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Ben Dieterich (CLA'16): Chosen for 2020 CC DuBois Alumni Service Award

Each year, the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy Alumni Council selects one Harris alumnus as the recipient of the CC DuBois Alumni Service Award. This distinction is awarded to an alum who has demonstrated a strong commitment to the school through their service and work to enhance the life of students, fellow alumni, and the welfare of the school, and it is named for the late Cynthia “CC” DuBois, MPP’10, one of Harris’ most beloved community members, who helped found the Harris Alumni Council and was its President in 2017.

Ben Dieterich, MPP’08, has been honored with this distinction by the Alumni Council for 2020.

Prior to pursuing his Masters in Public Policy at the Harris School of Public Policy, Dieterich attended St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, where he earned his bachelor's degrees in political science and social studies education. Following his graduation from St. Olaf in 2000, Dieterich began working with Upward Bound, a Federal TRIO Program that aims to provide fundamental, college preparatory support to low-income high school students, many of whom are the first generation in their family to attend college.

In working with this program, Dieterich said he could see students improving every day. “But that didn't always translate well into when they would do assessments of the program overall,” Dieterich noticed. “So I started getting involved more in understanding how they're measuring success and what's being used to evaluate the programs, and I just got really interested in the program evaluation of education programs.”

It was around this same time that Dieterich began considering his options for graduate school. With his newfound interest in applying metrics and data to previously anecdotal-only measures of success, Dieterich knew he wanted to find a graduate program that combined quantitative evaluation and quantitative methods to understand and measure impact.

“I was really looking for that combination of quantitative evaluation and quantitative methods for understanding and measuring impact, as well as a better understanding of how to advocate for public policy,” he said. “I looked at a number of schools, and when I visited Harris, I really felt, with that first visit, that this was the place where I could grow and that offered the greatest opportunities for me and for what I was looking for in a public policy school.”

Dieterich is currently serving as the Deputy Budget Director for the City of Chicago. During the course of his eight-plus year career at the City, he has been able to apply these skills to not only measure the effectiveness of certain policy interventions he’s helped to enact, but also to measure their unintended impact.

As Deputy Budget Director, Dieterich is responsible for monitoring all of the city’s revenue streams — property tax, sales tax, income tax, permit fees, and more. He’s constantly looking for the best way to model the city’s revenue and what it could look like going forward, work that is especially critical right now, as Chicago continues to grapple with major shocks to its revenue sources following the economic devastation of COVID-19.

“The modeling and work that we do to monitor revenue is usually fairly stable and fairly consistent,” Dieterich explained. “We're usually monitoring changes that are gradual — if a particular revenue stream is slowing down, we try to determine why. We usually observe that over a number of months and have a lot of ability to identify what the sources of those changes are.”

With COVID-19, there have been concurrent changes to multiple revenue streams at the same time, all happening faster than Dieterich and his team are typically used to observing.

“With the pandemic, all of these changes are happening much faster than we can observe through data, so we are working to develop models with a much more limited amount of information and looking to as many different sources of information as we can. Then we can draw inferences on what that impact is for the city,” he said.

“It's not just, ‘Are we achieving what we're trying to achieve?’” he explained, “It’s also, ‘Are there other results that we didn't intend that are either positive or negative, and how do we quantify those?’ When you are looking at a program, you really want to capture the entirety of it.”

As the pandemic’s effects reached Chicago earlier this year, and the city had to subsequently shut down for much of the spring and summer, Dieterich was in the midst of preparing for the rollout of the city’s Utility Billing Relief (UBR) Program, which aims to provide low-income Chicago residents with a reduced rate on their water, sewer, and water-sewer tax payments.

The city rolled out a soft launch of the program in April, focusing at the time on residents that were already enrolled in Cook County’s Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Before the UBR program’s official launch in July, the city enrolled another 3,315 residents into the UBR program after sending out communication to nearly 8,000 homeowners, according to a press release from the City of Chicago.

The timing of the program’s launch is an example of the unintended (but, in this case, positive) impact such policy initiatives can have. While the URB program was launched pre-pandemic as part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s efforts to make the city more inhabitable for all — it also provided relief to citizens unexpectedly impacted by COVID-19.

The communication strategy surrounding the URB program’s soft launch — which included targeted mailings and partnerships with organizations helped enroll additional residents in the program, as well as a call center to service residents and answer their questions, is an example of the effective communication Dieterich says he also learned to prioritize as a future policymaker while at Harris.

“Trying to balance the best intervention with what's practical, and with what's explainable, so that people can understand the program [is important],” he said. “Your policy initiative could be the best-designed program in the world, but if people don't understand it, it's not going to function correctly. Our goal with UBR is to provide a utility program that is manageable and investable for city residents. So, I feel like that's something that I'm continually returning to as we're developing the program — making sure it's something that city residents can understand.”

Dieterich’s open communication style is what initially struck Carrianne Carallis, Deputy Budget Director for Strategic Communications at the City of Chicago, when she started working with Dieterich in 2015.

“People feel comfortable expressing opinions that maybe aren't the same, or what maybe are not we've done in the past, and [he’s] always looking for ways to incorporate new ideas [and] think about the impact to different stakeholders,” Carallis said. “We're trying to look at the budgets through an equity lens and trying to incorporate more of that every single year, and we can't do that if we just keep looking at things the same way all of the time.”

While working with Dieterich’s team, Carallis climbed her own ladder at the City of Chicago, and upon Dieterich’s recommendation, she participated in the University of Chicago’s Civic Leadership Academy, an interdisciplinary leadership development program for emerging and high-potential leaders in nonprofit organizations and local government agencies. Dieterich himself participated in the program in 2016.

“I know Ben has been looking at a variety of new inputs for the revenue side that maybe we hadn't considered before, and he’s trying to balance that with other types of stakeholders,” Carallis said. “We have to always be thinking about all of the different opinions across the city, and I think being able to consider those opinions without outright dismissing them helps a lot in this office, because it's easy to just get stuck in one way of thinking, or to be influenced by one particular group — but we have to serve all groups of people here. And Ben is very good at considering all of those different opinions.”

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The news release above was originally published by the Harris School of Public Policy.