Written By Nagela Nukuna
“Technology is not what’s needed to fix delivery. It’s technologists.”
On March 11th, 2021, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center for Media, Politics and Public Policy hosted an event with Cecilia Muñoz, moderated by Kathy Pham, to highlight some of the important topics and experiences that technologists – particularly those of color – joining government might encounter, and how to navigate those situations. The talk also focused on the role technology – and tech practitioners play in policy design and delivery.
In an ever-advancing digital world, using technology and products to scale services or enacted policies is an enticing option – but policy delivery is complex and difficult to do at a government level – and many times, it is lacking in governance. Oftentimes, we hear stories about the celebration of the policy legislation when it is passed, not understanding that the effectiveness of the policy is largely judged by how that legislation (i.e. good or service) reaches its beneficiaries. We have all seen that during COVID – as many businesses and families experience severe economic hardships, dissemination of services and stimulus payments from the government is what will determine the success of the legislation.
With a renewed focus on delivery of services, the conversation also focused on how you reach different communities – with technology or other mechanisms – particularly communities most impacted by the virus. The importance of how to design technology and coordinate delivery relies on the intentional inclusion of women, and women of color in decision-making rooms. Cecilia recounted stories pertaining to this notion: “I made sure that whatever policy we were implementing, I made sure that the team understood the experience of her Latinx community”. She also shared personal stories about how she navigated those spaces as a woman of color, overcame doubts, and uplifted others as she ascended.
Throughout the discussion, the speakers engaged actively with participants, drawing upon the considerable knowledge and personal and professional experience(s) in the event. Key takeaways shared throughout the conversation are included below.
- The practice of doing policy well is by focusing (1) on the user and (2) on the delivery of that policy.
- “Technology is not the only tool needed to fix delivery. You need technologists. Skills that you gain as a technology practitioner – user-centered design, data instrumentation, etc… will become critical in public sector or government work.
- As you progress in your career and develop professionally, it is important to actively seek out sources of feedback – from truth tellers and mentors. You need individuals who can give you honest and critical assessments, and a latter group of individuals who can provide a safe space for you to grow.
- If you find yourself being “the first” in any role (e.g for Cecilia, the first Latina in a role), do not allow other people’s doubts about your ability to become your doubts. Just because your gender or cultural background might be a rarity in that space, remember that you belong.
You can watch a recording of the event below:
Cecilia Muñoz is a national leader in public policy and public interest technology with nearly three decades of experience in the non-profit sector and 8 years of service on President Obama’s senior team. She was one of the greatest champions of the United States Digital Service, a then new civic tech start-up in government, and continues to lead in public interest technology.
She is currently a Senior Advisor at New America, where she built a major initiative on public interest technology, and led locally-focused initiatives. Prior to joining New America in 2017, she served for eight years on President Obama’s senior team, first as Director of Intergovernmental Affairs followed by five years as Director of the Domestic Policy Council. Before working in government, she spent 20 years at the National Council of La Raza (now UNIDOS US), the nation’s largest Hispanic policy and advocacy organization. Cecilia is also a Senior Fellow at Results for America, a nonprofit that advances the use of data and evidence in policy making.
She received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2000 for her work on immigration and civil rights, and is a trustee of Kresge and MacArthur Foundations. She advises the Open Society and JPB Foundations, and serves on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. In 2020, she published the award-winning More Than Ready: Be Strong and Be You…and Other Lessons for Women of Color on the Rise, which shares insights from her career as well as the careers of other notable women of color. Muñoz, a Detroit native and the daughter of immigrants from Bolivia, is also a wife and mother of two grown daughters. She lives with her husband in Maryland.