How Government Is Failing Public Servants

Heiko Kuverling / istock

A new book argues that federal and state governments need to articulate a vision for training their workers for problem solving in the 21st century.

Volumes have been written about the promise of new technologies and analytical tools to solve countless problems facing the nation—if we could just get public servants and congressional appropriators to adopt them, seems to be the argument. Beth Simone Noveck brings a different lens to that challenge in her recently published Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World. The book is based on her experience working with successful problem solvers inside and outside of government and the tools and methods they use to make change. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University, where she directs the Burnes Center for Social Change and its partner project The Governance Lab. Concurrently, she is the Chief Innovation Officer of the State of New Jersey. 

Mark Abramson: Tell us about the origins of Solving Public Programs. What was your goal in writing the book? 

Beth Simone Noveck: The origin of the book dates back over the last decade. Over that time, I have been working with social innovators, both inside and outside of government, to help them use technology, data, and innovation to apply to their own projects. For example, I coached a program with 16 jurisdictions on data-driven criminal justice reform. I have also worked with innovators from all levels of government to use new tools such as crowdsourcing or open data.

Based on my experience working with public entrepreneurs, I began to understand the skills that future leaders will need. I would like to see more agile public problem solvers. In Solving Public Problems, I wanted to share the lessons I learned from those both inside and outside of government, community leaders, and activists. I thought all these individuals would benefit from having a set of tools and methods that they could use in their problem-solving and implementation activities. 

MA: From reading the book, I received the impression that you have a clear vision of the role of civil servants in the years ahead, which is different from their roles today. Can you tell me about that vision?  

BSN: We have already seen many examples of civil servants who are entrepreneurial, especially during COVID. But I would like to see more mission-driven leaders who are agile, data driven, and human centered. I have a vision of civil servants as public entrepreneurs who are passionate about solving problems. Many civil servants do have these characteristics. But many civil servants are still burdened by rules and hidebound by culture. I would like to see public servants who work with other sectors to get things done quickly and innovatively. I would like to see the passion of public servants unleashed. I would like to see them use data in new ways and increase their use of public-private partnerships. I would also like to see more agile implementation, more collaboration, and more measurement of what works. 

MA: How do you envision preparing civil servants for their “new” job? 

BSN: One of the arguments I make in the book is that we are not doing enough to invest in public servants. We need to teach them new methods and tools such as data analytical thinking, human-centered design, equitable engagement practices and other innovative practices enabled by new technology. We can’t presume that everybody knows how to do these things. Skills are not innate. While we mandate training on a variety of topics such as sexual harassment and cybersecurity, we aren’t giving public servants the know-how, processes, or technologies for them to be more entrepreneurial and analytical. I don’t see a training plan for federal government employees right now. The federal government and state governments need to articulate a vision for training their public servants in 21st century ways of working and addressing public problems. 

The public sector is not doing as good of a job in training as is the private sector right now. Also, many other nations have civil service academies. These countries don’t charge for training. Today, most U.S. government organizations charge for training. Agencies need to pay for it out of their own funds. Few agencies have dedicated training budgets. This is a real disincentive for training. In contrast, Singapore has a civil servant training college which does not charge its public employees. Germany has a new digital academy, which teaches “New Work.” Argentina gives points to public servants who have received training in innovation skills. Argentina has trained 36,000 civil servants on the use of data and other tools. And in New Jersey too, we have created a free innovation skills training platform for public servants.

MA: Can you tell us about your current activities? 

BSN: I wear a few hats. I am a professor at Northeastern University, where I direct the new Burnes Family Center for Social Change, where we are focusing on teaching public problem solving, and its partner project the Governance Lab (The Gov Lab). I also serve in the Governor’s cabinet in New Jersey as the Chief Innovation Officer. In New Jersey, I have a staff of 20 engineers, designers and policy professionals who work together with agency partners and the State’s Office of Information Technology on improving citizen services. We are proud of building a COVID-19 hub for New Jersey. We also work on modernizing services for businesses. We work with our partners in the state Department of Labor on modernizing unemployment and developing new services such as virtual coaching for the unemployed.  

MA: Can you tell us about GovLab and some of its current activities?

BSN: The GovLab was created in January 2013 and focuses on governance innovation. We work with mission-driven partners to use data and technology to improve how they govern and solve problems. I am proud of the work we have done this year during the pandemic in using new technology to help partners in government and philanthropy engage with families, students, and educators on the future of education. What I am excited about is that we demonstrated the use of technology to listen to communities. We use engagement and collaborative tools to listen to the priorities and greatest challenges of over 20,000 participants and we used AI-based engagement tools to follow that up with citizen assemblies with a representative sample of 500 caregivers and students. The whole project was co-designed by a group of 20 high school and college students from across America. We used engagement in very agile ways. We did it in a matter of weeks rather than years. I am glad to continue to have a foot in a university because we can conduct research and do experiments and can then apply what we learn in government. Also, universities are a great source of talent that we can recruit for the public sector.   

MA: Can you tell us about your time in the Obama administration? 

BSN: It was a wonderful experience to lead the open government initiative and how I first became interested in upskilling and training for government. We learned new ways of working in government to make government more transparent, participatory, and collaborative. There was a clear appetite for using new skills. There was a strong will to make changes, but we were lacking in skill building. Many people did not know what “open data” was. We introduced civil servants to new ways of working.  

MA: How would you describe the state of technology today in the federal government? Do you see the federal government taking advantage of new technology tools such as artificial intelligence, automatic robotic processing, and use of more sophisticated data sets?

BSN: We have made a lot of progress but have a long way to go. When we started, we had 47 open data sets and nobody knew how to use them. I see a strong commitment to evidence-based government today. We have come a long way on government support for integrated data systems. However, we have lots more to do on working toward increased use of data analysis to improve performance and tackle hard problems.  

The next wave is artificial intelligence and machine learning. While these big data tools are already helping the public sector to automate processes and create predictive algorithms, there is much more to be done, first to ensure greater adoption of transparent and unbiased machine learning and second, to apply these techniques to enhance citizen engagement. Given how machine learning can make it possible to sort, summarize and make sense of large quantities of information, we can use it to find new ways to listen to citizens. 

Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc. His most recent book is Government for the Future: Reflection and Vision for Tomorrow’s Leaders (with Daniel J. Chenok and John M. Kamensky). His email address is mark.abramson@comcast.net.

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