The challenges societies face today, from inequality to climate change to systemic racism, cannot be solved with yesterday’s toolkit. Solving Public Problems shows how readers can take advantage of digital technology, data, and the collective wisdom of our communities to design and deliver powerful solutions to contemporary problems.
In Solving Public Problems: How to Fix Our Government and Change Our World, Beth Simone Noveck offers a radical rethinking of the role of the public servant and the skills of the public workforce, this book is about the vast gap between failing public institutions and the huge number of public entrepreneurs doing extraordinary things—and how to close that gap.
Beth Simone Noveck is a professor at Northeastern University, where she directs the Burnes Center for Social Change and its partner project, The Governance Lab (The GovLab). Previously, Beth served in the White House as the first United States Deputy Chief Technology Officer and director of the White House Open Government Initiative under President Obama. UK Prime Minister David Cameron appointed her senior advisor for Open Government. She currently serves as New Jersey’s first Chief Innovation Officer and on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Digital Council.
In this interview, I speak to Beth Simone Noveck about how we, as public servants, community leaders, students, activists and citizens, can become more effective, equitable and inclusive leaders to repair our troubled, twenty-first century world.
Q: What are public problems?
[Beth Noveck]: ‘Problem’ derives from the Greek word problema which means obstacle and today, we have lots of obstacles. There are the acute challenges of Covid that we continue to face, we have economic dislocation, ballooning unemployment and chronic challenges including economic inequality, racial injustice, and climate change. We would not be faulted for thinking that we’re facing an existential crisis in terms of humanity and our planet.
A public problem can also be termed a design problem, policy problem, societal problem or a ‘wicked problem.’ We often don’t necessarily agree on what the problem itself is, let alone the solution. Public problems are often highly contested, and in today’s world highly politicised, but they are incredibly important to solve as they will dramatically improve the lives of individuals and communities. Whether it’s public health, climate change or racial injustice – we have plenty of work to do as a society.
Thankfully we have activists, social innovators and public servants who are trying to tackle the problems we face, and who are trying to make lives better. The key focus here is on improving people’s lives and doing something to benefit society. It’s less about invention or innovation as you would see it in private entrepreneurship – it’s about implementing social change and achieving social impact.
Q: How do you define public problems?
[Beth Noveck]: Whatever sector we work in, we love to jump to a solution, and often the reward structures in place in many sectors are such that coming up with a solution is what generates a reward. As a society, we look to politicians and people in government to come-up with solutions to the challenges we face. The danger is that when we jump too quickly to the solution, not only is the floor littered with the inventions that never worked, but we risk designing solutions that never fit the problem. Look at mask-wearing as an example. The problem of why people don’t wear masks has different root causes in different places. In one place, the root cause may be the cost or availability of the masks themselves… that’s a very different issue to people not wanting to wear masks because of their political ideology, disinformation, or misinformation. If you want to develop solutions that work, you need to dig-in and understand root cause.
The process of problem definition is a discipline that we rarely teach or learn. It is one of the most important things that we can invest our time in. What are the true underlying causes of a problem? How are people really affected? How can we build a coalition of the willing to implement the solution and effect real change? It’s a multi-step process that starts by using better data and collaborative human-insight to understand what’s going on. It’s not enough to sit in our ivory towers or offices and think (as governments or universities often do) we have to go out and talk to people who are affected by a problem to understand what’s going on, on the ground. Talking to people gives us the ability to look at problems from new angles, to reframe them and to turn problems on their head.
Let me give you an example from the world of pet adoption. There’s a wonderful social innovator who has been looking into pet adoption from a different angle. Instead of asking why people don’t adopt more animals, she’s looking at why people give-up their pets in the first place. She found that quite often people adopt a pet and get to a point where they can’t afford to feed their pet and their child, so the pet goes up for adoption. By understanding this upstream cause, you arrive at a very different solution – in this case, giving someone a few dollars to be able to afford pet-food, and thus prevent the pet having to go for adoption.
Q: What is the role of government trust in solving public problems?
[Beth Noveck]: We’ve had a generation long decline in trust in government, particularly in the occidental west. The ideology that government is the problem rather than the solution has been cultivated over many years. Successive governments have been unable to deliver effective policies and solutions to public problems, and so you’ve seen a declining level of trust as a result. Pew research showed that in the United States only 2% of people said they trust government to do what is right all of the time, and just 25% trust the government to do what is right part of the time. We see similar patterns across OECD countries. So, we find ourselves at a time where we have declining levels of trust in the very institutions we depend on to tackle problems of great societal import… people don’t trust the institutions themselves to do what’s right. That said, the majority of people have not given-up on government. People want a government that works – they want a government who can take out the trash, deal with traffic, and deal with health. There are ideological disagreements of course on what the issues are that government should be handling, but on the whole there is a large percentage of people who want government to function effectively and play a major role in the process of public problem solving.
Today though, it’s not just about government. We need the inventions and innovations of industry, of universities, of civil society and activists of all ages. Government has huge spending and convening power and can bring the ability to bring focus onto public interest and mission driven problems in a way that private industry cannot.
We need to fix our institutions and enable them to be more effective. Distrust in government is very dangerous – what follows is the ability for authoritarian and totalitarian forms of government to take control, and that doesn’t do anybody, any good.
Q: Do government departments need to shift from policy delivery to project delivery in their posture?
[Beth Noveck]: We need to shift our thinking about what government does, and what civil servants do, away from this relentless focus on policy and ideology and onto project management and problem solving. These are not innate skills for government, but today we have machine learning, artificial intelligence, big data and many other tools that allow us to reach-out to citizens, better understand problems and better model solutions.
I once worked with a group of officials who were excited by the work the UK was doing on behavioural insights. They wanted to start sending text messages to parents reminding them that for their children, going to school is mandatory. Their assumption was that people were taking kids out of school to get discounted holidays to Disneyland during the off-season! There wasn’t the evidence to support this – and by speaking to people and analysing the data, it turned out that often kids were not at school because their walk to school was dangerous… they had parents at home who were addicted to drugs and unable to take them to school… This type of discipline is called fast field scanning.
We need to cultivate the skills in government and wider civil service to be more effective at problem solving and project management!
Q: How can we handle the challenges of operating at the multiple scales (from individual to nation) when it comes to solving public problems?
[Beth Noveck]: Today, we have the tools to enable institutions to operate simultaneously at micro and macro scales. I am Chief Innovation Officer for the State of New Jersey and recently, we were really interested in understanding the views of students and parents after the end of the school year about how the pandemic had affected kids, and what they wanted schools to do in response. At the state level, we used new technology and reached out to 20,000 people… not in months, but in 2 weeks! That allowed us to turn to other technologies to ensure we were not just using the techiest people, but that we had representative samples of citizenry, digging in and understanding the problem. We were able to collate deep-diver responses from 500 citizens in 2 x 90-minute sessions. The software immediately analysed what we were being told and gave us the visualisations to rapidly consume the key information. Go back a decade… I was working for the Obama administration, and we had the idea to ask citizens what our first 100-day priorities should be. We heard from 85,000 people! Collating that data was a huge task, today we have the tools to summarise and dissect that in a matter of seconds. Companies do this all the time and use data analytics to really understand their customers.
We need more intelligent institutions who are able to use the tools we now have at our disposal to reach out to people – at the very least to do things like sentiment analysis and listening. We have the tools today to allow us to get smarter faster. But we do have to learn how to do it.
Q: Do we need leaner government?
[Beth Noveck]: For over a generation, we’ve had an unfortunate narrative of bigger government. It’s a manufactured narrative which I think is wholly untrue. We don’t need bigger or smaller government; we need better government. A leaner, more agile, more innovative government can solve problems faster, without necessitating more money being spent or the overall size of government increasing. This isn’t a left or right issue; I think we can all agree on the fact that we want efficient government.
In the United States, we’re poised to spend more money than we have since World War 2 on a huge infrastructure plan. The availability of money is not the issue, it’s our ability to spend it effectively and efficiently. It’s our ability to solve problems effectively using the money we’re spending.
Early in the pandemic, we (at state government) asked businesses what they needed so that we could design grants. We had the money, we wanted to give the money, but instead of just throwing it out there we asked people- with a simple survey- what the problems were that they were facing, and what help they needed. Despite our size, we gave out money faster than California and New York. It’s a testament not only to how people needed the cash, but also to our ability to rapidly survey people’s needs. We also created a Covid-19 information hub which gave reliable information. We worked with private technology companies and used private sector talent to build a site in just 3 days. We partnered with the state’s universities and built a team of editors from the student body who could translate government speak into plain English. We then used analytics and real-time data from our phone hotline to really understand what people needed. New Jersey is a state of 8.8 million people and even now we get over 1 million users per week to the website. This information portal didn’t cost much, and delivers real value.
Q: By using human centred and more innovative approaches, how can we tackle some of our grand challenges in society?
[Beth Noveck]: Today, we face huge challenges like climate change, racial inequality, and economic inequality. We have to break these challenges down into actionable problems – to put it another way – we have to bite off the things we can actually digest and fix. We have to pick defined problems where we understand the root causes, and thus can take action.
The Covid-19 pandemic brought a myriad of attendant challenges. The problem of coming-up with a vaccine is not something I could have done. I am not a molecular biologist, nor am I an epidemiologist. There are however associated problems such as the misinformation and disinformation which circulate around this virus, and the public health messaging around social-distancing and PPE. The state of Kerala in India stood-up a simple piece of software in a day that allowed citizens to track symptoms, get advice, and also gave the state the ability to track how the virus was spreading. We don’t have to tackle these things ourselves – we have networks, communities and people connected to each other. Many grand challenges can be broken apart into problems where hundreds of crowdsourced solutions can be deployed. During the pandemic, the Federation of American Scientists crowdsourced a community of over 600 PhDs’ to provide real-time answers to people’s Covid questions. People were genuinely asking about whether they should drink bleach, or whether they should wash their counters with vodka. Instead of having to read misinformation, they got well-researched answers from actual scientists.
We can mobilise lots of people today, but we have to pick problems that we are excited to solve and where our networks are effective. We also have to commit to doing the training needed to ensure we have the skills to become powerful problem solvers – and that is irrespective of whether we’re in government, school or university.
We’ve spent a generation teaching people entrepreneurship and how to start a business, btu we’ve neglected to teach them public entrepreneurship and how to solve public problems.
[Vikas: So how has the entrepreneurship narrative impacted public problem solving?]
[Beth Noveck]: We’ve done a great disservice to people by creating a narrative that says you too can be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. We have created a culture of ego where it’s about my solution, my idea or my invention. Public problems rarely need new ideas, they rarely need original or even singularly invented concepts. The hard problem as a public entrepreneur is pushing the boulder up the hill of implementation. The hard part is actually making change happen in the real world.
Even with an explosion of interest in design-based education where people are creating new apps and technologies, we’re neglecting to teach people how to implement, how to ensure things get used, how to pass laws, how to change policy, how to persuade… We have tremendous advances in science and technology that are helping us to combat disease and increase life expectancy, but we have to be able to implement. It’s not enough to invent a Covid vaccine, you have to figure out how to manufacture it, how to transport it and how to persuade people to actually take the shot.
Invention is not enough… we have to learn how to implement and drive change, and that’s a much harder task… one which is uncelebrated. Public servants and civil servants are the unsung heroes of change – they are doing the hard work of implementation every day.