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Bringing an MVP mindset to public problems – carefully

An MVP or ‘minimum viable product’ is a simple, fast, imperfect ‘first draft’ or starting point. The concept was initially introduced by the start-up world and is a mainstay in the Bay Area playbook.

What is an MVP?

An MVP is the most basic version of a solution. MVPs are designed to have the minimum set of features required to address a need. The premise of the MVP approach is that an initial solution – however imperfect – is real faster and quickly generates actual user feedback about all the ways it could be better. All that feedback enables fast iteration and the development of a better, more mature solution over time.

Why are MVPs are useful in public sector?

MVPs are extremely useful in public problem solving for many of the same reasons they are useful to start ups – with a few riffs and additional benefits of note.

  • Break down complexity, forcing a focus on entry points to big intractable issues
  • Make abstract problems tactical and operational, for example – making healthcare access equitable seems daunting (rightly); understanding how to make a 6 week pen-and-paper enrollment process more user friendly in 2021, less so
  • Force a citizen or frontline focus, which is sometimes conspicuously absent from even the most impact-oriented systems change efforts
  • Create bright spots, which can be critical to keep energy high in the face of grave and serious issues
  • Limit disruption that may not work or produces unintended consequences, which is particularly important when working on services or products that vulnerable populations depend on

What should a public problem solver have in mind when taking an MVP approach?

Reject the “move fast and break things” mentality that start-ups tout, and instead use the MVP to move fast more carefully. Small tests and pilots can help reduce unintended harm in public services, by forcing a focus on frontline feedback and observed outcomes before scale.

Look for ways that the MVP mindset can be adapted to systems and org problems that often hamper public and social sector work – e.g., solving for a minimum viable operating model to help sustain small community based organizations (you don’t have to be developing a product to use the MVP approach).

Share details about the MVP mentality with the groups that engage in the process – to spread the word and the thinking about how this kind of mindset can be imported, adjusted and most fully realized for good.

Foster care 101

The big idea

The foster system needs more attention and more innovation.  The embedded primer includes information about the foster system today and potential areas for innovation (system re-designs, program changes, new tools) to improve outcomes. Below is an overview of why you should check it out and consider what you might be able to do or build to improve the space.

Why focus on fixing foster care?

The foster system is responsible for a small, concentrated group of many of the most vulnerable children in the United States.

  • Less than 1% of US children, roughly .5M, are in the foster system
  • Children in foster care are 3.4x more likely to experience childhood trauma
  • Most children in foster care are removed from parents due to household and parental factors, not child-specific circumstances
  • Children from certain demographic backgrounds are overrepresented in the foster care system (i.e., black children, LGBTQ+ children)

Children’s experience of foster care comes at a critical time in their development and is heavily influenced by external factors.

  • ~50% of kids entering foster care are 5 years old or younger
  • Childhood trauma (i.e., abuse, neglect) permanently affect brain development and is correlated with risk of medical/behavioral conditions
  • Children’s pathways and outcomes are varied and depend on many factors, including judicial discretion, case manager turnover, placement setting, parental case plan performance, and caregiver characteristics

The child welfare system has the potential to be a nexus for better interventions for a vulnerable population more broadly.

  • Many children remain in the care of high-need / at-risk families upon exiting the system
  • Spend on programs for foster system alumni who age out of the system is 10x more than the cost of foster care
  • The foster system can serve as a center to coordinate interventions across multiple systems during childhood and into adulthood and through family-centered interventions