A community of public servants is at our disposal, if only we’d train it

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Watching the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6th, one could be forgiven for thinking American democracy was reaching its final hours. But the tools to solve the deepest problems of our democracy are in our own hands. 

The media focus on the horse race between political parties — on politics rather than governance — obscures the fact that the way to address today’s challenges is not only by changing our policies but changing how we make policy, equipping leaders with the skills to involve citizens in defining and solving contemporary problems. 

I have seen countless examples of activists, community leaders, public servants and changemakers — many of them young people — working with their governments, especially during COVID, to solve real problems together and overcoming strong political disagreement as they did so. 

I am not alone in my optimism: in the United States, 57 percent of adults believe that Americans can find a way to solve their problems.  

That task of changing how we govern is urgent, even existential. Within a generation, trust in government has declined to historic lows. With an uptick during the pandemic, until recently only three percent of Americans said they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always.” Widening levels of inequality, stagnant wages, lack of social mobility and a decline in life expectancy and quality have led many to feel that the government is neither listening to nor working for them. 

The effect, says comedian Bill Maher, is that “America is full of fed-up, unhappy people, who just want to break shit.”

To be sure, blaming the public sector for the ills of America would be grossly unfair. Nevertheless, too often our government is sclerotic and ineffective. But some public institutions in this country and overseas are doing things differently, showing how successful governments could be at improving people’s lives by using data and new forms of collaboration to solve problems.

I have the privilege to lead a team of engineers, designers and policy professionals in the Office of Innovation in the state of New Jersey. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, we worked with the nonprofit Federation of American Scientists to build a website and Alexa skill to enable the public to pose questions about the virus to over six hundred scientists and receive rapid, well-researched responses. 

We collaborated with students at some of the state’s universities to provide plain English answers to citizen questions at covid19.nj.gov — a site that has had 26 million users (in a state of fewer than 9 million people).

Examples of institutions working with people to solve problems exist around the world. The African cities of Accra, Ghana; Bahir Dar, Ethiopia; Kampala, Uganda; Kano, Nigeria and Mutare, Zimbabwe — with the support of the United Nations Development Programme and The Governance Lab — are turning to their citizens for help in improving waste generation and management, building urban resilience in slums and growing their informal economies. Residents across the five cities recently contributed 300 detailed and practical solutions with a handful currently being chosen for implementation in 2021. 

Listening to citizens is not new. In the past decade, the U.S. federal government has been running a lesser-known program to source solutions to public problems. Over a hundred federal agencies have used the website challenge.gov to tap the intelligence and expertise of ordinary citizens. Right now, for example, the Health Resources and Services Administration is asking for help on how to increase pediatric preventive care. 

Turning closed-door institutions into responsive and collaborative institutions, however, will not happen by itself. The African city leaders who ran the multi-city challenges all went through eight training sessions. U.S. federal agency officials have a community of practice in which they teach one another how to design and run a challenge on challenge.gov. 

The Biden-Harris administration must take a page from other governments like Germany, Argentina and Canada who are investing in training all public servants in new ways of working. Key 21st century skills are needed for solving public problems, including knowing how to use data and human-centered design to define problems, mastering the skills of fast field scanning in order to search quickly for solutions that are working elsewhere and understanding how to create and govern partnerships across sectors to implement changes at scale. These are the skills we are teaching to public servants in the Innovation Skills Accelerator in New Jersey.

To restore trust in the federal service, the White House must invest in training the public service just as good private companies invest in upskilling workers in the private sector. The order should make sure that problem solving training is available for free to state and local governments. The Biden administration needs all public servants, not just small pockets of technologists or data scientists, to possess the innovation skills that will enable them to solve problems faster and more effectively. 

But it is not enough to train people in government. If we want to tackle the acute challenges of our time then we need to democratize access to the tools and methods that will enable all people, but especially the young, to go from demanding change to making it. For if we create institutions that know how to listen, we still have to raise a next generation of leaders who know how to speak up. 

Thus, instead of training students in business entrepreneurship, universities and schools need to respond to students’ demands to learn public entrepreneurship and help would-be change makers learn how to break intractable issues into manageable problems, use data and collaboration to understand those problems, partner with others to implement a shared solution and work with communities to measure if it works.

Only with training and skill building can all of us, in the words of youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman, “raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.” 

Beth Simone Noveck is director of the Governance Lab and a professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering, where she teaches public problem solving. She is chief innovation officer for the State of New Jersey and the author of Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World. Her course Solving Public Problems is freely available online: https://solvingpublicproblems.org/.

Tags 21st century jobs 21st century skills Bill Maher Education Governance Learning problem solving Public policy

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