Leveraging the full public interest technology ecosystem for better outcomes in society

By Cori Zarek

For eight years, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University has brought together students with practitioners and policy makers to work on impactful research and projects. Joining the team a little more than three years ago, I added my background in civic technology to expand the Center’s early work to include more projects, partnerships, and people leveraging data, design, technology, and policy as drivers for better and more equitable outcomes in society.

Today, the Beeck Center is an active leader in the growing public interest technology ecosystem, bringing together people from all sectors who share the goal of improving societal systems. And no sector has the potential to reach more people or have a greater impact than government. Governments provide essential services to support people, they underpin and oversee systems we rely on in our daily lives, and they recruit mission-driven people to carry out the work.

I’m proud to share that later this month I will be returning to public service to support the people and teams working to deliver services to people across our country as the Deputy Administrator of the United States Digital Service (USDS). USDS is an eight-year-old unit of the White House whose mission is to use design and technology to deliver better services to the American people. 

Having previously spent eight years in public service, I know well the need for strong partnerships and collaboration across all sectors and I’m proud of what we’ve built here at the Beeck Center. I leave behind an incredible team that will be looking for their next leader to join the community at Georgetown working at the intersections of technology and society. During this transition, current Beeck Center Fellow Aaron Snow will lead the center as interim executive director.

At the Beeck Center, we have supported more than 50 state and local governments as they leverage the historic investments in the American Rescue Plan Act for data and technology infrastructure. We have launched and led networks on leveraging data to inform policy, digital service delivery, foster family licensing, sharing software, and digital benefits access. And we’ve provided experiential learning to more than 300 students, setting them on paths to instill social impact in their careers. In the past three years, we’ve also grown the Center’s annual budget fourfold and set it on a path to multiyear sustainability.

The Beeck Center focuses on projects where we can fill gaps in the young and evolving field of public interest technology by playing to the strength of our university setting. Specifically, we identify research needs and create resources to help practitioners advance their work and inform policy, we create and cultivate networks within the public interest tech ecosystem to share best practices and identify common challenges we can address together, and we leverage our home in an educational institution to ensure we are teaching and training new skills and processes along the way. We design projects to scale out of the Beeck Center to the practitioners, policy makers, and institutions where they will have the most direct impact. From our guides to our networks, we ensure the work is actually being used by the people who need it.

Our fellows are senior practitioners with deep experience across sectors—they’ve led policy development and implementation in government, designed and delivered useful tools and products in the private sector, and researched and advocated for better policies in the social sector. Here, they lead interdisciplinary teams working on specific projects to deliver policies and services that work for everyone and know how to avoid the pitfalls and barriers that can get in the way. Beeck Center fellows often head back into high-impact roles, leading major initiatives, teams, and agencies after their time with us.

For me, the Beeck Center has also been a foundational space to build up civil society initiatives and institutions within the public interest technology field. In addition to our project work, in March 2020, we joined with colleagues to launch U.S. Digital Response, which provided tech help to governments in the COVID-19 pandemic, and has now expanded to include capacity-building work on cross-cutting issues such as election management and unemployment insurance. And in 2021, we partnered with other leaders in the field to form the first-of-its-kind professional association for public interest technologists—Technologists for the Public Good—which aims to serve as the professional hub for all of us building the field. This year, we’ve been collaborating with a group of law and tech colleagues to launch a Judicial Innovation Fellowship, building off the best practices of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, Congressional Innovation Fellows and other similar programs.

As we chart the course of this growing field together, I look forward to returning to public service to focus on the people and processes to make meaningful improvements in how the U.S. government delivers services. And I’ll also look forward to partnerships, networks, resources, and supports that come from organizations like the Beeck Center to complement the work of government.

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