) and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP)
    • Every city has different types of nonprofits, but most cities have organizations committed to data-driven approaches for government efficiency, community investment or simply data for the greater good. DID’s are tax-funded organizations that provide economic development and other services to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors. The International Downtown Association(linked above) is a national organization that helps organize these DIDs. The NNIP is another example of local nonprofits working to use data for the common good.

Working with local data gives people the opportunity to think creatively about new solutions without suffering from as many bureaucratic issues at the national or even state level. One can look to examples from Broward County and New Orleans to see the fantastic innovation done at the local level. This research provides a brief introduction to the important and extensive opportunities for students and professionals to engage with data at a local level and drive impact. 

In the future, I look forward to pursuing opportunities in my hometown to help Atlanta run as effectively, equitably, and efficiently as possible. For me, this means actively searching for roles that balance data and service. While I cannot say specifically what this will lead to, I can already see a more defined framework of paths to follow as I go into my final three semesters at Georgetown and begin the job hunt. 

Ben Lang is a Fall 2019 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center studying Economics and German in the Georgetown College. Contact him at bel46@georgetown.edu or follow him on Twitter at @blang716.

The digital transformation of government is a powerful idea. It has sparked great enthusiasm and speculation about how technology and data might revolutionize government efficiency, policy-making and service delivery. But despite significant investments and innovations, these promises have not yet delivered at scale.

To better understand the limits and potential of digital technologies in American government, the Digital Service Collaborative (DSC) at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation1The Digital Service Collaborative (DSC) is a program designed to develop research around government digital services, create tangible resources for practitioners, cultivate the community of digital service leaders in governments to share and scale efforts, and explore policy considerations including ethics and privacy. The DSC team is based out of the Beeck Center at Georgetown University, supporting public and private sector efforts to responsibly share and use data to address some of society’s most challenging issues and to support civic engagement with public institutions. See https://beeckcenter.georgetown.edu/project/digital-service-collaborative-building-capacity-for-digital-transformation-in-government/, accessed 21 October 2019. spent five months talking with people working at the frontlines of digital transformation in US cities, counties, states, and federal agencies.

A full description of background, methods and findings from this research are presented in the 37-page report: Setting the Stage for Transformation: Frontline Reflections on Technology in American Government.

Key findings and recommendations are presented here, including the following recommendations:

table of 14 recommendations

A summary of these recommendations and the research on which they are based is presented below in three sections. 

  • The first section describes how people working on the frontlines of American government experience the limits and potential of technology more generally. 
  • The second section describes the above recommendations in greater detail. 
  • The final section provides a brief description of the research methodology and context in which this should be considered. 

Understanding Transformation

18F defines digital transformation according to three characteristics of a transformed government institution: the connectedness of staff to an agency’s mission, the application of technology toward that mission, and agency commitment to continued improvement.2Pandel et al., “Best Practices in Government Digital Transformation: Preliminary Report.” Responses to this research supported that view, but also described digital transformation as more of a journey than a destination. This is best summarized in the following three arguments: 

  1. Digital transformation is an iterative and evolutionary process, in which new tools and strategies are applied and demonstrate value incrementally, opening space and interest for additional tools. No single tool or strategy ever immediately transforms an institution.
  2. Digital technologies are an instrument for improving government and not an end in themselves. The objective behind implementing any digital tool, product or associated process is and should always be providing better government and better government services to the public. 
  3. Digital technology is embedded in contemporary governance; it cannot be avoided, nor should it be fetishized. As a descriptive term, “digital government” makes as little sense as “paper government.” To effectively adapt to the new technological context in which they necessarily operate requires government institutions to acknowledge that using digital tools is the new normal. 

In keeping with these arguments, respondents viewed digital transformation as something that could and should be managed by people working in government, in order to improve government and the services it provides. In particular, respondents described multiple benefits and contributions that the smart use of technology and data could provide to (a) civic interaction and service delivery; (b) data, evidence and analytics; and (c) efficiency and resources.  Respondents also described numerous specific obstacles and barriers posed by (a) insufficient capacities or resources, (b) formal rules and institutional structures, and (c) institutional cultures and preconceptions. 

Respondents described an interaction between short term benefits of using technology, and the long-term changes to institutional practice and culture that would enable more scaled and widespread use of technology to improve outcomes. This interaction is how respondents described processes of digital transformation in government institutions. 

When describing what enables such processes, respondents described three broad institutional conditions:

  1. Explicit support for cross-functional technical expertise
  2. Deliberate professionalization of technical expertise, and 
  3. Open and engaged institutions. 

In order to facilitate these conditions, and set the stage for meaningful digital transformation in government institutions, this analysis makes fourteen recommendations to policy-makers, implementers, and external stakeholders.


Recommendations for policy makers 

  1. Lead with curiosity. There is often an esoteric quality to the types of tools and strategies referenced in this report. This makes them easy to dismiss, underestimate, or in some cases, it can inflate expectations. Leaders in government should take time to explore and understand the roles, skills and ways of working that are associated with the strategies described here, and the value that they can add to policy and service delivery. Doing so helps to maximize their value, and to signal that value across institutions, while also strengthening coherence across teams and setting realistic expectations.
  2. Initiate an explicit institutional discussion. This might take any number of forms, including an audit of existing practices, setting up a task force to review opportunities, or simply asking technical staff to begin holding brown bag lunches. The important thing is to create a space in which new ideas and approaches can be suggested and considered, with a real potential for implementation. The context of this discussion could also vary widely. A good checklist can be drawn from the “seven lenses of transformation” proposed for defining and benchmarking transformation by the 7 UK Government Digital Service.3Vickerstaff and Cunnington, “How to Set up Transformation Projects That Could Shape Our Future.”
  3. Budget creatively. The cost of technology can be inhibitive. Engage technical staff to identify ways in which implementing digital can cut costs elsewhere. What processes could be automated to free human resources? What paper processes can be digitized to eliminate printing and transporting costs?
  4. Build cross-functional teams. Identify ways to avoid responsive silos of technical expertise by integrating technical and non-technical expertise in teams and processes. Create opportunities for technical and policy experts to collaborate across project cycles, from planning to evaluation, even in projects where technology or data play a minor role. When possible, aim to establish cross-functional and co-located teams in order to strengthen learning and cross-pollination between technical and policy expertise.
  5. Demystify technology and cultivate tech-normal institutional cultures. Identify opportunities for trainings, hosting events, or inviting speakers that can communicate the nuts and bolts of relevant data and technology. Cultivate an institutional environment that values frank conversations about technology and its limits, and that does not fetishize technical expertise at the expense of other expertise. 
  6. Avoid exploitative procurement. One of the most profound ways to limit the cost of technology programs is to avoid overpaying on technology procurement. Contacting peer institutions that have made comparable investments and conducting more thorough market research can help.4Brethauer, “Announcing OASIS Discovery: Making Market Research Easier.” It may also be possible to pursue cooperative procurement,5See, for example https://www.nigp.org/home/find-procurement-resources/directories/cooperative-purchasing-programs, accessed 21 October 2019. modular contracting,6Jaquith, “Prerequisites for Modular Contracting.” or to piggyback on existing contracts with other government agencies or institutions.7See https://www.coprocure.us/about.html, accessed 21 October 2019. 
  7. Foster environments for responsible experimentation. Attention to the novel risks that accompany technology and data often focus on challenges to privacy and consent, but also involve more subtle ethical risks, such as poorly informed policy or the opportunity cost of wasted technology budgets and processes. Explicit institutional processes and attention during planning and analysis phases can help to identify and mitigate these risks, and can be integrated into several of the other recommendations presented here.8For a detailed description of a process-based approach to managing risks associated with government data, see Wilson, 2018. For a collection of applied tools, see the Responsible Research and Innovation Toolkit at  https://www.rri-tools.eu/about-rri, accessed 21 October 2019. 

Recommendations for implementers and doers

  1. Document and share digital and data-driven projects and processes. The demand for storytelling and experience sharing is widespread and consistent across the front lines of digital transformation. Conferences and events provide a much-needed forum for inspiration and “therapy” — as well as learning and education — but there remains a need for technical documentation for the types of projects that are implemented in multiple jurisdictions. Make a point of documenting technical specifications, steps taken, challenges and processes along the way. Share this. 
  2. Don’t reinvent the wheel, the interface, or the database. There is a significant degree of replication in government technology. Conduct market research to determine what similar platforms and products have been created by others.9The Federal Source Code Policy supports reuse and public access to custom-developed Federal source code, which is published at https://code.gov/about/overview/introduction. Organizations like 18F and Code for America also often publish detailed documentation and descriptions of digital tools (see https://18f.gsa.gov/2016/04/06/take-our-code-18f-projects-you-can-reuse/ and https://www.codeforamerica.org/news, accessed 21 October 2019.). International resources, like the International Development Bank’s repository of off-the-shelf technology solutions may also be useful (see https://code.iadb.org/en, accessed 21 October 2019). Modify and adapt open source solutions when appropriate. Produce and share open source solutions whenever possible. 
  3. Create feedback loops between the public and government. Most digital services imply an opportunity to solicit feedback from users. Leverage this to collect input for continually improving those services. Ensure that users can see how their input is received and that they feel heard. Look for opportunities to publicly respond to feedback, building confidence and trust in government. 
  4. Several of the above recommendations for policy makers can also be relevant, especially regarding procurement, creative budgeting, demystification, and responsible experimentation. 

Recommendations for external stakeholders

  1. Fund the “boring stuff“. Grants and resources tend to flow toward what seem to be the most novel and exciting projects, like blockchain and machine learning products, which are often untested, unproven and not what government leaders will say they need most urgently. Often, the kinds of digital and data-driven innovations with the greatest potential to transform government and government services can sound a lot less exciting, and struggle to find support. Developing common data identifiers across agencies or moving data from servers in a closet into a secure cloud environment are examples of work with revolutionary potential, but for which it is difficult to secure funding. 
  2. Support everyday superheroes. Several respondents pointed out that the most important and transformative work isn’t always being done by the usual suspects on the civic technology conference circuit. Some of the most impactful support may involve doing research to discover who is already naturally advancing digital transformation in state and local government, without recognition, and what kind of support they need to scale their successes. In the words of one respondent, discussing the limits of support to CIOs, CTOs, and CDOs, “C-suite only gets you so far. You need to focus on the people in the field.”
  3. Build an ecosystem for social support. Dedicated support to specific projects is important, but much of the work to enable digital transformation involves more sharing and learning across institutions. To the degree that this is already happening, it is happening organically. Gatherings such as the annual Code for America Summit10See https://www.codeforamerica.org/events/summit, accessed 21 October 2019. provide prominent fora for digital service professionals to gather and share, as do internationally focused events and communities, like those surrounding the Open Government Partnership11See https://www.opengovpartnership.org/ accessed 21 October 2019. and the international open data community.12Christopher Wilson, “Open Data Stakeholders: Civil Society.” The movement of experienced digital service experts through the agencies and institutions they support is also seen as an important, if limited, mechanism for building community and spreading awareness. The digital service delivery community should create more opportunities and modalities for government champions to engage with and learn from their peers, both in person and online. 

About this research

This research was designed based on the conviction that the individuals doing hands-on work to bring technology into government best understand technology’s potential and limitations. These individuals do the hard work transforming government. Their work isn’t always the most exciting or shareable, i. It sometimes results in compromise and failure. But it is from this perspective that we can best understand what technology can do to improve government, and how to manage the risks and challenges along the way. 

To better understand the perspectives, the DSC team collected data and conducted interviews between November 2018 and March 2019. This included a desk review of more than 80 articles, reports, and policy briefs, semi-structured interviews with more than 70 individuals, and informal consultation and planning conversations with more than a dozen professionals and organizations. The data collected from this process was reviewed during a three-day synthesis workshop in March 2019. A detailed description of the methodology is provided in the full report: Setting the Stage for Transformation: Frontline Reflections on Technology in American Government.

A note on the research context for digital government transformation

This research builds directly on the foundational efforts of New American Foundation’s work on Public Interest Technology and government innovation,13Schank and Hudson, “Getting the Work Done : What Government Innovation Really Looks Like”; Muñoz et al., “Public Interest Technology: Closing out Year One and Looking Forward to Year Two.” by focusing specifically on the experiences of front-line civil servants and policy makers. It makes an effort to deepen that work by attending to the role of individuals at multiple levels of government and in multiple policy areas. 

In doing so, this analysis departs most research on the digital transformation of government, which adopts a global perspective and emphasizes the work of national level digital service teams.14Bracken and Greenway, “How to Achieve Sustain Gov. Digit. Transform.”; Eaves and McGuire, “2018 State of Digital Transformation.” Much of that work is also relevant to this analysis, however, and should be considered in future research transformation processes in American institutions. In particular, recent work by Ines Mergel and colleagues has suggested a conceptual model for linking the drivers, objects, processes, and outcomes of digital transformation,15Mergel, Edelmann, and Haug, “Defining Digital Transformation: Results from Expert Interviews.” and four propositions regarding the sustainability and impact of digital service teams.16Mergel, “Digital Service Teams in Government,” 10–11. A summary of the four propositions suggests that the effectiveness of digital service teams is related to their centralization of decision authority, that the duplication of practice across teams increases the likelihood of adoption elsewhere, that increased formalization of teams increases their capacity to scale and likelihood of standardization of practice, and that the acceleration of organizational change increases the likelihood of standardized and successful innovation practice. These may provide useful frameworks for designing and evaluating specific applications of technology to institutional processes in future research.








December 9, 2019 | By Christopher Wilson

Digital tools and strategies have a tremendous potential to transform government: improving services, boosting efficiency, and strengthening ties to the public. The last decade has seen several important milestones as data and technology have been leveraged to solve specific challenges across the vast scope of government in the United States. 

But despite the best efforts of technologists, visionaries, and institutional champions, the full potential of these tools has been slow to materialize at scale.  

To better understand why, the Beeck Center spent several months in early 2019 conducting research and interviewing experts working in and around tech in government. We spoke to people on the front lines of digital transformation, doing the hard work of making technology useful for government, and making government better. More than 70 people leading or supporting the novel use of technology or data in federal, state, and local government in the United States told us about how these tools could best add value to government, what was obstructing their work, and what they needed to do their work better. 

Their stories confirmed that there are a lot of hopes and concerns surrounding government technology, and that there are big differences in how the opportunities and challenges play out across different policy areas and levels of government. But there are also common threads, and one message was clear: 

Technology and data are the new normal, and governments have no choice but to address how they impact the core work of government. This has tremendous potential to improve government and government services. But technology is no magic bullet, and never catalyzes government transformation on its own.

People working at the front lines of government technology and innovation rather describe digital transformation as an iterative and evolutionary process. They describe a variety of ways in which it can be supported, challenged, and leveraged to facilitate lasting transformation. 

cover of Setting the Stage for Transformation report
Download the Report

Drawing on those perspectives, the Beeck Center is rolling out a new report documenting the perspectives and needs from the frontlines of digital transformation.

Setting the Stage for Transformation: Frontline Reflections on Technology in Government reviews what we learned, and suggests that there are three broad institutional conditions that facilitate digital transformation by using technology-related tools and strategies to add value to specific programs and processes. 

  1. Explicit support for cross-functional technical expertise
  2. Deliberate professionalization of technical expertise, and 
  3. Open and engaged institutions. 

In considering how to establish those conditions and set the stage for digital transformation in government institutions, the report also makes specific recommendations to policy-makers, implementers, and external stakeholders. 

table of 14 recommendations
To review the full results of this research, you can download the full report, including detailed methodologies, findings and analysis, or read the report highlights that presents the main findings and conclusions.

This analysis builds directly on foundational work done by researchers from the Public Interest Technology team at New America and the digital HKS project at Harvard University, as well as practitioners currently and formerly on government teams. We hope that it advances both research and practice in the field, and enables more of the good work already being done to improve government through the use of new tools, technologies, and approaches.

Christopher Wilson is a fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation.  His research focuses on open government, citizen participation, and the influence of international norms on government practice. He is based out of Oslo, Norway. He blogs about research and methods for assessing civic technology at https://methodicalsnark.org.

November 22, 2019 | By Tyler Kleykamp

In an era where states often compete with one another for jobs, economic development, or federal funding, the spirit of cooperation was at the forefront last week as the Beeck Center gathered the nation’s state Chief Data Officers (CDOs) together for the first time. States are increasingly naming CDOs to serve in executive roles to influence the way states collect, maintain, and operationalize data to improve services for the public as well as to build efficiencies and effectiveness into internal systems. 

At Georgetown, the CDOs spent two days sharing challenges and successes and identifying opportunities to collaborate with one another. While they had been meeting monthly via conference call for years, this is the first time they had all been together in person. Sixteen CDOs attended, representing all but one state that has a formally established CDO role, and including one CDO who had only been on the job for five days. 

Group shot of state CDOs
State CDOs met in person for the first time at Georgetown on Nov. 12-13, 2019.

“You have to lead with value.”

The CDOs opened the meeting by sharing successes from the previous year. Examples included technology implementations like data integration platforms and improving public availability of data as well as cultural changes such as creating agency data officers and enhancing data literacy. They also discussed broad issues related to their core responsibilities and how they’ve overcome some of the challenges associated with the job, resulting in some central themes. First, relationships matter. It was clear that building trust with their partner agencies is critical and CDOs must demonstrate that they are enabling the agencies and personnel they work with to better leverage data. As one CDO said, “You have to lead with value.” Mandates and more heavy-handed approaches to data sharing can easily make their job more challenging, but they must also demonstrate the ability to handle data in responsible and legally compliant ways. 

A second theme was the amount of friction that occurs in sharing and using data. Much of this is necessary to ensure that sensitive data remains protected and that its use is legally compliant, while other issues are related to the data itself. Issues like data quality, lack of standards, or common identifiers present challenges. CDOs shared how they’ve streamlined or standardized legal agreements and ways they’ve dealt with more technical challenges — but it was clear that more can be done. One solution was having dedicated legal support for CDOs. “Having an attorney who ‘gets it’ and can speak the language of other attorneys has been critical,” shared one CDO.

A primary goal of the convening was to strengthen personal connections among CDOs in additional to building their professional relationships. A rapid-fire question-and-answer session allowed CDOs to explore emerging data issues like artificial intelligence, geospatial data, and new data protection laws. This matchmaking exercise quickly identified common issues they are thinking about so they could follow up afterward. Another mechanism to encourage more personal relationships was through “speed networking,” pairing people for short one-on-one meetings, providing an opportunity for individual conversations in a less formal setting, and setting them up to feel more comfortable working collaboratively in the future.

woman and man standing in conversation
CDOs Ed Kelly (Texas) and Julia Fischer (Maryland) engaged in conversation during an afternoon break.

A CDO’s job is big, but they consistently expressed a need to start small. They discussed surfacing discrete use cases and immediate steps they can take in their states to equip them with techniques they can apply immediately. For example, pulling together public data into a GIS map to better understand risks to children, or conducting an inventory of data that can inform an issue are great places to start. 

Another approach was to break the CDOs into smaller groups to identify specific policy areas important to their states to identify common priorities which surfaced issues like workforce opportunities, reducing opioid-related deaths, and improving child welfare. The groups established ways they can leverage their role or data to make a positive impact immediately, and identified opportunities that may be more challenging where additional support and facilitation from partners like the Beeck Center could move the needle further. 

Woman sits between two men at a round table in conversation
CDOs John Correllus (North Carolina) and Rhonda Lehman (Delaware) discuss public policy priorities with Eric Sweden of the National Association of Chief Information Officers.

Working collaboratively with the Beeck Center team, CDOs identified a broad array of high impact items that can boost their work including: 

  • templates for data sharing agreements or data inventories
  • repositories of documents or information
  • more in-depth research on technology solutions and best practices 

The exercise demonstrated the value that the Beeck Center can bring to this emerging field and allows us to prioritize the creation of high impact tools.

Sticky notes on easel paper to represent a matrix
At the convening, CDOs identified tools that could support their efforts and ranked them based on the impact they could have and the effort necessary to produce them.

Another approach with this group was to include expert lightning talks to demonstrate big ideas to use data for social impact including better serving the most vulnerable individuals in emergencies, reducing recidivism, preventing lead poisoning, improving elections, and enhancing child welfare. These plug-and-play solutions have shown promise in some jurisdictions and are ready for wider adoption by other states. Additionally, a panel of city, state, and federal government officials explored opportunities for collaboration and discussed where states can make a unique impact with data including through improvements in educational outcomes and access to jobs.

State CDOs are doing incredible work in their states, and at the Beeck Center we are committed to highlighting those successes so they can be replicated across the country. We’re getting started immediately on building a CDO toolkit that will include resources both highlighted at this convening and activated elsewhere and will support CDOs in their commitments to sharing resources such as legal agreements with the network. 

The Beeck Center will continue to convene this network both in person and online through webinars and other touchpoints and we look forward to welcoming in the next wave of CDOs as seven states recruit for these roles and hopefully join the network. The role of the State CDO Network will remain focused on keeping the momentum going until we meet again, which one CDO declared, “…is absolutely the one event I have to go to.”


Tyler Kleykamp is the Director of the State Chief Data Officers Network at the Beeck Center. He was previously the CDO for the State of Connecticut from 2014-2019 and led many of the early calls and connections among state CDOs.

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November 20, 2019 | By Robert Roussel 

A great idea is a terrible thing to waste, and people do it all the time. 

In academia and policy institutions, research is often regarded as a key analytical asset. However, research alone has limited utility. Research needs to be resourced with practices and structures in order for that research to be activated, iterated upon, and deployed. Failing to do so shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of research—a failure to understand that research is a means and not an end. This approach begins with how we train students and I worry that, all too often, academic training has entrenched problematic approaches to teaching aspiring professionals what the value of research actually is.

I went to graduate school to learn how to evaluate and implement public policies, which, at the end of the day, was about translating statistics and analysis into writing. My peers and I considered writing both our biggest pain point and our most powerful asset. I was reminded of this recently as I sorted through old papers and memos to pick a writing sample when applying for a job that would, in part, pay me to write. I started remembering all of the topics and arguments I had so eloquently and passionately inked onto a digital page. Undeniably, my graduate program taught us how to write and think logically and persuasively but as I perused my hard drive for old papers, I could not shake the feeling that my new ‘ideal’ job at a think tank — the one I’ve been wanting for years — would relegate my writing to a fate similar to my academic exercises: gathering dust, and longing for eyeballs.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

To businesses and consultancies, the idea that research without applications is useless is obvious. In academia, this culture is not always the norm. At Georgetown, I had the privilege of practicing valuable quantitative and analytical skills through thoughtful exercises led by experts in their fields. Even at this institution, however, I couldn’t help feeling that some professors often seemed quite willing to ignore the need for a more applied approach to teaching, tacitly implying that an efficient division of labor within the policy-making ecosystem would translate our clever and thoughtful words into action.

Researchers in academic settings need to be rewarded for being consulted by policy makers, not cited by fellow researchers.

Researchers in academic settings need to be rewarded for being consulted by policy makers, not cited by fellow researchers. Even when professors were practitioners themselves, their in-class behaviors often failed to reflect that fact. It seems more likely than not that this approach is not just borne out of convenience, but a culture rooted in academic tradition. Though universities like to talk big about their cutting-edge research, often their approaches to pedagogy seem remarkably risk-averse. Academic culture is very slow to change, and the incentives for taking such a large departure are just not there. This culture shift will likely need to occur from the bottom-up, as students demand to be more involved in the activation of research—meaning that any education should be as much about writing words as it is about resourcing those words in clever intentional ways that help, rather than hope, words to translate to actions and actions translate to impact.

How to ‘Activate’ Research: A Brief Case Study

During my time at the Beeck Center, I noticed that the leadership was placing a lot of emphasis on activities other than research, such as convenings, workshops, interviews, or meetings. One of my projects was to design a framework and resource repository for establishing responsible data-sharing practices for social impact. Many third-party organizations have emerged to help facilitate data-sharing for social impact but the resources for sharers and the bandwidth of these facilitators are limited. From the start, it was clear this research was just a launching point and not the end product. We were also going to build a community around this research product that would help activate it and keep it alive, constantly open to change as new best practices and case studies emerge. To me, this approach — one that is both highly collaborative and constantly seeking input — is exactly the way we should be approaching public problems.

One of the most often given pieces of advice is that people should spend 99% of their time understanding the problem and that, if working this way, finding a solution should be so obvious that it takes just the remaining 1% to solve. If that is true, we need to be extra sure that we are solving the right problem or else our deployed solution might not be all that useful. The cleverness of keeping the Beeck Center’s data-sharing guidebook ‘alive’ was that it made the guidebook both a solution and a problem exploration process at the same time. Certainly, it aimed to create a solution to a problem but its openness serves as a way to constantly re-evaluate this solution. That malleability and that openness to collaborate is what will activate the research in the guidebook.

This is a smart approach to making sure that research is activated, but it might not go far enough. With the resources and bandwidth of stakeholders being limited, there are clearly gaps in capacity that limit the scalability of this project. While being careful of the hubris of applying a ‘there’s an app for that’ mentality to complex social problems, I proposed a solution that can help activate the guidebook and resource guide. This solution was borne out of a seemingly impossible trade-off between brevity and usefulness. A shorter guidebook would have recommendations that are more digestible but would have to be more generic, and by extension, not useful beyond a surface level. 

My answer, which is an answer I urge researchers facing problems of activation to consider, is a customizable tool (a ‘wizard’, if you remember Windows ’98) that creates unique guidebooks and resource-repositories for each ‘bin’ of users, reflecting the variety of resources, motivations, and barriers or different stakeholders. When it comes to translating research into action, this approach would significantly help constrained organizations that may not have the resources to discover new approaches wade through the literature and see how it might apply to them.

Advice for Policy Students and Researchers

Seen in the most generous of lights, writing academic papers and memos is training for conducting professional research in the real world. I fear, however, that many students will trip on these bad habits as they enter the professional research world—and that those worlds are comprised of ex-students with similar tendencies. With so many vital issues facing the social sector, we need to be sure that our research efforts build out our ability to generate actionable recommendations and tangible impact. A relevant internship or part-time job while in school could be one possible step forward here, but many students complain that their time is spent on passive class assignments and papers that remain all too often unread and unused. Opportunities that give students a real taste of what it is like to see research applied are lacking — and this is a role that academia needs to fill. In my opinion, applied graduate programs should be thoroughly experiential, matching students with real clients in real teams to solve real problems. Across the country, universities are experimenting with this model, but this new approach is a heavy lift and would require a major revamping of the tenure model — an unlikely proposition in many settings.

Unlike coursework, research doesn’t end when a paper is handed to a superior. If you believe that, by handing someone a memo, you have just handed that person everything they need to know for them to get the job done, you are likely mistaken. You dove deep and you need to be intimately involved in applying that research. The term policy maker is a catch-all term and its vagueness makes it rather difficult to understand when the research stops and the policy creation begins. I urge policy students to reject the suspicions borne out of the structure of their academic program that see a clear demarcation between these two fields. Only when we are deeply involved in a project from ‘start’ to ‘finish’ can we effectively suggest action that is researchable and create research that is actionable.

Don’t let your great ideas gather dust in the cloud; have them gather stardust.


Robert Roussel was a student analyst at the Beeck Center in Summer 2019. He is a 2019 graduate of the Georgetown University McCourt School for Public Policy and is currently working at Accenture Federal Services as a tech analyst.

November 15, 2019 | By Casey Doherty

Georgetown students are encouraged to be “people for others.” We are taught to give back to our communities and jump into social impact work. Here at the Beeck Center, we conceptualize social impact as looking at how the current system affects people, and focusing on how to improve that impact through a systems-level approach.

You might know you want to make a difference. However, it can be difficult to identify the best space in which to work on honing your strengths and areas for development in the social impact sphere. In my experience, Georgetown seems decentralized – so many organizations are doing amazing work, but they are isolated from each other. It’s daunting to discern which opportunity would be best for you, both in terms of the value you can add to the organization, and the skills you will gain from joining the venture. Hoyas care deeply about “making a difference” in their communities but many students don’t know where to begin. 

A critical step in the process is developing a self-awareness of one’s strengths and areas for development, enabling intentionality in these decisions. The Beeck Center is working to make this process easier. The team I am a part of created a tool called the Social Impact Navigator, which helps students navigate their social impact journey. Students complete a self assessment, then we help them identify programs at the Beeck Center that will hone their strengths and improve their development. Over time and through collaboration, we’re looking to share this tool with programs across Georgetown and beyond. 

The Social Impact Navigator identifies the six skills critical for effective social impact leadership. 

graphic of a human head with puzzle pieces representing the social impact skillsets

Growth Mindset: Leaders must have a growth mindset that enables them to appreciate complexity, creatively embrace challenges, see opportunity where most others see dead-ends, and take risks with an experimental attitude. 

Relentless Learning: Leaders must be lifelong learners. Driven by their relentless pursuit of knowledge, leaders go beyond building the cognitive skills necessary to execute their ideas and eagerly pursue opportunities to grow their knowledge base and adapt to our changing world.

Self-Awareness and Courage: Leaders constantly work on building their self-confidence and courage, balanced with humility, so that they are prepared to act when others hesitate. Self-aware and courageous leaders take initiative, whether or not the path is conventional, to change a system for the better. 

Influential Collaboration and Communication: To ensure the sustainability of their ideas, leaders must trust others. Leaders must have the flexibility to work in multidisciplinary teams, communicate across sectors, mobilize diverse groups of people, and inspire them to work together towards a common goal. Working across differences and actively seeking new perspectives is critical for savvy and effective social impact leadership.

Empathetic Problem Solving: Leaders must be willing to listen, withhold judgment and acknowledge preconceived notions. They must empathize with people to better understand the underlying root-cause of a challenging situation. Once empathetic leaders have fully understood a problem, they can then develop and implement a solution that serves the common good.

All of the above-mentioned skill areas make for a great leader, but this final skill is what makes a social impact leader:

Discernment: Leaders take time to reflect on how their actions align with their purpose and most deeply held values. This discernment lights their path and ensures that no matter the problem or sector, they never lose sight of the common good. 

I wonder what paths I would have followed if I’d had this tool when I arrived as a first-year student. As a senior, I see all of the opportunities to engage in the social impact space both on and off-campus, and with some guidance on connecting my skills and strengths to existing impact programs and organizations, I could have begun my social impact journey earlier. I am excited to release this tool to the student body and watch all the amazing things Hoyas are able to accomplish.

The Social Impact Navigator program is starting here at the Beeck Center, but our goal is to expand its use through adoption and collaboration, bringing it to scale. We want to share our knowledge of how to navigate the social impact space and equip social impact leaders everywhere with the tools needed to create positive change. 

Casey Doherty is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, studying Government and American Studies at Georgetown University. Connect with her on email at cgd43@georgetown.edu.

November 18, 2019 | By Jen Collins

Undaunted. Optimistic. Courage. Excitement.

When we asked the members of the Beeck Center Opportunity Zones Investor Council to share the first words that came to mind when talking about the OZ landscape, their responses were illuminating on both the promise and challenges OZs face. An influential group of first-mover fund managers, investors and developers who have moved over $200 billion in capital during their careers, the Council met in late October at the Williamsburg Hotel in Brooklyn, NY to discuss their impactful work, share ideas, and catalyze more action towards delivering positive social outcomes for communities and investors in Opportunity Zones.

Most of the public narrative around OZs has focused on the tax benefits for investors, but the diverse Council (which includes 14 people of color and 7 women) is looking at the much bigger picture and taking into account the 35 million people living in the 8,766 designated zones. According to the Economic Innovation Group, for the majority of OZs, the economic picture is tragic:

Opportunity Zones have an average poverty rate of nearly 30 percent, and an average median family income that is 37% lower than the American average. Black Americans are significantly over-represented in zones, representing twice as large of the zone population as they do the national population.

Source: Economic Innovation Group

The work of the Beeck Center is to support the original intention of the legislation, to drive positive social outcomes in these neighborhoods, improving the lives of the people who live and work in those communities today. By bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, we create a grasstops approach between fast-moving grassroots ideas and slower-changing institutions, increasing the probability of generating impact at scale.

graphic of Beeck Center grasstops approach

Unlocking the Promise and Potential in OZs

Beeck Center Investor Council members David Gross and former NFL player Derrick Morgan kicked off the Council meeting by sharing how they are driving impact in communities. Both influencers are deepening their efforts in impact investing through OZs. Both have powerful, personal motivation to make a real difference in underserved neighborhoods. 

Three people in chairs on a panel discussion
David Gross (L) and Derrick Morgan (R) speak with the Beeck Center’s Jen Collins about their work investing in Opportunity Zones during the OZ Investor Council meeting. Photo: Ori Hoffer

The meeting was grounded in three pillars: inspiration, impact, and influence. The Beeck Center acts as a field builder in driving impact across the country and invited organizations that are developing impact tools to connect projects to investors across the nation. The Center is also informing the creation of a process tool to help operationalize the OZ Impact Reporting Framework. Given the national narrative and flurry of legislative activity, these points stood out among the many topics of discussion:

1. Some OZs are problematic and need tweaks.

The Opportunity Zone designation process was a quick, unfunded mandate to the state governors – many who have changed over since zone designation. The Beeck Center was so concerned about the zone designation process, Fair Finance Lead Lisa Hall actually penned guiding principles to aid the governors in thinking through their zone designation strategy. 

The Council recognizes that there are outliers and will be supportive of a thoughtful, forward-looking process to sunset high-income OZs. The national narrative is loud about the existence of wrongfully-designated zones, but we should not let that taint the reality that when OZ legislation is operationalized thoughtfully and with impact intentionality, it can lead us towards a more equitable society. This is the work OZIC members do every day, unlocking the promise and potential that lives in these neighborhoods. 

2. This is not a gentrification program.

Recent news and local narratives – especially on the coasts – suggest that investment in OZs accelerates gentrification. When people use the word gentrification, they most often mean forced migration and/or displacement. The research shows that less than 4% of OZs are at risk of gentrification. Regardless of the data, Council members believe that any behavior that causes displacement is bad and should be avoided at all costs.

OZ legislation is a capital gains tax incentive. Currently there are no impact, data or transparency requirements. This reality has made the work of the Beeck Center in driving positive impact important. It’s why we co-authored the OZ Impact Reporting Framework with the U.S. Impact Investing Alliance and the Federal Reserve Bank of New York earlier this year. The Impact Framework calls for five guiding principles: community engagement, transparency, equity, outcomes and measurement.

3. Impact is happening. Patience is needed.

Opportunity Zone legislation was designed to spur capital investment and economic development in underinvested neighborhoods. To that end, the legislation requires “substantial improvement” in order to qualify for the tax benefit. This requirement means that the investor needs to double its basis in the Opportunity Zone, a provision that made real estate development first movers in the market. At this time, we know of more than 400 initiatives committed to the OZ Impact Reporting Framework, and Council members have over 30 OZ projects underway nationwide.

The thing is, development takes time – and a lot of it, especially in certain locations. David Bramble, Managing Partner of MCB Real Estate and Beeck Center Investor Council member, said it’s taken over four years just to get permits for some of his projects. The Washington State Department of Commerce Opportunity Zones Working Group recently observed, “Success will require attention, patience, resources and public/private partnerships to support local efforts,” sentiments the Council agrees with wholeheartedly.

Nearly two years have passed since the OZ legislation was enacted and the regulations are still not finished. The regulatory clarity needed for real OZ business investment was set only a few months ago. We are seeing inspiring activity in these neighborhoods, but we need time to see new capital flow in meaningful ways.

Renewed Commitment to Action

people sit at a long conference table
Council members engage in robust discussion during their meeting in Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Ori Hoffer

With new reporting and self-assessment tools in the works, and a host of new ideas in their pockets, the Council wrapped up two days of conversations with a renewed commitment to action.

“There is a lot of work going on in the area. The work should have been happening anyway, but OZ legislation was the catalyst toward this.”

“We will take a more intentional role in gathering the cultural influence, adding the cultural component to the grasstops model.”

“We are learning how to do deals that bring in as many stakeholders as possible, and collaborative behavior is really important.”

The Opportunity Zones legislation is a new tool for investors to spark development and growth in communities across the country. While OZs are new, people have been working and investing in these types of communities for decades. What’s different now is how the discussion of OZs has sparked interest from new players in the space. This group represents institutional powerhouses (Goldman Sachs), non-profits (LISC), established developers (MCB Real Estate), and non-traditional investors like Derrick Morgan, bringing added energy and asking new questions to deliver results. 

To the Beeck Center, one of the most valuable things about OZ legislation is the conversation swell around it. It is bringing many new players to the world of impact. The Beeck Center sets tables so that those with deep impact knowledge can teach and collaborate with new players. OZ legislation is not the answer to every problem that exists within community development, but it provides space for smart people to converse who wouldn’t interact otherwise. Innovation comes from conversations like these, and the economic reality in OZs is illustrative of a need for major change. It’s going to require collaborative behavior. And time.

The Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University today announced a new initiative to support state governments in their efforts to better use data in support of public policy and service delivery with the creation of the State Chief Data Officer Network. The Network connects top-level data leadership, facilitating sharing best practices in the use of data at the state level.

The Chief Data Officer (CDO) position is relatively new in state government. Colorado was the first to create the position in 2011, and today 25 states and the District of Columbia have a CDO or comparable position. As a first step in launching the network, the Beeck Center is hosting all of the current state CDOs on campus at Georgetown University for two days of robust discussions and knowledge sharing.

“The Beeck Center focuses on scaling promising grassroot efforts so they will ultimately change systems and institutions,” said Nate Wong, Executive Director, Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University. “The value of data officers in public technology has been understated. Bringing State CDOs together under one roof will create stronger ideas, improved coordination, and ultimately showcase the need for this role in all 50 states.”

Beeck Center Fellow Tyler Kleykamp, the former CDO of Connecticut, joined Georgetown University in September to lead the State CDO Network. “Using data to identify areas to target solutions for social issues like opioid addiction, child welfare, and economic mobility is a growing need across the country, and the members of this network bring a wealth of experience and success to share with each other.” 

Without strong data management and oversight, information can’t be put to its strongest purpose. Connecting State CDOs, creates a consistent vehicle to communicate emerging successes and exchange effective strategies related to the cultural, legal, and technological challenges associated with leveraging data as a strategic asset, ultimately providing better services to the public. For example:

  • Indiana built a data display providing access to local, regional and statewide data to inform talent attraction, development, and connection strategies
  • Utah published 6 years of executive office spending into Spending.Utah.gov and provided 10 years of checkbook data from cities, counties, school districts, universities and other public entities on OpenData.Utah.gov
  • Washington, DC completed an Open Data Handbook for DC Agencies to follow 
screenshot of Indiana's 21st Century Talent Regions Data Display
View of Indiana’s 21st Century Talent Regions Data Display

The State CDO Network is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Schmidt Futures, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, and aims to:

  • Identify successful efforts and strategies used by states to leverage and integrate data that might scale to other states
  • Discover priority issues in states where data can be better utilized to drive policy and service delivery
  • Support the work state CDOs produce through playbooks, templates, models, or toolkits
  • Inspire other states to adopt the role of CDO

The State CDO Network is part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative, a project in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation that is supporting efforts focused on leveraging data and digital services for better outcomes.

November 11, 2019 | By Tongxin Zhu

“I’ve only been cooking for myself and my husband for over 10 years since my sons moved to Canada. It really amazed me when the team first came to me and said that I can work as a chef to showcase our local cuisine and pastry.” Madam Xie told me when I was helping clean up after lunch during my tourism geography fieldtrip in Candong Village, Kaiping City. 

Majoring in Tourism Planning as an undergrad, I had plenty of experience working with local communities and government on tourism planning and renovation projects. I found myself interested in connecting with local people and hearing their stories. The case that motivated me the most to pursue community development is my field trip and volunteer experience in a heritage tourism village – Cangdong Village in Kaiping City, China

Woman with umbrella stands in front of ancestral hall in Cangdong Village, China
The ancestral hall after community-engaged renovation. Photo by Tongxin Zhu

The village itself was almost empty before the renovation project happened, with about 50 elder residents who didn’t want to move overseas with younger generations – Madam Xie is one of them since her husband is the village head. Led by a professor at a local university, a group of architecture students came to the village and engaged residents to renovate the historic buildings. They rebuilt an ancestral temple and other public areas based on residents’ oral history and current needs. Residents were encouraged to work as chefs, handicraft makers and most commonly, storytellers, to share the village history to tourists and the younger generation. 

The renovated village attracted over 400 overseas Chinese during the 2017 Chinese New Year and helped to build connections between multiple generations. When compared with another heritage village in the same city, Cangdong Village surpassed expectations in the sense of keeping a living memory of the village and building connections between people and community. Other heritage villages in comparison were managed by a tourism company and barely profited by charging an entrance fee.

I joined the