Bureaucracy Hacking Tactics to Create a Parent Nation

[by Marina Nitze and Nick Sinai]

Dana Suskind is a master bureaucracy hacker, and in her new book Parent Nation, she’s laid out her North Star vision — “healthy brain development for every child, from day one” — the path to get there, and the benefits the whole world will reap as a result. We noticed that Dana uses multiple bureaucracy hacking tactics in her work (see below in bold). Read on to learn what they are and ideas for some bureaucracy hacking tactics you can apply toward creating a parent nation.

How Dana Hacked the Bureaucracy for a Parent Nation

How do you tackle huge disparities in educational and brain development achievements? The problem can seem overwhelming, but Dana lays out a strangle the mainframe approach to solving it, starting with a first step she made easy to understand: everyone, regardless of language spoken, level of education, etc. who is interacting with young children should use the 3Ts (tune in, talk more, and take turns) as often as possible.

In search of solutions, Dana got out of her office (in this case, out of her operating room), crossing between silos to talk to real people as she sought to understand why, after similarly successful cochlear implant surgeries restored their hearing, so many of her young patients still failed to catch up with their peers developmentally. This took her into her patients’ homes and living rooms. She realized that while the 3Ts are a simple and effective first step, they “had to work as part of something larger, as part of day-to-day lives in which parents have not just the knowledge but also the space and time — made possible by reasonable employment policies and access to high-quality childcare — to make the most of the gift that evolution has given them.”

It’s not so easy to use the 3Ts with your child every day if you’re a gig worker whose shifts change constantly; if you have to work three jobs to make ends meet; or if you’re living in a chaotic and stressful shelter. So Dana is playing the long game to address these challenges. She also created a new org, the TMW [Thirty Million Words] Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago, which began as a research program and has blossomed into a major, interdisciplinary research institute for carrying out her work within the larger ecosystem (University of Chicago) where she works as a surgeon. And she truly tailored and sold her pitch by publishing Parent Nation to equip all of us with these strategies, too!

Dana also does a great job understanding why we focus on K-12 education instead of starting from day one, as she advocates. This origin story, which we’d never heard anywhere else, traces back to the 1600s! Like many of the origin stories we share in Hack Your Bureaucracy (like the story about visualizing NYC crime data in the chapter Understand Incentives and Risks), this tale starts from a good place — an important reminder to be careful of perverse incentives as we make changes in the world around us.

How You Can Hack Your Bureaucracy to Create a Parent Nation

At the end of Parent Nation, you can’t help but be inspired to help achieve Dana’s North Star. To aid in your efforts, here are a few bureaucracy hacking tactics from our new book, Hack Your Bureaucracy, that can help:

Go second: As we describe in our book, the bigger and/or more entrenched a bureaucracy is, the less it likes to stick its neck out and do something before everyone else. But it can really respond to data showing it is falling behind peers or competitors by adjusting salaries, benefits, position descriptions, and other specifics in step with industry.

Dana’s recap of Starbucks’ benefits program, for example, could help here. How do your employer’s benefits stack up to those of a “mere” coffee shop? How could Starbucks’ parental leave policy prompt your workplace to create or update its own?

Pick up the pen: If you’re trying to get an organization to adopt or modify a paid parental leave policy, for example, one of the most effective change agent strategies is to write the new version. It gives others something concrete to respond to, and raises the bar for the amount of effort your detractors have to put in to defeat your efforts. Kimberly Montez’s story in Parent Nation is an amazing example of this tactic.

Don’t try to make the bureaucracy care: Parents trying to swim upstream with the odds stacked against them, and especially the idea of infants missing out on irreplaceable brain development as a result, are highly emotionally-charged topics. But emotions are not how bureaucracies change. If it was, we would all have a much easier time making change for veterans, foster kids, and families. We talk about this natural, but ineffective, tendency to make emotional arguments for change a lot in our book.

If you want to create a real, lasting Parent Nation, you have to arm yourself with the arguments that do work. How? Understand and align to your organization’s risk and incentive frameworks. We have tips and tricks for exactly how to uncover these in the Hack Your Bureaucracy chapter Understand Incentives and Risks.

Tailor your pitch: Once you know an organization’s risks and incentive frameworks, you can pick up the pen and adjust your argument to match. Does your organization now have DEI goals? Great. Use them to further your case for new or expanded policies for things like paid parental leave. Show the hard numbers and gather data, if it’s not already available, on the benefits, leave policies, etc. across the organization (with particular attention to roles that are often overlooked, like security guards, janitorial staff, and other critical supports). Dana has many great stats you can cite in Chapter 10 of Parent Nation, such as the effect of benefits on employee retention — a hot topic in today’s employment environment — and on economic growth to make data-driven arguments aligned to a bureaucracy’s existing goals and measures.

Whether the focus is on employee retention, cost savings, or developing an anti-racist workplace, you can tailor your argument for policies like paid parental leave to match. And don’t limit your focus to your own organization ​​ — you can use this approach to advocate for change for local teachers, for employees at your child’s daycare, or even in your workplace’s vendor pool (requiring, or at least prioritizing, vendors who meet a minimum bar of parental benefits).

Find your karass: A karass, a concept from Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, is a team of people brought together to accomplish a shared mission. A “Parent Village” is a similar concept. Generally, your karass is a mix of people, sometimes unexpected, but one where you need everyone’s perspective and contributions to succeed. Who is your Parent Nation karass? Who else at your workplace, in your neighborhood, or in your school district wants to join you on this mission? A karass can sometimes take a lot of work to uncover, but in this case, you could probably find your first members by suggesting a Parent Nation book club or posting on social media to find others who read the book, and go through the Parent Village toolkit together.

Find your paperclip: No matter who you are, you can take a meaningful step towards the creation of a parent nation.

  • Do you work at a company? Do you hire companies (as vendors, childcare providers, etc.)? Simply asking about their policies can sometimes motivate them to improve (or be created!)
  • Are you a parent? Ask for the details on policies like paid parental leave for the employees (all the employees) at your child’s daycare or school.
  • Do you go to a pediatrician’s office or use a daycare? Or work in healthcare in any capacity? At your next visit, ask them to provide materials about the 3Ts in their waiting rooms, curriculum, and/or visit checklists. You can also give them a copy of Parent Nation.
  • Do you work at a financial institution? Propose a policy to temporarily suspend loan payments, without penalty, when someone’s child is in the NICU (or, more boldly, when they just had a child, period!), to alleviate some of the pressure for them to go back to work right away.
  • Are you a person living in a place? Find out if pre-K programs exist in your area and join forces with others (who probably already exist) trying to create them.

Make sure to pick up a copy of Dana’s Parent Nation if you haven’t already, and check out Hack Your Bureaucracy for over 55 tactics for making lasting change, whatever your role, towards a parent nation (and any other goal you have in mind!).

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Marina Nitze

Marina Nitze

Type-A. CASA. Libertarian. Hate carbs & public sector blockchain. Former CTO of the VA, now working in child welfare and at Layer Aleph.