Creating systems that work for all

By Cori Zarek

In the field of social impact, there is no shortage of problems to solve. At the Beeck Center, since our launch in 2014, we have explored a wide variety of issue areas spanning the public, private, and social sectors, in fields ranging from safety net benefits to pay for performance. We’ve also experimented with different levers for the solutions we bring ranging from policy to process to convening. One constant among these variables has been our goal to achieve the impact we seek at a scale that can truly help people everywhere.

That’s more true today than ever before. We can all agree that while we have moved into the 21st century, many of our public systems have not kept pace. Basic services like voting and accessing social safety net benefits and critical public functions like timely and efficient reporting of public health data in a crisis are all examples where one can see this lagging behind the times. These systems are antiquated, bureaucratic, and too often exclude people they are meant to serve. When I stepped in to lead the Beeck Center earlier this year, we sharpened our focus to improving systems that are the foundation for daily life, using data, design, and technology as instruments for equitable societal change. Ultimately, we seek to identify gaps or barriers that prevent societal systems like unemployment insurance and foster care licensing from working for everyone.

As our next phase of the Beeck Center comes into focus, we wanted to reintroduce our approach and set out some of the work we are most excited about in the year ahead.

Beeck Center’s scaling approach

Working across all sectors, we are building networks where stakeholders align on goals such as making it easier for people to access social safety net benefits or leveraging data to achieve high-priority policies and pandemic recovery in states, or reimagining the technology that delivers services people rely on.

Whatever problem we’re encountering, the odds are that someone, somewhere knows how to solve it — and likely already has. We research and document what works and leverage our networks to scale solutions to more places — saving time, money, and effort, and ultimately helping more people.

Based at Georgetown University, we are also actively training the next wave of data scientists, service designers, and policy makers who are seeking careers in public impact — either through the evolving and growing field of public interest technology or in other fields where these same skills and values are critically important.

The projects the Beeck Center supports will someday go on and live in other arenas, embedded in government, separate organizations, or spun out into their own entities. Our goal from the start is to find out where these projects might land and to help them fledge out of the Beeck Center so they can more fully scale.

Turning a vision and approach into practice

Our team includes around 20 fellows guiding projects that sit at the intersection of good governance, seamless systems, and fostering a thriving public interest technology workforce. They bring years of experience in all levels of government, the private sector, and non-governmental organizations. The projects our fellows undertake are meant to solve pressing, real-world problems, and fellows often use their time at the Beeck Center to create resources they wish they would have had in past roles — all with the mandate to improve systems we rely on in daily life.

We follow the need when prioritizing our projects. In some instances, there are clear societal gaps where programs are not resourced or maintained and don’t benefit from appropriate use of new technology, design interfaces, or data practices that can make them work seamlessly and equitably, such as safety net benefits systems and the criminal legal system.

In other instances, we are laying the groundwork on emerging issues, creating resources to help people navigate new practices and processes, such as responsibly sharing data across organizations, jointly developing open source software, and creating support resources for the newly established career field of public interest technology.

In all our work, fellows use their expertise and experience to conduct actionable research, build useful tools and resources, serve as network catalysts, advocate for better policy, and develop skills and pathways as they go. They are supported by our staff of around 10 doers who make the work happen through strategy, operations, communications, and partnerships. And all of our work is carried out in partnership with world-class Georgetown University undergraduate and graduate students.

Our vision for a more equitable future

When systems work well enough that they fade into the background for everyone rather than rear up as obstacles for some,everyday people’s lives are improved in big and small ways. This means that working parents don’t lose a day of work because they have to show up in person at a government benefits office and spend all day waiting in lines and filling out paperwork to get the grocery benefits their family needs. Entrepreneurs and small business owners don’t get sent to 12 different offices to provide the same information again and again for the licenses, permits, and permissions to open their shops. And renewing your drivers license doesn’t take three separate trips to a physical office,waiting in line for hours on end, to simply fill out forms, and pay a fee.

It is not just people who use services that will benefit. Public servants administering these systems will be able to run them straightforwardly and enjoy access to data that helps them continually improve their effectiveness. Community-based organizations will be able to put powerful, cutting-edge technical tools and capabilities in service of their work toward justice and equity. And companies will be incented to partner with governments and NGOs to provide state-of-the-art services rather than the second-class approaches we’ve become accustomed to.

At the Beeck Center, we envision a world where our systems just work. Where all people feel seen and valued in their communities and by our society overall. This means Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities, immigrants, women, veterans, those living with disabilities and many others who are often left out, will have the same opportunity and access to services as everyone else. A world where our public sector is better, faster, cheaper, and safer overall because it utilizes tools and leading-edge practices that already exist in modern daily life. And where we can trust our institutions again because they truly exist to serve us all and demonstrate that every day.

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

Developing new solutions to old problems.