Designing a Fellowship that Centers Place, Equity, and the Needs of Participants

America’s need for government agility has become increasingly urgent in 2020. As most of us are reminded by our daily realities, this year has brought fresh examples of the horrors and costs of systemic racism, devastating natural disasters, and a global pandemic accompanied by employment and financial crises. However, amidst the outrage and fear about these events and their disproportionate impacts on people of color, low-income individuals, and members of other commonly marginalized communities, there is increasing pressure and will for change. One example is the way in which these overlapping crises have sparked serious conversations about how best to invest in governments and train their employees to better meet communities’ specific needs - now and in the future. 

Recently, we explored some of  the training and skills development that public servants desire to help them deliver better outcomes for the people and communities they serve. We also discussed some of the barriers to investing in training and professional development right now - while budgets are being slashed -  and suggested that philanthropy could bridge these gaps, supporting Outcomes Management Fellowships as one way to catalyze government change. Our government partners find the proposed Fellowship compelling, and have enthusiastically offered visions, big and small, for its structure, content, and impact.

Third Sector’s current vision is that the Fellowship - designed in partnership with a university - will give mid-career government professionals the skills to confirm whether the work they and their agencies do is creating more equitable and beneficial outcomes for those they serve; it will also give them the tools to create systems for positive change based on feedback from community voices and streamlined data. Recognizing that every region, state, and community has a unique set of resources and needs, each Fellowship’s development will be guided by input from a diverse group of potential government participants and local experts. This will ensure that the Fellowship is accessible and relevant to local agencies, and provides tangible results.

Evolving a Fellowship to Center Equity

Building on the dozens of interviews that informed our vision, we are continuing to evolve and improve our vision for the Fellowship in response to feedback from government and community partners. Conversations thus far have helped us arrive at four major areas in which the Fellowship can support government leaders: analyzing outcomes data, advancing racial equity, transforming service contracts, and leading institutional change. In recent months, we have been putting particular thought into how we can ensure that the second of those - racial equity - is an integral part and goal of the other three. We believe that outcomes cannot truly be “better” without being more equitable, and continue to learn that an important piece of the Fellowship must be a discussion of how data, contracting, partnership, and leadership skills can be used not for just general betterment, but for rebuilding communities with greater equity in the wake of COVID-19, natural disasters, and the daily harsh churn of systems that leave many wanting.

Naturally, a vital part of ensuring that we are creating a Fellowship in which equity is intrinsic, is making sure that local voices - particularly those of people of color - are strong guiding forces in its creation. As we begin to move forward with pilot sites, we will speak with potential participants to confirm that our proposed curriculum and structure will equally support all of them as rising leaders. In parallel, we will ask local experts for feedback on the different topics and components of the Fellowship. We hope these conversations will also help the Fellowship tap into community networks that will bring diverse participants to the Fellowship and support Fellows as they elevate innovative projects at their agencies.

A Curriculum that Fosters Practice and Partnership

In interviews, brainstorming sessions, and workshops, our partners have stressed the importance of translating theory into practice, and doing so in a way that provides tangible results for the participants to bring back to their home agencies. To meet these needs, the curriculum will draw heavily from case studies and will teach participants skills that they will practice during capstone projects. It will include a combination of hard skills - data disaggregation, writing data sharing agreements, structuring outcomes-oriented contracts, etc. - and the soft skills needed to shape hard skills into meaningful change, such as negotiation, building partnerships, and leading conversations about racial equity. It will also build in significant peer learning and time for participants to network, to allow participants from different agencies or agency subsections to forge new, more diverse relationships, and understand different facets of the systems and regions in which they work.

Participants may also draw on peers’ expertise or thought partnership during their capstone projects, during which they will use their new skills to tackle real projects that aim to create better and more equitable outcomes, likely through work at their home agencies. The products of capstone projects could include outcomes-focused contracts, plans for cross-sector partnership, and roadmaps for collecting and using data to examine racial disparities in program outcomes. During their capstone projects, participants will be coached and mentored by experts from Third Sector, the host university, and local organizations, as well as agency leaders.

Structured to Allow Busy Agencies and Employees Room to Grow

While the curriculum and capstone projects will be in-depth, they will be structured to make the Fellowship accessible for busy public sector professionals. Government employees told us that they needed to be given enough time to “get off the hamster wheel” of business-as-usual operations in order to innovate, but not be asked to spend so much time away from their positions that it would prevent them from doing their jobs well. With partners in WA and NC, we have proposed striking this balance with weekend intensives every 4-6 weeks and independent project work in between, although we will depend on the expertise of local government agencies to guide us in developing the best structure for each Fellowship site. In employing Fellowship structures that do not require Fellows to take sabbaticals from their jobs or move their families, we hope to make the Fellowship broadly accessible. 

We also plan to actively engage agency leaders as we are selecting Fellows, to ensure that Fellows will have the agency support, time, and access to resources they will need during their projects. Creating early leadership buy-in will develop long-term support for Fellows to build on their work after the Fellowship and serve as resident experts about data and outcomes, sharing what they have learned with colleagues. Over time, we anticipate that Fellows will assume greater leadership roles at their agencies, supported by, and bringing with them, strengthened data and partnership skills that allow them to center outcomes in their work. 

Government agencies and universities are excited by the Outcomes Management Fellowship, and the possibilities they see for it to help them help their communities. Even as they are struggling to adapt to the strains and disruptions of this year, they are brimming with ideas for how they might bring about changes and improvement given a Fellowship’s worth of space to do so. Government staff know change is needed and want to be part of its creation. We’re committed to helping them build kinder, more equitable years ahead.