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Please note: This episode was recorded in early-May of this year.
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This podcast is recorded in Australia on the traditional lands of the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation. I wish to pay my respects to elder’s past, present and emerging, and give thanks to the knowledge they have shared. Hello, and welcome to Moments of Change. My name is Melanie Rayment and I’m a social designer based in Sydney, Australia, and currently a Director at The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. Moments of Change is a podcast dedicated to exploring the moments that we learn from as we seek to design and cultivate positive social change. In this episode, I speak with Shanti Mathew, Deputy Director of Public Policy Lab, a nonprofit innovation lab based in New York. Shanti’s mission is to use collective power to build better lives through government. She shares with me her passion and experience in partnering effectively to bring communities into policy design, transform service systems and pilot new social programs. She has led work with the New York City Administration for Children’s Services, the Department of Education, the Department of Homeless Services, and the US Department of Veterans Affairs, among many other public interest organizations. I hope you enjoy this episode of Moments of Change. Shanti Mathew, welcome to Moments of Change.
Thank you for having me.
It’s so wonderful to have you on the show. Shanti, let’s start off. Can you describe what your current role is at the Public Policy Lab and how you’re seeking to create positive social change?
Sure, absolutely. So the Public Policy Lab, let me start there, is a nonprofit innovation lab for government. We’re based in New York City and we work with government agencies on redesigning social policy and social service delivery. We are a nonprofit and, as far as we know, we were the first nonprofit innovation lab specifically for government in the United States, founded about 10 years ago. And we are a nonprofit because we work with low income and disadvantaged communities and the government programs or public services that serve them. My job at PPL is the Deputy Director. It’s awesome and it’s a fancy title, but of course, in a small organization, it also means you do a lot of things.
My job is split between working with our project teams, most specifically with our project managers, our project leads giving strategic oversight and supporting them in project management stuff, being a face for our project teams with our project partners or our government partners. And then I do a bunch of operational organizational stuff, so overall organizational strategy with our executive director, splitting operational tasks with her. I do things like hiring people and making sure our newsletter goes out and looking at cash flow and resourcing – these sorts of things. So I get to do a lot of different things, which is really interesting for me.
How has your view of your purpose evolved over your career to see you at the Public Policy Lab now?
From a very young age, I had a sense that my life was connected to others. There are plenty of stories that I could tell about little Shanti trying to make a difference. Partly that was because I’m the child of immigrants. I saw different cultures at a very early age. I grew up in the city of Chicago. So I saw a lot of the world from an early age, and I had a pretty intuitive sense that my life was connected to others and the ways that we treated each other or behaved or acted with each other had a real impact on where we were able to get in life. I studied in undergrad sociology, religious studies and philosophy, because I was really interested in humans. I’ve always really been interested in humans, but I’ve always really been interested in humans and how we function together. Right? That was the real thing about sociology for me. I was super curious about groups of humans, and how we made decisions together, how we decided to live together and then what happened when those decisions seemed to have some negative effects or some of the agreements that we had made with each other broke down.
So all of that was super interesting to me, and at the outset of my career, I was very much interested in doing mission-driven work, whatever that meant. I always say this, but I don’t think that mission-driven work is the only way to make an impact in the world or to live a good life. It’s so far how I’ve chosen to spend my 9 to 5. It’s important to me and it’s fun and motivating for me, but I don’t think it’s the only way. So early on in my career, I was interested in doing work that had what I saw as positive social impact. I think over the years, my definition of that or perhaps where I see or what I call or describe my purpose has both narrowed and expanded, perhaps.
Moving forward from there, I was working with nonprofits, community foundations, these sort of things. But somewhere around my mid 20s, when I was in grad school, I woke up to the fact that government was an institution and is a set of incredibly influential structures that are all around us all the time. And it was like somehow I had missed the fact that oh, government is actually the largest provider of social services in our country. And, oh, actually, the way that we structure our collective life is through public action. It’s through politics. It’s through policies. It’s through our public services. So I don’t exactly know how I figured that out. In all transparency, I think it had a lot to do with The West Wing. I was a little too young when The West Wing was originally on TV, but I started watching it not that long after. I don’t know that I’ve really told anyone that, but I think a lot of public servants–
Everyone knows now!
A lot of public servants in my generation or a little bit older are like, ‘Yeah, I entered into public service because of The West Wing.’ Anyway. So I discovered that government was a thing.
And so as I moved forward, I really fell in love with government as an institution. I think Government is incredible and amazing. I truly believe in it as a means of collective decision making and life organizing, life structuring. So coming to Public Policy Lab was an opportunity to really focus my work’s attention on government systems, and real practicalities and operations and experiences of public services. I’ve similarly seen myself slot more into a good niche for me, which is as a person who loves systems and structures and organizing how humans work together with resources and time and money to get things done. I’ve found myself in more operational, organizational, and strategic management roles, and that’s been a good fit for me. It’s like, where do you position yourself in a system for the change you want to make? In terms of, okay, what company do I go work for? Or do I work in the public sector, the private sector or do I work for a foundation? And then within an organization, within a business to say, okay, what actually is a good role for me here? How do I fit into the system that is this organizational entity? And how do I fit my skill sets into the mission of this organization? So I found that.
So that’s the narrowing. And then to get to the expansion, I think my view of my purpose has not diminished. I will say, the more that I do this work, the more realistic I am about how hard it is to make change in systems, especially in public sector systems, which have very good reasons to stay static. I feel like my respect grows healthier and healthier for how hard the work is as time goes on, and I become more and more practical about what can get done in a given timeframe. But, man, do I think my sense of purpose has expanded, right? Like my whole deal is listen, we get some time on this earth, and I want to leave it better than I found it. I want to build a good life for myself. I want to be happy. I want to nurture and love and support the people that I’m blessed to call my people. And, man, do I want my kids and my grandkids to have it better. Right? I want to be a part of our collective growth as societies. I do the work I do because I want more and more people to have more and more of a chance to flourish. That’s what I want. And as I do the work, that is the vision that actually keeps expanding, and that I believe in more and more.
At Public Policy Lab, there is a bringing together and a meeting together of minds. I’m always interested in how do those different meetings of those minds come together? How do those different perspectives come together? I know you have an array of backgrounds – including yourself – there. Something that I’m always interested in from a design perspective is this meeting of politics and power in the design space, where you’re needing to design with systems, often with bureaucracy, with a full awareness of the politics at play and the power at play. Can you talk to me a bit about how you see the melding of those different elements come together for you in the work that you do?
Yeah, sure. I think there are a couple things to talk about here, to reflect on here. So one is the fact that I really see Public Policy Lab’s job – or one of our jobs – is to be a bridge between large bureaucratic entities and individual human beings. And that’s why we use human centered design methods: because we think that those are a set of methods that actually makes it possible for large entities to engage with individual humans and learn something from individual humans that can be actionable back up there in the giant, bureaucratic entity. But the fact that Public Policy Lab – we exist to work with low income and disadvantaged communities. Those are the services that we work on, we work with. So when we are being that bridge, we are actually working at extreme power differentials. So it is our job, I think, to go out into the world – to walk into homeless shelters, to walk into public schools, to walk into people’s homes – and to really actively mitigate against our own power as humans who represent the Public Policy Lab or who are working on a project with the Department of Homeless Services or the Administration for Children’s Services or whoever. We bear certain power, and it is our job as those who have more power to mitigate against that so that we can go and actually learn from people who, socially speaking, have much less power than we do. So there’s a set of things about that.
And then we actually need to sort of painfully be really honest about the fact that what we’re doing is extracting knowledge, we’re extracting experiences, we’re extracting value from people who have less power than we do so that we can then turn around and do a bunch of stuff with it as ‘experts’, and then walk into places like the New York City Mayor’s office or the Municipal Administrative Building, Department of Homeless Services and walk into rooms and halls where people have way more power than we do. And we have to then find a way to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got news for you from people over there who are disempowered.’ And so I think this question of power is super interesting, and it’s present all the time – whether we acknowledge it or not. We have a set of practices on both of those sides of the spectrum for mitigating our own power and also getting more power where we need to that we’ve really evolved and learned to employ over the years of doing this work.
You mentioned extracting value, and I think that’s something that I’m often really conscious of: how not to be extractive in undertaking research with people and with communities. You are being given a gift about their life and about their experiences, and often that’s really painful. How do you avoid not being extractive in those situations in your practice and give back power through these experiences that you’re creating in the way that you interact with people?
I think one thing we can start by doing is acknowledging and admitting and living with the fact that we can never be 100% non-extractive.
I think there’s some stuff that we have to live with and we have to carry so that we take the appropriate steps, so that there’s urgency in protecting people as much as we can. I do think there are things that we can do, and things that we do. I know you’ve thought about this, but we thought a lot about our consent process and how we design a consent process that is not primarily about protecting us as an organization, but that’s protecting our respondent. That’s really about explicitly and very clearly talking about what are the rewards and the risks of engaging with us, and getting pretty discrete about how we do consent. We have a whole set of questions that are like, ‘Can we take notes while we talk? Yes or no? Can we take an audio recording while we talk? Yes or no? Can we take a photo of you where your face cannot be seen? Yes or no? May we take photos of you where your face can be seen? Yes or no?’
We actually allow people to be pretty fine grained in what they agree to. We happily let people stop at any point, of course. At the end of an engagement, we’ll ask folks if there’s anything that they want us to essentially strike from the record. When we take photos, we let people look at the photos that we’ve taken and delete the ones that they don’t want us to keep. In terms of value add, we really believe in compensating people for their time. If we’re engaging with members of the public, we are paying them for their time because we believe their time is valuable. We often do that through gift cards. That’s been a way that has worked for us. We also have had some nice experiences with offering people a nice photograph of themselves, so taking sort of like a headshot or a nice photo of them in the context of their home or their workplace. A lot more people than I expected have said, ‘Yes, I’d like that.’ So some things like that.
There’s something quite nice about also just giving back the information. I find that so much of the processes that are employed to understand people’s lives in the way that it is extracting stories and knowledge is how do you make sense of that and give that back to people as a tool for information to understand what are their community needs, or as something valuable that, in terms of their life story, that they could pass on if it was an interview?
But also giving them the right of refusal when you give it back to them and say, ‘Did we hear you right? Have we interpreted what you’re saying how you meant it?’
There’s a lot of accountability that comes when you actually have to put your slide deck or your report or your design products in front of people whose voices are there, who influenced it, who made it with you. I think that’s important. We’re trying to explore more and more about how we can get rid of even more of our power. So I think the other thing to talk about with power is that I like to say that the road from design to implementation – whatever you’re designing or trying to get done in the world – is politics. So just having a good idea or saying that something is better, it’s a better way of doing it, it’s a better thing? Better is not enough to make change in the world. You actually have to convince people to change their behavior. And that actually is the work of politics, because the way that we do that in the public sector – that negotiation, and choosing and selection in a public space – is actually what the work of politics should be. And that’s how you, I think, make real change in the world at any scale.
So Shanti, tell us about the moment of change that you wish to share with us today. What’s that moment where you look back and you realize that something has shifted in the project or the program or the relationships that you were building? And tell us how did how did that happen?
I thought of some work that we are in the process of doing with the Department of Homeless Services here in New York City. It is no secret that I love them. I love our partners with whom we work there. And I remember it was somewhere between phase one and phase two of this project. There was some initial work that was, okay, let’s go and let’s do some more exploratory stuff, and let’s figure out – we’re supposed to look specifically at how different shelters, shelter facilities, were supporting clients in looking for, securing and moving out into permanent housing. And essentially, what were best practices across the system and how could we codify those and spread those around, essentially, through formal means by doing a bunch of different stuff in the system. So there was a phase one of that work in which we emerged with an initial theory of like, okay, here’s a new service model that staff at hundreds of shelters across the city could start enacting. Here are some prototypes of tools that are going to help them do that, make behavior change. Here’s some policy recommendations that we’re making, etc, etc.
And then we had a pause. This work was funded by private philanthropy, and so we just had a pause in funding. We stayed with our partners to do some lightweight admin and planning, but we just had a few months of downtime. So I had stepped away from the project during that time a bit. I was just less involved. I showed up then to the phase two kickoff session, and I’m sitting next to some of my favorite buddies over at the Department of Homeless Services. And in this meeting, someone is like, ‘Oh, well, you know, yeah, you know, that thing, we’re like doing that as part of that thing,’ – like, insert government acronyms here. And I was like, ‘What’s that? I have been working with you for months. What is that?’ ‘Oh, it’s our new training curriculum for all staff. It’s our new model of practice.’ What? And then, ‘Okay, great.’
And so then after the meeting, I turn and my buddy from the Department of Homeless Services – I love to joke with him because he loves to show me his diagrams and slides. He loves when the design team comes because he’s like, ‘Oh, people who like my diagrams.’ And I’m like, ‘Are you about show me a diagram?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah. It’ll explain this training curriculum to you.’ Like, ‘Okay, cool, great. Tell me.’ And he starts explaining to me and I was like, ‘Excuse me, what is this content? What is all of this?’ And he’s like, ‘Well, it’s all the stuff that you guys discovered in phase one. We couldn’t just sit around for three months with all that knowledge and information and not do anything about it.’
Amazing! And I just loved this moment because it was wonderful. It was delightful. It was like, yeah, sure, pat on the back for our team, like, oh, wow, we actually discovered really useful stuff and made really useful proposals. But also it just spoke to the partnership that we have with them. We’re committed to working really closely with our government partners, and so it was amazing to realize that what we always hoped for was actually true. They were actually embodying the process and embodying the work with us. This is a person who was deeply involved in this project, and he wasn’t the only one. There were lots of people who were deeply involved in the project. I think it’s part of what has made this work so successful. And so it was a real testament to that: ‘Oh, he owns this. We’re not just some consultants here.’ This is their work. This is their culture change. This is their strategic work. So it was really exciting to see that. It was exciting to see that, man, they just started implementing stuff. It was so cool. And you just don’t often see that in government contexts.
Always sort of thought that such an interesting solution that they’ve come up with is when you go into these government spaces around a particular sort of problem and the parameters that they put around the problem space, is what do you do with all the other information that you find out? And where do you let that flow? From a design practice point of view, there’s something quite anxiety inducing. What do I do with all this other information that I have to share because this is really important stuff, but they don’t want it in the report? And so it’s such an interesting way to approach you know, ‘Right, we need to talk about all of this other stuff and share it with people.’ You spoke about the partnership there. What do you think is important in how you set up a partnership to really get that sort of collective working and that trust over time? Because undoubtedly, you will reveal things that are uncomfortable for them.
Yes. We do a few things here. One is that we have a very intentionally long scoping process with any potential partners. So we spend a lot of time well before a project kicks off – like, months of time before a project kicks off – in which we essentially get to date each other. We get to be a little casual and be like, so who should come to this date? We order. ‘I like this thing, how would we build this meal together?’ So first off, it’s that we have an incredibly intentional and collaborative scoping process because we believe so deeply in partnership, and we actually want to work with our partners to figure out, okay, actually, what is this? What should this work be? What should it be about? Who should be at the table? So that’s the thing. From the start – and so I guess I have to say that we have very few projects now that kick off where we don’t have good, solid partnership in place. We spend that time essentially filtering out places with conditions that don’t seem conducive to innovation or to good partnership. We also call our partners ‘partners’ and not ‘clients’. So we talk very explicitly with our partners that we are your partners, and our client is the public. We have a mutual client. So there’s something about language there.
What we do now is we have multiple levels of decision-making power represented by the agency on our project team. So we always make sure we get someone who has agency-wide level decision-making power over some business unit, essentially – like an assistant commissioner, deputy mayor, something like that. We make sure we have someone who’s a key project sponsor, who’s over a particular program or operational unit. And then we have someone on the team who’s really embedded with us on a weekly or day-to-day basis, who’s our main program point of contact. We found that really useful and successful. We have different touchpoints that we’ve designed for each of those types of people over the course of a project lifecycle.
We also spend a bunch of that time not only getting different levels of decision-making power on the project team; we also spend that what we call phase zero time saying, ‘Who are all the stakeholders here? Who is involved in this agency? Whose power do we need, and how do we get them in this room?’ Our dream is to have the legal department at the table from the very beginning, because if there’s anything, which is – I mean, everything is going to have to go through some sort of legal review, get the lawyers in the room right away. You know, have the people in the room who own the operational requirements and constraints, and they can embody and be a part of the work all the way through.
And then, in terms of building trust, I think I mentioned that we have sort of different touchpoints that we’ve designed for different levels of leadership over the course of a project. Part of what being partners with us means is that we – in normal times – will invite you to our studio, and our partners are welcome any time. We’re like, ‘Hey, come do this synthesis session, come work with the team. We’ve got snacks, come eat some cookies, and hang out with us and be here, be embedded in the work.’ We also invite our partners regularly out into the field with us, and we put them to work as notetakers and as research support and design support out in the world. So we interact pretty closely with our partners, and we try to maintain really good, clear communication with our partners. I think all of that has really helped us build trust. And I think doing good work, obviously – having good work product, doing things on time, doing what you’ve said you will do, being people of integrity and an organization of integrity. That’s what builds trust with people.
Shanti, there’s so many interesting learnings in what you’ve just shared that are so applicable to other people in the work that they do. We’re coming to the end of the show. Before you go, what’s that one wildly important goal over the next year in the work that you do that you might share with others?
You know, we’re in this really bizarre moment – I’m sure that everyone has noticed – and there’s a massive social experiment happening. On a very practical level, one of the projects that we’re launching with two New York City agencies actually right now has pivoted pretty explicitly to COVID response. And our question there is a question that will probably be my big picture question for the next year, which is: what has this emergency caused us to do overnight that we thought wasn’t possible? And what of that should we keep? What should we actually say, ‘No, no, no, that thing was emergency response, but that’s actually a better way of doing things.’ And I think there’s a fine line there.
Look, I have a lot of respect for rules and regulations, honestly. And I love bureaucracy – okay, maybe not all bureaucracy, but I love bureaucracies. But this question of what will we learn, actually having – maybe it’s not right now, this second; maybe it’ll be in a few weeks, maybe it’ll be in a few months – but this question of okay, what are we learning about the world and our social structures? What are we learning about what’s actually possible? And can we give an intentional and thoughtful look to, ‘Oh, actually, it’s better if folks don’t have to show up in person for a public health program applicant process.’ Maybe they could just do it online. Maybe you could actually have your lactation session over video. Maybe you can go in person if you want to, but maybe you don’t have to. I think those questions are going to be super interesting, and there’s going to be no shortage of them, because overnight everything has sort of turned on its head. So I’m looking forward to that. And that’s going to be a big question on my mind and, I think, driving our team in the next year.
Shanti Mathew, thank you so much for coming on Moments of Change. It’s been wonderful to talk to you.
Thank you for having me. It’s a delight. It’s always a delight to talk with you.
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