Why did New America start a “new practice lab”?

Blog Post
Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash
Oct. 14, 2020

We believe our social and economic systems should address the endemic challenges we are facing today, not just the occasional troubles of yesterday. To get there, we need to evolve our systems to align with the lived experiences of the public and the crises we are navigating. We need bold ideas for how to get there, and those ideas need to be informed by a new kind of practice - one that is values-based, human-centered, and rooted in racial equity.

The last half-century saw dramatic change in American society. The economy has turned in a troubling direction, characterized by stagnant wages and rising inequality. The proportion of adults earning more than their parents--a classic measure of progress in the realm of ‘economic mobility’--has plummeted almost in half while the share of wealth held by working-class families has dramatically declined. The median White family has ten times the wealth of the median Black family, a gap that has widened over the last 30 years.

The rapid social, environmental and technological change underway has thrown our public policies, workplace practices, and social norms into crisis. They are far past their limits, and for some, never delivered on their most basic promise. In general, we see that they haven’t caught up with today’s lived experiences. The economic and social emancipation of women restructured how families work. Two-earner households became the norm, creating an enormous need for high-quality child care and early learning, which are inaccessible for most. At the same time, many people now live and work for decades beyond retirement age with escalating health and care demands. Most major government programs that support families were designed decades ago, neglecting the realities of two-income households and before modern technologies were invented.

In combination, these trends are denying opportunities to millions of families, and especially to women and families of color. Households in the bottom half of the income and wealth distributions are barely keeping heads above water, or sinking outright, as the costs of care, health, and education soar. Major risks, like the costs of education and health care, have shifted from employers and the government to individuals and families. These challenges have only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 Public Health Crisis.

The fractures are deep and the pain is felt acutely. We believe a once-in-a-generation policy window is potentially opening, creating an opportunity to renegotiate the basic social contract that binds us together. The “New Practice Lab” was created to link bold ideas for new social frameworks with people-centered experiments delivering outcomes to foster family economic security and wellbeing.

So what is the “new practice”?

Our nation’s conventional approach to policymaking hasn’t addressed the problems we are facing because traditional policy organizations have also failed to evolve. Too often, public programs are designed either by people with no direct knowledge of or input from the families they are supposed to serve. They lack mechanisms for dynamic feedback, iteration and improvement.

We weave together user research, qualitative and quantitative methods to design policy, improve services, and pilot interventions that actualize the next generation of big, bold ideas to meet the needs and challenges families face today. We believe that rapid learning from experiments with programs and policies on the ground ( in the areas of paid leave, income, family financial security, early care and education, among others) can and should be integrated into the design of new policies that ultimately transform systems.

Our Lab seeks to break through the barriers of ineffective policy and delivery, outdated narratives, and inadequate innovation in our economic and social safety net, which has left millions of families behind. We create flexible and nimble teams that, through our discovery sprints, conduct user-research and early testing with the individuals and families that programs and policies aim to serve, making proximate connections and inviting them into a process to shape policy design and delivery.

What’s an example of a ‘sprint’?

During the fall of 2019, we conducted a design sprint in partnership with the New Jersey government agency tapped with implementing its newly updated paid family and medical leave law. Our sprint team consisted of designers, data scientists, researchers, and communication experts who spoke directly with potential beneficiaries to better understand the obstacles they face in receiving their benefit, to ensure that program design and delivery was informed by the lived experiences of people in the state, and to provide the state with recommendations on improving their program design and increasing benefit uptake. Our team worked alongside NJ officials to co-create materials that were clearer and easy to understand. We are also collaborating to potentially build a data dashboard allowing the Department of Labor to know how many people they are serving with family benefits, how long the process is, and where customers are getting stuck. For example, we helped New Jersey see that potential beneficiaries have questions about job protection, and that by not addressing those concerns, even though the protections are outside of the agency’s jurisdiction, beneficiaries were less likely to apply.

In the summer of 2020, we ran a series of sprints focused on improving the design and delivery of critical federal public benefits programs, with deep dives on Pandemic-EBT, Unemployment Insurance, and the Economic Impact Payments (ie. “stimulus checks”) authorized through the CARES Act. This sprint resulted in concrete programmatic fixes through the IRS, policy recommendations, and increased advocacy around better delivery of existing benefits through new and existing policies needed to address the COVID-19 crisis. In the coming months, we plan to focus our efforts on increasing uptake of state and federal-level earned income tax credit programs.

What are you learning along the way?

The way that we’ve traditionally designed policy is not just outdated or insufficiently focused on people’s needs, but it’s also exclusionary. Many of the critical benefits families rely on were designed to make it difficult for people of color, low income households, or vulnerable communities to access them. Apart from the systemic racism underpinning our institutions and policies, these programs are designed in a way that often lead to ‘compounding inequities’ that make them inaccessible.

We believe that it’s not just inadequate, but also dangerous, to look at any policy or program in isolation. For any given policy, we must consider its place within a broader ecosystem of issues and programs that impact applicants or recipients. For example, housing instability can impact vulnerable groups’ ability to access other crucial government benefits, since state governments often rely on mailing forms and notices to a physical address. Without a stable and reliable mailing address, those eligible for benefits are often unable to access them. The digital divide has exacerbated inequities in education as schools have moved online in response to the current public health crisis, which has in turn put a strain on working parents without child care. This reality has further expedited the rate of parents - particularly women - leaving the workforce, increasing the gender pay gap and wealth inequality overall. All of these issues are interrelated, and when we focus on just one aspect of any problem, we run the risk of making things worse, not better.

While our team’s history and composition is rooted in improving government service delivery and public interest technology, we also believe that technological bandaids - such as putting everything online - is not necessarily the first or best solution. We saw firsthand how the preference for online unemployment insurance applications made some state programs completely inaccessible to workers without internet access or a computer at home, especially impacting individuals with disabilities and communities of color. Redesigning policies and programs must take into account the needs of our most vulnerable members of society, and requires a holistic approach and understanding of someone’s lived experiences and the compounding barriers they face - especially when that requires non-technical interventions. Intentionally working to understand the needs of recipients and design with them in mind must come before any “technical” solution.

We are actively working and encouraging others to understand who systems and policies were designed to serve when they were first created, rather than focusing exclusively on who they are serving (or not serving) today. Doing so can provide useful insights into the discrimination that was hardwired into certain policies and programs and that have been designed and implemented in a way that disfavors Black and brown communities and other marginalized populations. We are developing a framework that can be used to unpack inequities in policy, and help program administrators, policymakers, service delivery teams, advocates, and others understand the evolution of exclusionary programs while deconstructing the inequities that have been deeply coded within systems. Our hope is to ensure that any efforts to improve policy design and delivery do not unintentionally further discriminatory practices.

We’d love to collaborate! To learn more about a design sprint or other opportunities to partner, email garlow@newamerica.org.