December 18, 2020 – By Emily Tavoulareas

Last month, I facilitated a conversation as part of the Beeck Center’s Ideas That Transform Series with colleagues working on a project to improve outcomes for older youth in the foster care system. While our discussion focused on their recent research which they have published today, I found myself thinking a lot about the approach they took to their research—combining a “discovery sprint” with design research—that led to a fundamental shift in both how they thought of the problem, but also the possibilities for solutions. Here I dig into some lessons that can be drawn from their experience, that might be applicable to solving problems in any context. 

The approach

The project was run by Think of Us, a small non-profit working to transform child welfare, to better understand how a product or process intervention might improve outcomes for youth as they age out of foster care. Bloom Works partnered on the execution. The project took place in less than 16 weeks (though not consecutive). They did a “discovery sprint” coupled with design research—two things that are relatively common in the technology arena. What this example demonstrates is how powerful this approach can be when applied to entirely non-technical problems.

What it boils down to is that this type of research… really puts people at the center. It brought that proximity not just to a product—but to, how is it that my humanity exists within this bureaucratic web of decisions that are affecting my life? 

– Sixto Cancel, Founder + CEO of Think of Us

What I find most compelling about this effort is that while they had a clear research question to begin with, what the team learned changed the way they saw the problem space at a fundamental level. So the project team adjusted their focus in-flight. Here are a few key lessons from their approach, that could be helpful to anyone endeavoring to do this type of work. 

Lesson 1/ Be open to going beyond your original research question.

The team started their research focused on identifying insights that were relevant to the product that Think Of Us set out to build. They quickly realized that what they were learning had implications that went far beyond that technology. What they were picking up on had the potential to change the entire equation at a fundamental level in a very real way. 

Although these may seem like things that are obvious–they weren’t… there were these “aha moments”—these epiphany moments. – Sixto Cancel 

Instead of confining themselves to their original research goal, the team gave themselves permission to allow the learning to drive where they took the work. The research plan was intentionally semi-structured—it meant that the team went into the sprint with a set of topics to guide interviews and observations, but allowed room to explore additional lines of inquiry as they arose. Had they been inflexible, they would have risked rooting the research in the wrong question and, as a result, identifying ineffective (or worst, harmful) solutions. 

Lesson 2/ The intervention will never be a system

As they began the research, the team considered the child welfare system overall as a part of the solution, and sought to find ways for the system to drive change. However, as Think of Us CEO Sixto Cancel said: 

 “… the biggest epiphany and pivot was understanding that no matter what, the intervention will never be a system… systems are cruel and people are kind… and that the *real* intervention is the human beings that are in the system. The system has a way of setting conditions that make it easier, or very hard, to be able to engage in those relationships.” 

The research allowed them to get beyond specific actions and experiences and understand the systemic conditions that were robbing young people from engaging in the very life-affirming relationships that can support their time in and out of foster care. 

child drawing on paper
To better understand the support systems that young people have as they age out of care, participants were asked to draw the people in their lives, then identify those they could trust or turn to for help. Credit Bloom Works


Lesson 3/ Commit to your goal, but be flexible on the process

“You always approach a project with a perfectly designed research plan, methods, recruitment techniques… and then you hit first contact with reality and it kind of unravels in a variety of ways.” – Sarah Fathallah, Independent Designer and Researcher for Bloom Works

The team adapted a great deal, and doing so unlocked significant insights. Their ability to stay focused on the goal but adjust their approach in flight enabled them to learn from their interviewees, go deep on their experiences, and uncover unspoken motivations and beliefs.

A perfect example of this was the team’s plan for recruitment. Originally, they planned to “snowball” (that’s when you interview one person and they introduce you to others) their way into interviewing youth’s supportive adults. But they quickly realized that young people didn’t *want* to introduce the people closest to them. While that required a new plan for interview outreach, it was also an insight in and of itself—youth were so protective of their close, trusted relationships that they refused to introduce them to the system. It was a transformative insight and completely changed how they thought about the problem space. 

In another example, the team needed to reframe workshop scenarios and questions in order to get participants to talk about what would best support them in their transition out of foster care in a way that didn’t just mimic how they were repeatedly told by the system to think about that transition. To do so, the team tasked them to list out the hopes and fears they have about growing up, then imagine the app that could alleviate those fears and make their hopes come true. This meant focusing on their strengths and resilience, and getting beyond the stories of loss and hardship that often define them. Something as simple as imagining an app can help make children’s dreams feel more realistic. 

Youth journal page listing "hopes" and "fears"
One of the participatory research workshop artifacts where one participant described the hopes and fears that they have as it relates to growing up and aging out of foster care. Credit Bloom Works

Lesson 4/ Trust the process 

“This work requires a different evolution of yourself, because you have to question every single thing you might think you know about a problem.” – Sixto Cancel

While it is true that this approach has transformative potential, it is also true that it’s extraordinarily messy. It’s a non-linear process that attempts to bring order to unstructured information, and requires comfort in (or at least tolerance of) ambiguity. As designers like to say—you have to “sit in the mess” and “trust the process.”

That “mess” is both tangible and intangible. In its physical form it is an explosion of sticky notes, quotes, sharpies, and laptops. In its emotional form it feels a bit like crushing doubt and anxiety: What are we doing here? How are we going to pull anything insightful out of this mess? How is **this** helping youth in any way? I really just don’t see where this is going. I personally still have moments like this every time I am neck-deep in synthesis. For those experiencing it for the first time and having to trust their partners leading the effort, the feeling is real and unnerving. But the reason we say “trust the process” is that it does have a way of getting where you need to gooften with unexpected outcomes. 

team members working on a whiteboard with notes on it
The synthesis process, also known as “the mess.” Here the team is bringing order to / making sense of their interviews in the field. Credit Bloom Works

Lesson 5/ Be mindful of your positionality

“We were aware that (1) we are strangers, (2) that we held more power, (3) that we were coming in pre-endorsed with whatever reputation the youth had of their agency, as we were introduced by them, so whether that was positive or negative, we were ascribed those values immediately.”  – Sarah Fathallah

conference table with sticky notes on top
Thoughtful preparation, including snacks and food, conveys care and attention that can help participants feel more comfortable from the start. Credit Bloom Works

One of the keys to effective interviews—of any kind, but especially in design research—is trust. This team was very thoughtful and intentional about their relationship to the youth they spoke to, considering questions like, “How do we gain trust? How do we make this relationship a little bit less extractive than it would usually be?”

This took them beyond the typical subject-researcher relationship, and aimed to make it more of a partnership. This meant giving participants a sense of agency by having them control components of the research process. This included opting out of activities, stopping at any time, skipping questions, and agreeing together on the agenda of a participatory workshop before diving in.

Another way the research team built trust with interviewees was to find ways to demonstrate respect—compensating them for their time and wisdom, and setting up an environment that feels comfortable and less formal by decorating and rearranging the space, having snacks and craft supplies, and dressing casually.

The ability to stay focused on what the team aimed to learn, and adjust along the way in pursuit of that understanding, made it possible to identify solutions that were both valuable and practical. 

Watch the full panel discussion with Sixto Cancel, Sarah Fathallah, Sarah Sullivan, and Emily Wright-Moore. See more from our Data + Digital Mini-Series

Emily Tavoulareas is a designer and a fellow at the Beeck Center. Follow her at @EmilyTav.

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.

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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