January 20, 2021 – By Alberto Rodriguez Alvarez + Dana Chisnell

Over the past year, we’ve seen human-centered design move upstream in the policy process. Rather than being brought in only at the implementation stage, designers and design practices have been active in rulemaking and in problem definition. Designers are working side-by-side with policy analysts, sketching and prototyping new policy programs, running design sprints to revamp delivery processes, and even setting up collaborative and iterative digital teams to implement policy and deliver government services.

Policymaking has a lot of design processes embedded within. Most of policy design as it is taught in graduate schools relies on data, cases, and white papers that abstract the human experience. Design practices offer ways to make the needs of the public less abstract. But it may not be obvious to policymakers how and when policy making matches up with the processes that designers use.

We saw an opportunity to help both policymakers and designers translate their methods so they can collaborate and ultimately deliver better policy outcomes. So we stacked the processes into a new map to visualize simple design techniques and tools, and how they can help during each phase of the policy cycle. We call it the UCP Cycle Map (or User-Centered Policy Cycle Map). You can also review our working document for more in-depth information on policy cycle explanations, user needs, stakeholders and user-centered methods and techniques.

The User-Centered Policy Design Map

We designed this visualization to meet policy makers and designers where they are. Through examples and shared vocabulary, we matched up a classical policy analysis framework to select design methodologies and tools that make it easy to bring the public into policymaking. It is a unified visual guide that shows new ways of approaching policy design. We hope policymakers will use this map to find frameworks that suit their level of involvement with a policy process and make it easy to learn first hand about the needs of the people they want to solve problems for.

This tool can help everyone involved in government policy implementation and service delivery choose the right framework to ensure better results for both their work and the impact they strive for.

To develop the UCP Cycle Map, we interviewed practitioners and instructors from the Delivering Better Outcomes Working Group, a mix of experts brought together by the Beeck Center in 2019-20 to develop resources for human-centered design in the policy-making process. Those interviews helped us understand common characteristics between policy design and product design, and identify effective methods that should be easy to implement in the policymaking process.

We also identified a classical model of policymaking that depicted a process that most policy analysts are familiar with from the Handbook of Public Policy Analysis. It divides the policymaking process into stages according to the actors and activities typically involved. We analyzed these stages through a user-centered lens, and used what we learned from our working group members to map the common policy practices and design tools that are best suited to help policymakers depending on the stage they normally work in.

Like all models, both the policymaking model and the design process model we chose to match up are simplifications. So the UCP Cycle Map does not mark the only stages or the only stakeholders involved in public policymaking, but instead centers around the most visible. The idea is to ease anyone in the policy world into matching accessible design tools and frameworks. It focuses on the most used design frameworks and design tools that are easily available. This simplification takes into account that both the public policy and design worlds have a significant body of research.

The UCP Cycle Map is a companion to builds on our initial tool, the User-Centered Policy Organization Assessment, which we released to help policymakers assess whether a user-centered approach could be used in their processes. The Assessment tool includes the basic steps for user-centered policy design. In true agile form, we want to take user experience to continue iterating. 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 – reach out at dana@ncoc.org.


Read Part 2 – Harnessing the Policy Power of Stakeholder Mapping

Creating a User-Centered Stakeholder Map


Alberto Rodríguez Álvarez is a former Beeck Center Student Analyst and a recent graduate from the Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. He is Currently a Senior Program Manager at New America. 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 Senior Fellow at the National Conference on Citizenship and a Non-Resident Fellow in the Belfer Center Technology and Public Purpose project at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was in the founding cohort of the U.S. Digital Service in the Obama White House, and a co-founder of the Center for Civic Design. Follow her at @danachis.

A Tool for Policymakers

The Delivering Better Outcomes Working Group aims to design an easy, step-by-step guide directed at policymakers and public servants to help them better understand how their projects impact different actors and organizations in a policy ecosystem.
We developed a stakeholder mapping tool to help public service teams focus on the people the policy is serving. By using the stakeholder mapping template and prompts, teams develop shared understanding by creating a visualization of the different relations among stakeholders.

Why stakeholder maps?

Service designers use stakeholder maps to create visual representations of all the possible actors that can influence a particular project. Product teams in the business and financial sectors use stakeholder maps as tools to ensure that projects are successful by preparing thorough strategies to engage the stakeholders and understand their needs. If you’re a designer on a policy implementation team, you probably already create some version of a stakeholder map to identify the core user. But you might not think about the power that each of the stakeholders may hold and the political acceptability of the policy proposal or the solution you’re helping to implement.


More resources:


If you’re a policy analyst, you probably already do some version of stakeholder mapping. You probably have a list of stakeholders, in order of priority or the amount of power they have in the problem space, but you may not create a visual map of stakeholders. In the policy world, any person or organization can represent difficult obstacles or powerful allies. A stakeholder map is an easy tool that has the potential to bring the user to the center of focus. At the same time, by looking at the political acceptability and power in the ecosystem, it helps policy projects and processes be more successful.

By pulling these ideas together into one visualization, a cross-functional team now has a clearer understanding of the relationships among the actors in the problem space, as well as the dependencies among them. In addition, we can anticipate second-order effects by examining the impact not only on the core user but on all of the stakeholders in the map.

Running Your Policy Stakeholder Workshop

Whether you’re a policy analyst, a design researcher, or someone else on a cross-functional team practicing user-centered policy design, the best way to create a robust stakeholder map is collaboratively. We recommend a workshop, which you can do in person or remotely. What follows is a quick guide to help you and your team identify all the stakeholders in a policy problem space and analyze the underlying questions needed to understand their stakeholders.

The workshop is divided into two sessions of 50 min, and includes these activities:

Session 1 – 50 min

Goal Setting (5 min)

Setting a central goal of the policy or program. This could be the mandate for the project or the general change you want to create with the policy intended.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • What is the goal of your policy or program?
    • What is it that you want to achieve?

Goal: Anchor the activity on a common goal.

List All of the Stakeholders (10 min)

Identify all of the organizations and actors (or individuals) that are related to the policy project in a list. The list should focus on identifying 2 types of stakeholders: those directly affected by the policy or program and those indirectly affected by them. List the stakeholders in order of priority.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • Who are all of the types of individuals or organizations who have a stake in the problem you want to solve?
    • Who is directly affected if your policy is successful?
    • Who is indirectly affected if it is successful?

Goal: Identify all stakeholders relevant to the policy or program.

Identify the Core User (5 min)

As you list your stakeholders in order of priority, put the key person or actor who you want to solve the problem for at the top. This is your core user.

For example, in a policy project around student loan debt forgiveness, your policy might make the borrower the core user, or the lender may be the core user in your policy design. Depending on who you choose to serve as the core user with the policy solution, you’re going to propose very different goals and objectives. (Ultimately, you may end up with multiple stakeholder maps for multiple policy proposals.)

Place and Cluster (10-15 min)

Using the first list, place each stakeholder on a Ripple map with the core user in the center. The closer to that user, the more affected by the policy or program they are. Document the answers to these questions.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • If this policy is successful, who is it successful for?
    • Who is directly affected by the policy being successful for the central user / beneficiary?
    • If the policy is successful for the core user, how does the problem space change for the other stakeholders in the map?

Goal: Identify the actors that need direct and indirect engagement.

circular target-chart for stakeholder map

Categorize (10-15 min)

To understand the relationships among the stakeholders, cluster them in the map according to some affiliation, such as whether they’re private or public, what part of government they might be, topics, nature, and so on. Non-profit organizations tend to have similar characteristics and having similar engagement strategies is easier for the general project.
In a map for student loan debt forgiveness, for example, there will be multiple federal agencies. You might want to cluster those together. There will also be multiple financial institutions. You might want to cluster those together, too.

Goal: Identify the main characteristics of the relationship between the team and the relevant stakeholders.

Session 2 – 30 min

Catch-up (5 min)

Brief summary of the last session’s insights.

Goal: Making sure the participants are comfortable with the upcoming process.

Political Analysis (15-20 min)

Answer the following questions to assess the capacity and “weight” of your stakeholders clusters. You can answer the questions for each stakeholder or for each cluster depending on how you want to engage them. Document your answers.

  • Guiding Questions:
    • How trusted by the public is this stakeholder?
    • How much power do they have in the policy process?
    • What expertise do they have?
    • What is their capability to mobilize?

Goal: Understand how to prioritize engagement with key stakeholders.

Setting Actions (10 min)

After the map is done, and you’ve assessed each stakeholder, the next step is to use it! Start with the stakeholders that directly affect or will be directly affected by a change that benefits the core user and set an action.

At this stage, you may only have guesses – then you can investigate your guesses and assumptions during the project and update this to reflect what you’ve learned.

Your New Stakeholder Map Informs Policy Design

At the end of the workshop, the stakeholder map can be a great foundation to mount any strategy for a new program or policy. However this map will change as you advance with your process. And as we said, you may end up with multiple stakeholder maps for multiple policy proposals. We recommend that your team periodically check back on it, and update accordingly.

Read Part 1: Bringing Design to the Public Policy Cycle


How to lead a workshop for stakeholder mapping

January 21, 2021 – By Hayley Pontia

In a perfect world, policymakers and designers work together to better understand the services they create. Working in a cross-functional team in government shouldn’t be a rarity but it’s still new to many. This blog describes how to pair policymakers and designers to use their skills to understand stakeholders so governments can design services specifically to meet stakeholder needs.

If you work in policy analysis or policymaking, you’re used to examining who holds a stake in the policy space and what they might support. Hopefully, you’ve looked at the users of a certain policy you’re implementing, too. But you might not be so sure where to begin or who your most important user is. It can be daunting to define the interconnected audiences, but it’s a necessary step to take before continuing your policy process.

Service designers use stakeholder maps to create visual representations of all the possible actors who can influence a particular project. Product teams in the business and financial sectors use stakeholder maps as tools to ensure projects are successful.

It’s not hard to start thinking about stakeholder mapping. As a policy analyst, you may have a list of stakeholders that appear in order of priority or power in the problem space, but you may not have a visual map of stakeholders. In the policy world, any person or organization can present obstacles or be powerful allies. A stakeholder map is an easy tool that has the potential to bring the user to the center of focus. At the same time, it helps policy projects and processes be more successful by clearly defining key players across teams.

If you’re a designer on a policy implementation team, you probably already create some version of a stakeholder map to identify your core users. But you might not think about the power that each of the stakeholders hold.

One simple visualization can give a cross-functional team a clearer understanding of the relationships of different actors who have a stake in the problem your team is trying to solve. They can begin seeing the dependencies among stakeholders. Through mapping this way, you can anticipate second-order effects by examining the impact not only on the core user but on all stakeholders in the map.

This is where the policy stakeholder workshop comes in.

Whether you’re a policy analyst, a design researcher, or someone else practicing user-centered policy design, the best practice is to collaborate. A workshop, which you can do in person or remotely, is a great place to start.

The Delivering Better Outcomes Working Group, led by the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation designed an easy, step-by-step guide directed at policy makers and public servants. The goal is to help them better understand how their projects impact different actors and organizations in a policy ecosystem. Here’s an example of what an early first draft of a stakeholder map might look like.

target-like graphic with titles listing indirect and direct stakeholders and core users
Example of stakeholder mapping

The stakeholder mapping workshop can help public service teams focus on the people the policy is serving. This works through an adaptable template and simple steps for identifying and prioritizing people and organizations that care about a proposed policy. For the workshop, the guide includes scripted instructions about how to map the stakeholders in your problem space with a team. By looking at a visualization of various stakeholders, teams can create a shared understanding of the work they are doing. After mapping stakeholders, participants will have a clearer understanding of how a policy affects the core users.

Workshop Outline

The workshop is divided into two sessions of 50 minutes, and includes these activities:

Session 1 – 50 minutes

  • Goal Setting (5 minutes)
  • List all stakeholders (10 minutes)
  • Identify the core user (5 minutes)
  • Place and cluster (10-15 minutes)
  • Categorize (10-15 minutes)

Session 2 – 30 minutes

  • Catch-up (5 minutes)
  • Political Analysis (15-20 minutes)
  • Setting Actions (10 minutes)

A more detailed stakeholder mapping workshop template is available here.

Hayley Pontia was a 2020 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation and graduated with a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture, and Technology from Georgetown University. Follow her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/.

January 18, 2021 – By Megan Nguyen

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.

December 17, 2020 – By Natalie Ward

At the Beeck Center, we use data to better target services, test different strategies, and scale what works with an understanding that data and technology alone is never the answer. The Beeck Center, in partnership with the International Network for Data on Impact and Government Outcomes (INDIGO), collaborated on the inaugural Hack-and-Learn event this fall that brought data practitioners from across the globe together to identify ways to share and work with data to demonstrate impact at scale. 

The INDIGO Hack-and-Learn operated on three different levels:

Community. A diverse group of peers all working toward building use cases for improved data sharing and governance in the social impact space. 

Systems. A collection of people, processes, and tools that maintain an open-source database, data dictionary, and data templates that enable new impact bond projects to share their data.

Data. Multiple master datasets containing information on social impact bonds and social investments to turn into insights and visualizations that display outcomes. 

The Hack-and-Learn brought together a community of peers with a shared interest in data and social outcomes. I got involved to help an initiative called The Skill Mill to leverage data on its social enterprise program to improve monitoring and evaluation of the outcomes and attract investors to their work. The Skill Mill works in the UK to keep young people who have been caught up in the criminal justice system from reoffending. We were tasked with helping investors see the value of social impact bonds (SIBs) as a new type of investment opportunity for social impact organizations like The Skill Mill. 

We used data and data visualizations to show outcomes for investors who want to support efforts to keep high-risk young people out of the criminal justice system. Through collaboration with the local and central government, social investors, and local employers, The Skill Mill aims to combine paid jobs with training and mentoring for high-risk youth giving them opportunity and purpose within their local communities and keeping them out of trouble. Currently, The Skill Mill is funded by a SIB backed by Big Issue Invest, the entity managing the bond and issuing payments to The Skill Mill. SIBs are pay-for-success models, meaning The Skill Mill gets paid for effectively and successfully preventing young people from reoffending.

Data visualization of investment plus technical assistance timeline
Screen capture of prototype data visualization created during Hack-and-Learn.

 

I dug into The Skill Mill data template to find answers to questions like: 

  • What key data points must we collect to evaluate the outcomes of SIBs?
  • Are the existing data definitions robust, clear, and concise for reporting?
  • How can data from project spreadsheets be transformed into visualizations showing an investor’s flow of money throughout the SIB?

By the conclusion of the Hack-and-Learn, our team identified how data from The Skill Mill project can be collected and interpreted to better display outcomes achieved through the program. The Skill Mill initiative has collected robust data on the 224 young people employed through the program who received wages, training, qualifications, and hands-on work experience over the 6 months they are enrolled. Through data collection, sharing, analysis, and visualization, social enterprises like The Skill Mill can communicate the outcomes of SIBs to investors. Incentivizing investors to consider innovative financing models such as SIBs is a powerful way to finance programs that are proven to make a strong impact within local communities. By providing investors with data on the results of pay-for-success programs, investors can make calculated data-driven decisions regarding how to invest capital within communities to make a lasting and effective impact. 

Exploring the SIB model and measuring outcomes-based approaches through data collection and analysis is a key component of reimagining social change. Coupling fair financial models with the power of data and technology has the potential to develop an entirely new data-driven ecosystem for impact investing. It is the role of social impact practitioners to determine what data should be collected and how to best monitor and evaluate the outcomes of social enterprise programs through analysis, visualization, and prototyping. When investors can leverage data and visualizations to view the flow of capital from funders to the community, the positive impacts of SIBs on the life of an individual becomes evident. 

The Beeck Center operates on the belief that we are stronger together and that building a collaborative environment is pivotal for achieving impact at scale. A core value at the Beeck Center is collaboration and the Hack-and-Learn event in partnership with Indigo allowed for the Center to increase collaboration on a new level through learning from more partners, talents, and experiences in the social impact space to identify innovative ways to leverage data for social good. 

 

Natalie Ward is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Masters of Science from Fordham University and is interested in how technology, data, and science can be used to improve social outcomes. She is currently seeking a full-time role on an innovative team. Connect with Natalie on Twitter or LinkedIn to learn more about her work. 

November 16, 2020 – By Anna Gorman

Bored in their homes with nowhere to go, quarantiners worldwide turned to Netflix — earning the company an astonishing 15.77 million new subscribers between January and March of 2020 and increasing their subscriber base to more than 195 million. But when just one of those 195 million people clicks “play” on, say, their eighth episode of the Great British Baking Show, what happens? What is the cost?

At the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, as we strive to leverage technology and data for social change, it’s important we understand how the decisions we make regarding technology impact the environment we live in. When you watch a webinar or binge “The Mandalorian,” you activate a massive network of computer servers, allowing your personal computer to download the content bit-by-bit in real-time, aka streaming video. Each of these video streams comes with energy costs — the computer needs to charge, the Wi-Fi needs to connect to its network, and the bytes of data that comprise the stressed baker’s perfectly-iced cake need to travel from data centers to your computer. While your monthly bills may demonstrate some of the energy cost of streaming on your end, the costs accrued beyond the “play” icon are a little less obvious.

Illustration by the author.

At its core, every data center that allows a user to binge their favorite show is part of the internet’s “brain” — they store, process, and communicate data to personal devices across the globe. To provide these services, data centers require a significant amount of electricity, which can, in turn, translate to carbon emissions. The energy used to power these centers is converted to heat, which must then be removed from the center using cooling equipment that uses more electricity. Advancements in technology and transitions to renewable energy have allowed data centers to become increasingly energy efficient, offsetting much of the overall recent increase in web traffic. However, in many places worldwide data centers are still powered by electricity from fossil fuels, leading to questions over the environmental footprint of spending a quarantine day watching Netflix. While the energy usage of operating a data center can be significant, recent studies indicate that streaming yet another episode of the Great British Baking Show may not be as detrimental to the environment as previously thought. 

In July 2019, French think tank The Shift Project published a study on the “unsustainable and growing impact” of online streaming, claiming that the carbon emissions of streaming an hour-long show are equivalent to driving almost eight miles. This claim was repeated in a number of recent articles in reputable popular media like Reuters and BBC as recently as March 2020, and continues to influence media coverage. However, more recent fact-checks and new studies have cast doubt on this claim and the assumptions it rests upon, which have led to an over-exaggeration of streaming’s energy use. According to Carbon Brief, a science-based news website covering climate change developments, the flaws in the Shift Project’s assumptions “seriously exaggerate the electricity used by consuming video.” Carbon Brief claims the study overestimates bitrate, the amount of data transferred per second when streaming, assuming it to be six times higher than Netflix’s global average bitrate in 2019. It similarly overestimates the energy used in data transmission networks, leading to an overall exaggeration of the energy intensity of video streaming.

Additionally, the electricity use of data centers themselves have often been dramatically exaggerated, according to new research published in the academic journal Science in February 2020. Various mathematical models can be used to estimate data center energy uses, though it’s difficult to estimate electricity usage and carbon emissions because no official statistics are compiled at national or global levels, and not every data center discloses this information. The mathematical model implemented in a study can vastly influence conclusions, and variance in results leads to general confusion around data centers’ true electricity usage. The most recent literature favors a comprehensive “bottoms-up” approach to calculating data center energy uses, cautioning that the use of older, more simplistic mathematical models that do not take into account efficiency gains have led to gross overestimations, and thus have over-exaggerated the environmental threat of watching one’s favorite mindless -or prestige- television online. According to this new research, an hour spent on Netflix is not equivalent to driving eight miles — it is much closer to driving approximately four blocks.

This is not necessarily an all-clear for the future. Today, data centers consume approximately 1% of the world’s electricity, but demand for these centers is expected to grow. As more and more of our world becomes digital, it is increasingly likely that the efficiency gains of current technologies may not be able to offset the growing digital demand. Though there is always potential for technological improvement, there is similarly potential for growth in compute-intensive technologies (like artificial intelligence) to outpace the efficiency gains that have historically limited data centers’ electricity usage and carbon footprint. 

Everyone has an important role to play in minimizing the environmental impacts of data centers and video streaming. Governments can — and should — actively encourage investments in improved efficiency strategies, and as always, should encourage the decarbonization of energy supplies and the transition away from fossil fuels. Technology companies need to be held accountable to release their energy usage data to the public, and themselves should invest in more efficient technologies in favor of their bottom line and the greater health of the planet. Within the technology sector, the growing green technology movement encourages the development of environmentally-friendly innovations, particularly in regards to clean energy.

Social impact organizations like the Beeck Center, which exists to drive social change and focuses on using technology and data to do so, can play a role in watching the environmental impact of technology and online work. All online activities, including binge watching, attending Zoom meetings, and leveraging data for the public good, accrue energy costs. Moving into the future, we must be mindful of the environmental costs of the digital demand, related to both social impact and personal enjoyment. 

Nothing comes for free. All of our actions in the coming years can determine whether “Ready, set, bake!” is about cupcakes or the planet.

 

Anna Gorman is a student analyst at the Beeck Center and is majoring in Science, Technology and International Affairs at Georgetown University.

This is the last in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce. 
Read the previous blogs: Encouraging the Next Generation of Digital Service Professionals to Work in Government and Why Governments Should Prioritize UX for Everyone

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

At the Beeck Center, our work in Public Interest Technology Field Building is focused on establishing greater credibility and capacity for those working to deliver services to the public.

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
Read the Report

As a part of my research surrounding emerging professionals in the government digital service delivery field, I interviewed leaders within the field to learn more about the skills, experiences, programs, and personality traits relevant to the field. The more I interview people who work in the field of government digital service, the clearer it becomes that our federal government needs workers with different experiences to be involved in decision-making processes. Although no team is complete without those who’ve worked in government before, our perceptions should be shifting towards a skillset and mindset more representative of younger workers. Increasing the talent pool with a more diverse set of voices who bring a unique set of skills and identity makeups should be a main focus of all government teams. However, just because a team actively makes space for a diverse group of individuals, it doesn’t always mean that space is inclusive. Actively making decisions to improve existing staffing systems and how jobs are traditionally evaluated is an important note to make. Considering this, I asked 10 government digital service workers what they believed to be the most important skills for emerging professionals within their field. Many of their responses echoed one another and centered on these themes.

1. Focus on mission-driven work 

“Government is really behind. Don’t judge employees within the government who are working to fix these problems. Don’t come in with a savior complex.” – Former USDS Director 

A passion for mission-driven work empowers emerging professionals as a common core value. They are dedicated to serving others and are willing to educate themselves on topics that are important parts of users’ lives. Real impact is a main priority for the products and services they create. Within local, state, or federal government alike, they realize the magnitude of their work’s ability to drive change. 

2. Bureaucracy hacking and preparing for slow wins 

“Doing big things in government takes a long time. Don’t be that afraid of multiple year projects.” – Chief Technology Officer  

Unlike the private sector, rapid change has an increased risk when implemented in the public sector, so a willingness to adapt and understand procedural nuances is an important part of a government digital service. Ideas, creation, and implementation may take much longer to enact, requiring patience and ability to reiterate innovations consistent with emerging technologies.

3. Explaining technology to various users

“Don’t be afraid to step outside of the box – take an effort to learn other things in your role.” – Former USDS Director 

It is important to understand how technologies work without actually implementing them yourself. A broad understanding of the way technologies serve people and what they are capable of is key to serving on digital service teams. Members of a digital service team all have varying backgrounds that brought them to their roles; it is important to maintain an interdisciplinary approach when problem solving and working together as a team.

4. Advocating for underrepresented issues

“One thing that is challenging for me is far more difficult for someone else and for them to be taken seriously. We need to make more space for those people.” – Former 18F Consultant 

There are many instances when certain groups are left out of the equation whether intentional or not. It should be every level of the government’s duty to shine a light on these inequalities and how a historically underrepresented group may be affected. This includes providing ample research and support to address these issues, and requires moving past pushback. Serving as a sounding board for those who may traditionally be marginalized is also necessary. 

5. A surplus of empathy

“I had a long standing understanding of the importance of trust in relationships and empathy towards those who are in hard situations. Government is an everyday hard situation.” – Former 18F Consultant 

Government is often stereotyped as monolithic in process, leaving little room for understanding and humanistic qualities, but this is most certainly not the case. Most public service employees must possess high levels of empathy, navigating different experiences and circumstances by understanding others’ wants, needs, and pain points. Their jobs are to represent and understand those who they are serving. Without a semblance of awareness of the needs of residents, it is difficult to make accurate decisions that represent the population. An emphasis on human-centered design thinking allows professionals to understand, create, and modify systems to better serve those they are affecting. This allows for great amounts of quantitative and qualitative research in order to understand the environment. 

6. Development of “power skills”

“A job in this field is 90% about building trust and relationships.” – Former USDS Consultant 

In one of my interviews, a leader in the field described often overlooked skills, traditionally labeled as “soft skills,” or more ideally, “power skills,” as some of the most important to government success. Power skills are commonly defined as technical and non-technical, serving as a hybrid for effective problem solving and communication. There are seven power skills: (1) problem solving, (2) decision making, (3) judgment, (4) communication, (5) self management, (6) collaboration, and (7) value clarification. Each skill builds off of the other serving as an ideal ecosystem of productivity. Whether as a combination of multiple or expertise in one, these skills help produce successful outcomes in government digital service teams and other innovative teams within government. 

 

Although there are currently limited entry-level positions available in the field, it is important to know that there is an acknowledgement of the relevance of emerging professionals in the field. It is also important to recognize the importance of transparency and accessibility of resources in order to establish a workforce prepared to use these skills. Expecting all digital service professionals to have access to developing these resources is not a fair way to judge success considering the current ecosystem. Providing more resources for emerging professionals is a key objective in our work at the Beeck Center. 

While this list is intended to provide a macro view of what may be valued of government digital service professionals, it is important to celebrate differences in approaches, experiences, and exposure to obtaining these skills. Providing clearer, more accessible pathways for emerging professionals is just the beginning. 

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com.

This is the second in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce.
Read the first blog: Encouraging the Next Generation of Digital Service Professionals to Work in Government and the final: Skills Needed for Government Digital Service Professionals

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

Before starting graduate school, I thought I knew little about user experience (UX) and what it meant, but I soon realized that it actually encompassed what I’d already been doing since I began my post-secondary education. I studied psychology and communication at the University of Pittsburgh before coming to Georgetown to pursue a career at the intersection of social impact, design, and research. Working with nonprofits and organizations such as the Beeck Center, I realized the value user experience brings to serving all people for whom government was intended, not just those government thinks they are positively affecting. What I really appreciated about the premise of UX, was the inherent effect of serving the public by creating new or modified solutions to existing, systemic problems.

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
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Those with lived experience know best what can help them and how they would like to receive support. Although this concept of UX research is still relatively new in government, it is becoming the norm as more governments focus on the best way to serve the public. At the core of UX is ensuring that users find value in what you are providing

In any public sector organization, UX methods are imperative to successfully create, deliver, implement, and improve systems. It is easy to rely on third-party vendors that offer easily accessible service delivery, tailored to their specific team and there is nothing wrong with that. But a basic understanding of human-centered design within the public sector organization can help create efficient, innovative, and cost-effective solutions in-house, and ensure that any services provided by vendors align with the same characteristics. For example, the New Jersey Office of Innovation and Colorado Digital Service have both created dedicated teams that are able to cost-effectively deliver services, such as a streamlined unemployment website and COVID-19 Information Hub through human-centered design (HCD) influenced procurement processes. Making these efforts standardized and easily accessible is an imperative towards better serving all people.   

In fact, it’s helpful for any government employee to receive HCD training so they can ensure their work truly values the ideas of others alongside their own. What becomes difficult is sourcing and providing a healthy space for UX professionals in government teams and the needed bandwidth for establishing this government wide initiatives similar to Usability.gov’s stance on a user-centered approach. Alongside those with more technical skills, the voices of those historically considered to possess “soft skills” should be seen as compliments rather than opposites. Without the ability to analyze and deconstruct complex systems, language, and products, our government remains at a disadvantage when it comes to delivering services. 

honeycomb graphic of 7 basic traits of user experience
Factors that Influence UX. At the core of UX is ensuring that users find value in what you are providing to them. Credit: Usability.gov

In order to better understand the breadth of problems UX research and design can solve, the table below describes potentially effective examples of UX within government. These, along with other methods, can be taught through various platforms such as online training, bootcamps, and educational YouTube videos in order to better develop an iterative process of service delivery through internal teams. Bloomberg Philanthropies funds innovation teams (i-teams) that encourage  city leaders to use a design and innovation lens to tackle big problems and deliver better results.

Each method can be used in almost any stage of the digital service lifecycle, although the Nielsen Norman Group suggests specific guidelines in their UX research cheat sheet. Usability.gov suggests in order for there to be a meaningful and valuable user experience, information must be useful, usable, desirable, findable, accessible, and credible.


Effective Examples of UX in Government
MethodDescriptionWhat This May Look Like in Government
Card SortingA technique that asks users to group content and functionalities into open or closed categories giving input on content hierarchy, organization and flow.Asking users of the FAFSA website to describe key elements of the digital service, then categorize into schemas.
Needs Assessment
A systematic process for determining and addressing needs or "gaps" between current conditions and desired conditions or "wants".
Asking users internally + externally of a service, such as Veterans Pension Program, what needs to happen in order to make the interaction successful.
Empathy Mapping

A collaborative visualization used to articulate what is already known about the user. It externalizes knowledge about users in order to create a shared understanding of user needs that aids in the decision making process.Learning more about what the users are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing while filling out their 2020 Census questionnaire online.
Persona Creation for Journey Mapping

A relatable snapshot of the target audience that highlights demographics, behaviors, needs and motivations through the creation of a fictional character. Then, a diagram that explores the steps taken by the user(s) as they engage with the service is created.What the average user experiences while accessing a SSA-16 form while applying for disability and what steps they experience throughout the process.
Rapid Prototyping

An iterative approach to the development of the services involving quickly creating mock-ups of a system before it is built in production.In line with Agile Product Management, New Jersey Office of Innovation’s creation of the New Jersey Career Network, an online career coaching tool to help people experiencing long-term unemployment plan and manage their job search.

To aid in this process, the Beeck Center’s work on Public Interest Technology Field Building is focused on ways to build credibility and capacity for the field of government digital services. Within the umbrella of digital services, roles such as UX researchers and designers are slowly becoming more common in government innovation teams. Through our research understanding the government digital service field and what workers in this field need, we want to help strengthen those existing roles and establish more pathways for promotion and career support, as well as help other teams recognize the value of these skills and create new roles. We are partnering with and building on the work that people in the civic tech and digital government community have been leading for years, including organizations like the AGL Association which is providing support for the community of government professionals working in tech and digital service roles. 

Becoming more informed about what residents experience when using different government platforms will not only improve the quality of the platforms and the work of the employee teams, but the reputation of the government as committed to serving people. It ultimately leads to greater trust in government when the systems work well and services are seamlessly delivered.

Often, collective memory will reinforce the narrative that the government is just “doing the best they can” with the resources they have, but we should be asking more of our government, while also expressing patience, to create better services when they affect such a large population. The foundations of UX make this possible. By employing empathy and methodological research we are able to expect thoughtful solutions to these complex problems that have the potential to change our lives. 

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com

This is the first in a three-part series on the American government digital service workforce. 
Read parts two and three: Why Governments Should Prioritize UX for Everyone and Skills Needed for Government Digital Service Professionals

November 11, 2020 – By Hayley Pontia

It should be startling that less than 5% of federal government employees are between the ages of 22-29. Not only are young professionals willing to adapt and learn potentially more readily than those fixed in a system, but they may also be more capable of helping governments overcome technological problems by proactively using data and technology to better carry out their missions in this digital age. 

Ironically, some of the most knowledgeable people in the areas of technology and digital services are those Generation Z and Millennials who grew up with technology and are newer to entering the workforce — those same 22-29-year-olds barely represented in state, local, or federal government. They are the “digital natives” who can quickly adapt and learn new technological skills. They already possess the foundation that many in government may actively be working toward or relying on others to support. Because this talent pool is eager to jump into public service roles, technology and innovation leaders should focus more efforts on the recruitment and career development of this cohort of emerging professionals. Digital natives are a valuable asset to any organization and need career pathways towards government digital service. 

Cover of Reimagining the Field for Emerging Government Digital Service Professionals
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In March 2020, a group of student Mozilla Builders launched Impactful, an online platform for technologists to develop their careers in social good by connecting them with socially-impactful opportunities and with other impact-driven technologists. Recently, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, community platforms such as Remote Students serve as a place where students and recent grads can share opportunities, events, resources, and help each other achieve their career dreams within the tech field.

Those of us coming out of current university programs are learning cutting-edge skills in human-centered design, focusing on how to put people at the center of systems and processes. These skills mean newer, digital native workers are more oriented towards public service, but there are still not as many opportunities available as there are in the private sector. Existing government teams that work in these modern ways, such as the U.S. Digital Service, 18F, Veterans Experience Office, New Jersey Office of Innovation, and San Jose Civic Innovation team are still in early days themselves and most have not yet been able to fully fill in this early part of the career pipeline. 

This isn’t to say that those already in the field aren’t trying to create more opportunities for emerging professionals. It is important to recognize the many barriers that existed for the inception of digital service teams as they exist now. But as those teams mature, agency leaders must focus more effort on the career development of this junior part of the pipeline.

Technologists, data scientists, and designers are changing the way government approaches carrying out its mission, and those individuals are also acknowledging the importance of creating entry points to civic tech-related jobs for recent graduates. But government leaders need to provide incentives and pathways obtainable for those seeking digital service in the public sector. 

This requires supporting the current ecosystem of professionals in order to allow them space to mentor those entering the field. Coding it Forward launched in 2017 to establish summer fellowships for current students in the federal government and those students are matched with mentors working in the public interest technology field. It’s a great model, but is limited in scope and duration. Roles in places like USDS, 18F, and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship allow mid- and senior-level professionals to focus on following created pathways through these organizations. But what is missing from the equation are pathways for people looking to gain experience in the more interdisciplinary field of public sector technology as junior- or entry-level professionals. Using the framework from research conducted by fellow students last summer, and through the work of the Upskilling the Government Technology Workforce project I’ve been leading at the Beeck Center, we are supporting public sector and public interest teams to prepare to bring in a younger generation digital service skills to actively challenge systems that require modern solutions. 

The Beeck Center is tapping into the network of digital service professionals through user research in order to better understand what makes current digital service individuals successful and what they are looking for in those new to the field. 

This year, I have been working to enable change for new talent by researching, listening, and creating useful resources for those relatively new to the field of government digital service delivery. As I head out into the workforce myself, I hope to challenge these existing systems that make it difficult for someone eager to use technology for good.

Hayley Pontia is a student analyst at the Beeck Center. She earned a Master of Arts in Communication, Culture and Technology in May 2020 with a focus on user experience research and is currently looking for a pathway into public service. Connect with her at https://www.linkedin.com/in/hayleypontia/. Other examples of her portfolio can be found at  https://www.hayleypontia.com.

October 15, 2020 – By Shaily Acharya

Every month, my dad sends a portion of his income to his parents in Nepal. This transfer of money, typically sent back to a person’s home country, is known as a remittance payment. Nepal’s remittance inflows account for about a third of their GDP, and has a bigger impact on the country’s development than foreign direct investment and net official development assistance. Without realizing it, I’ve been part of one of the largest remittance economies in the world for my entire life!

World map showing remittance inflows as a percentage of GDP
Remittance payments are significant parts of many global economies. Credit: Pew Research Center
elderly man and woman stand side-by-side in Nepal
The author’s grandparents in Nepal. Credit: Shaily Acharya

My grandparents were fortunate enough to work in formal industries their whole lives, which gave them access to regular banking services and technology, making the remittance process much easier. However, in Nepal, 70% of the economically active population is involved in the informal economy, which means they face barriers to accessing key financial services. This problem is not unique to just one country – globally, unbanked and underbanked populations face obstacles when trying to access both financial and digital services. 

As more of these remittance payments move electronically across the globe, three main obstacles must be addressed to include unbanked and underbanked populations: Infrastructure, Information, and Trust. 

INFRASTRUCTURE: Underbanked populations are more likely to lack critical resources, such as a phone with banking capabilities, a bank account linked to their phone number, language inclusivity in mobile applications, dependable internet connections, etc. Even if the remitting population has access to the basic infrastructure (through their workplace, for example), it is very likely that the recipients of the payments will not have adequate resources to allow the person-to-person transaction to be completed. This problem is systemic globally as women and minorities around the world bear the brunt of this issue far more than other populations. 

Public-private partnerships between governments and technology companies are needed in order to give the capacity to digitize remittance payments to underbanked populations. For example, India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) allows for digital remittance transactions on feature phones, not only smartphones, opening the system to a larger portion of the population. While the public sector is effective in creating initial infrastructure policies, its risk-averse nature leaves experimentation to the private sector to come up with more innovative solutions, so taking some of these risks must be incentivized. For example, Vodafone in Kenya implemented M-Pesa, a digital payments platform that followed national regulations to bring unbanked populations into the formal financial structure.

The author goes deeper into the topic of digital remittances.

INFORMATION: Even if technologies are available to ease the process of sending and receiving remittances, much of the target population is unaware of them. And if they do know the technologies exist, they likely lack the basic financial and technological literacy needed to best utilize the tools, putting remittance application usage squarely on the fault lines of the global digital divide. For anyone who has struggled to get a parent or grandparent to use a new app to chat, imagine how much harder it gets when money is involved.

Technological financial literacy education would mitigate this issue. A field study by IDinsight and Good Business Lab (GBL) in Bangalore, India, looked at how different training sessions for female garment factory workers would change digital remittance usage patterns. Ultimately, they found that both group and individual training sessions on the use of digital payment applications to send remittances were effective. When the training is conducted locally, over a long period of time, in individual communities, it has the ability to truly transform how migrant workers and their families understand remittance technologies. 

TRUST: The most common method of making payments among unbanked and underbanked populations is through informal networks of trusted local leaders, business owners, and merchants. The risks of this system are obvious – there is no way to ensure that the “middle men” of the transaction actually complete the job or if they take a portion of the money for themselves. Despite that, for those accustomed to this method of remitting money, it is very difficult to trust a mobile application to do the same job, especially if the benefits are not self-evident and the process is not transparent. According to Xavier Martin Palomas of the Digital Frontiers Institute, “even though, on average, online services are less expensive than cash-to-cash services, most remittance customers seem happy with their money transfer agent.” The issue of trust builds off of the lack of information, but there are a variety of other individual-level factors that are not as easily addressed. 

Sometimes, even education and information are not sufficient in building trust in these unfamiliar technologies – the use of the technology by trusted individuals, however, can signal the acceptance of digital remittances in individual communities. If the current “middle-men” of the informal remittance pathways increase their use of digital payment apps, we will get closer to reaching the target population than training and education alone.

These obstacles to the digitization of remittances do not exist in isolation: in order to create effective change, all three must be addressed simultaneously, requiring large-scale collaboration between private sector foundations and businesses, community organizations, and government institutions, along with any other actors in the space. For my grandparents and millions like them, the need is obvious and now is the time.

Shaily Acharya is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. As a Student Analyst in the Fair Finance Portfolio, Shaily explored issues of equity and inclusion in our current financial systems in order to create a more even financial playing field for all.

This is part 2 of a series. Read Part 1

September 21, 2020 – By Betsy Zeidman, Cristina Alaniz and Iliriana Kaçaniku

Since America’s inception, immigrants and refugees have come to the U.S. in search of a better life. They settle with or near family and seek employment using the experience they bring from their home countries. They may access resources provided by government or social service agencies, or in the case of refugees, resettlement agencies. They receive services for a set number of weeks and success is determined by how many find a job upon completing the program. But little incentive exists to find a “quality” job, that is, one with equitable benefits and compensation, support in and out of the workplace, and growth potential. They often end up working in grocery stores or as home health aides, and are frequently overlooked by their customers and clients.

But this may be changing. The global COVID-19 pandemic has refocused our country on the value of “essential workers,” and heightened awareness of the large numbers of immigrants and refugees that compose this workforce. At the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, we see the many barriers these workers face in trying to integrate and advance in the workplace, and the long-term impact of such barriers on our society and economy as a whole. With the support of the World Education Services (WES) Mariam Assefa Fund, we have explored expanding the economic integration and mobility of immigrants and refugees through financing workforce training.

Recognizing that this is a multi-faceted challenge requiring multi-faceted approaches, we recently convened two meetings of individuals, intentionally selected for their diverse expertise in workforce training, immigrant integration and finance. During the first session, we focused on development and training programs and identified a number of best practices for programs serving this population. Our second session explored ways to finance effective training programs, which we summarize here.

The workforce development field is large and scattered with many players and fragmented funding, with the path for immigrants and refugees even more complex (See Figure 1). We also have little data on many critical elements, such as how many immigrants and refugees participate in workforce training programs (as they are not tracked as a discrete group); and how much it costs to train a worker (as important ancillary costs are rarely tabulated). We do know that money for these programs comes from government (federal, state and local), philanthropic grants, the immigrants themselves, and employers seeking to upskill their workers – with some supporting the programs and some offsetting the cost to workers. These funds then get distributed to organizations through charitable grants, loans, “earn & learn” apprenticeships, public-private partnerships, and more. Together, these financing efforts are important, but a large capital gap remains, as workforce development’s demand for funds simply outweighs its supply.

Chart of Marketplace of Immigrant Workforce Development and Funding
Figure 1 – Marketplace of Immigrant Workforce Development and Funding.

In seeking options to fill that gap, discussion participants agreed that capital supporting workforce development programs should be patient and flexible; how to find and deploy such capital is the question. There were multiple options, but six key recommendations emerged.

Clarify the problem, identify the program(s) that could solve it, and then determine the most appropriate source and form of capital to cover the cost. Discussions around funding often submit to the lure of innovative financing vehicles that can become overly complex and difficult to implement, and organizations lose sight of the problem at hand – immigrants and refugees need quality jobs, and employers need trained workers. Focus on those needs first, and then figure out the best funding tool.

Structure financing to reward and incentivize measurable outcomes. If the goal is higher wage jobs, establish benchmarks for measurement, track data rigorously, and share results. Pay-for-Success (PFS) models champion this type of outcomes-based financing, and there are several workforce PFS pilots underway. Two examples include:

  • The Massachusetts Pathways to Economic Advancement Social Impact Bond (SIB) raised over $12 million from private investors to front the cost of expanding vocational English language lessons designed for immigrants & refugees in Boston. Launched in 2017, investors received returns early, and trainees saw increased earnings as measured by administrative wage data.
  • Philadelphia Works, the city’s Workforce Development Board, is piloting a slightly different SIB, one that trains workers for a single employer. The employer (in this case, Comcast) is the ultimate payor, reimbursing the non-profit based on preset targets for both employment and retention. A third party monitors and measures results. Comcast’s involvement at the outset ensures that the training supports actual jobs.
  • There are also publicly funded programs that tie payment to performance measures. For example, Texas State Technical College receives payments from the state based on the earnings of its students over their first five years post graduation.

Align financing with growth. These variations on the PFS models use growth as the proxy for success and help mitigate risks to the trainee. Examples include:

  • An Income Sharing Agreement (ISA) allows people to enroll in education programs for low or no cost, and pay tuition over time as a share of their earnings. These have traditionally been the province of students in 4-year college programs and challenged due to their high interest rates. The San Diego Workforce Partnership (SDWP) is piloting a student-centric ISA: interest rates are reasonable and no repayment is due until a student’s annual salary is at least $40,000. SDWP is the first Workforce Board to try an ISA.
  • The Career Impact Bond (CIB), developed by Social Finance, is similar to the ISA and the SIB, as it draws together a wide variety of stakeholders (employers, training organizations, donors and investors) to advance economic mobility among overlooked communities. The model integrates incentives and aligns risk among all parties:
    • the training entity fronts some of the initial costs, with repayment from investors;
    • high quality training for sectors in need of workers (in this case IT) maximizes job placement;
    • building in philanthropic support allows the CIB to finance wraparound services (linked to higher completion rates), and
    • student-centric terms similar to those used by SDWP increase repayment.
  • Revenue-Based Models: Where ISAs enable individuals to access training and pay for it once they generate income, revenue-based financing allows commercial entities to access capital and repay it once they generate income. This financing (also known as royalty financing) could serve as an alternative to debt for training organizations that support immigrants and refugees (and is of particular interest to Muslim immigrants whose tradition rejects paying interest). However an organization must have a clear plan to generate revenue, e.g., a contract to train the workforce of a stable employer.

Braid in different streams of capital – public, philanthropic and private – in two key ways:

  1. Staging: Program needs evolve over time, so staging sources and structures of capital may make sense. Government and philanthropy support training for basic skills, such as English language learning. As workers seek more specialized training, employer support kicks in.
  2. Blended Models: Workplace solutions increasingly appeal to impact investors and foundations seeking opportunities for mission-related investments. A blended capital fund may support a training program, where sources with low- to no-return expectations (e.g., philanthropic funds’ program-related investments) could absorb risk that private capital generally wouldn’t bear.

Research all available pools of capital. Important sources of capital for workforce training and development can sometimes be overlooked or underutilized, so supporters should be sure they are looking into all available options. A few examples include:

  • Government funds resting in federal, state and local programs. For example, many community colleges providing workforce training can receive funding for administrative services from SNAP E&T (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education and Training). SNAP E&T also covers a student’s tuition and fees, and a portion of ancillary expenses, such as books, dependent care and transportation, as do Pell Grants. Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) channel funds to local workforce departments.
  • Equity to help build businesses that provide or support training, participate in purchasing cooperatives and make investments in social enterprises that provide critical support services.
  • Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) as useful (and underutilized) partners. They exist amid the targeted populations and know the communities’ needs. They are patient and flexible, and often provide a bridge to mainstream capital. In the recent economic crisis, they have been invaluable and are largely limited only by their size.

Keep it local. Local community partnerships can finance effective, sustainable workforce training programs. As an example, the Alamo Colleges Westside Education and Training Center is a specialty campus for workforce development of immigrants and refugees on the West Side of San Antonio, Texas. It represents a collaboration among the city, local economic development department, community college, school district, small businesses, nonprofits and funders, and offers targeted academic programs and social service services. When the last Levi’s plant closed the facility became available and the full community rallied. Government, foundations, and employers provide financial support.

In partnership with the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, the Beeck Center began exploring effective ways to finance and expand the economic integration of immigrants and refugees through workforce training a little over a year ago, when the world was a very different place. The arrival of COVID-19 clarified the importance of these efforts, and highlighted areas of opportunity, including:

  • We must get better data on the immigrant and refugee population. They are not simply a subset of low-income communities.
  • We know that these efforts work best when all stakeholders have skin in the game, so we must embed such mechanisms into partnerships of all sorts: labor-management partnerships; public-private partnerships; community collaborations, to name a few.
  • We know the field needs patient, flexible capital, so we must tap the ultimate patient capital, philanthropy. However, funders must not simply hand over grants. They should lean into risk mitigation and use their funds to catalyze the participation of new providers of capital.
  • We must determine which outcomes-based models work best, and for whom and replicate those with attention to each market’s local context.
  • We must consider the systemic issues that hinder immigrants and refugee workers, and advocate for incentives that support pro-worker programs.
  • We must remember that amid all these challenges, opportunities exist for those who remain aware. For instance, the Building Skills Partnership (BSP) recognized that before businesses could reopen after the COVID19 quarantine, they would need deep cleaning and sanitizing. Given the numbers, this would create a huge demand for workers. The Labor-Management Partnership created a program to train its janitors to meet this need.

We look forward to sharing these and additional lessons we’ve learned over the past year, and hope to help inform the broader diversity of stakeholders in the workforce development field as they move forward.

Betsy Zeidman is a Fellow in the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center

Iliriana Kaçaniku is a Consultant in the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center

Cristina Alaniz is a Student Analyst in the Fair Finance team with the Beeck Center.

September 16, 2020 – By Cristina Alaniz 

Understanding key components that drive successful social service programs, specifically centered around workforce development training, is a theme that I have explored over the course of the last year. As a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, I focused on a project, supported by the WES Mariam Assefa Fund, to identify approaches that could drive additional capital to workforce training and development of immigrant and refugee workers. 

As the world enters its eighth month of the pandemic and ongoing economic uncertainty, vulnerable communities face increasing barriers to economic prosperity and social inclusion. During this trying time, the world must not forget to continue to support these populations and equip them with the tools necessary for survival. Refugees are a group especially at risk. According to the United Nations High Refugee Commissioner (UNHCR) the current global refugee crisis has hit a record high of approximately 79.5 million forcibly displaced people. As the pandemic hinders the ability of countries to welcome refugees and provide adequate resources, digital gaps and disparities in access to healthcare will likely heighten the frustrations and needs of this population.  

Resettlement States provide refugees with legal and physical protection, including access to civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights similar to those enjoyed by nationals. (UNHCR)  By way of this, the States adhere to the delivery of a “social inclusion framework” that creates opportunities for refugees to develop their ability to reach self-sufficiency. According to the World Bank, social inclusion barriers include not only legal systems, land and labor markets, but also attitudes, beliefs, or perceptions. This is crucial, as cultural barriers are predominant factors that may prevent immigrant and refugee communities from reaching social inclusion rapidly or at all. As resettlement and welcoming efforts are made around the world, societies begin to recognize that a social inclusion framework is multi-faceted and blends with the economic development of the State. 

Unfortunately, the health of our global economy is weak and is predicted to shrink by at least 5.2% this year. U.S. unemployment continues to fluctuate and stands at 8.4%. These uncertainties decrease opportunities for vulnerable populations, as well as pose a major problem for States; a capital problem. With funding fragmented across government-funded programs and an expected uptick in demand for social services from both refugees and national citizens, how can States look to private funding to help solve the capital problem and create a sustainable social inclusion framework? As impact investors seek to use their capital to address structural barriers, can we rely on them to make blended capital (a mix of government, non-profit grants, equity investors and lenders) a more permanent solution for funding social services programs?

A Solution: The Social Impact Bond (SIB) 

The Social Impact Bond (SIB), “is an innovative financing mechanism that shifts financial risk from a traditional funder — usually government — to a new investor, who provides up-front capital to scale an evidence-based social program to improve outcomes for a vulnerable population. If an independent evaluation shows that the program achieved agreed-upon outcomes, then the investment is repaid by the traditional funder. If not, the investor takes the loss.” (Urban Institute) 

Chart of Social Impact Bond
A model of a social impact bond. Credit: “A Critical Reflection on Social Impact Bonds”, Stanford Social Innovation Review, May 1, 2018

Over 175  SIBs exist around the world. These vehicles have largely focused on financing social welfare and employment projects and can help reduce the cost of public services for taxpayers. The U.K., home to the first SIB (2010) has the largest market exposure, followed by the U.S. As of 2015, SIBs have gradually made their way into the developing world, where they are often called “Development Impact Bonds”. The average life of a SIB is typically 2-5 years and the number of individuals served varies by motivation for project, project objective and issue area. As an example, we look to Nordic efforts, where social inclusion frameworks are well thought out and incorporate beneficiary feedback. Finland, a country who sought impact investing initiatives, designed a SIB that solves for rapid employment integration of immigrants and refugees, satisfying a key measure of its innovative social inclusion and participatory framework for arriving immigrants and refugees in Finland. This project also helps the country reduce resettlement/social expenditures.

Finland: A Case of Compassion for Inclusion of Immigrant Blue-Collar Workers 

In Finland the admission limit of 750 refugees is set in consultation amongst various government agencies. The “Koto-SIB” program is an integration social impact bond structured to help with integration of immigrants who have been granted a residence permit, but are not Finnish citizens. The demand for rapid employment was evident and Finland knew that an influx of asylees and refugees would benefit from the Koto-SIB. This €10 million project attracted strategic partnerships amongst various stakeholders and diverse employment sectors, that enable immigrants to train and work in blue collar jobs. From 2015 to 2016, project evaluators explored blue collar job pathways that would prepare immigrants and refugees to enter the Finnish workforce, by designing a model that would develop an individual’s work life skills, societal and cultural capabilities. Susanna Pieponnen, a senior advisor at the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment, who helps oversee the Koto-SIB program, provides insights on the structure of the model, outcomes and some of the lessons learned thus far. We spoke via phone, the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Who was your target group?

Susanna Pieponnen: Our target group: unemployed immigrants between the ages of 17-63, who were ready to work, had a desire and motivation to learn Finnish and accept blue collar jobs. We aimed to target 2,000 individuals over a 3-year period beginning in 2016. The first cohort began in 2016 and currently we are in our 4th cohort. 

Tell me about the feasibility and structuring of Koto-SIB. What do you think Finland did differently from other SIB models that target immigrant challenges?

The program aims to place immigrants in jobs within 4-6 months. It is designed for adults who know what type of job they want. The program helps participants learn basic language, navigate cultural settings in the workplace and material that is sector specific. So, it’s very cultural. But mostly, it is flexible. 

How is success measured?

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment will commission an external evaluation after the trial. In the evaluation, the taxes paid and unemployment benefits received by those who participated in the SIB project are compared to the taxes paid and unemployment benefits received by the control group. From the State’s perspective, the trial is a success if the taxes paid by those participating in the experiment are higher and unemployment benefits they received are lower than in the control group. We believe that all parties will benefit, so this is a win-win approach for employers, immigrants, investors and society. 

What are some of the lessons learned? 

One mistake the government learned early on was assuming immigrants and refugees had to study for a longer period of time and go through a traditional 4-year college. When end-users were asked what they thought of blue collar jobs (ie. drivers, kitchen cooks, hospitality roles), they believed that once a bus driver, always a bus driver. Their confusion about blue collar jobs was contributing to exclusion.  Culturally, the jobs were not up to par, but explaining the value of blue-collar jobs and providing them with pathways to advancement, made job placement easier. There seemed to be more understanding of how they could transition from blue-collar jobs to white-collar jobs as we delivered training and reminded them that every job is valuable. 

Can the U.S. apply lessons from the Finland SIB model to solve for rapid employment of refugees in the U.S.? If so, why or why not? 

The U.S. holds the largest refugee admissions in the world, but recently has welcomed the lowest numbers in its history, with less than 8,000 refugee admissions in 2020. Federal, state and local governments contract with social service delivery organizations to deliver  resettlement services, such as job training, English language instruction, similar to the structure in Finland. Refugee admission processes are similar between both countries. Finland welcomes refugees under the refugee quota determined by the state budget; in the U.S., refugee admissions are determined by a presidential determination in consultation with federal and state offices. However, a significant difference amongst the two countries is the timeframe of integration for a refugee. In Finland it is a 3 year process assessed by local employment offices from the day of arrival. In the U.S., a refugee is expected to reach integration within 6-8 months and interacts with multiple service providers. With limited time for integration, the U.S. could use rapid employment advancements as a universal framework. Another key difference is that Finland has leveraged the need of rapid employment as a solution, not a problem. With fragmented funding and a dismantled resettlement program in the U.S., now is the time to revisit the existing gaps of our domestic social inclusion framework and adapt to better solutions. 

The first U.S. workforce SIB, the JVS/Social Finance “Massachusetts Pathways to Economic Advancement Pay for Success Project,” is already demonstrating success, both in terms of returns to investors and impact for participants. The SIB launched in 2017, to support 2,000 adult English language learners seeking to transition to employment, higher wage jobs, and/or higher education. Centered around English language needs, the model includes a workforce development component and rapid employment. The Massachusetts PFS model targets English learners who are potentially past the 6-8 month integration period. Both SIB models serve their States’ social inclusion frameworks, however, Finland has implemented the model from  initial points of resettlement and integration, whereas in the U.S., it picks up where initial resettlement efforts end. There are many commonalities between both models, so why is this not replicated beyond the state of Massachusetts and integrated to initial resettlement and social inclusion efforts?

As funding for social adjustment programs becomes scarce across all levels of government in the U.S., innovations such as the “Koto-SIB” model, may help serve as a blueprint for local U.S. state governments to advance rapid employment placement and integration of immigrant and refugee communities. The “potential” if applied, could help generate a win-win approach across governments, local communities, emerging employment sectors (e-commerce and agriculture) and investors looking to expand corporate social responsibility (CSR).

*A special thanks to Susanna Pieponnen of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment in Finland and Mika Pykko of The Finish Innovation Fund Sitra, for their support and collaboration. 


NOTE: Cristina also spoke about her work with WES Mariam Assefa Fund. Read her interview.


Cristina Alaniz was a student analyst with the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University and continues to be a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service (SIS).
Linkedin: http://linkedin.com/in/cristinalaniz Email: ca3919a@student.american.edu

This is part 1 of a series. Read Part 2

August 28, 2020 – By Betsy Zeidman + Cristina Alaniz

In the past six months, the U.S. has lived through the convergence of three crises: the worst pandemic in 100 years, the worst economic decline since the Great Depression, and multiple incidents of police violence that triggered unrest in many cities as society attempted to reckon with longstanding racial disparities. These events have generated chaos and insecurity; and forced us to rethink how to live and work, how to educate ourselves and our children, and how to keep our families healthy and safe. However, while everyone feels unsettled, some communities face greater disruption than others. This imbalance aggravates existing disparities and challenges the ability of our entire country to rebound.

The most affected groups include native-born communities of color and immigrants and refugees. They are more vulnerable to COVID, generally have less access to medical care and fewer resources to pay for it. The economic hits hit them the hardest. Twenty percent work in industries most affected by the downturn, and many are not eligible for the emergency funds provided by the government. Those who do have jobs fill our “essential” workforce: e.g., home health aides, janitors, grocery store employees, and bus, metro and taxi drivers. If they don’t work, their families suffer, but we suffer too. They need a way back into the workforce, and a way up from their entry-level, subsistence jobs.

With the support of the World Education Services Mariam Assefa Fund, the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation has been exploring how targeted training might help immigrants and refugees integrate into the economy and build career paths. Recognizing that this is a multi-faceted challenge requiring multi-faceted approaches, we recently convened two sessions with a brain trust of experts in not only workforce training and adult education, but immigration integration and finance as well. We included employers and employees from the private sector, the social sector, and government. During the first discussion, we aimed to understand what makes a workforce development program that is high in quality, reasonable to implement and likely to generate measurable impact – providing workers with skills needed by employers; and placing workers on the road toward higher quality, higher wage jobs. The participants’ diversity of experience generated a wide-ranging discussion and some best practices emerged:

  • Engage key parties in designing the program. These parties include: workers, employers, training organizations, immigrant-support groups and funders. Incorporating input from everyone affected by a program increases its likelihood of success. Employers certify that the skills being taught are those for which they have jobs to fill; and it is important to include information and buy-in from the employers’ various stakeholders (e.g., management, human resources, C-Suite). Workers ensure the program will meet their needs with appropriate contextualized English language learning and life demands like child care. 
  • Invest in trusted intermediaries and foster ongoing connections among providers and immigrant groups to generate career pathways. Many of the training organizations noted that the insular nature of immigrant support groups limited their interactions, so spots in the programs remain empty. It makes sense to work with familiar intermediaries, such as community-based organizations, immigrants’ rights groups, and churches. Additionally, in the current climate, immigrants will be much more comfortable participating in something which has been “blessed” by a known party.

Bawi Za Muang fled Burma due to severe and increasingly threatening mistreatment by the military. After struggling to survive for many years without a home, Muang and his family arrived in Des Moines, Iowa in 2013, speaking no English. They persevered, taking English classes and driving lessons, and eventually, Muang found a job with Tyson’s Food. In several of its markets (including Des Moines), Tyson’s has solved the problem of an aging workforce by hiring from local refugee populations. Muang advanced at the company, earning higher wages and eventually buying a house. Along the way, he benefitted from Tyson’s partnership with EMBARC (Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center), a local refugee-led organization. EMBARC attunes Tyson’s to the real needs of its immigrant employees and provides services that help employees acclimate and thrive. In 2019, EMBARC’s Legal Navigator Program helped Muang and his wife obtain citizenship.

  • Incentivize programs that enable immigrants and refugees to access “good” jobs, as opposed to any job. Success in the current system tends to be defined by outputs (number of program graduates, number of placements in jobs) rather than outcomes (wage growth, jobs with benefits, etc.). In addition to providing more to the workers, the immigrants will have more money to spend in the local economy and will pay higher taxes, both of which return value to society. Some new initiatives are trying to focus on outcomes, but the system also needs incentives that enable workforce organizations to support the immigrants in their path toward better jobs (e.g., funds for ongoing assistance, access to networks, etc.).
  • Address digital literacy and digital access. Even before the pandemic heightened the need for facility with technology, digital skills were becoming important to almost all jobs (restaurant workers need to be able to enter orders electronically, much of healthcare uses technology, etc.). Immigrants are less likely to have access to the necessary technology or be able to afford broadband, limiting their ability to access training.

Maria Chavez has been studying English since 2018. She found it difficult to make progress because she didn’t have uninterrupted periods of time to go to class. When mobile-first learning company Cell-ED launched its Million Learner Challenge offering workers in low-quality jobs free access to its curriculum, she jumped at the chance. She listens to lessons over the phone, or receives them by text or message. ”It’s so practical because the class is always there.”

  • Emphasize other transferable skills such as capacity with English, and customer relations, both central to many jobs, in addition to sector-specific training. Formalize certifications, badges or other means of validating skills learned to communicate progress to employers and the broader community.
  • Bring the training to the workplace, including providing employees with the tools they need to participate. This ensures that the training includes the most relevant skills, and acknowledges the challenges immigrants face in trying to build training into a day that may already include more than one job, as well as family care responsibilities. 

Leonor, a janitor at Water Garden business park in Santa Monica, CA, recently completed the Infectious Disease Certification Program; a partnership among the nonprofit, Building Skills Partnership, her labor union, SEIU-USWW, and her employer, Allied Universal. She was grateful that her employer and instructors were committed to investing in her education at work. “It helps to have a supervisor who is very involved in the entire process,” she says. “One thing that stood out to me was that our supervisor was taking the class like everyone else, as if he was one of our peers.”  After the training, Leonor was able to explain to a building tenant at Water Garden the changes that she and her coworkers are making to help mitigate community spread.

  • Create apprenticeship or pre-apprenticeship programs. Partner with employers, trade unions or other relevant entities to develop a clear pathway to more stable employment.

Forrest Sebba was born in the Philippines and had struggled to secure steady work in the U.S. As a transgender person, he was subject to discrimination and suffered from depression. Cooking gave him joy, as it brought back memories of his grandmother. The Los Angeles Hospitality Training Academy’s Registered Culinary Apprenticeship Program, provided in partnership with the U.S. Department of Labor and the State of California, taught the skills he needed, allowed him to build confidence, and introduced him to potential employers. Before completing the apprenticeship, he secured a job as a union cook with the Loews Hollywood Hotel.

  • Build wraparound supports acknowledging the multiple demands on an immigrant’s life. These may include stipends to cover childcare, loaned tablets to trainees that don’t have access to computers, transportation vouchers for in-person training, and more.

There is no single solution to the challenges faced by immigrant and refugee workers (and aspiring workers). Furthermore, because of their tight community bonds, there shouldn’t be a single solution: programs must be culturally sensitive and aligned with the needs of the local community. That said, the lessons highlighted here can be applied toward building effective programs that generate opportunity for immigrants and refugees and unleash a workforce that will contribute to our wellbeing. Our second meeting with the group drilled into financing considerations. 

 

Betsy Zeidman is a Fellow in the Fair Finance team at the Beeck Center

Cristina Alaniz is a Student Analyst in the Fair Finance team with the Beeck Center.

August 28, 2020 – By Angela Guo

The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the importance of the social safety net amidst historic losses and tragedies: mass unemployment, food insecurity, and uninsured healthcare, to name a few. And when it comes to race, a deep dive into the numbers is jarring: Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus, both financially and health-wise — the Black and white unemployment gap widened to 5.3 percentage points in June and the coronavirus is killing Black Americans at a rate three times that of white people. This isn’t a coincidence.

The Black Lives Matter movement is radically changing how we look at our public institutions, personal actions, and historical relationships through the basis of race. The movement has led to the removal of confederate statues, discussions about representation in media, and legislation regarding police funding. These groundbreaking changes result from overdue analyses of how race is integrated into our systems and symbols, in ways many had never thought twice about. The social safety net system consists of welfare programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Unemployment Insurance, that provide basic economic, food, and housing support to millions of low-income Americans. As one of our nation’s most prominent systems in a time of crisis, the social safety net must be examined in the context of race.

Overt to Covert: The History of the U.S. Social Safety Net

“I understand they’re going through a fraud situation, but that doesn’t pay my bills,” Karen Womack told The Washington Post. After Karen verified her identity for unemployment benefits with the state of Washington and the state’s unemployment office cut her aid anyway, she found herself caught up in a system that has institutionalized racism since its founding in 1935.

The U.S. government passed the Social Security Act of 1935 providing an early safety net for elderly, unemployed, and disadvantaged Americans, described by President Franklin Roosevelt as “some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family.” Yet, lawmakers codified the first formal safety net with racism; unemployment insurance was a key component of that law, but agricultural workers and personal service workers were ineligible, leaving 65% of Black American workers without access to unemployment insurance, compared to 27% of white workers. Again, this isn’t a coincidence.

Racist sentiments have echoed throughout the years of discussion around social safety net policy. In 1976, Ronald Reagan leveraged the “welfare queen” narrative in his presidential campaign to describe a Black woman who used “80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans’ benefits for four nonexistent deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare.” This narrative further fueled racial animosity towards Black Americans and unfairly associated them with using fraud to exploit the safety net.


A Brief History of the Social Safety Net in the United States

Expand this timeline to full screen

Politicians today replicate the welfare queen narrative with a focus on preventing fraud instead of finding ways to effectively deliver benefits to vulnerable Americans. The Beeck Center’s Social Safety Net Benefits Research details the technological barriers in the social safety net imposed by, for example, the digital divide and remote identity proofing when accessing benefits. While current safety net policies don’t share the same overt racist language used to construct the first policies, structural racism compounded over decades still poses obstacles for Black individuals from equitably accessing the safety net. Not only does structural racism prevail in the social safety net, but it also presents itself in other institutions in the United States such as the criminal justice system, education system, and child welfare system.

Patterns of racism in our social institutions often go unacknowledged and unchallenged since they have become ingrained in our society. We must create and implement data and technology solutions that focus on eliminating the racial inequities found in the social safety net system and other public institutions. Working through the lens of anti-racism is a critical requirement for the work of social impact.

What We Can Do

After looking at the history of the social safety net in the United States, we can begin to go beyond the surface of the problems we aim to address. As leaders in the social impact space, we must:

  • Understand the institutionalization of racism in our systems and institutions while designing direct solutions. Without deepening our understanding of racism in the foundation of our social institutions, we may inadvertently scale ideas that are merely the modernized versions of the exclusionary practices from the past.
  • Constantly analyze the tools we use for social impact. We often see technological advances as efficient tools for advancing social impact. Ruha Benjamin’s book Race After Technology details the intersection of race and technology, and how emerging tech and data tools covertly leverage racism in design solutions. Though unintentional, there can be harmful effects on the populations they were meant to serve when we use tools that were historically meant to discriminate.
  • Emphasize process over product in our work. Product-oriented work often neglects the complexities of the problem itself, and the product instead becomes a blanket on the problem we aim to address through social impact. When taking more time to explore the process of our work, we can be better equipped with the methods and capabilities for achieving equitable and sustainable social impact through the lens of racial equity.
  • Evaluate the positions we hold, both personally and professionally. Are leaders in decision-making and social influence BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color)? Are we designing solutions with and for oppressed communities, or are we instead pushing them aside when making decisions?

This isn’t an exhaustive list of steps we can take in our role as social innovators. Anti-racism is an ongoing process that requires active learning coupled with meaningful action. By acting intentionally with a deep comprehension of the intricacies of structural racism in social impact, we can begin to break down the systems and patterns that perpetuate racism and exclusion within our systems and ensure that our social safety net is there to equitably serve all Americans when they need it.

Angela Guo was a Summer 2020 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center supporting the Social Safety Net Benefits Research Project. She is a senior at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill studying Economics and Public Policy.

August 14, 2020 – By Rachel Wilder

I arrived at the Beeck Center two weeks after graduating with my bachelor’s degrees in Economics and International Studies from the University of Central Florida. I came to D.C. from Orlando with two suitcases, a cloud of after-college uncertainty, and many questions. I wanted to make a career that let me follow my interests and work for something good – but what should that look like? What paths were possible for someone like me? And with so many potential paths, how could I choose? I suspect these questions are more common than not for students, especially those who are interested in or currently working at the Beeck Center. If that’s you, I hope that parts of my experience resonate and serve as encouragement to make the most of the opportunity.

With all my questions, the Beeck Center was the perfect place for me to land. I stepped into the Student Analyst role alongside a team of undergraduate and graduate students with academic backgrounds ranging from mathematics to sociology to public policy. I split my time each day between projects with two different fellows and the communications team, engaging in a fascinating cross section of social impact work.

At its heart, the Beeck Center is a community. My summer there was defined by the connections I made through coffees, seminars, brown bags, and countless casual but important conversations with students, staff, and fellows over laptops in the center’s open workspace. The people I met brought big ideas and practical advice from their diverse life experiences, helping me digest and reflect on the questions I had.

This community in turns challenged, taught, and reassured me. We passed an advance copy of Anand Giridharadas’s “Winners Take All” around the office and had an ongoing, spirited debate about the role of elites in social change. In one of our weekly Student Analyst workshops, I was excited to map the path from inputs to impacts in a social program for the first time. I worked with and learned from Lisa Hall, whose decades-long dedication to economic justice was modeled in her daily efforts to ensure the value of inclusive community impact investing. Through the Beeck Center I attended gatherings of the Women Innovators & Leaders Network and Women of Color in Community Development, where I connected with still more people who inspired me. Betsy Zeidman discussed her nonlinear career path with the Student Analysts over a brown bag lunch, assuring us that a life of meaningful work is often not conventional or planned from the beginning; I exhaled in relief.

I met too many important mentors and friends that summer to list, so I won’t try. I will say that just as we mapped the impact of our projects at the Beeck Center, I see the impact of the Beeck Center on me. The many conversations I had helped me narrow down my goal for my next step to pursuing work in my mom’s home country, India. Once I made that decision, the Beeck Center team rallied to give me support and help with connections, including a referral to the Indian nonprofit where I secured my first full-time job.

three women looking at a clipboard
The author (center) doing some event planning with colleagues in India, January 2020.

In the fall of 2018, I moved on to what would be an amazing 16 months living and working in Hyderabad at Naandi Foundation. During that time I analyzed data and created presentations for policymakers, designed a qualitative program evaluation, spent a month running around in fields as a facilitator for a girl’s sports project, and ate a lot of dosas and biryani. It was often joyful, sometimes a little messy, and always educational. My time at the Beeck Center gave me tools to get more from the opportunity. I felt more comfortable reaching out to and engaging with a range of people in the social sector, from social entrepreneurs to policy officials, because of my exposure to those working in similar roles through the Beeck Center. I also brought with me a useful schema for discerning and evaluating impact in the work I was a part of, remembering that first input-to-impact chart.

Now, back in D.C., I’ve just started my role as a Project Associate in the Monitoring, Evaluation, and Learning Division at Dexis Consulting Group. I’m excited to be supporting a team that’s working to increase the effectiveness and impact of international development, and I’m looking forward to the community I will build and lessons I will learn here. I still have just as many big questions – but from my Beeck Center summer, I know the process of answering them is truly the best part.

Rachel Wilder was a Beeck Center student analyst in the summer of 2018.

August 10, 2020 – By Grace Rector

As a freshman, I thought I knew everything – what job I wanted, what I was interested in, my future path. So when I wasn’t selected for GU Impacts during my freshman year, I was disappointed, but little did I know how this rejection would change my life. As I start my senior year, so much has changed. My interests, expectations, and personal goals are new in part because I didn’t give up on the Beeck Center, and in return, I received the opportunity to discern, reflect, and ask questions.

My sophomore year, I returned to campus determined to be a part of the GU Impacts cohort. I visited the Beeck Center to speak with Matt Fortier, the Director of Student Engagement. I explained how much I wanted to take part in the program, and I asked for feedback on how I could improve my application. He complimented me on my ability to pursue feedback. To my surprise, Matt asked if I had an interest in working for the Beeck Center as a student analyst. This was not part of my linear plan that I envisioned, but I decided to take a risk and say yes.

woman in red dress giving presentation in front of a yellow wall
The author giving a presentation to Women for Women International in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

My first day of work at the Beeck Center was terrifying. I had no idea what to expect. But I took a breath and focused on listening until I better understood how I’d fit in. I met incredible and brilliant individuals that made up the Beeck Center family, and I found my place. Matt came to me for feedback on projects, and even asked me to improve existing programs. He did so because he trusted me. He even encouraged me to create new projects where I saw fit and he gave me the freedom to innovate. I’d never been in a space with so much emphasis on creativity, innovation, and collaboration like the Beeck Center promoted.

After my first semester working for the Beeck Center, I understood the flow of the office, and the team had doubled! I was so excited to help onboard new student analysts and to share this incredible space with them. I hoped that they would learn as much about themselves and their professional interests as I had. At the Center, I learned the importance of having a cohesive team when aiming for innovative work. The closer I felt to my coworkers, the more responsibility I felt to produce excellent work. Upon the arrival of the new student analyst cohort, I made it my goal to make them feel included and part of the family.

With time on the team, I became comfortable giving feedback. I was audacious enough to propose new projects and ideas! With support from Nate Wong and Matt, we created and formed the Discern + Digest program (D+D) as a space for students to engage with their work, ask questions about the social impact space, and explore how their experiences inform their perspectives. Bringing students together deepened our community, and gave me the confidence to reapply to the GU Impacts Program, where I’d soon find another community. My fellowship sent me to Women for Women International (WfWi) in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Summer 2019. I brought values the Beeck Center taught me to this position: the importance of constructive communication, collaboration, humility, and a playful attitude. As a storytelling intern for WfWi in Sarajevo, I embodied these values and worked hard to make a sustainable impact on my partner organization. With every job comes difficulties, and after a few weeks I acknowledged that I wanted more from my role. I wanted to lead a storytelling project for the organization, so I navigated a constructive conversation with my boss. She supported me because I presented my proposal well and, ultimately, I published several interviews with women that the organization served.

student (right) performing video interview with subject
The author (R) interviewing a Bosnian woman during her fellowship in Sarajevo.

The Beeck Center not only provided me with tools to navigate social impact work, but it also affected my professional goals. During my internship, I took a Bosnian language course to support my cultural immersion. This course allowed me to build deep relationships with locals, who taught me more about their country’s history. Exposure to Bosnia’s history pushed me to take a related course in the spring of 2020 and ultimately enabled me to do research for a professor on the role of the arts and culture in post-war reconciliation between Bosnian citizens.

GU Impacts also deepened my passion for education. During the fellowship, I created my own skill-building workshops used during the Democracy Academy for Young Women in Bosnia. Upon my return to Georgetown, I continued this new passion by declaring a minor in Education, Inquiry, and Justice. It also influenced my decision to take part in a comparative education study abroad program in Chile and Argentina in Fall 2019.

Over the last two years, I’ve discerned what I care about and what spaces I should explore to further uncover my interests. This past February, before the outbreak of the coronavirus, my single mother passed away. It was and is a devastating loss. Soon after, I received a package from the Beeck Center containing handwritten cards from every team member. That’s when I knew it was time to go back to work for the Center.

This summer and fall, I am managing Discern + Digest so that it can continue to impact other students the way it has me. The Beeck Center is not just an organization that thinks about ultimate outcomes of its projects, innovates audacious ideas, and then acts on them. It’s a team of extraordinary people who care deeply about their work and the people that they work alongside. Working at the Beeck Center is like being part of a family because the staff challenged me to grow but also supported me 100% of the time, and for that, I can’t thank them enough.

August 6, 2020 – By Ananya Amirthalingam

The following is a diary from a GU Impact fellow, on her experience with a distributed work environment this summer.

March 27, 2020: “All summer academic offerings will use remote delivery platforms and summer study abroad programs have been suspended”

screenshot of email from GU Provost
Screenshot of email from Georgetown University

The message from the Georgetown University Provost was disappointing but understandable. We were (and still are) in the middle of a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in a while, and the University’s decision was a practical one. Weeks earlier, when I officially committed to be a part of the 2020 GU Impacts cohort, I knew there was a slim chance that I’d be actually traveling abroad.

What I didn’t know: if I wasn’t traveling abroad, would I still have a fellowship?

I had been planning on working with the Mann Deshi Foundation, in rural Maharashtra, India, helping the Foundation serve local women entrepreneurs and the community with programming ranging from business school courses to sports education to farmer cooperatives. In my conversations with Prabhat Sinha, one of the Foundation’s heads, Mann Deshi’s region had limited resources and little internet access.

I readied myself for more bad news.

April 9: “We are happy to share that Mann Deshi has committed to working with you over the summer, remotely!”

I was overjoyed! I had a fellowship! This is happening! I am going to be working remotely!

Remotely.

Screenshot of email from GU Impacts
Screenshot of email from GU Impacts

At this point, I had only been in virtual classes for three weeks. Getting to roll out of my bed and into a Zoom call was beginning to lose its charm. A twinge of doubt set in. What would I be able to do remotely? Would I be able to connect with people? I already had to deal with a language barrier, and now I had to tackle time zone differences and spotty internet, not to mention the overall awkwardness of virtual interaction over Zoom and WhatsApp. Would I even be making a difference?

June 2 (at 3:50 AM ET to be exact): “Here are some projects: a report on COVID-19 relief work, a report on our Youth Development Center, a report on our Champions sports program (we are especially trying to get funding for traveling and coaching), a case study on the Mann Deshi Community Radio …” the WhatsApp message proved there was plenty of work to be done.

Screenshot of What'sApp chat
Screenshot of What’sApp chat

As someone with an interest in education, I started on the Youth Development Center (YDC) report. Researching and reading through past reports left me with endless questions, and each question brought a new idea. What resources are available to teachers? Let’s make a resource. My cohort-mates (Danny and Kia) and I can compile suggestions into a Teacher Toolkit for Interactive Lessons. How do Zoom classes or recorded WhatsApp videos differ from regular in-person lectures? Let’s interview the YDC students and teachers, I can include their first hand experiences in my report.

June 12: “Over the lockdown, she’s been getting more info on exams. For fun she plays an interesting game – I’ve never heard of it before. There are certain roles …”

10 days later, Omkar, a Mann Deshi staff member, was translating one of the YDC’s student’s answers to a question I had asked. Things move at rapid-fire speed at Mann Deshi, and a nine and a half hour time difference was no deterrent.

As I listened to him explaining this ‘interesting game’ I began to laugh. It was Mafia – a game I had just learned about. Sure the roles were different (they had kings, queens and soldiers while the game I played had sheriffs, detectives, and gang members) but the general premise was the same: the uninformed majority trying to outsmart the informed minority. Everyone’s faces lit up as I marveled at the similarities aloud.

It was a small thing to be sure. A glimmer of silliness, during our otherwise serious interview about the impact of COVID-19. I remember wishing I could be there in person, but I wasn’t feeling wistful or disheartened of what could have been. Rather, I couldn’t stop beaming thinking about how in spite of the time zones, language barrier, and internet reliability, I was doing it – I was connecting.

July 7: “ I have been a teacher since 1994, and no one has ever done an event like this for teachers. This was amazing!”

Or maybe it was July 8. I had stayed up until 4 AM for two consecutive days; my concept of time was definitely distorted. But this comment, made by a local government school teacher attending our conference – made it all worthwhile.


Read More: GU Impact Interns Organize First of Many Teacher Conferences in Rural India


Two weeks earlier, the Teacher’s Conference had been a spur of the moment suggestion by my teammate Kia, who believed as we all did, that a lockdown didn’t have to stop learning, and that this time could be used to bring innovative methods, resources and support for Mann Deshi and local government school teachers alike. From that idea, in just over a week, we researched, contacted, connected with, and secured Indian experts in child psychology, pedagogy, and technology. While my teammates designed pre-assessment surveys, posters, and schedules, I grappled with Zoom. I familiarized myself with breakout rooms, mute features, and live streaming capabilities as I prepared to be the host of the two-day conference.

But as prepared as I believed myself to be, running the logistics of such an unprecedented event was by no means an easy feat. Suffice to say, I ran into multiple technical problems. Many participants were unfamiliar with Zoom – unsure of how to change their names or rejoin when they got kicked out because of their internet connection.

As I was panicking and trouble-shooting, I remember receiving text messages from Mrunal (another Mann Deshi staff member who had worked with me extensively to help make the conference run smoothly): “You are doing great! The teachers are loving this!” She told me how teachers were sharing things they had never shared before, and how this experience was all at once new and exciting.

I thought it was a cute sentiment meant to make me feel better for what I thought was a profound failure on my part. But when the conference ended and Prabhat shared some of the teachers’ comments I found myself filled with pride.

We had done this: Prabhat, Omkar, Mrunal, Danny, Kia and me. I was making the impact I had dreamed of.

Screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference
The author (upper left) with Youth Development Center students and teachers during a recent interview.

July 18: It’s been nearly two weeks since the conference. Work hasn’t slowed by a bit! I continue churning out reports, and am going to be reinterviewing some of YDC students soon. Working remotely has far exceeded my expectations. I’ll be the first to admit, it hasn’t been easy – what with all the late nights and Zoom fatigue. But it certainly has been worthwhile and definitely impactful (pun intended!)

August 6, 2020 – By Kia Muleta

“I have been a teacher since 1994, and no one has ever done an event like this for teachers. This was amazing!” said one attendee of the Mann Deshi Foundation’s Teacher’s Conference, the first of its kind in Maharashtra state.

screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference

This spring, I proposed the idea of a teacher’s conference to my peer GU Impact fellows as a means of sharing knowledge among teachers, developing a support system for them, and providing lessons on topics like communicating with students, and developmental psychology, areas that most Maharashtra teachers haven’t been trained in. We’d design a conference for government school and Mann Deshi Youth Development Center teachers who are rarely given opportunities for training, especially in identity development, gender equity, the impact of poverty on academic performance, and several more avenues.


Read More: Remote but not Removed: Making an Impact through a Virtual Fellowship


Everyone enthusiastically agreed, and in less than 10 hours of opening registration, 100 people had signed up. Teachers were more than eager to share and improve their teaching strategies.

Due to COVID-19, the event was held virtually, and was a smashing success with 80 teachers, 4 education experts from various fields, a member of Parliament, the State Minister of Human Development (Education), and the District Commissioner in attendance. We were honored to have Brookings Institute Fellow and Study Hall Founder Dr. Urvashi Sahni as our keynote speaker to talk about the application and vitality of Critical Feminist Pedagogy in Indian classrooms.

screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference
Brookings Institute Fellow and Study Hall Founder Dr. Urvashi Sahni addresses the Mann Deshi Teacher’s Conference.

Goals of the Workshop

To help Government and Mann Deshi Youth Development Center, teachers:

  • Implement and create their own innovative and interactive teaching strategies and curriculum
  • Become familiar with digital learning models and technology
  • Close the authority gap between teachers and students
  • Develop closer relationships between teachers and students
  • Become more efficient and effective in educating students to become confident, creative, knowledgeable problem solvers, leaders, and lifelong learners.
  • Create a support group for teachers and offer tangible resources

Teachers and students in rural Maharashtra face a number of challenges to getting an education. Many students struggle to finish school: some families rely on marrying their daughters to men if they need financial support, electricity/internet is unreliable, many students are wage laborers or farmers. Due to major issues in food insecurity, public health, and infrastructure, training for teachers is limited or nonexistent as the government focuses on other regional challenges. As such, training occurs once every 1-2 years and is often organized by the state, which means there are 1,000+ teachers in the state training program. In order to ensure a close knit teacher community and interactive workshops, our conference Zoom breakout rooms had a teacher-to-expert ratio of only 13:1.

Dr. Yajyoti Singh, an expert on developmental educational psychology, led lessons on efficient and emotionally conscious communication between teachers and students. She created a safe space for a research- based workshop that allowed teachers to be vulnerable with their challenges as teachers as well as successes.

screenshot of Zoom participants at Mann Deshi Teacher's Conference
Dr. Yajyoti Singh, an expert on developmental educational psychology speaks to the Mann Deshi Teacher’s Conference

During her workshop, Mrunal, a Mann Deshi staff member, excitedly clapped, smiled and messaged me:

“They shared experiences where they made some mistakes in their classes without considering the student’s perspective and how they felt bad about it later. Many teachers do not usually share such experiences. Now they are sharing some of the best moments in their lives as a teacher…This teacher is sharing how he wasn’t happy with his students as they didn’t study for one of the competitive exams. Later, when the results came out, 5/7 students passed the exams with good grades.”

“Education is not about filling the buckets. It’s about lighting the fire.”

In another session with Sushant Kamble, another educational psychology expert, Mrunal explained, “[Kamble] is explaining how adrenaline generates in our body when we are scared and how it could also happen in a classroom if the teacher communicates in a loud voice or if you yell at students it could affect them for a lifetime.” I watched as teachers took notes, nodded, and raised their hands for further questions. In a region where authority is an important part of culture, Kamble explained how authority can both negatively and positively affect the success of students.

As an aspiring lawyer in international politics and development, engaging teachers, education researchers, government, and an NGO in supporting local schools taught me that education is far more complex than standing at the front of a classroom. Education has a historical legacy, a cultural footprint, is a means of inquiry and validation of one’s identity, and cannot be directed by one person or group but rather requires the consistent and unified cooperation of multiple fronts. And most of all, teachers are incredible and genuinely care about the prosperity of their students.

As Kamble said, “Education is not about filling the buckets. It’s about lighting the fire.”

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.

April 24, 2020 | By Elaina Faust

Economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak have challenged America’s social safety net in unexpected and unprecedented ways. Temporary closures of non-essential businesses across the country have led to large-scale layoffs, and as a result the country is experiencing record-breaking numbers of unemployment claims. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly referred to as “food stamps,” is also facing a rapid increase in demand, overwhelming government service delivery systems.

The Beeck Center launched our Social Safety Net Benefits project this year to study systems and tools being developed to make it easier for people to apply for benefits. Our mission—to surface actionable recommendations for leveraging data, digital, and innovation-enabled solutions for eligibility screening and enrollment in federally-funded social safety net benefits—is now more important than ever as civic tech teams and government agencies race to meet the overwhelming demand.

In response to the outbreak, the federal government is putting billions of dollars into the safety net through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Together, these two measures extend the time limits on SNAP and WIC (food assistance for Women, Infants, and Children), boost the amount of unemployment insurance available per week, and open unemployment eligibility to self-employed and gig workers who ordinarily wouldn’t receive these.

Additional changes are happening at the state level to waive work requirements and automatically extend existing benefits, postponing the need for in-person renewal meetings.

This unprecedented test of the system reveals important lessons and highlights strengths and weaknesses in current eligibility screening and enrollment practices. Here are a few lessons COVID-19 has taught us:

Remote eligibility screening, application, and enrollment tools are must-haves, not nice-to-haves.

Tools for online eligibility screening and safety net benefits enrollment have begun to emerge in recent years, yet, according to research by Code for America’s Integrated Benefits Initiative, at least 30% of benefits applications still aren’t available online. In this era of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders, the ability to remotely apply for and enroll in social safety net benefits is essential for applicants to access the assistance they need without putting themselves and their communities at risk. State governments should take advantage of newly-available opportunities to waive or delay in-person application requirements if they have not already, and continue to expand online alternatives to paper-based applications.

Mobile-first solutions are needed to reach low-income populations.

In the United States, 17% of adults rely on a smartphone as their only means of accessing the internet at home. Smartphone dependence is disproportionately high among low-income individuals, impacting more than a quarter of those earning less than $30,000 a year. With public libraries, coffee shops, and other public internet sources closed in an effort to flatten the curve, accessing the internet is even harder for those without a broadband connection at home. Organizations creating digitally-enabled tools for applicants and participants of safety net benefits programs must design and optimize their solutions for use on mobile devices. Likewise, state government officials must favor mobile-friendly technology in vendor and product selection processes if they are to reach the most vulnerable among their target populations.

Digital solutions must be equipped to handle increased volume in times of crisis.

Unprecedented levels of traffic crashed unemployment application websites across the country in recent weeks, evoking painful memories of the 2013 launch of Healthcare.gov. New York State experienced an almost 900% increase in web traffic, leading the government to request that New Yorkers file for unemployment only on designated days of the week, assigned alphabetically. Illinois implemented a similar system in an effort to keep existing resources up and running. Whether online application systems are designed by internal government teams or by external vendors, system designers—and those managing the systems—should equip them to handle increases in volume where budgets allow. When budgets are lacking, state governments should at least establish non-tech-driven protocols for distributing website traffic to prevent undue added stress for applicants during difficult and scary times.

Self-service digitally-accessible information saves time for applicants and administrators alike.

As millions work through the benefits application process, many are navigating it for the very first time. Organizations that connect eligible individuals with safety net benefits are experiencing huge upticks in call center volumes in addition to increased online traffic, and applicants are spending hours on hold waiting to be helped, if they can get through at all. Resources allowing benefit applicants or participants to locate relevant information quickly and easily on their own are critical to lowering wait times and decreasing demand on overwhelmed administrators. Up-to-date online guides to the benefits application process, such as One Degree’s COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Resource Guide, allow applicants to find the answers they need, without the wait time. Mobile push notifications or in-app updates can help program participants understand how they are affected by updated legislation and help them navigate the recertification process.

In times of crisis, it can be difficult to find time for reflection. But learning from the challenges we face today is an essential part of creating a stronger and more resilient social safety net for tomorrow.

Elaina Faust is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation working on the Social Safety Net Benefits Research Project. She is a first-year graduate student in the Global Human Development program.


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April 20, 2020 | By Alberto Rodrìguez Álvarez and Margarita Arguello

Have you ever needed a copy of your birth certificate, but realized it was stuck in a box hundreds of miles away? Or have you forgotten your wallet at home, only to need your ID for something? These are common problems around the world, and as digital technology is improving, governments are setting innovation hubs to develop groundbreaking solutions to broaden their reach and streamline the delivery of citizen services. 

From digitizing medical records to creating entire government portals, public sector technologists are continuously working to incorporate data and design into their operations. They are applying agile methods learned from the tech industry to deliver better services and using human-centered design techniques to transform programs and services. And they are doing this all over the world. Over the past several months, we conducted in-depth research in our home region of Latin America to better understand and document two case studies showing digital government transformation in action: digitizing driver’s licenses in Argentina and digitizing birth certificates in Mexico. These efforts show that other nations are ahead of the United States, and demonstrate that innovative solutions are available from a variety of sources.

One of the co-authors discusses Argentina’s Digital Drivers License during her 2019 Capstone Presentation

Our case studies were conducted as part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative, a project in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, and describe both the political transformations that accompany new digital services, as well as the services themselves.

In both case studies, while the design and execution of the specific digital services is the focus of the reports, we also describe the broader digital transformation strategies that were needed for these national governments to take major digitization efforts to two services that touch most, if not all, residents in a society.

cover of online birth certificate case study
Download the Online Birth Certificate Case Study

Argentina and Mexico are two of many countries that have begun national digital transformation efforts and enabling these innovations has required diverse strategies. Some countries started by embedding small teams into key offices with high-level political support, as is seen with the Government Digital Service (GDS) in the UK (part of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet Office), or the U.S. Digital Service team embedded in the White House. These teams have successfully deployed digital service solutions with both national and local governments copying their models. 

We have also seen councils and committees formed across national governments with digital mandates, like in Estonia and Finland, who jointly launched the first international data exchange between commercial business registers and are renowned for their digital government efforts.

In Latin America, there is a middle ground. Countries have created ad-hoc ministries and agencies with broad directives to drive digital transformation efforts. Uruguay’s AGESIC and Brazil’s Secretariat of Digital Government are great examples of teams that are implementing national digital systems like digital identification and digital government dashboards. Latin America is also at the forefront of international cooperation among digital governments, with the Digital Government Network of Latin America convening annually for digital ministries to share best practices. 

cover of Digital Drivers License Case Study
Download the Digital Driver’s License Case Study

Despite these successes, in order to have successful results, governments everywhere need to overcome internal barriers to innovation such as outdated practices, restrictive regulatory frameworks, and resistance to change by public servants and decision makers. It is not uncommon to see failed deployment of digital technologies because governments have not undertaken the reforms and negotiations needed to introduce tools that are already standard in other sectors. Public innovation is not only achieved by using new technologies, but by understanding the particular obstacles that every political ecosystem must overcome to enable transformational change. 

Overcoming political barriers should be as important a priority as any final innovation product; since it provides a sort of multiplier effect. When government innovation hubs succeed in this, they transform the underlying legal and political frameworks of agencies and offices and open the door to further digital services. These teams set rules, standards, and even interoperability schemas along their process, which then create roadmaps for future innovation everywhere. 

Alberto Rodrìguez Álvarez is a Beeck Center Student Analyst currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter at @arodalv

Margarita Arguello is a Beeck Center Student Analyst currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University.

Photo by Hector Iván Patricio Moreno on Unsplash

February 24, 2020 | By Alberto Rodriguez Alvarez

So, why did you choose to apply for the Beeck Center Student Analyst position? As a grad student at the McCourt School of Public Policy, I get asked this question pretty often. And the answer is always the same: “Because it is and continues to be the best place to learn new skills as a student, while working to make an impact with the skills you already have”. I’ve been working as a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center since February of 2019, participating in four cohorts and supporting a variety of projects and initiatives. While the focus of my work has shifted over time, what has remained constant is that I’ve had the opportunity to learn and contribute in impactful ways. 

My work in the Beeck Center is within a project called the Digital Service Collaborative which is part of the center’s Data + Digital Portfolio. In this project, I lead action-oriented research on how governments are approaching digital transformation across the United States and around the world. My initial project was under the Exploratory phase of the Beeck Center framework and allowed me to tag along on more than 40 interviews with leaders in federal, state, and local governments who have been part of digital transformation efforts. I learned as they explained how digital tools were transforming their work, identified their pain points on using technology in public service, and developed an understanding of their views of how the government would adapt in the future. 


Related Story: Work With Purpose – The Student Analyst Program


Before coming to Georgetown, I worked in the Office of the President of Mexico at the National Digital Strategy supporting digital transformation efforts in my own government. My work at the Beeck Center offered me a chance to use my past experience to analyze and contextualize our findings and experience a level of access and direct engagement that is difficult to get in any job, let alone on a part-time position or an internship. But at the Center, the process went even further: under the guidance of my supervisors — expert practitioners in the public interest technology field including designers, data scientists, policy makers, and more — I learned human-centered design techniques to synthesize the data and information we collected from more than 70 interviews and turn it into a concise set of learnings and recommendations now published in Setting the Stage for Transformation: Frontline Reflections on Technology in American Government.  

Last summer, I had the opportunity to work at the Beeck Center full-time with new student analysts from other schools across the country who were also excited to work on making an impact through public interest tech. Being a part of this team allowed me to immerse myself in the civic tech ecosystem, this time on the Incubation phase of the Center’s framework. This started with the formal launch of the Digital Service Collaborative. To say that it was one of the best experiences I’ve had as a student is frankly an understatement. I piloted and used the HCD techniques that I’ve previously learned, I got to meet amazing teams doing great work, but most importantly I was pushed to create tools that could help other people, both inside and outside government, to enact change using digital tools for government. I even got to build a strategy around case studies to document how governments in Latin America are approaching policy innovation and speak in a national conference on Decolonizing Civic Tech which started a conversation still taking place today. 

All of this work takes place under the guidance of the Beeck Center Fellows who coach us every step of the way, and Beeck Center staff that hold workshops to teach us new skills and provide space to reflect on our journey towards social impact, through offerings like the Discern & Digest series where students gather each week to reflect on our unique journeys through school, work, and life.

As I complete my last semester as a student in Georgetown I am also finishing my journey in the Beeck Center, this time with the opportunity to lead a working group made up of government professionals, leaders from civil society, companies, and academia focused on Delivering Better Outcomes through User-Centered Policy Making, in partnership with New America’s Public Interest Technology team, the National Conference on Citizenship, and The Rockefeller Foundation. This working group now lets me apply skills that I acquired both in my classes as a Master’s in Public Policy Student and in my time working at the Center, all in the service of creating tools for public servants who want to have a greater impact on their communities.

As I look back and try to synthesize my journey at the Beeck Center, I find myself truly grateful for the opportunity to be in a space where great ideas are discussed, talents are fostered, and friends are made. I also see myself challenged by a cohort of experts and learners that perfectly complement my time as a student, without losing sight of working purposely to achieving a positive impact. And I honestly think there is nowhere else I could’ve done that. 

Alberto Rodriguez Alvarez is a Student Analyst, currently pursuing a Masters in Public Policy at Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter at @arodalv

 

January 22, 2020 | By Sheila Herrling and Audrey Voorhees

We are at an inflection point where the stakes are high to reimagine how capitalism and democracy work for everyone. Critical to that reimagination is a movement to evolve the thinking around the role of corporations in driving social impact at the scale that today’s challenges require. Milton Friedman’s notion that the only social responsibility of business is to maximize profit is increasingly being questioned by many, including investors, philanthropists, business leaders, policymakers, and perhaps most notably Millennials, who will represent the future workforce and consumers. People want to buy from, work for, invest in, and donate to companies that identify as social enterprises. Corporate CEOs stand poised to seize the greatest opportunity of their lifetime to deliver both greater financial returns and social returns at scale that could, quite literally, make the world a better, more equitable place.

That said, it’s complicated terrain. Accelerating the movement requires proof points of companies pursuing and achieving financial and social gains, how-to’s for those who are convinced of the value but don’t know where to start, and a solid understanding and appreciation of the counter-arguments.

As we set out to better understand the ideas, actors, flashpoints, and gaps in the corporate social impact (CSI) movement, we learned and built upon the work of others. You can see our full landscape analysis presentation here. As part of our work, we also pulled together what we feel is a “Must Read List” for anyone interested in the role corporates are and could be playing in driving social impact at scale and ensuring that capitalism works for all. We’ve done our best to share a diverse list of authors and viewpoints.

First, get situated in the early, foundational work; corporate social impact is not a new idea.

Second, make sure you understand all sides of the argument; you can’t advance a movement without knowing and truly appreciating all views.

On the pro side, we found these particularly interesting with…

…Compelling arguments 

…Key moments and decisions that served as flashpoints accelerating the movement

…A great new media series

…And many framed within the broader movement to reimagine Capitalism

On the counter-argument side, our thinking was informed by:

Third, understand the landscape of actors and activities that can drive the movement forward.

Once the foundational arguments were absorbed, we began to create the landscape of actors and plot them across a grouping of activities and historical flashpoints that were driving the movement forward. You can view that landscape analysis here. [link to the blog]. Among the gaps standing in the way of mainstreaming the movement, two seemed ripe to solve for in the near-term: how-to content for the already convinced, and the need for a uniform, involuntary impact measurement standard.

For those companies convinced of the need to embed social impact into their operations, there’s not a lot of public content out there. Here’s some we found useful and we hope to see more.

We are convinced that the movement will continue to stall without agreement on a uniform, involuntary impact measurement standard; here’s food for thought.

That’s our must list; for those wanting a deeper dive, here are some of the books on the topic that influenced our work. Dig in!

 

 


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Cover Photo by Nong Vang on Unsplash

 

January 15, 2020 | By Nate Wong, Sheila Herrling & Audrey Voorhees

As public trust of business and markets wanes, there’s an ever important call for everyone to play a critical role in reforming the system “so that it delivers prosperity for the many, rather than the few.” The Beeck Center has been observing the trends in the corporate social impact (CSI) space for the past few years as mainstream rhetoric has shifted from a shareholder to stakeholder-centric view of capitalism, most importantly seen in the recent United States Business Roundtable announcement

The question remains, where does the CSI movement stand and where do we go from here? As a “grasstop” player, the Center links grassroot and institutional efforts poised for action, and puts our energy toward the messy infrastructure work that can accelerate and sustain positive social impact movements like corporate social impact. It’s what we’d call “Impact at Scale.”


CSI Defined: The increasing recognition that corporations need to rethink their role in society and embed social purpose into their business model in order to manage risk, maintain market share, and secure competitive advantage. For those more bullish, you could be more specific that purpose will drive higher profit.


We set out to explore the topic – who is doing what – and to identify gaps in the CSI landscape that require concentrated action to accelerate impact at scale. My colleagues Sheila Herrling and Audrey Voorhees conducted this analysis to consider potential roles for the Center, but believe it serves as a “global public good” for all interested parties to help move this movement forward.  

Analysis highlights include:

  • The CSI movement arguably began over 12  years ago… with at least 11 key flashpoint events that have been foundational in building momentum, but there is still more work to do to tip the movement. 
  • 22 actors stand at the forefront of accelerating this movement and their efforts are worth looking out for.
  • There are 4 major gaps standing in the way of mainstreaming this movement that require attention.

We have 7 gap-closing ideas. Dive deeper here.

Our hope is that this will ground people’s understanding no matter where you may sit in the space – a corporation finding its position relative to others, a policymaker navigating the shifting system, or an academic seeking to teach business through a more current lens – and empower coordination.

With all of the Beeck Center’s work, we pair learners and expert practitioners. Watch MBA candidate and Student Analyst Audrey Voorhees’ capstone presentation as she shares her own journey and some of the research highlights.

Engage with us. 

This is our first pass at creating a comprehensive landscape analysis of the corporate social impact movement. As a community of practitioners driving impact at scale, we want this analysis to provide value along the learning continuum, from initiate to expert. How does this analysis resonate with you? And the market? We’d love your feedback.

The potential for corporates to drive social impact is scale is enormous. If partnerships can be leveraged, strategic alliances formed and critical gaps in the movement filled, this movement just might tip!

Sheila Herrling is a Fellow at the Beeck Center, where she pursues initiatives in impact investing and measurement, inclusive entrepreneurship and social innovation at scale.

Audrey Voorhees is a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center. She is currently pursuing an MBA at the Georgetown University McDonough School of Business.

Nate Wong serves as the Interim Executive Director at the Beeck Center, where he leads the Center’s pursuits and thinking on social impact at scale across its major portfolios. He previously helped launch social impact units at Boston Consulting Group and Deloitte Consulting LLP.


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December 20, 2019 | By Margarita Arguello

As anyone choosing a college knows, finding the right balance of academic strength and affordability is incredibly difficult. In September 2015, in the midst of rising college costs and a changing U.S economy, the Obama administration launched the College Scorecard — a tool to help American families make decisions about college attendance by providing them “clear, reliable, open data on college affordability and value.” 

By pooling together data from various government agencies and conducting hundreds of interviews with potential users, government teams from the Department of Education, 18F, and the United States Digital Service (USDS) created something so useful, that within a year, 1.5 million unique users had accessed it and Google integrated its data so that it appears front and center when users conduct college-related searches. 

screen capture of google search for Georgetown University
In this screen capture from a Google search, the data fields including “Average cost after aid,” “Graduation rate,” and “Acceptance rate” draw from data collected by the U.S. Department of Education that is made available as open data through the College Scorecard project.

The College Scorecard is one example of how, throughout the past decade, the U.S. government has worked to leverage the tools of technology, data, and design to create digital products and services that directly impact the lives of people across the country. 

As evidenced by the College Scorecard, data and digital are already proving to be powerful drivers of social impact. However, there is still much to figure out in terms of how to best use these tools to create solutions that actually work for people, while also being mindful of user privacy and safety concerns. This is what the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative and the Georgetown Technology Policy Initiative sought to explore this fall through its Data, Digital + Social Impact Seminar Series. Over five seminars, experts in the field joined Georgetown students to deconstruct the nuances behind digital transformations in government  and delved deep into the topics of open data, privacy, ethics, and design for social good. Providing students an opportunity to learn practical solutions for delivering positive social impact is a key element of the Center’s mission, and one way it generates impact at scale.

The kick-off seminar provided students with a basic understanding of the building-blocks of data and examples of how social impact leaders have worked to improve the lives of people around the world through the use of open data initiatives that is, by releasing data to the public in digestible formats that allows anyone to access the data, use it and republish it. For example, Beeck Center Fellow Denice Ross, who was previously a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow and before that led open data for the City of New Orleans, talked about how emergency planners in the city of New Orleans now use open data from various federal and state government agencies to better coordinate their hurricane response efforts to prevent disastrous scenarios like those seen in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. 

Similarly Erica Hagen, co-founder and director at GroundTruth Initiative,  spoke about her experience leading Map Kibera — a project that aimed to create a map of Kibera, a previously unmapped slum in the Kenyan city of Nairobi. By using GIS mapping technology and enlisting the help of the people of Kibera, Hagen and her team were able to produce a map giving residents of this neighborhood access to accurate and useful information, such as the location of clinics and pharmacies within the community.

These conversations raised the important question of how to use data to design policy solutions that actually work for the people they are intended to serve. During later seminars, the expert speakers weighed in on this issue and discussed basic frameworks for effective policy making in an era of rapidly changing digital technologies. 

 

Students sit around a conference table
Beeck Center Fellow Natalie Evans Harris discusses privacy implications of data use on Oct. 8, 2019.

The most prominent ideas that the experts proposed for solving this problem involved adopting some of the popular practices of the tech sector into the policy-making process. These include conducting thorough rounds of user research in the early stages of the policy-making process, designing experimental solutions that can eventually be brought to scale, creating a “Minimum Viable Product” and then iterating to improve it, and using tech-enabled methods to incorporate the views, habits and feedback of the people that their products and services are intended to help. 

Throughout every session of the series, the experts walked students through case studies that exemplify how these concepts have been applied in real life. For example, USDS founding member Erie Meyer, who is now a tech advisor at the Federal Trade Commission, talked about how, in leading the College Scorecard project, her team took a user-centered approach that involved conducting extensive user research and collecting feedback along every step of the process. 

Likewise, Rebellion Defense co-founder Chris Lynch spoke about his experience working to improve the lives of U.S. troops in Afghanistan through his work leading the Defense Digital Service at the U.S. Department of Defense. In this role, Lynch and his team revamped and reinvented the tools and practices that the DoD uses on the ground.

Although the conversations in these five seminars shed light on the complex processes that have made digital solutions like the College Scorecard a promising reality in the United States, much work remains to be done as policy makers and scholars alike navigate the process of digitizing social services. For this reason, the Beeck Center continues to explore the topics of data governance, digital service delivery, and tech policy through its Data + Digital portfolio. 

 

Margarita Arguello is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation. She is a master’s student in the McCourt School of Public Policy and will graduate in May 2020.

December 10, 2019 | By Ben Lang

For someone interested in working at the intersection of cities and data, I didn’t find a clear pathway for either classwork or experiential learning here at Georgetown, at first. There simply is no guide for students to work in cities and data unlike the vast amount of resources on social impact at a national level. 

To fill this gap, I researched these types of opportunities and interviewed expert practitioners in this field to create the basis of a resource guide for students like myself seeking to formulate a career path through data and impact in cities.


“Lead your search with causes you’re passionate about, rather than working within data itself.”

– Natalie Evans Harris


As a starting point, I visited Georgetown’s Cawley Career Center last year to better understand what to prioritize when choosing a career. They gave me good input and a helpful framework. That led to a summer internship in my hometown of Atlanta working at a nonprofit devoted to community investment, social impact, and the leadership of Downtown Atlanta.

This semester, I came to the Beeck Center, where I’m working with fellows and partners who have built their careers working in this exact area. Current fellow and former director of Enterprise Information for the City of New Orleans Denice Ross shared with me the importance of finding local leadership that values the same type of innovation as you do.

I’m also supporting fellow Natalie Evans Harris, a former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Chief Technology Officer and data expert for the National Security Agency, as we finalize a guidebook on responsible data practices. Through the process, I’ve learned the importance of engaging the community and data stakeholders every step of the way to help drive impact. On a more specific level, she’s shared with me the importance of leading your search with causes you’re passionate about, rather than work within data itself. 

As expected, despite my hours of research and interviewing, I did not come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. Luckily, I was able to formulate a few best practices along with a basic framework of where students can enter the field at a local level. 

First, because at the local level you are directly engaging with a community, it is imperative to be aware of your own internal biases. Resources like “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” and “Building Technology With, Not for Communities” are just the tip of the iceberg on the necessary perspectives to keep in mind when working inside any community. To effectively provide equitable solutions, we need to fully understand why and how data work will drive impact.

Second, we should try to find opportunities in impact that fulfill our own personal values before leading with data as a whole. Drawing on the framework I learned from Cawley to formulate my career path (prioritizing your values, interests, personality, and skills), if you do not recognize and pursue opportunities that engage all four categories, what you might gain in external recognition you will likely lack in personal drive. Additionally, the Beeck Center’s own Social Impact Navigator is a great tool for self-assessment before starting a career in social impact. 

With that in mind, here are three attainable ways for students and young professionals to get involved at the local level: 

  • Getting involved with your local Code for America Brigade
    • In cities all across America, the brigades meet regularly to educate, discuss and create tools for local government and impact. Involving yourself with these opportunities allows you to network and grow on a professional and local level.
  • Opportunities in city governments through data, technology, and innovation offices such as offices of CIOs, CTOs and CDOs
    • These offices of government provide the foremost opportunity to manage and use data for public impact from entry-level positions all they to the top. Moreover, outside of data offices, one can take advantage of data in many departments of local government like sustainability, transportation, and education.
  • Careers at nonprofits and foundations like Downtown Improvement Districts (DID) and the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP)
    • Every city has different types of nonprofits, but most cities have organizations committed to data-driven approaches for government efficiency, community investment or simply data for the greater good. DID’s are tax-funded organizations that provide economic development and other services to bridge the gap between the public and private sectors. The International Downtown Association(linked above) is a national organization that helps organize these DIDs. The NNIP is another example of local nonprofits working to use data for the common good.

Working with local data gives people the opportunity to think creatively about new solutions without suffering from as many bureaucratic issues at the national or even state level. One can look to examples from Broward County and New Orleans to see the fantastic innovation done at the local level. This research provides a brief introduction to the important and extensive opportunities for students and professionals to engage with data at a local level and drive impact. 

In the future, I look forward to pursuing opportunities in my hometown to help Atlanta run as effectively, equitably, and efficiently as possible. For me, this means actively searching for roles that balance data and service. While I cannot say specifically what this will lead to, I can already see a more defined framework of paths to follow as I go into my final three semesters at Georgetown and begin the job hunt. 

Ben Lang is a Fall 2019 Student Analyst at the Beeck Center studying Economics and German in the Georgetown College. Contact him at bel46@georgetown.edu or follow him on Twitter at @blang716.

November 20, 2019 | By Robert Roussel 

A great idea is a terrible thing to waste, and people do it all the time. 

In academia and policy institutions, research is often regarded as a key analytical asset. However, research alone has limited utility. Research needs to be resourced with practices and structures in order for that research to be activated, iterated upon, and deployed. Failing to do so shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of research—a failure to understand that research is a means and not an end. This approach begins with how we train students and I worry that, all too often, academic training has entrenched problematic approaches to teaching aspiring professionals what the value of research actually is.

I went to graduate school to learn how to evaluate and implement public policies, which, at the end of the day, was about translating statistics and analysis into writing. My peers and I considered writing both our biggest pain point and our most powerful asset. I was reminded of this recently as I sorted through old papers and memos to pick a writing sample when applying for a job that would, in part, pay me to write. I started remembering all of the topics and arguments I had so eloquently and passionately inked onto a digital page. Undeniably, my graduate program taught us how to write and think logically and persuasively but as I perused my hard drive for old papers, I could not shake the feeling that my new ‘ideal’ job at a think tank — the one I’ve been wanting for years — would relegate my writing to a fate similar to my academic exercises: gathering dust, and longing for eyeballs.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash

To businesses and consultancies, the idea that research without applications is useless is obvious. In academia, this culture is not always the norm. At Georgetown, I had the privilege of practicing valuable quantitative and analytical skills through thoughtful exercises led by experts in their fields. Even at this institution, however, I couldn’t help feeling that some professors often seemed quite willing to ignore the need for a more applied approach to teaching, tacitly implying that an efficient division of labor within the policy-making ecosystem would translate our clever and thoughtful words into action.

Researchers in academic settings need to be rewarded for being consulted by policy makers, not cited by fellow researchers.

Researchers in academic settings need to be rewarded for being consulted by policy makers, not cited by fellow researchers. Even when professors were practitioners themselves, their in-class behaviors often failed to reflect that fact. It seems more likely than not that this approach is not just borne out of convenience, but a culture rooted in academic tradition. Though universities like to talk big about their cutting-edge research, often their approaches to pedagogy seem remarkably risk-averse. Academic culture is very slow to change, and the incentives for taking such a large departure are just not there. This culture shift will likely need to occur from the bottom-up, as students demand to be more involved in the activation of research—meaning that any education should be as much about writing words as it is about resourcing those words in clever intentional ways that help, rather than hope, words to translate to actions and actions translate to impact.

How to ‘Activate’ Research: A Brief Case Study

During my time at the Beeck Center, I noticed that the leadership was placing a lot of emphasis on activities other than research, such as convenings, workshops, interviews, or meetings. One of my projects was to design a framework and resource repository for establishing responsible data-sharing practices for social impact. Many third-party organizations have emerged to help facilitate data-sharing for social impact but the resources for sharers and the bandwidth of these facilitators are limited. From the start, it was clear this research was just a launching point and not the end product. We were also going to build a community around this research product that would help activate it and keep it alive, constantly open to change as new best practices and case studies emerge. To me, this approach — one that is both highly collaborative and constantly seeking input — is exactly the way we should be approaching public problems.

One of the most often given pieces of advice is that people should spend 99% of their time understanding the problem and that, if working this way, finding a solution should be so obvious that it takes just the remaining 1% to solve. If that is true, we need to be extra sure that we are solving the right problem or else our deployed solution might not be all that useful. The cleverness of keeping the Beeck Center’s data-sharing guidebook ‘alive’ was that it made the guidebook both a solution and a problem exploration process at the same time. Certainly, it aimed to create a solution to a problem but its openness serves as a way to constantly re-evaluate this solution. That malleability and that openness to collaborate is what will activate the research in the guidebook.

This is a smart approach to making sure that research is activated, but it might not go far enough. With the resources and bandwidth of stakeholders being limited, there are clearly gaps in capacity that limit the scalability of this project. While being careful of the hubris of applying a ‘there’s an app for that’ mentality to complex social problems, I proposed a solution that can help activate the guidebook and resource guide. This solution was borne out of a seemingly impossible trade-off between brevity and usefulness. A shorter guidebook would have recommendations that are more digestible but would have to be more generic, and by extension, not useful beyond a surface level. 

My answer, which is an answer I urge researchers facing problems of activation to consider, is a customizable tool (a ‘wizard’, if you remember Windows ’98) that creates unique guidebooks and resource-repositories for each ‘bin’ of users, reflecting the variety of resources, motivations, and barriers or different stakeholders. When it comes to translating research into action, this approach would significantly help constrained organizations that may not have the resources to discover new approaches wade through the literature and see how it might apply to them.

Advice for Policy Students and Researchers

Seen in the most generous of lights, writing academic papers and memos is training for conducting professional research in the real world. I fear, however, that many students will trip on these bad habits as they enter the professional research world—and that those worlds are comprised of ex-students with similar tendencies. With so many vital issues facing the social sector, we need to be sure that our research efforts build out our ability to generate actionable recommendations and tangible impact. A relevant internship or part-time job while in school could be one possible step forward here, but many students complain that their time is spent on passive class assignments and papers that remain all too often unread and unused. Opportunities that give students a real taste of what it is like to see research applied are lacking — and this is a role that academia needs to fill. In my opinion, applied graduate programs should be thoroughly experiential, matching students with real clients in real teams to solve real problems. Across the country, universities are experimenting with this model, but this new approach is a heavy lift and would require a major revamping of the tenure model — an unlikely proposition in many settings.

Unlike coursework, research doesn’t end when a paper is handed to a superior. If you believe that, by handing someone a memo, you have just handed that person everything they need to know for them to get the job done, you are likely mistaken. You dove deep and you need to be intimately involved in applying that research. The term policy maker is a catch-all term and its vagueness makes it rather difficult to understand when the research stops and the policy creation begins. I urge policy students to reject the suspicions borne out of the structure of their academic program that see a clear demarcation between these two fields. Only when we are deeply involved in a project from ‘start’ to ‘finish’ can we effectively suggest action that is researchable and create research that is actionable.

Don’t let your great ideas gather dust in the cloud; have them gather stardust.

 

Robert Roussel was a student analyst at the Beeck Center in Summer 2019. He is a 2019 graduate of the Georgetown University McCourt School for Public Policy and is currently working at Accenture Federal Services as a tech analyst.

November 15, 2019 | By Casey Doherty

Georgetown students are encouraged to be “people for others.” We are taught to give back to our communities and jump into social impact work. Here at the Beeck Center, we conceptualize social impact as looking at how the current system affects people, and focusing on how to improve that impact through a systems-level approach.

You might know you want to make a difference. However, it can be difficult to identify the best space in which to work on honing your strengths and areas for development in the social impact sphere. In my experience, Georgetown seems decentralized – so many organizations are doing amazing work, but they are isolated from each other. It’s daunting to discern which opportunity would be best for you, both in terms of the value you can add to the organization, and the skills you will gain from joining the venture. Hoyas care deeply about “making a difference” in their communities but many students don’t know where to begin. 

A critical step in the process is developing a self-awareness of one’s strengths and areas for development, enabling intentionality in these decisions. The Beeck Center is working to make this process easier. The team I am a part of created a tool called the Social Impact Navigator, which helps students navigate their social impact journey. Students complete a self assessment, then we help them identify programs at the Beeck Center that will hone their strengths and improve their development. Over time and through collaboration, we’re looking to share this tool with programs across Georgetown and beyond. 

The Social Impact Navigator identifies the six skills critical for effective social impact leadership. 

graphic of a human head with puzzle pieces representing the social impact skillsets

Growth Mindset: Leaders must have a growth mindset that enables them to appreciate complexity, creatively embrace challenges, see opportunity where most others see dead-ends, and take risks with an experimental attitude. 

Relentless Learning: Leaders must be lifelong learners. Driven by their relentless pursuit of knowledge, leaders go beyond building the cognitive skills necessary to execute their ideas and eagerly pursue opportunities to grow their knowledge base and adapt to our changing world.

Self-Awareness and Courage: Leaders constantly work on building their self-confidence and courage, balanced with humility, so that they are prepared to act when others hesitate. Self-aware and courageous leaders take initiative, whether or not the path is conventional, to change a system for the better. 

Influential Collaboration and Communication: To ensure the sustainability of their ideas, leaders must trust others. Leaders must have the flexibility to work in multidisciplinary teams, communicate across sectors, mobilize diverse groups of people, and inspire them to work together towards a common goal. Working across differences and actively seeking new perspectives is critical for savvy and effective social impact leadership.

Empathetic Problem Solving: Leaders must be willing to listen, withhold judgment and acknowledge preconceived notions. They must empathize with people to better understand the underlying root-cause of a challenging situation. Once empathetic leaders have fully understood a problem, they can then develop and implement a solution that serves the common good.

All of the above-mentioned skill areas make for a great leader, but this final skill is what makes a social impact leader:

Discernment: Leaders take time to reflect on how their actions align with their purpose and most deeply held values. This discernment lights their path and ensures that no matter the problem or sector, they never lose sight of the common good. 

I wonder what paths I would have followed if I’d had this tool when I arrived as a first-year student. As a senior, I see all of the opportunities to engage in the social impact space both on and off-campus, and with some guidance on connecting my skills and strengths to existing impact programs and organizations, I could have begun my social impact journey earlier. I am excited to release this tool to the student body and watch all the amazing things Hoyas are able to accomplish.

The Social Impact Navigator program is starting here at the Beeck Center, but our goal is to expand its use through adoption and collaboration, bringing it to scale. We want to share our knowledge of how to navigate the social impact space and equip social impact leaders everywhere with the tools needed to create positive change. 

Casey Doherty is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, studying Government and American Studies at Georgetown University. Connect with her on email at cgd43@georgetown.edu.

November 11, 2019 | By Tongxin Zhu

“I’ve only been cooking for myself and my husband for over 10 years since my sons moved to Canada. It really amazed me when the team first came to me and said that I can work as a chef to showcase our local cuisine and pastry.” Madam Xie told me when I was helping clean up after lunch during my tourism geography fieldtrip in Candong Village, Kaiping City. 

Majoring in Tourism Planning as an undergrad, I had plenty of experience working with local communities and government on tourism planning and renovation projects. I found myself interested in connecting with local people and hearing their stories. The case that motivated me the most to pursue community development is my field trip and volunteer experience in a heritage tourism village – Cangdong Village in Kaiping City, China

Woman with umbrella stands in front of ancestral hall in Cangdong Village, China
The ancestral hall after community-engaged renovation. Photo by Tongxin Zhu

The village itself was almost empty before the renovation project happened, with about 50 elder residents who didn’t want to move overseas with younger generations – Madam Xie is one of them since her husband is the village head. Led by a professor at a local university, a group of architecture students came to the village and engaged residents to renovate the historic buildings. They rebuilt an ancestral temple and other public areas based on residents’ oral history and current needs. Residents were encouraged to work as chefs, handicraft makers and most commonly, storytellers, to share the village history to tourists and the younger generation. 

The renovated village attracted over 400 overseas Chinese during the 2017 Chinese New Year and helped to build connections between multiple generations. When compared with another heritage village in the same city, Cangdong Village surpassed expectations in the sense of keeping a living memory of the village and building connections between people and community. Other heritage villages in comparison were managed by a tourism company and barely profited by charging an entrance fee.

I joined the Beeck Center with the expectation to learn similar cases in the local-level development program. I hope to start my own local-level development program back home after graduation. I used to be confused about the different paths that I could take. Between small scale, instant influence such as the renovation project that I participated in, and the longer-term, systematic level change that can provide broader influence. like what the Beeck Center is trying to achieve through Fair Finance, Data + Digital, and Student Engagement initiatives. 

My experience at the Beeck Center changed my views on social impact to a great extent. The Beeck Center has a unique approach to scaling impact – acting as a grasstop organization that accelerates change through collaborations with ecosystem players. Local-level, instant changes can be encouraging and create a sense of fulfillment when the programs work, but they can also be discouraging if I’m feeling self-contented or meet some uncontrollable contextual changes. 

Take my work here in Opportunity Zones as an example, I might deep dive into a project for several years to achieve significant impact in one O-Zone, but there are over 8,700 of them facing different challenges across the country. Therefore, a small-scale approach might not be the most effective way when dealing with big social problems. On the other hand, back into reality, not all local voices could be heard or taken into account in decision making. Therefore, there is a real need for holistic change since the system hasn’t fully discovered the value of its people and enabled them to reach their potentials.

the former PEMCO factory site in southeast Baltimore
The redevelopment of the former PEMCO factory site in southeast Baltimore — a project four years in the making — got underway with a formal groundbreaking this winter. Photo Baltimore Sun

Systematic changes always take time, and it is discouraging to see people criticizing Opportunity Zones making the “ultra-rich even richer while those in need end up worse-off. From my perspective, this is the trade-off between type 1 error and type 2 error in statistics. If too much effort and restrictions are put to limit the types of investors and investment in O-Zones, there is a larger probability that people who would have benefited from some investment – either getting a job or living in a mixed-income community – would no longer be able to get that positive outcome. Thankfully, I hear and see impact investing stories happening both inside and outside the OZ landscape. With the present level of data collection and impact evaluation tools, I think it would be much easier to make an evidence-based conclusion on the impact of OZ in the near future and make timely adjustment if needed.  We also need policymakers to think about the unintended consequences and possible solutions while moving on these issues. That helps me keep faith in what I’m doing, and excited for what’s to come. 

 

Tongxin Zhu is a student analyst at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation, studying Public Policy at Georgetown University. Connect with her on Twitter/email at tz163@georgetown.edu.

November 4, 2019 | By Grace Rector

“Do you take your privilege and use it to the best of your ability and/or do you use your privilege to make way for others?” That was the question one of our fellows, Sheila Herrling, presented to me and the other Beeck Center student analysts for our weekly Discern + Digest conversation. As we sat around the table trying to unpack what privilege means and whether it is demeaning to use your privilege to give voice to another person with a less privileged background, we talked about representation in politics and whether someone should or can truly support a specific population without sharing their identity. We discussed these implications within the social impact space when organizing projects and how to support a community without claiming authority. Taking the space to ask what is on my mind and really struggle with questions is one of the ways the Center fully engages students and provides tools of learning beyond just a job.

History

Historically, the Beeck Center hosted weekly Brown Bag discussions in which a speaker from the social impact space came to speak to the student analysts about their experiences and to share their expertise. These lunches were very informative to students including myself, but it could be very one-sided; the knowledge resided alone in the mind of the guest speaker while the students asked questions about how to get the job that the guest held.

Our current Interim Executive Director, Nate Wong, and the Director of Student Engagement, Matthew Fortier identified this issue and desired to use this time every week to hold a more impactful conversation rather than coffee chat. I was grateful to be invited into their brainstorming process, and together we created the Discern + Digest program. The goal was to create a brave space for student analysts in which they could ask questions that they are struggling with within the social impact arena and use their peers’ experiences to digest these questions more fully, serve the needs of the student analysts and allow them to develop as individuals. 

The Beginning

In Spring 2019, we launched the Discern + Digest Series to the Beeck Center student analysts as well as a group of external undergraduate and graduate Georgetown students interested in social impact. We kicked off the series by gathering together as a community to list all possible questions that students have encountered or struggled with during their interactions with social impact in order to see where the interests of the group lay. Another important step we took as a group before beginning the discussions was establishing group rules; we established that Discern + Digest is a space where students can feel confident sharing difficult stories or experiences, where every experience is valuable, and where one can question the idea, not the person. These ground rules are important to set in order for a vulnerable and meaningful conversation to take place.

Student holding sign of ground rules for discussion

For our first official discussion, Nate shared his experience from his time in Mozambique that prompted the question, “Whose role is it to align perception in reality?” He shared his story for 15 minutes, then we opened the discussion up to the students. Students discussed race, privilege, allyship, and more in the mere 50 minutes that we had together, but it was so powerful to see the students sharing their experiences and asking why certain structures exist in society. Other questions we discussed throughout the semester included:

  1. Is international development driven by nonprofits’ wants or the community’s needs?
  2. How do you stay rooted while trying to change the system?
  3. How to move beyond diversity and create inclusive spaces?
  4. How to serve yourself to better serve others?

Feedback

These weekly discussions became the highlight of my week because I looked forward to learning from my peers and because I felt comfortable sharing my thoughts and concerns in that space. I devoted my time at the Beeck Center during this semester to the development and flourishment of Discern + Digest and I was overwhelmed by the positive feedback we received from participants. One student reflected on the series:

“I loved the questions that we never seemed to unravel, especially ones that spoke of diversity and inclusivity. Feeling unresolved at the end, with more questions than answers, was a mark of success for me throughout the series.” (Anonymous participant)

Students around table

This comment was a mark of success for me too because this student walked away feeling comfortable with the many questions they gained during the experience. I often find at Georgetown that we value knowledge over curiosity, and while both are important, I feel the curiosity is lacking, and it makes me happy to know such a space exists for students thanks to the Beeck Center. Another student shared, “this concept should be part of every GU program!” This comment is very reassuring and makes me feel the Center has created a space for students to feel supported. 

Other important results we gathered include the fact that 91% of participants felt that “By digging beneath the surface, I’ve uncovered questions that I hope to continue exploring.”

This means the experience added something to the participants’ lives, and lit a spark from which the students will continue to explore. Additionally, 72% of participants who answered the survey agreed or strongly agreed that “the discussions have deepened my understanding of the social impact space.” 

While the goal of this space is to create curious and innovative 21st-century thinkers, it also aims to educate students about social impact and its role in modern society.

Personal Impact

Not only do I hope the Discern + Digest series impacted the student analysts and outside students, but I know that facilitating and organizing this project has significantly affected me. Nate helped me obtain the tools necessary to be a great facilitator who listens and moves the conversation based on the flow of the group. I met with the guest speakers before they would come in to formulate a question encompassing the topics we wanted to address and ensure that the conversation was accessible to all students. I learned how to be a good facilitator and obtained so many new questions that I continue to ask myself regularly including, “how to serve yourself to better serve others.” 

Through my experience in Discern + Digest, I came to love listening to the stories and experiences of others; I found it fascinating how one’s experiences can impact the way one interacts with everything else in their life. Accordingly, I was grateful to serve as the storytelling intern for Women for Women International this summer (2019) through the Beeck Center’s GU Impacts program. I worked with the young women beneficiaries of the organization to listen to their stories and to share it with Women for Women’s networks. I felt prepared in my work because I had learned so much about interpersonal skills and listening skills during my time facilitating the Discern + Digest series. 

This fall, I am studying comparative education and social change in Chile and Argentina, and I was looking for a space in which I could find something similar to the community I had at the Beeck Center. I found the American Space, co-funded by the U.S. Embassy and the National Institute of Chile, in which they have regular conversations for Chileans and anyone else who wants to join about cultural issues such as women’s rights or the local job market. I plan to get involved by facilitating a conversation on the comparative role of women in Chile and the United States, and I am grateful to the Discern + Digest series for awakening curiosity within me and for giving me the bravery to seek out innovative spaces outside of the Beeck Center.

How YOU can get involved

The Discern + Digest series has proven to be an innovative and supportive space for students at Georgetown University, but I strongly believe that curiosity and dialogue is scarce everywhere in our country: in universities, workplaces, the government, and more. Accordingly, if you are involved in an organization where you  feel that you could benefit from regular discussions about questions related to social impact and social justice, I implore you to create your own Discern + Digest Series according to the following steps:

Step 1: Goal setting for the discussion series

  1. What is the purpose of creating this space?
  2. How is it different from pre-existing discussion spaces?

Step 2: Identify a facilitator

  1. Who will best ensure the aforementioned goals of this series?
  2. Who has the time to dedicate to ensuring the discussions are well organized and well thought out?
  3. Who has excellent people skills and can articulate the goals and objectives of the series?

Step 3: Identify participants

  1. What students would most benefit from this experience?
  2. How many students should be included in the discussion?
  3. How diverse should the group be in regards to experiences and backgrounds?

Step 4: Establish ground rules

  1. What are the necessary rules to ensure a safe and brave space for participants?
  2. Are these rules agreed upon by every participant?

Step 5: Select guest speakers and work with them to create interesting questions

  1. Who would bring a unique perspective on the question they want to share?
  2. Will the guest speaker be a facilitator in the discussion rather than dominate the conversation?
  3. Is the question dynamic and engaging for a wide array of people?

Step 6: Enjoy and learn!

  1. Open your ears and hearts and take advantage of this opportunity to learn from the experiences of the diverse group in the room.
  2. Find ways to incorporate the goals of this space into daily life so that the impact is sustainable.

Group sitting around a table

If you’re interested in learning more about the Beeck Center’s Discern + Digest series, or participating in one of our sessions, please contact Matt Fortier, Director of Student Engagement.

———

Grace Rector is a Junior in the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, studying Culture and Politics with a concentration in global education and a minor in Education, Inquiry, and Justice. Connect with her via email at gr455@georgetown.edu or follow her blog globalgracegazette.wordpress.com.

September 10, 2019 | By Jillian Gilburne and Dennese Salazar

Student Analysts Jillian Gilburne and Dennese Salazar produced the report How to Get Started in Public Interest Tech: Recommendations for Recruiting Early-Career Tech Talent. The following is an edited version of their findings.

There is a point in every college student’s academic career when they begin to wonder what it’s all for…. It might be the sense that using a freshly minted computer science degree to perform A/B testing on app interfaces feels soul sucking — or they can’t get past the cognitive dissonance of using their design chops to help kids make healthier school lunch choices one day while designing marketing materials for a fast food empire the next. 

While we know this sounds dramatic, it comes from personal experience. In joining the Beeck Center this summer, we realized that we had the opportunity to use our newly obtained knowledge and networks to highlight opportunities for careers in public interest technology and design that combined technical skills with social good. 

While some experts have indicated that the public interest technology movement is currently going through its “tween years,” when tasked with designing a research capstone of our own, we wanted to take on a topic that would be important for the sustainability of this field through its adolescence and into its adulthood — the recruitment of young technologists into public interest and public sector jobs. We wanted to create a project that would allow us to focus on how to better assist early-career job seekers interested in civic tech and government service design positions. 

Much like the popularization of “public interest law” in the 1960s and ’70s, the possibility of a career in “public interest technology” is rapidly winning over the hearts and minds of university students seeking to make an impact in their professional lives. However, in the status quo, many recent graduates are encouraged to start their careers in the private sector and circle back to government after they have gained some experience through the tour of civic service fellowship models offered by the Presidential Innovation and Management fellowships, TechCongress fellowships, Code for America fellowships, New Sector RISE fellowships, or other similar programs. While many before us have found this to be a totally fulfilling pathway, we know that the government’s need for technical skills is rapidly outpacing this approach. And we also know that entry-level job seekers like us don’t necessarily want to start in the private sector and come in through a fellowship — we’re looking for careers we can start and grow in these great civic organizations. 

According to a 2017 NextGov Survey, there are four times as many government IT specialists over the age of 60 as there are under 30. In California, 38% of current Government IT employees are at retirement age or will be within five years. While recruiting top tech talent requires government agencies to compete with well-resourced private sector recruitment teams, organizations like Coding it Forward have proven that younger generations have a strong interest in using their technical skills for good. 

The Design Challenge

Faced with a problem as nebulous and multi-faceted as rethinking the way early-career technologists are recruited into public interest and public sector roles, we started by breaking the project into smaller pieces. We outlined our project objectives, stakeholder and assumption maps, and research methods, and conducted hours of precedent research and interviews with representatives from Code for America, the New America Public Interest Technology University Network, Design Gigs for Good, the team that runs the federal government’s employment website USAJOBS, and the Georgetown University Cawley Career Center. After learning more about the issue area and synthesizing our research, we broke our findings into six major problems facing early career professionals wanting to pursue a civic technology or digital services career:

Infographic of common issues for students
Major problems our research and interviews surfaced based on the status quo for early-career job seekers who are interested in public interest technology. 

To address these problems, we came up with three phased approaches that includes focusing on changes with job boards, career centers, and government teams.

First We Started with the Job Boards

Recognizing that the government hiring process was not something that we could fix overnight, we decided to focus our project on stakeholders who we had access to and who had some degree of agency over their piece of the puzzle.

We started with job boards since they are an obvious entry point for newcomers starting their civic tech journey. Our research was prompted by the belief that job boards can be doing more to orient potential recruits and build up interest in the absence of well-resourced public sector recruitment strategies. After a series of interviews with public interest job board managers and user-experience research with ourselves and other job seekers, this is what we found: 

Context

A major barrier facing the public interest technology recruitment pipeline is that new job seekers often lack context for what their future career might look like. While resources and university partnerships have been developed by organizations like Code for America and New America, newcomers don’t always know where to find them or that they exist. Given that job boards are often the most public facing and frequently used pages for some of these organizations, we believe that they can function as translators between public interest and public sector tech organizations and new job seekers.

Representation

As entry-level people begin their career searches, location and work environment often have major influence on the decision-making process. The existing Code for America job board and the data science microsite on USAJOBS have an emphasis on featuring civic technologists with diverse backgrounds, which we greatly appreciated, but we also want job boards to emphasize geographic diversity. Currently, many of these job boards recruit predominantly from large cities, like San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C. While the geographical distribution of jobs is a larger and more complex issue than we could address in a few weeks, we believe that job boards should be doing more outreach to organizations and local governments in smaller, less well-represented cities.

Pathways

A common misconception that students and entry-level job seekers have is that their career journeys have to be linear. This belief makes the blurred boundaries of public interest and public sector technology especially overwhelming. Because there are so many ways to use technical skills in government or to support public interest projects, there is no formal “pipeline” or “pathway” for newcomers to follow. To combat this, we are proposing that job boards create “are you new here?” pop-ups with links to resources, instructions for access online civic tech communities, and fellowship opportunities.   

Student writing on blackboardToward the end of July, as we carried out an ideation sticky-note session, we began to think about overarching recommendations that would aid job seekers. Photo by Dennese Salazar. 

Then We Consulted with the Career Centers

Through our interviews with the New America Public Interest Technology Network and the Georgetown Cawley Career Center we realized that civic tech barriers start earlier than interactions with job boards. As a current student and recent graduate, we have had firsthand exposure to the discrepancies between public and private university recruitment strategies, and we know that a handful of professors do most of the labor when it comes to providing civic tech specific advice and resources to students. To better understand the design opportunities within the university context, we mapped out our own journeys into this space and made note of the pain points where we could have benefited from clearer guidance. 

Infographic on career path
In order to better understand how we could help university students access the civic tech space, we mapped out our own experiences to identify pain points.

 

The final product was a “How to Get Started in Public Interest Tech” guide, designed to introduce, entice, and break down what we think a student would need to get started. 

We used recruitment materials from a dozen different civic tech and digital service organizations to put together a list of the most common civic tech roles, scraped 91 job postings on Code for America’s job board using an open source word analytics software to put together the most frequently requested skills, and interviewed current practitioners to develop a better understanding of what civic tech work looks like and the pathways to it. 

Our goal was to not only make something that a student could understand, but also a guide that faculty or career service professionals could use to recommend public interest technology to their students. 

Infographic of important career termsThis is a subsection of our student guide that maps out some of the thematic takeaways we learned during our summer working on civic tech at the Beeck Center. 

And Finally, we Pitched to Government

We know that we are not the first people to take on this project — in recent years, the Office of Personnel Management redesigned USAJOBS, the White House proposed a legislative plan to overhaul federal HR services, and the organization Coding it Forward has placed young tech talent across federal agencies during the past three summers. However, based on the insights and recommendations we collected throughout our research, we have compiled a list of changes that we believe governments could make to help early-career tech professionals find their way into public service. 

First, we think that government agencies should take a cue from recruitment techniques used by the private sector. This could include resume books, which are collections of resumes compiled by a university based on a particular semester and industry that are then sent to employers seeking employees. This would shift the burden of reaching out to desirable applicants to government hiring managers, but also the likelihood of agencies finding a perfect fit. Or increased career fair presence at universities across the country, to ensure that the public sector is able to establish relationships with top talent. This method would include thinking more intentionally about how to convince young people that working in the government will help them to hone their skills and develop new qualifications. Given the skyrocketing cost of tuition and student loan debt, extending federal scholarship programs to tech, design, and management degrees might also help the government agencies compete with the allure of Silicon Valley. 

Second, there are a number of reforms that could be enacted during the hiring process. This could include creating direct hiring permissions for technologists and designers across the agencies — this model has already been tested to recruit short-term cybersecurity experts. This process is not commonly practiced in the status quo due to its complexity and human resources offices with various agencies not knowing of its existence. While more research and clarity is needed, our hypothesis is that this shift would make the recruitment process faster, ensure that those who understand the requirements of the job have more of a say, and bring in temporary hires who could prove the value of a more long-term hiring strategy for technical talent. We also think that developing microsites like the USAJOBS pages for data science and cybersecurity could help to provide specific direction for federal job seekers with in-demand technical skills, and might be a model for further standardizing job posting language across agencies.

What’s next?

For us, taking on this problem through our capstone was deeply personal. During our summer on the Beeck Center’s Data + Digital team, we have been exposed to an innovative and diverse community of technologists and do-gooders who are working to hack and bootstrap our democracy. They work across different sectors, on different topics, and came to this line of work and this community in a multitude of different ways. 

Our capstone project as part of Beeck’s Digital Service Collaborative, an effort in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, has been working to support unification efforts to increase idea sharing and mentoring across a decentralized public interest technology ecosystem, and we hope it will contribute to the ongoing efforts to reduce barriers of entry for university students and early-career professionals. We know that this work is instrumental to the sustainability of the civic tech community in the long term, and we look forward to a future where young technologists seeking out government positions is the norm. 

Dennese Salazar was a Summer 2019 Student Analyst supporting the Data + Digital team who recently graduated from Brown University. 

Jillian Gilburne was a Summer 2019 Student Analyst supporting the Data + Digital team and will return to Northwestern University this fall where she will be a senior majoring in Communication Studies, Political Science, and Human-Centered Design. Follow her on Twitter @JillianGilburne

 

September 10, 2019 | By Dennese Salazar

Human-centered design can be a powerful tool for solving problems in the social impact space. I joined the Beeck Center this summer to find ways to leverage and sharpen my design skills. I worked on social impact problems on data sharing and digital service delivery. One way I put these skills to work was to hold a workshop with my team of student analysts to train other teams of student analysts in human-centered design. My team used that workshop to problem solve a improvements for a Beeck Center program called Discern + Digest. This program consists of weekly lunches that offer a communal space for reflection on working in the social impact space. Started in 2019, it features reflections around privilege in the workplace to the boundaries between work and home. 

The dual objectives of our workshop were to learn and practice the fundamentals of the design process: problem assessment, empathy, lateral thinking, ethics, iteration, and implementation, and to use those skills to address an actual challenge at the Beeck Center. 

students working around tableDiscussions around ideation signaling a core strength of the Discern & Digest Series in the Human-Centered Design Workshop at the Beeck Center on July 29, 2019. Photo by Dennese Salazar. 

Through this workshop, we were taking on identifying recommendations and solutions for this Beeck Center program. In addition, we were also taking on the challenge of teaching design thinking as a form of problem solving to our fellow student analyst colleagues — even as we were refining those skills for ourselves. 

Stepping up as a Project Manager

As we began the process, one of our first observations was that we needed structure and organization. We spent hours talking in circles about our respective visions, what we wanted out of the workshop, and how we wanted to go about it. But with only one month to plan and facilitate the workshop, we needed to make more progress on planning so we could use findings from the workshop to develop a proposal to the Beeck team. We were also mindful that we wanted to practice our human-centered design skills throughout the planning process for our human-centered design workshop — some might call that “dogfooding.

We needed to be more focused on objectives and work purposefully at a rapid pace. With a group of many leaders taking on this project, someone needed to step up and help manage us — so I stepped into the role of project manager. Here are some ways I worked with the group to help us focus.

Goal Setting

One of the key mandates of the Beeck Center is to deliver better outcomes, and it was important to integrate this into the project’s life cycle. 

This is where objective-driven meetings came in. During each of our planning meetings, we had three to five time-constrained objectives that the whole team agreed to.. At the end of the first objective-driven meeting , one student analyst compared it to a thrilling obstacle course. Her heart beating rapidly at the finale but feeling triumphant. Everyone felt productive, and that became the structure for the rest of the process. This approach to project managing was further supported by key performance indicators (KPIs), to gauge whether we had completed objectives or reached our initial goals. One of the KPIs included gaining valuable insights from the workshop to address pain points of Discern + Digest. Ultimately, we ended up collecting more than 30 issues and 30 ideas for how to address those issues. 

Earlier this year, I was part of a user experience project that created an escape room. A participant would enter the room with the goal of “escaping” the room, or solving the necessary puzzles to get out. One focus was making sure there were small victories along the way to keep the participants invested and excited, whether they ended up escaping or not. The same principles translated into managing this project, where all team members could have that same investment and excitement with small victories, in addition to the completion of the project. 

Organization

No matter how unpredictable and lengthy a project is, it should be tethered to an overarching goal. When I first learned about the civic tech space, there was a seemingly insurmountable amount of gray area that I needed to trek through to get my bearings. With team members varying schedules, we had to emphasize consistency and order. By agreeing upon objectives, timelines, tasks, and important links or outputs front and center, everyone on the team could stay on the same page. 

Project Management Tools

A paper and pen are priceless, but digital tools have allowed for the rapid advancement of shareable ideas and organization. Shared documents allowed us to collectively create, produce, and collaborate. A graphics editor software allowed us to quickly draft digestible content, such as workflows, decision trees, workshop and structures. Perhaps the most significant and challenging tools were sticky notes. The bulk of our ideas and constructive feedback emerged from stickies, and we had to learn to strike a balance between categorizing through color, size, and quantity.

To keep track of the team members and check in on work load, I input tasks onto both a project management software tool and a physical project management board. By timing each objective around our meetings and scheduling frequent in-person and email check-ins, I was able to make steady progress and complete all of our objectives on time. 

Students working around a table
A physical project management board tracked our progress in our Beeck Center workspace throughout the entire project. Photo by Dennese Salazar. 

Screenshot of a Trello boardTrello, a common digital task management tool, helped make our objectives accessible to anyone on our team. 

Communication

Going into the project, I knew that communication was always a top priority in order for delegation to really work and to complete tasks. About a week before the workshop, we were discussing one of the main activities that would guide the participants through rapid ideation, which we had decided on several weeks prior. After doing a run-through, it became clear that it was too confusing to actually include, and we made the game-time decision to modify that entire part of our workshop. 

Ultimately, the reason it worked out to change course so late in the project is because we were all active participants in the run-through and discussion, we agreed to the modification, and the team members who were not present were all notified and acknowledged. This also included implementing a feedback loop through surveys, reviews, or one-on-ones, so we could get continually evaluated on our decisions. People make up the backbone of every project, so we prioritized holding regular check-ins to make sure we had balanced workloads and were mentally prepared to continue moving ahead. By bringing all voices into the conversation and documenting our decisions, we were able to handle pivots in our project. 

What We Learned

Through the management of a workshop plan through human-centered design principles, we did not set a lot of quantitative measurables. Instead, we were grounded in values and goals. Despite the management improvement, we recognized that there were ‘could’ves’, ‘would’ves’, and ‘should’ves’. We had to put good ideas on the shelf due to constraints, we juggled multiple projects and had to divide our time, and introducing new tools took some adjustment. Nonetheless, we learned very important lessons: 

  • Expect the unexpected – not everything can be planned and we needed to be ready for pivots
  • Communicate effectively – no matter what decisions are made, everyone should be in the know
  • Plan a timeline – even if a project seems hazy, attaching dates to objectives can serve as a guideline 

At the end of the day, project management is essential to complete core objectives. It can be challenging to keep the object of the project in mind when you’re swimming in decisions and ideas, but a good project manager can build those skills and help keep a team on track. Through this experience at the Beeck Center, I hope to continue equipping myself with user-centered management skills to deliver better outcomes by including everyone in the conversation around the work we are doing. 

Dennese Salazar was a Summer 2019 Student Analyst supporting the Data + Digital team and recently graduated from Brown University. 

September 10, 2019 | By Margarita Arguello, Jillian Gilburne, Vandhana Ravi, Alberto Rodriguez Alvarez, Robert Roussel, and Dennese Salazar

As an experiential hub at Georgetown, the Beeck Center continuously teaches students real-world skills on delivering impact at scale for our Fair Finance and Data + Digital portfolios. While approaching our projects this summer, we leveraged human-centered design skills throughout the research process. As the summer progressed, we realized that we could use design principles to think through how the Beeck Center approaches the student experience as well.

Learning about human-centered design as a research methodology provided us with a new set of skills for tackling complicated problems in the social impact space. Many of us already had some familiarity with human-centered design as a concept, so we organized a workshop to refine our understanding of the methodologies and how to apply them in practice.

Our goal was to guide fellow student analysts through a set of immersive, hands-on activities. Each activity focused on a specific design challenge that would equip our participants with new problem solving tools and allow us to collect data points about the student analyst experience. During this workshop, we revisited the format of the Beeck Center’s Discern + Digest weekly conversation series, events led by faculty, fellows, and staff to navigate complex topics as part of Beeck’s student engagement portfolio. But first, we had to navigate the process of organizing the workshop itself while keeping in mind our original goal.

Project Management

As we designed our workshop, we quickly realized that what we thought was going to be a simple and straight-forward process was impeded by lack of structure and organization. We spent hours talking in circles about our respective visions for the workshop structure, and given our tight timeline, we needed to be making more progress.

To help us work more purposefully, we focused on three key elements. First, we collectively defined our core objective for the workshop, which we used as a “North Star”. Second, we selected a project manager, a role that ensured someone kept an eye on the big picture and moved the project forward. Finally, we started time-blocking our meetings, so that by the end of each planning session a clear goal had been met and each person had an assigned task allocated based on individual team member’s personal goals. We kept track of our collective work load using an online project management tool and a physical project management board to track projects and tasks.

By constraining deliberation time during our meetings and having frequent in-person and email check-ins, we were able to make steady progress and complete all of our objectives on time. The structure ensured that we all stayed on the same page, we were upfront about hang-ups, and served as a support network for each other.

Screenshot of a Trello board
Beeck Center Student Analysts used agile methodologies to manage tasks for Human-Centered Design Workshop on Trello.

Structure

After developing a project management strategy, we turned back to our design challenge. The Discern + Digest program was a good focus for our workshop because of its transversality and familiarity. It is a core part of the student analyst experience and something that all of our participants would be intimately familiar with. Importantly, it was a program the Beeck Center was open to revisiting.

Throughout the design process, we continuously reminded ourselves to think about the participant experience. It took a lot of intentional refocusing to remember the needs and interests of those we were designing for — the participants — instead of our own learning goals around human-centered design. For example, one of our early structure proposals was to hold a design sprint where we could quickly prototype and test solutions, which would have allowed us to practice our facilitation skills while extracting student analyst insights about Discern + Digest for our own report. However, we quickly realized that if we were going to request two hours of our colleagues’ time, we needed to do more than treat them like a focus group.

So, we pivoted to include a presentation section where we would break down how human-centered design can be used to solve complex social problems, the important ethical considerations of user research, and how design methodologies can be helpful for resource-constrained teams.

Once we finally delved into workshop design, quick internet searches revealed hundreds of different design activities we could mix and match as we please. There were a number of different factors that we had to keep in mind throughout the process. These included the relevance of the proposed activity to our primary workshop goals, how they would fit in with the overall narrative of our workshop, how difficult they would be to facilitate, and how long they would take. After hours of research and discussion, we finally settled on a group of activities that would expose our workshop participants to some of the essential components of a design, such as: identifying pain points, synthesizing/creating categories, solution ideation, and prototyping solutions.


Students organized their thoughts in the Human-Centered Design Workshop at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation on July 29, 2019. Photos by Alberto Rodriguez.

Facilitation

Preparing to facilitate the workshop helped us glean new insights about ourselves and our presentation styles. By field testing our existing skills, we established our strengths and identified areas for improvement. In our post-workshop reflection, we took on higher-level topics like best practices for keeping people’s attention by weaving a compelling narrative throughout an otherwise technical presentation. This exercise and the following introspection forced us to think about how to break down complex topics and confront biases and terminology that might be unfamiliar to our audience. We practiced humility when we realized that we could not achieve everything that we had set out to within our allotted period of time. We were pushed to develop a stronger growth mindset that we helped us see every challenge as an opportunity to learn in the future.

As predicted and intended, the process of organizing and facilitating this workshop pressure-tested a number of skills that we had hoped to develop throughout our summer at the Beeck Center. This left us feeling more confident and well-seasoned to bring them with us into the work we do throughout our careers.

Synthesis

The final phase of our human-centered workshop process was to synthesize the student input we received on the Discern + Digest program. We began by summarizing more than 50 different comments into key takeaways about the “current state” of the program as well as a “future state”. This phase was one of the most interesting parts of the human-centered design process, as we merged our personal observations with the ideas and opportunities provided by the participants to help the series grow. This was especially true when we were analyzing the current strengths or “anchors” of the program, and various students voiced how critical the series was in building community within the student cohort.

Synthesizing the students’ experiences led to a lot of ideation around recommendations for the future of the Discern + Digest series. We identified small changes that can be tested in upcoming iterations of the series to create an even more impactful experience for future cohorts of student analysts.

Post-it notes on a whiteboard
Sticky notes clustered signaling a core strength of the Discern + Digest Series on July 29, 2019. Photos by Alberto Rodriguez.

Working on Beeck’s Data + Digital portfolio, we believe in championing human-centered approaches for how data is leveraged and digital services are delivered. The biggest takeaway from this workshop was one we never really anticipated: other student analysts working in different portfolios using human-centered design principles and activities in their end-of-summer capstone projects. A perfect example of meeting the Beeck Center’s mission of creating impact at scale.

As we continue our journeys as students and young professionals, we will keep exploring and sharing human-centered design tools and methods with our peers across all sectors and always advocate for putting people and communities at the center of our work.

Special thanks to our two mentors in this project who were instrumental in guiding us throughout this process: Estefania Ciliotta, a Student Analyst at the Beeck Center who helped us ensure we were asking the right questions, supplied us with lots of really great frameworks and tools and was our #1 cheerleader in getting us to the finish line, and Emily Tavoulareas, a fellow on the Data + Digital team who first inspired us to develop this workshop and gave us the confidence to know that we could actually pull it off.