HKS MPP Nikhil Gahlawat Studies Poverty with NYC’s Center for Economic Opportunity
By Nikhil Gahlawat
During my summer at the Center for Economic Opportunity (CEO) in New York City, I had the unique experience of working with both their research and program teams. The research team works on studying poverty in New York City, creating better ways to measure poverty and understand whom the poor are. The program office works to implement anti-poverty programs, first in the pilot phase and then later, if they are successful, in more scaled-up phases. However, rarely do the day-to-day activities of the two offices intersect. My fellowship granted me a unique opportunity to experience CEO in ways that even most full-time staff do not.
This arrangement was partly of my own suggestion. The main purpose of my fellowship was to help CEO use the large amounts of data it collects to create interesting and engaging data visualizations. The visualizations could then be used both by internal staff to see potential issues and solutions in a new light, and by parties external to CEO who wished to explore CEO’s wealth of data.
However, because my own background is in engineering and political campaigns, I had never worked for a public organization before. Part of my goal for the summer was to have the experience of working in city government, to learn more about the environment, both the good and the bad, of working in a municipal organization.
In the program office, I worked on an array of different issues. One of CEO’s innovations in working to reduce poverty is to rigorously evaluate its pilot programs. If they are successful, they are scaled up. If they do not show positive results based on pre-determined metrics, they are shut down.
However, one challenge facing CEO is that even though a certain program might be successful, it may not always be apparent why it succeeded. The community-based organizations that run the various programs on the ground are always looking to incorporate more successful methods into their implementations. If the effective principles of successful programs are not properly captured, we can lose the chance to properly replicate the program. To this end, I helped determine and compile a collection of best practices, specifically for subsidized jobs programs for disconnected youth. I also worked to create a guide for employers who would provide the subsidized jobs. One of the challenges I faced involved properly understanding the implications of such things as unemployment benefits, wages vs. stipends, and taxes. Finding the answers to these questions can prove a tricky tightrope walk at times: different groups within city government may provide different perspectives on what such a guide should include. Deciding which perspectives to present, while still balancing the need to attract employers to help their local communities can prove difficult.
In addition to developing best practices, I worked on a host of different projects, including outlining a new streamlined process for selecting contracted evaluation firms, helping draft response letters to accompany evaluation reports, and drafting applications to various conferences.
My greatest challenge of the summer took place at the research office. My project was to create an interactive map where users could click on different city neighborhoods and view poverty facts for that area. I wanted to use a program called Processing, a visualization software program that is free and open to the public, which I had learned in the spring semester, but there were significant technological and institutional barriers to using this program. For one, the computers in the research office are under strong protection from outside programs and applications, due in part to sensitive data that the research team must access. In order to install new programs, a request must be submitted, the program must be vetted, and only if it is approved, will it be installed. The process is somewhat informal, consisting of email requests to an IT supervisor, and as such there is no real established timeline for approval and installation. Though the research team was persistent in attempting to get Processing installed, by the time of my departure, they had not yet succeeded.
Another problem was that Processing was an unknown quantity to the IT department. As we went through the process of trying to have Processing installed, the IT department tried to direct us toward other software programs that they had more familiarity with that might also help us create the interactive map. However, our trouble was, first, the programs they suggested did not fully meet the needs of our project, and second, no one on the research team had familiarity with the programs they suggested.
These institutional and technological barriers were ones that I did not anticipate going into the summer. Had I known I would have considered other alternative programs more thoroughly or begun the administrative process of software installation sooner. But though these certainly were setbacks I believe they will ultimately not stop the research team from reaching its goal. For my own experience, though this setback was frustrating at times, it did help paint a more complete picture of the challenges one faces when attempting to bring new ideas to the public sector.
Nikhil Gahlawat is a MPP 2013 student at Harvard Kennedy School and an Ash Center Summer Fellow in Innovation.