September 7, 2018 | By Itay Weiss, Graduate Student Analyst

Many of our most celebrated institutions now face historically low levels of public trust. From colleges and universities to Congress itself, the institutions best poised to drive impact at scale appear out of touch with society and hamstrung by partisan divides. Researchers fear these conditions will cripple American democracy even further, as disillusionment leads to apathy — and in turn, to disengagement altogether. But if civic participation among our students is any indication, these researchers might not have much to worry about quite yet.

This past summer, high schoolers visited over 80 communities in 24 different states to advocate for safer gun laws. They took traditional approaches to civic engagement, like rallies, town-halls, and voter registration drives. But they also availed themselves of the best technology had to offer, using consumer-centered design to improve the ways the government serves its constituents. 

March For Our Lives, March 2018

On the one hand, take the survivors from Marjory Stoneman Douglas. After an 800,000-strong March for Our Lives, they mobilized supporters to convene over 120 “Town Halls for Our Lives” across 34 states. Strategically, if members of Congress declined to participate, local organizers would invite their opponents to attend in their place. They even launched the “Road to Change” tour to mobilize their peers even further, this time with the goal of making sure that people are registered to vote and will vote for candidates who support stricter gun-laws.

Traditionally, town halls symbolize direct democracy, allowing constituents to engage their elected officials face-to-face. But the 21st century town hall, whether online or in person, comes with its own challenges. These gatherings have increasingly become forums for protest, with opinions and emotions often overpowering facts and expertise. And with little signal amid the noise, translating public conversation into meaningful policy solutions has proved challenging. It’s little wonder, then, that lobbyists exert as much influence as they do, curating pre-packaged legislation packed with one-sided views of private interests — and taking credit for doing so while they’re at it. The news cycle forces legislators to stay relevant and ready to respond, and these kinds of products help keep things moving. But at the end of the day we don’t need policy-based evidence stacked in favor of a privileged class. We need evidence-based policy that serves the needs of all Americans — and that’s where tech can play a vital role. 

Elected officials lack a sustained stream of objective expertise from a disinterested third party. The stand some of them take on guns, for example, is motivated by the same incentives that make them turn to lobbyist legislation: it’s accessible, supported by so-called experts, and will yield campaign contributions. Organized differently, means of civic participation like town halls can amplify the constituent experience and enable elected officials to better represent their constituents. Rep. Rick Crawford, a Republican from Arkansas, calls for the creation of a new platform independent of ad-buys that allows for evidence-based discussion. Along the way, he is also asking constituents simply to text him with questions and suggestions — allowing his team to easily collect information, identify key issues, and respond with meaningful reform. CrowdLaw similarly promotes online participation in lawmaking with 25 case studies detailing the best avenues for engagement. 

Notably, the Beeck Center recently hosted an inspiring young leader working in technology and governance — Chris Kuang. Chris and his team founded Coding it Forward, “a student-led 501(c)(3) nonprofit empowering computer science, data science, and design students to create social good by breaking down the barriers to entry in social impact spaces.” They offer the Civic Digital Fellowship, a first-of-its-kind internship for students aiming to use technology to reform practices in federal agencies. 

Looking to the leaders of March For Our Lives and Chris Kuang as examples, what would it take to implement similar reform at the legislative level — minimizing information asymmetries and improving constituent participation across the board? We’d love to hear your thoughts, so go ahead and comment to continue the conversation! 

Chris Kuang (second from right) visits the Beeck Center

Proposed Guiding Principles for Opportunity Zones to Fuel an Inclusive Economy and Drive Social Impact

March 13, 2018 | By Lisa Hall, Senior Fellow

What if economic tax incentives designed to improve the place you call home don’t consider your needs? What if tax benefits, instead, focus on high-end projects that don’t require a federal tax subsidy to be successful, creating a new economic reality that feels far from the home you know.  Opportunity Zones are  a brand-new mechanism established by Congress, designed to drive private capital into distressed areas through deferred taxes on capital gains in the United States. How can these Zones and the Opportunity Funds which will invest in them be carefully constructed with the people who are living in underserved communities at the heart of decisions?

Place based strategies are commonly employed by community development practitioners and policymakers to achieve social impact. Opportunity Zones have the potential to enhance and bolster existing place based strategies that currently benefit low-income communities, including Promise Zones, New Markets Tax Credits and Choice Neighborhoods. Opportunity Zones also have the potential to do harm, as Ada Looney contends in his recent Brookings post. And Opportunity Zones, as emphasized in the recent article by Rachel M. Cohen in the Intercept, can sometimes have unintended consequences.

Consistent with our belief that economic policies should be implemented in a way that considers and serves the people in the communities affected, the Beeck Center for Social Impact at Georgetown University, in partnership with the Kresge Foundation, convened an expert group of community development practitioners to explore how Opportunity Zones can drive capital to communities in a way that truly benefits the individuals and families that currently live and work there. We asked ourselves a simple question:  How can Opportunity Zones be used as a tool for community development and not solely a tool for financial gains.

In response to this question, we drafted proposed guiding principles for the designation of Opportunity Zones. The principles are intended to serve as a starting place to help guide the designation process and, ultimately, the creation of Opportunity Funds that can best serve the people currently  living and working in these areas, which by definition in the statute, must be low-income census tracts. The following principles are presented as a straw-person for discussion. These principles are not meant to be prescriptive; but rather to engage conversation and embrace the opportunity for social impact.  We invite feedback by sending an e-mail to me at lisa.hall@georgetown.edu.  Comments will be collected and shared with the working group.


Proposed Guiding Principles for Opportunity Zones to Fuel an Inclusive Economy and Drive Social Impact

1. Recognizing that Opportunity Zones will deliver publicly funded tax incentives and subsidy to communities across the US, the state selection process should include as a key objective, the goal of delivering public benefit to a range of stakeholders, not limited solely to private investors, but also benefitting current residents of low-income communities, community development organizations, community service organizations, and social enterprises.

2. Where possible, Opportunity Zones, should be selected in combination with state tax incentives and allocations by states for other government programs that directly benefit low-income households and communities, such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credits and New Market Tax Credits. Benefits generated in Opportunity Zones should be additive to existing efforts and not cannibalize existing or prospective community development investments like those motivated by the Community Reinvestment Act.

3. Impact objectives for Opportunity Zones should be established and tracked, including but not limited to goals for raising the standard of living for current residents. Examples include output goals like number of new businesses created, living wage jobs created and affordable housing units. Outcome goals, like increased median household income and improvement in health statistics should also be considered.

4. States should adopt methodologies for selecting Opportunity Zones that are consistent with effective evaluation standards and best practices for research design to facilitate ongoing monitoring of zones, leveraging evaluation resources available from academic institutions.

5. The selection process for Opportunity Zones should consider the capacity of neighborhoods to absorb private capital and existing infrastructure needed to enable investments in businesses as well as real estate.  States should seek to integrate investments generated by the tax benefit to complement and leverage existing and prospective economic activities in designated Opportunity Zones.

6. Opportunity Zones should be selected with consideration given to environmental issues. States should encourage or mandate that businesses located in Opportunity Zones adhere to environmental best practices.

7. Efforts should be made to ensure that current residents of Opportunity Zones are able to remain in neighborhoods or can benefit from rising property values. Examples include state and local tax abatements for low-income homeowners.

8. A balance of rural and urban neighborhoods should be selected to diversify investment activity and to ensure that rural areas are eligible for investment. Opportunity Zones should be selected in a geographically targeted manner so there can be a sufficient investment of resources in each Opportunity Zones.

9. States should identify and support community development intermediaries, like CDFIs and community banks, that can provide debt financing to support businesses and real estate that will benefit from equity investments from Opportunity Funds.

10. In addition to prohibited business activities like gambling and liquor stores, states should discourage the creation of new businesses in Opportunity Zones which disadvantage low-income communities like payday lenders.


Speed is of the essence to put these principles into practice. Several groups including the Economic Innovation Group and The US Impact Investing Alliance have been advocating for and helping to craft what was originally known as the Investing in Opportunity Act. And many in the community development field and impact investing world have embraced the concept of Opportunity Zones and Opportunity Funds,  successfully incorporated with bi-partisan support into the  Tax Cuts and Job Acts  passed at the end of 2017.  State governments and territories have also embraced the new legislation and are already selecting Opportunity Zones, to comply with the legislative requirement that Governors designate low-income census tracts prior to a March 21, 2018 deadline. Some states have hit the ground running, launching websites to solicit input and comments on the designation process. Local and national non profit organizations including Enterprise Community Partners, Council on Development Finance Agencies, and LISC are supporting efforts to raise awareness about the program, providing resources and analysis of the legislation, and by engaging community development organizations in the state by state designation processes.

We believe this new tax benefit creates an opportunity to improve low-income communities in underserved rural and urban areas by attracting more private capital to finance small businesses, community services and social enterprises. But, if Opportunity Zones and Opportunity Funds are designed in ways that solely benefit activities and projects that do not need subsidy to succeed, including high end, real estate based projects, then the legislation will not meet its potential for delivering meaningful impact.  Opportunity Zones can and should create living wage jobs, improve community assets, and help build wealth for people in places that have not yet recovered from the global recession.

Check out Lisa Hall’s interview on KALW Local Public Radio!


Lisa Hall is a Senior Fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, which engages global leaders to drive social change at scale.  She has dedicated her 25-year career to economic and social justice, impact investing and community development.  Lisa has served in executive roles across multiple sectors in the United States and abroad, including time as CEO at Calvert Impact Capital and Managing Director at Anthos Asset Management. Her area of focus at the Beeck Center is the inclusive economy, exploring how social innovation and access to opportunity can drive prosperity for all communities. She is active on Twitter @lisagreenhall

Building the Democracy Stack

By Lorelei Kelly, Senior Fellow

22 March 2018

 

How do we strengthen trust in our democracy?  Here at the Beeck Center, we believe we can make significant progress on trust-building by helping Congress engage citizens differently.   Renewing our democratic institutions is imperative in the digital 21st century. Fortunately, metaphors exist that will help us imagine where we need to go.  

 

A technical stack consists of layers of components that build a system. Modern democracy requires its own components. What will our democracy stack look like?   We’re focussed on Congress because it is the most democratic of our federal governing institutions.  It is also the most powerful national legislature in the world. Congress is a complex and indirect representative system.  It is not a direct democracy, although it should be more responsive. It is already decentralized. As a political institution, it prioritize human relationships over technology.  This quality is why it must be the centerpiece for building trust in our democracy. That’s also why our first research theme is how Members of Congress are crowdsourcing expert capacity with constituents. If the challenge is trust building,  the goal is to build a democracy stack that optimizes relationships based on shared values. Sharing knowledge like technical expertise and finding new ways for thoughtful deliberation are good places to begin.

“Our social media is the digital equivalent of protesters shouting at buildings on the Mall,” said a House staffer when I asked how his office was using popular online platforms to connect with citizens.

Congress was set up to be the institutional mediator between citizens and the centralized federal government.  It is Article One  in the US Constitution because our Founders believed so strongly in this democratic function.  Today, American lawmaking should offer opportunities to include more voices. Increasing participation using technology and data is already happening in other democratic countries.   But our American legislature has been too under-capacity to fully take advantage of these trends.  From antique marble buildings that inhibit WIFI to it’s 1990’s technology attitude, Congress is a unique modernization challenge.   And, while we seek to update the institution, we must also find ways to integrate new ideas with its centuries old workflow and procedural rules. We will concentrate on two of Congress’ most important functions in this project–knowledge sharing and informed deliberation.  Both of these functions have decayed because they cannot compete in a volatile, 24 second news cycle that is dominated by loud campaign tactics and purchased access. Despite emotions running high, we must find ways to re-balance power among all three branches of the US Government. Presidential power consolidation–ongoing for decades–is a dangerous trend for any democracy.   

Stop sending me so much information. I know how to read the footnotes. I know how to use a search engine. What I don’t have is context for my district, expert judgment and the incentive to use facts.” Long-serving Chief of Staff in Congress

Building our democracy stack means we need to create competitive political constituencies around knowledge sharing and deliberation.  We must re-align the incentives of our elected leaders away from campaigning and back to democratic governing.  How do we expand the notion of democracy outside of elections? How do we re-invent convening so public events are safe and productive for members and citizens alike?  How do we give Members opportunities to explain tradeoffs and complex policy issues? How might regular citizens with special expertise organize themselves to be reliable policy resources?  Vitally, how to we make sure that civic data is used ethically and protected for social good purposes? The formal rules in Congress have slowly evolved to allow more transparency. The technical systems are incrementally improving.   We can now begin to pilot new democratic methods.

We can find hope for change by looking at recent history. Our democratic legislature was not always so bedraggled. Until 1995, the US Congress maintained a deep and extensive network of shared expertise. It operated one of the world’s premier scientific advisory bodies.  Before 1995, committee staffs were also larger and more often shared between the two political parties. Public hearings—a key bridge to citizen understanding—were more frequent. Whilst this former mutually-shared system stands in stark contrast to the one that exists today, it also offers encouragement that we can renew our democracy and bolster our shared future by harnessing the digital tools now at hand.

Together with constituents, individual Members of Congress will be a vital component of a trust-building democracy stack. Let’s start with the basics. What are the roles of a Member of Congress?  This list was compiled in 2004 by Congressman Lee Hamilton (IN ret.)

  • National legislator—working to pass the laws of our nation and determine spending levels for thousands of federal programs;
  • Local representative serving the priorities, interests, and economic needs of the constituents;
  • Constituent advocate for individuals groups, industries, and communities in the district;
  • Committee member, which requires developing specific expertise;
  • Investigator charged with oversight of the federal government;
  • Educator who can translate the work of Congress for constituents as well as the media;
  • Student of his or her constituents;
  • Local dignitary performing ceremonial functions at home and serving as ambassador from the nation’s capital;
  • Fundraiser in order to run for re-election;
  • Staff manager for anywhere between seventeen and eighty staffers in DC and at home;
  • Party leader in the party’s caucus; and, lastly;
  • Consensus builder both within and between parties

Each of these member responsibilities remains vital in today’s Congress, yet Members lack both the capacity and often the incentives to carry them out. And, trust between American citizens and their democratic institutions is rapidly diminishing, so the stack is falling apart.

We believe that there is a great deal of work already being done around the USA that contributes to a modern trust-building democracy stack.  Civic innovation and information sharing happens in local communities every day. This project seeks to reveal and celebrate this important work.  More, we hope to tap into these local networks in order to create modern capacity for a Member’s representative responsibilities. .

This blog post serves as an introduction to my research, supported by Democracy Fund.  Assisted by my colleagues Austin Seaborn and Itay Weiss, I work directly with Members of Congress in their home districts, outside of Washington, DC.

Although I do not know what our ultimate democracy stack will be,    I intend to make elements of a possible solution available on this blog over the coming months.  I will also post an interactive sister channel on Medium, so please follow me there.  Topics will include case studies from Congress, how technology and data can improve efficiency and inclusion, the role of local journalism,  maker spaces, innovation hubs, universities, state and local government. I’ll also look at new convening methods and examples from other contemporary democracies.

Modern data and technology tools can bolster our democracy with new possibilities.  Finding ways to be more inclusive while respecting the limits of an old and cautious institution is not easy, however.  We must start experimenting, because for this idea to succeed, we’ll need a cross-section of bright spots from around the USA.   Are you building part of a modern democracy stack in your community? Send me your ideas!

 

Note: This text has been updated. Please contact the author for the original.

January 29, 2018 | By Adam Neufeld

We’ve known for years that the federal flood insurance program encourages people to live in flood-prone areas—instead of moving to safer ground—all at taxpayer expense. Yet nothing significant has been changed with the program. Similarly, the most common program designed to reduce recidivism by domestic violence offenders has been shown to be ineffective. Yet, not only does the program persist, but dozens of states mandate its use, hindering experimentation with other more promising programs. Additionally, in 2015, undercover inspectors were able to carry 67 simulated bombs and weapons past TSA checkpoints. Two years later, inspectors did it again. The evidence and data were clear in these and many other cases, but government still did not shut down ineffective programs, switch to better models, or improve.

Efforts to make government more data-driven and evidence-based are gaining steam, whether it’s the effort to increase availability of key government data, data sharing by the bipartisan Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking, governmental use of private sector data, randomized control trials, or analytical capacity within governments.

These are all worth-while efforts. But they are only valuable insofar as they lead to change, and the missing link in current efforts is a systematic focus on government’s ability to follow what the data and evidence suggest. A significant portion of evidence and data does end up resulting in change, but that fraction is far too small. The core problem is government is not built for change, and that includes changes based on evidence and data. To be sure, change is not easy for any organization. Employees may fear change, their incentives may be misaligned, or they may dismiss new evidence out of motivated reasoning.

But governments have additional obstacles to change, and it’s those obstacles that need to be directly and honestly explored and, to the extent possible, addressed.

The first obstacle is political. Concentrated, entrenched interests in preserving the status quo can often overcome the diffuse, future benefits of policy changes. The public might be irrationally invested in the governmental program or effort, such that governments may not want the backlash from following the evidence. Changes that require legislation must also compete against many other demands to get on the time-limited legislative agenda. The above are not amenable to easy solutions, although it is worth trying. For example, the Base Realignment and Closure process was a successful effort to overcome concentrated interests in converting data (the United States had more military installations than it needed) into action (closing unnecessary facilities based on security and military requirements). Congress passed a law establishing an independent commission to investigate and recommend bases for closure. The law required that members of Congress vote for or against the recommendations as a full package, thus changing the calculus for many lawmakers and resulting in far more action than would have been likely with piecemeal votes.

The second obstacle is operational. Well-meaning laws, policies and practices interfere with agencies’ ability to administratively follow evidence. Employee protections prevent or at least slow the ability to reassign or terminate employees based on evidence-based need. Congress often provides budgets that make it hard to move money from one program to another based on evidence. Tweaking a regulation to address an unintended consequence or new piece of evidence generally must follow the same long process as creating a whole new regulation. But we have seen efforts to address these operational obstacles, from Congress providing pilot authorities or more flexibility in allocating money to limited exemptions from certain governmentwide rules.

At root, governments are not set up to easily integrate evidence and data, let alone for the ongoing trial-and-error experimentation and continuous improvement seen in high-performing companies. Making more data available and increasing the amount of evidence on government performance is great, but much of the value of these efforts will be for naught if inertia wins out. In order to ensure these efforts bear fruit, we must revisit some of the core operations of how government works. This will not be easy. Some ways of making it easier for government to adapt to evidence might also create flexibility for ill-intentioned officials to use for ulterior purposes. However, we must thoughtfully reset the balance. With every new piece of data and evidence, the gap between what our government is and what it should be will grow. And government’s functions are simply too important for that to continue.

Adam Neufeld is a senior fellow at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Policy and Law and the Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation. He previously served as deputy administrator of the General Services Administration.

This content was originally published by Government Executive.