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in many states the process of licensing foster families can exceed 200 days largely because of cumbersome processes and outdated requirements.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.

May 11, 2020 | By Alberto Rodríguez Álvarez, Dana Chisnell and Vivian Graubard 

Policymakers, lawmakers, and government leaders are increasingly exploring new ways to ensure that laws and policies are centered around people’s needs while improving how services are delivered to the public. In Mobile, Alabama, community involvement informed updates to blight reduction laws and, at the national level, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services worked directly with doctors and healthcare workers to improve the implementation and delivery of a new value-based healthcare law. 

To help policymakers interested in following these successful models, we are launching the first tool of the Delivering Better Outcomes Working Group from the Beeck Center, New America, and the National Conference on Citizenship: a User-Centered Policy Organization Assessment. It is our hope that teams crafting policy inside and outside government will use the assessment to center their policy-making activities around the people — or users — most impacted by their proposed programs and policy ideas.

In recent months, scholarship has emerged to explain and illustrate user-centered policymaking as a more effective and inclusive approach to crafting policy. At Harvard University, Nick Sinai, David Leftwich, and Ben McGuire examined human-centered policymaking in the context of medicare. Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs offers a graduate course to teach the concept. Code for America’s Jennifer Pahlka published a paper on delivery-driven policy, and the Public Interest Technology team at New America used a human centered design process to generate recommendations for the Farm Bill, adopted in 2018. Government organizations like the U.S. Digital Service and the UK government have been applying design thinking to policymaking and policy implementation as well, prioritizing agile and iterative methodology rather than the more traditional “waterfall” method of designing, building, and executing a policy without pausing for public input and pivots where needed.

Experienced design practitioners inherently employ user-centered methodology in their work, but newcomers may not know where to begin. This tool builds on the existing case studies, reports, and blogs, and gives policymakers actionable, concrete steps to shift their current approach slightly and put users at the center. We learned that the concept of user-centered policy making sounds great to many government leaders and this tool helps them know how and where to start.

There are some natural synergies between the policy design processes and human centered design practices. Grassroots organizers, for example, have long understood the importance of understanding the needs of communities at a human level. With this tool, policy teams can start to expand their outreach beyond experts and community organizations to reach people everywhere.  

This assessment provides public servants with a set of guiding questions that are designed to help teams understand the people who receive government services or benefits, the stakeholders involved in the policy, and the metrics that are being used to define success and measure progress. 

To create this tool, we started with a working group of more than 20 current and former policy makers — some were traditional subject-matter expert policy professionals, others were leaders in government technology, and some had specific design training and expertise. Most worked in the executive branches of their governments and some had legislative experience as well. We interviewed members from this working group between August and October 2019 to better understand their expert take on user-centered policymaking. 

The concept of user-centered policy is still being defined by a wide community of policy makers, designers, and innovators. The Deliver Better Outcomes working group landed on this definition: policy that is intentionally designed and implemented with the end user as a co-designer. In our project, end users are the people who receive a government service or benefit, or that are impacted by a specific policy. That makes users the ultimate experts on what the experience of interacting with the government is like. Our theory is that centering the policymaking process on these end users’ needs and including them directly in the policy design process produces better results, increases trust, and ensures that policies reach their intended outcomes with as few unintentional consequences as possible.

We created the User-Centered Policy Organization Assessment to foster more user-centered policies in government. This project is part of the Digital Service Collaborative at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, which is strengthening the network of data and digital professionals in government through action-oriented research, tangible resources, and user-centered policies that can be shared and scaled throughout the network. 

This assessment tool is being tested now by members of the Deliver Better Outcomes working group in their policy processes. In true agile form, we will take what they learn to continue iterating on our tool. If you test it out in your own work, we want to hear about it so we can continue making improvements and providing useful resources.

Alberto Rodríguez Álvarez is a Beeck Center Student Analyst currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. Prior to joining the Beeck Center he was an advisor to the National Digital Strategy at the Office of the President in Mexico. Follow him at @arodalv.

Dana Chisnell is a founder-partner at Project Redesign at NCoC.org, co-founder of the Center for Civic Design and served as a “generalist problem solver” for the United States Digital Service in the White House. Follow her at @danachis. 

Vivian Graubard is the Senior Advisor for Public Interest Technology at New America. Prior to joining New America, Graubard worked at the White House under President Obama where she was a founding member of the United States Digital Service and also served as a senior advisor and chief of staff to the United States Chief Technology Officer.

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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