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.
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 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.
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.
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 go—often with unexpected outcomes.
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
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.
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.
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 theinstitutional 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.
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.
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.
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:
Identify the investment opportunities (and community needs).
Define and prioritize the desired social and economic impacts.
Help conduct the community due diligence.
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
Small businesses are critical to the U.S. economy: Pre-COVID, they represented 99% of all U.S. firms, generated over 40% of our economic output, and accounted for some of the highest rates of job creation. However, small businesses are facing two critical challenges: recovering from our current, global pandemic, and tackling the longstanding barriers of access to capital related to systemic discrimination that works against entrepreneurs and businesses from historically overlooked and undeserved communities.
Arguing that “now is the time to re-imagine how we invest into small businesses” and drawing from their previous work together catalyzing investments for underserved communities outside of the U.S., Agnes Dasewicz and Dale Mathias launched a call for creating a new government-funded institution (a U.S. Development Corporation) that would focus on strengthening local economies and small businesses critical to our recovery.
The Beeck Center kicked-off our new Ideas that Transform series by hosting Agnes and Dale to explore this idea further along with Melissa Bradley, an expert in small and medium business growth, particularly for ‘new majority’ entrepreneurs.
How Would the U.S. Development Corporation Work?
Tackling the challenges of the current disparate ecosystem, a U.S. Development Corporation (USDC) would drive more private capital to the small businesses and communities here at home that need it the most, focusing on three critical pipelines:
Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs): The CDFI network plays a critical role directing capital to local communities; they need funds to strengthen their systems and operations, and create additional capacity for lending and investments.
Local investment funds (like Bradley’s 1863 Fund): these funds support businesses and entrepreneurs but are often only known in smaller, local circles; the USDC would look to scale these practices to better provide capital to the domestic entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Financial technology (FinTech) firms: known for delivering capital more quickly and using data and AI tools to improve credit risk assessments, the USDC would explore ways to partner with these types of companies to scale up rapid and equitable access to capital while enforcing the necessary guardrails to ensure that the financing is offered on an equitable basis to all communities.
As Dale noted, the current ecosystem of U.S. government programs supporting small businesses is highly fragmented and uncoordinated, like “having a lot of ornaments, but no Christmas tree.” The USDC would connect larger investors to CDFIs, local funds, small businesses, and entrepreneurs, playing a unique role in driving more investment capital to and through trusted intermediaries, creating a more supportive small business ecosystem.
Tackling Systemic Barriers
The recent, high profile financial commitments to support entrepreneurs and small businesses led by Black and Brown leaders, such as Netflix’s recent $100 million pledge to Black-owned banks, are encouraging, but as Melissa Bradley noted, “you cannot erase 401 years of systemic barriers with the writing of a single check.” To truly remove these barriers, there must be a commitment to difficult conversations between all types of actors in the financial field.
Even with these barriers, new majority entrepreneurs have been the most dynamic and efficient job creators in the U.S. Minority entrepreneurs created 4.7 million jobs in the last decade. Almost 2,000 women-owned businesses were launched every day in 2018 and women of color founded 64% of all new businesses. In light of the loss of jobs and economic growth caused by the COVID-19 crisis, the recovery of these businesses is critical to the revival of our economy.
The USDC can play an important role as an investor, catalyst and connector directly supporting, and providing incentives for private investors to support “new majority” businesses and those who invest in them. With a priority focus on developing and supporting ecosystems that focus on underserved entrepreneurs, USDC can drive towards systemic change in racial and gender equity in the financial space. A USDC acknowledges that local communities do have the knowledge and ability to create their own solutions that take into account their unique contexts and economic activity. Thus the USDC will work within local contexts and networks rather than advocating one-size-fits-all solutions, which has been a philosophical barrier in the past.
A Call to Action
As the ideas for a USDC continue to develop, our panelists expressed their commitment to “continue the drumbeat” on the importance of small businesses to our communities and our country, and encouraged each of us to get involved in a number of ways:
Contact your congressional representative and senator to emphasize the importance of investing in small businesses, especially those led by women and people of color, and communicate the urgent need for systemic solutions for small business support – and not just relief packages – to help revive our economy.
Reach out toAgnes to share any people or organizations interested in or doing similar work on small businesses with whom they might collaborate; Agnes and Dale are both committed to expanding their outreach and pushing this idea forward.
Collect + share data on businesses led by women and people of color, and the value of their businesses to the U.S. economy (Melissa Bradley is committed to doing this work). Data needs to drive decisions and the research on these businesses is scarce yet necessary.
Change the narrative about the potential of businesses led by women and people of color. These firms are creating millions of jobs and are critical to the health of our country and rebuilding our economy. Publishing and speaking about the importance of these entrepreneurs is key to changing the narrative (and continue to support your local businesses as consumers and investors).
This is just the beginning of the conversation and there are many more great ideas out there. Join us August 18 at noon ET, for our next Ideas That Transform event where we’ll discuss Shifting Power From Investors To Communities. And be sure to check #BeeckIdeas on Twitter every Tuesday at noon where we’ll share a thought prompt to foster conversation.
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