The Catalyze podcast: Liz Kistin Keller ’04 of Albuquerque’s Office of the Mayor on increasing access to digital services in local government
Catalyze is joined by Liz Kistin Keller ’04 of the City of Albuquerque’s Office of the Mayor and a 2021 Civic Collaboration host for Morehead-Cain. This episode is the first in a two-part series on the Civic Collaboration program.
The Office of the Mayor tasked their team of Morehead-Cain Scholars to explore the online user experiences of the 50+ population in order to improve that age group’s access to internet-based services provided by local government.
More than a dozen teams of scholars participated across the country in this year’s Civic Collaboration program. Rising second-year scholars investigated their designated communities’ challenges and opportunities and proposed meaningful solutions.
Becoming a Civic Collaboration host for Morehead-Cain
Hosts propose a problem or issue for scholars to address together, provide guidance and mentorship, and share information and resources pertinent to the projects. The Morehead-Cain Scholarship provides each scholar with a cost-of-living stipend and transportation to and from the host city (hosts are not expected to provide financial assistance to scholars).
This episode features songs by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul, and Nicholas Byrne ’19 of Arts + Crafts.
How to listen
Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Liz, thank you so much for speaking with us today about Civic Collaboration.
Thank you. It’s such a treat to be here.
I know that you are a principal systems analyst at Sandia National Laboratories, a federal laboratory, but you also are very involved in politics. How do you help run a campaign during the pandemic in working so closely with the office?
Life feels very full and occasionally chaotic at the moment. As you mentioned, in my day job, I have the pleasure of being a complex systems analyst at Sandia National Laboratories, which is one of the U.S. Department of Energy’s national labs. And there I get to lead our Strategic Futures program to enable labs and our partners to better anticipate and adapt to changing human security and global security dynamics.
And then over the last four years, I’ve also had the opportunity to serve in a volunteer capacity as the first lady of the City of Albuquerque. So, a new form of public service and a chance to engage in some select areas and select priorities with the city as we think about trying to create a safe, inclusive, innovative environment for everyone who’s here.
So, lots to juggle. I have the joy of being a mom to two little kids at the same time, and it’s been a fabulous opportunity to see these different roles change and ebb and flow over time and exciting, certainly, to add to that, to get to be a host for Civic Collaboration scholars.
Well, very neat. And it seems like you have been used to being very busy for a long time. You’ve also been one of our great partners for the Civic Collaboration program and have done it in years past. But to just focus for now on this past summer, how did you arrive at the dilemma and what were some of the issues that you really hoped these scholars might focus on?
We really wanted some help getting a deeper understanding of the obstacles and opportunities that shape seniors’ access to and use of Internet-based services. And the idea there was that it could really help us as a city and a number of departments to really think through, how can we shape and adapt new and existing programs and services?
The scholar team dug into issues of accessibility across a number of different layers, thinking both about issues of Internet access and Internet affordability in the city. Equipment access, whether folks had smart devices or laptop computers at home or were able to access them from the libraries or the senior centers or other places. A level of understanding and comfort about how to navigate different resources out there and different levels of trust, particularly as different populations had been worried about phishing scams and other pieces, particularly via online resources. How do you think through all of those different layers that might be impacting access and the digital divide?
Well, that’s very cool. And just something that I think some potential hosts or those who haven’t worked with us before might be curious about is just the dynamic between—knowing that this team should hopefully be a bunch of self starters who take lots of initiative—but what does that look like on a daily basis? And would you have any guidance for other hosts as they consider bringing on some teams?
So, part of what has worked for us in the past to strike that balance is setting up a flow of check-ins early on. First, when you’re onboarding the team and getting them oriented to the environment, in our case, into city government, making sure to make some of those initial connections. “Here are your three key champions and information sources over that. They know you’re going to be reaching out to them to set up this meeting.” But giving the team the chance to set up those meetings for themselves and those pieces.
And really to emphasize, and I think the team this year just did a spectacular job with that, really to emphasize that the first week on the ground is just learning, right? It’s taking in the information. It’s understanding that background context and then having to check-in about a week after that to say, okay. And then how do you set up a project plan for that? What are some of the deliverables working back from your end date? Who are some of the folks we’d like you to brief, the kind of decisions we’d be interested in having you inform?
So giving them that rough outline, then, of what that might look like, what you need for impact, but letting them shape and have a light touch coaching as they shape that project plan and then figure out what it takes to be able to do that, what it takes to be able to execute.
You mentioned that you all have learned over time some different strategies to improve, which I think is not giving enough credit to the wonderful work that you all have done with Morehead-Cain. But I’m wondering if you can point to any of the past examples in other summers, what some of those lessons were and just sharing about the dilemmas in general and how you arrived at that. I’m sure working in city government, there’s just an infinite amount of issues and concerns that anyone could tackle, so I’m sure that’s part of it, knowing which one to prioritize that could match the skill sets of the scholars coming in.
In our first Civic Collaboration summer in 2018, we had a team working on amplifying local capacity and collaboration to improve public safety. This was a team that was embedded working heavily with our police department, the Albuquerque Police Department, and with the University of New Mexico’s Project Echo team. And it really came about as we were just newly coming into office, and the new administration was coming in, thinking about how to navigate constrained resources and think about collaborative partnerships to create a community policing environment that amplifies local capacity while addressing key gaps.
And so we use a lot of the design thinking version of “how might we” questions? So in that case, the “how might we” questions that shaped that dilemma was how might the city of Albuquerque leverage technology, data, and collaborative partnerships to amplify local capacity while addressing key gaps? And the sub questions for us there were about how might we support efficient and effective learning loops within and beyond the police department? How might we augment communication between crime, addiction, and mental and behavioral health specialists? And how might we learn from other cities nationally and internationally that are addressing similar challenges?
And I will say that team worked closely to understand how we might expand a model—in this all teach, all learn model that was currently being deployed in the police department to ensure that we were better addressing complex mental health cases in the field—how could we expand that to think through a similar model for connecting folks not just within the police department, but between the police department and a whole range of community partners and resources?
Shortly after that team had done some preliminary thinking, we were able to launch the first downtown public safety Echo, which is this community of practice and learning around public safety. And just last year, it expanded to another sector of town and the Knob Hill community, Safety Echo has started as well. So some of their early thinking and early research allowed us to then move more quickly in the design development kind of improvement of what that model could look like.
That’s terrific to hear the impact of all of these projects. I know that you studied political science and economics and anthropology as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, and I know that you teach now in geography and environmental studies, so I can clearly hear the academic in you analyzing these issues in interdisciplinary ways.
It is one of the most exciting things that, if ever there were a place to apply interdisciplinary thinking, it’s in city government, where we see these intersections happening over and over again. One of the things that’s been fascinating to me in terms of continuous learning as well is both the excitement and joy of being able to apply research and experiences into this new role, but also how much I’ve learned. And as a political science major who focused mostly on international relations and global dynamics in undergrad and grad school, to also be learning a ton about how local government works, what some of those interactions are, what some of those opportunities.
So it is both a joy to be able to apply some of that knowledge and to feel like I’m constantly learning new things from the leaders within city government, from our partners and from the Civic Collaboration scholars who are coming through, too, and bringing fresh ideas from their own school work, intersecting with the experiences that they’re having over the course of these summers and in a lot of cases, being able to stay in touch as well. So a treat as folks then have been passing through Albuquerque who are here as scholars or who are returning from other work to get to connect and reconnect.
So if we could go back to before the pandemic, which increasingly feels farther and farther away, can you share what the last project was before this big pivot, how you started talking about at the beginning of this conversation, changing things up, going online. But what was the project that you all focused on and what did everyone learn from it?
In 2019 we were really fortunate to have the Civic Collaboration team focusing on the topic of equitable sustainability. So recognizing that these were both top priorities for the administration, but really wanting to make sure these were something we’re pursuing in tandem and thoughtfully incorporating equity opportunities and considerations into the range of sustainability plans. And so the vector questions the team was working on at a high level we had posed was about how might we achieve equitable sustainability in Albuquerque? Asking the team to help us think through, what are the sustainability opportunities in underserved communities and communities of color? How might the city of Albuquerque, working together with community partners, develop a city sustainability plan that centers racial and economic equity, and again, like the others, this question around, how can we learn from other cities nationally and internationally that are addressing similar challenges and opportunities in promising ways?
The last question speaks to the notion, I think, that we’re constantly trying to learn from others and very cautious that we have to be able to take and understand what’s happening and working well elsewhere and really tailor it to a local context.
The team that summer was had a range of different pieces that they pursued around those questions. And again, like the other groups, were able to inform both further research that the city departments were doing some of the decisions that then happened over the next year. I remember this was informing some of the legislative priorities for the cities and partners going forward by the research that was done and continued to flow in into some of the thought process and work there. We’ve been very grateful for that.
Liz, what a pleasure to speak with you and to hear about the many interesting things that you’ve tasked scholars to tackle and what a mentor you’ve been to them as well. Anything else you’d like to add?
I will just say we are so grateful for the Morehead-Cain Foundation making this possible. It has been a real treat for me, certainly, to have these teams out here, to have some fellow Tar Heels in the “Land of Enchantment” each of these summers. But it’s also made a tremendous impact on the city of Albuquerque, the departments that each of these students and teams have interacted with in the community partners, the kinds of conversations and new questions and new insights.
And I think hopefully in what we’ve heard back from the scholars as well, that whether they were planning to pursue careers in public service or not, that the experience and understanding this type of problem solving or this type of research or this type of collaboration, hopefully is something that is part of the broader foundation they’re getting at Carolina right as they head off to tackle some of the big challenges and some of the big opportunities that are on the horizon.
So it’s really been a wonderful program for us, and we’re so thankful to be a part of it.
Well, thank you so much for your partnership and for all the office has done in your personal investment. We really appreciate it.
Thank you, Sarah.