Research-Policymaker COVID-19 Collaboration: Lessons from Boston’s Summer Jobs Program

By Loretta Goodwin, American Policy Forum

Dr. Loretta Goodwin,
AYPF Deputy Director

How can research inform policy during a pandemic? In Spring 2020, Alicia Modestino, a professor at Northeastern University, and Midori Morikawa, Director of Business Strategy at the City of Boston, rose to the occasion. Their successful partnership and collaborative relationship helped to save and then expand Boston’s summer jobs program despite the biggest pandemic in a century. This blog, based on a recent webinar, will outline the factors that made, and continues to make, this partnership such a success, as well as reflect on some important lessons learned and advice for funders.

Pandemic pandemonium – now what?!!

Before noting the factors contributing to successful collaboration, it is worth sketching what conditions were like regarding the summer jobs program when the pandemic struck in March, 2020. The program was already underway, students had begun applying, and many were already connected to the intermediary organizations providing jobs. “What are we going to do?” dominated the minds of those organizing the program, as many of the summer jobs were typically in person, and pivoting was going to be essential. Midori, Rashad Cope, the Director of Youth Employment and Engagement, and Alicia first tackled these critical issues right at the end of March, followed by conversations with all the intermediary organizations that work with the summer jobs program. Early in April, they talked with the William T. Grant Foundation about support through the Rapid Response Research grants program, so that they could provide the City of Boston with data analytics and plan a research strategy – a strategy that included researching alternative work tracks such as virtual internships, college courses, and any safe in-person work. They strove to create a package of solutions that Midori and Rashad could present to the Mayor of Boston. Via their daily 8am calls with the Mayor, Midori and Rashad played a vital role in keeping the summer jobs programs discussion front and center, at the same time emphasizing that those hardest hit by the pandemic (black and brown youth and communities of color) could remain engaged in the economy. Midori and Rashad were also able to reassure the Mayor that they were already in conversation with Alicia and were ready to work together to provide a way forward.

Cultivating Close Collaboration

What factors contributed to the close collaboration between Midori and Alicia? They had a long-term, trusting relationship; they believed in intentionally co-creating research agendas; they paid attention to being responsive to each other’s needs, and to easily translate research findings for policymakers; they strove to make their partnership sustainable, and they both valued a focus on equity.

Long-term trusting relationship

When the pandemic hit, this was not the first time that Midori and Alicia had worked together on the summer jobs program. Previously, their relationship had developed as they participated in a multi-year evaluation funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. When the pandemic hit, they had been working together for six years, with a clear focus on figuring out what the most effective parts of the Boston summer jobs program were, how to use their resources wisely, and how the already successful program could be used to reduce inequality. Alicia reminded us that “one of the most promising interventions found in my research was intermediary organizations brokering jobs for kids, largely for summer jobs programs.” Her research had shown that the summer jobs program reduced violent crime by roughly 40 percent and reduced property crimes by 30 percent.

During the period of this research Midori transitioned from the Office of Workforce Development to Boston’s economic development agency. Her experience in both places contributed to their successful collaboration during COVID. As the years went by, Midori’s research requests changed, given the change in her responsibilities. In her current role, Midori must recruit private sector employers to hire young people during the summer. She was thus keen to discover if, via an evaluation, she and Alicia could prove that once young people get summer jobs, they actually moved along an upward trajectory of improvement. Through constant open communication the researcher and policymaker were able to pose questions and to rigorously evaluate the program’s impact.

Intentional Co-Creation of Research Agendas

Midori and Alicia had a history of working together to determine what their research agenda should be. In Boston there was already a mechanism, via an annual meeting, for intermediaries involved with the summer jobs program to plan together. When Alicia first participated in this meeting, she was able to present proof that when young people get involved in the summer jobs program, they increase their community engagement, improve their soft skills, gain job readiness skills, and increase their academic aspirations. Alicia then posited that she wanted to collect data on long-term outcomes such as crime, education, and employment. The following year she was able to reveal that one of the long-term outcomes was a 30 percent reduction in violent and property crime. She commented that “everybody leaned in a little bit closer and said, aha, this is what we have suspected.”

Through her relationship with Midori, Alicia had access to students and staff to interview, which provided a deeper understanding of what the mechanisms were that contributed to the successful outcomes. However, Midori reminded us that while this co-creation of the research agenda might appear to be a linear process, there was in fact a lot of behind-the-scenes work that had to be accomplished. Not everyone was on board right away, and Alicia and Midori were the ones who really had to promote the research agenda, especially at first. As Midori summarized, “I think that is really key, having one or two individuals who are moving things along, but also keeping people engaged.” These skills served them well as the City’s needs to support the summer jobs program during the pandemic presented an ever-shifting landscape that was constantly re-assessed and required new data collection and analysis.

Responsive Researcher

In the midst of the pandemic, perfection was not the goal; Midori and Alicia had to take everything day-by-day, and be willing to pivot as needed. Fortunately, even before the crisis, they had established a back-and-forth relationship, with Midori getting Alicia access to relevant data and helping her understand what the findings would mean for policy. Now, during the pandemic, Alicia wrote literature reviews and short policy briefs. She helped develop an employer survey to assess how many jobs would be viable under an all-remote scenario and what could be done to increase that number, including the development of a platform to engage youth as well as ”off-the-shelf” projects that they could work on under the supervision of community-based organizations or employer staff. She gathered data from other cities to help inform the situation in Boston and also shared the developing plans in Boston with others in New York, Chicago, and D.C.

When Midori needed data urgently for the Mayor during the pandemic, she was able to contact Alicia and rapidly receive a PowerPoint from her with relevant research findings that would be easily understood by the Mayor and his cabinet.   This “researcher-on-call” role was critical during these abnormal times when there could not be assumptions about what policymakers knew or did not know – and when there was a limited policy window within which to act.

Translating Research Findings

How you present research findings matters even more than ever during a crisis when people have no time to read whatsoever.” Alicia reflected that, prior to the pandemic, she used to think that she knew everything about presenting findings, but she learned a few key lessons over the summer of 2020. These included that when people have no time, the fewer words, the better; they would wait for people to come back to them for the details that they need rather than writing comprehensive and lengthy documents.

She was also thinking about setting the stage for future research. She realized that she and Midori needed to improve vertical communications, to inform the Mayor’s Cabinet, in addition to the established ways of disseminating information horizontally among the intermediary organizations. She could not assume that Cabinet members knew about the effectiveness of the program based on their prior research. Midori also emphasized the importance of brevity, sharing that there were times they had to condense 10 PowerPoint slides on the employer survey to a single slide. They also had to remember that when talking to a policy leadership team, it is important to get to the bottom line quickly – as well as having a solution that is ready to go.

Making these partnerships more systemic

To ensure that these kinds of partnerships persist, it is important for universities to recognize their value. Alicia has recently become the Research Director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University. The center is positioned as a think- and do-tank and is a convener and producer of research. It has deep ties with the city of Boston. However, it only has a handful of researchers and lots of graduate students. The challenge the center faces is informing the university of the work they are doing and including more researchers in this type of research. One solution they have embarked on is applying for one of the William T. Grant Foundation’s institutional challenge grants which would support having a Dukakis Center Fellow to engage in the summer jobs work.

At the Center they are creating trainings for faculty and graduate students, such as those run by the Scholars Strategy Network, which trains researchers how to make connections with policymakers. For the future they are thinking of creating a mentoring dyad of graduate students with their advisors that will attend the training. Alicia is also working to have the university recognize activities such as the work she is doing with Midori, even when it does not result in academic publication. Alicia emphasized that “we have to realize those things are not mutually exclusive,” as much of what she has done has been published in peer-reviewed journals. Thus, rigorous tools can be brought to these partnerships. This is also the time, Alicia shared, to let the university know about the value of this work, and the ability for these research institutions to assist the surrounding community: “The university was hungry for people who could make a difference in their own backyard, who could help the city deal with the pandemic … helping the communities that are dealing with the economic downfall around what is happening around COVID.”

From the Mayor’s perspective, the contribution to sustainability was evident in continuing the work with Alicia and increasing by $4m the investment in summer jobs. Midori explained that, “as we’re getting ready for next summer, we want to expand on the success of this summer. We’ve had a chance to make the program more visible, which will hopefully help with sustainability.”

A joint focus on equity

The pandemic exacerbated inequalities across multiple socio-economic dimensions. Alicia stressed that it is important to always be thinking about planning processes, how decisions might affect vulnerable populations specifically, and what could be done to mitigate the effects of the virus. In the chaos, many cities canceled their summer programs; other cities offered only career exploration. But Boston’s Mayor committed to serving the same number of youth, for the same number of hours and the same minimum wage, whether they were doing virtual internships, parks and recreation jobs, learning at college, or participating in the peer-to-peer COVID-19 marketing campaign. The research conducted by Alicia helped keep the focus on inequality. She commented that “it was really gratifying to me when the city released its press release, it actually cited the findings of our research, but it also noted these positive impacts also appear to be greater for black and brown youth, based on the results from the city’s multi-year evaluation effort on summer jobs and partnership with Northeastern University.” Also underscored was the importance of the jobs during the pandemic, as youth were helping to pay for household bills with their summer earnings. Midori concurred: “Simply put, we just owe it to young people to invest in what works. And we need to do less of what doesn’t work.” When recruiting companies, Midori really emphasizes to them that this is a great way to develop talent and create a sustainable workforce. There are also other positive impacts such as crime and violence reduction.

What would you do differently? 

Alicia and Midori continue to reflect on what is working well in their partnership, and what they can continue to improve. In highlighting the value of the researcher-policymaker partnership, Alicia stressed that these long-term relationships are necessary to really be effective. And she has learned that evidence really does matter: “If we lost this program, it would harm low-income youth more than others.” Responding to what she would do differently, she talked about the importance of knowing when to step forward, and when to step back: “I’m not the policymaker; I’m here to support Midori.” Of especial importance to her is the ability to be her true self, to voice her opinions, and to keep the conversation going with Midori. She also gained an appreciation for how under-resourced some of the intermediaries are and now has a better understanding of where people are coming from, and how to meet them where they are.   Similarly, Midori shared the importance of realizing that there are always people who are not moving at the same pace as she is. Thus, it becomes imperative to “ask for feedback and input; make sure that everyone’s on board.”

Final Considerations from the Funding Perspective

Vivian Tseng, Senior Vice President of Programs at the William T. Grant Foundation, offered some comments during the webinar on the importance of researcher-policymaker partnerships, especially during the pandemic. At the foundation, in March and April 2020 they knew that, when these types of crises occur, young people who are already the furthest from opportunity are most negatively affected. As a foundation that is committed to bringing research to bear on reducing inequalities for young people, they realized that there simply was not time in the crisis to build new relationships and get a lay of the land. Thus, the purpose of the rapid response research grants was to help people like Midori and Alicia, who already had an established relationship, to leverage research to address the pressing problems of the crisis.

In her message for funders, Vivian urged them to recognize that the story of the partnership between Midori and Alicia required lots of flexibility and nimble work. She encouraged funders to think about allowing this kind of flexible work to occur, as things are evolving so quickly, and to consider ways to support the long-term development of these kind of relationships. This would result in research expertise being available when it is sorely needed.

Vivian also noted that this is also a story of two heroic individuals who worked very hard amidst a pandemic that caught so many of us off-guard. She prodded us to contemplate how we build better institutions on the university and the policy side, so that research can more regularly inform policymaking – in and out of crises.

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