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Five Recommendations for Educating Leaders in Technology and Government 2.0

Originally posted at my blog http://wethegoverati.wordpress.com

Last month I attended the Belfer Center’s Conference on Technology and Governance 2.0. The conference featured amazing attendees – Ellen Miller (Sunlight), Mike Klein (Sunlight), Karen Gordon Mills (US Small Business Administration), Mitch Kapor (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Paul Sagan (Akamai), Susan Crawford (Cardozo), Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard), Nicco Mele (Harvard/Echo Ditto), Archon Fung (Harvard), Tim Berners-Lee (W3C), Clay Shirky (NYU/Harvard), Zephyr Teachout (Fordham/Harvard), and a bunch of other amazing people in the field of technology and governance.

I was there as an attendee, but also had the privilege of participating on a panel with Aneesh Chopra (CTO of the U.S.A), Ian Freed (V.P Amazon kindle) and HKS students Seth Flaxman (he’s also the founder of TurboVote) and Philip Schroegel, moderated by Mary Jo Bane, Academic Dean and Thornton Bradshaw Professor of Public Policy and Management.

Our topic was what “Kennedy School Students Entering the Digital World: A Discussion with Aneesh Chopra & Ian Freed.”

In general, I think the Kennedy School is an excellent institution in most ways. Great professors are teaching in the field; there are several centers (Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics, and Public Policy, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation) that support efforts in this areas; students are demanding more courses in gov/tech (as evidenced by the enrollments in Nicco‘s and Clay‘s courses); there are great speakers series, there’s a vibrant gov20 student community; and a committed external community (including alums) interested in engaging with the school to push it forward in this field.

However, the Technology and Governance 2.0 conference convinced me even more that you need academic institutions in this debate.

The conversations were deep, rigorous, and challenging. Gov20 conferences that I’ve attended tend to be about the success stories. The speakers at this conference really challenged the normative assumptions around gov20 and that is super healthy and refreshing. Government officials working in technology are bombarded with people trying to sell products, and are constantly faced with make/buy decisions, and this is just the type of intellectual exploration that is important for them to think about. They need to arm themselves with tools that will help them understand when tech is appropriate, and when there are better ways of meeting the same goal. Academic institutions are the perfect place for this kind of exploration, and I applaud the Kennedy School’s efforts to prepare students in this way.

Since the conference I’ve had some time to think about how the Kennedy School (and other institutions that prepare public policy practitioners) can take this work even further and ensure their place as leaders in training students to take on governance challenges in a digital world.

The recommendations listed below cover two broad constituencies: 1) students who want to go into the specific field of Technology and Governance and 2) students who are generalists, but whose work and careers could be enhanced with a greater understanding of the capabilities and challenges that technology poses for governance.

In no particular order…

1. Highlight the Awesomeness of Careers in Government + Technology
Kennedy School students (no matter their field) typically want to change the world in a rigorous and sustainable way. They also want good jobs. When marketing careers in Government + Technology to these kinds of students its important to speak to both of these motivations. To that end, we need to show generalists how leaders have used technology in their general policy work. Policy/Tech wonks like me love to hear from Government CTOs. Generalists would probably be more engaged by learning about how Mayor Bloomberg relies on technology to hold his Agency leaders accountable on their social goals.

Furthermore, it would be great to have a general listing of the types of careers that are available in government + technology, and the types of skills you need in each. There are science and technology policy folks, people using technology in the creation of policy, public affairs specialists, resource analysts, contractors, KM officials…the list goes on and on. It would be great to have a consolidated place to see the breadth and depth of job opportunities in this space.

2. Make “Innovations in Government” a Core Course
Kennedy School Masters of Public Policy students are required to take economics, statistics, econometrics, ethics, and management to obtain their degree. I think there should also be a course around innovations in government to help students see the new and exciting ways practitioners are solving public problems. This wouldn’t be a strictly techy course, although that would certainly play a role. Technology changes so frequently, and the benefit of thinking about technology in governance is that it keeps things fresh, and constantly makes you revisit your practice. This general approach is something that could really benefit new practitioners. The ideal would be a case-based class where the cases are updated every year. You could generate the cases by holding a competition about what upcoming leaders need to know right now, and solicit ideas from alums in the field via something like challenge.gov…this is also a great way to keep alums engaged in the school…

This would keep the Kennedy School at the forefront of compiling the most interesting ideas in this space, and give students access to these cutting edge concept. It would also make the idea of “innovation” central in the minds of future policy makers, which is certainly a good thing.

3. Produce Technology Related Cases
Many of the general courses (econ, stats, econometrics, management, etc) use case-based teaching methodology. More of these cases should focus on technology. Generalists would then learn about technology through other disciplines, which will deepen their understanding of both. ‘Nuff said.

4. Develop a Civic Innovation Incubator
Cambridge is a hub of entrepreneurship, and it would be great to connect Kennedy School students – who have an expertise in how to solve social problems – with folks who are experts in entrepreneurship and business. We need more civic innovators, and Cambridge is the perfect place to develop them. Harvard Business School just launched an Innovation Incubator, and it would be great if there was a civic stream in that incubator, or if the Kennedy School partnered with this center in some way to promote civic innovations. Students could work on everything from developing an scoping creative apps for government databases to starting social enterprises that leverage technology. One way to institutionalize this is to give students the choice between writing a master’s thesis and writing a plan for and/or launching a civic startup? (thx for that one, Seth Flaxman).

5. Model the Behavior You Want to See in Government
What would be truly representative of the Kennedy school taking this seriously is to develop the plans for enhancing tech at the school to develop it in a collaborative tech-enabled fashion. Its fine to talk about how innovative you are, but at some point you actually have to eat your own dog food. I think the Kennedy School is heading in the right direction (many professors now blog, the school is active on social media sites, etc) but there could be more done to facilitate online collaboration and communication between students and there are definitely opportunities to create an ideascale like platform to engage students in the planning and decision making process in an open and transparent way.

These are just some humble thoughts from a former student. Any one else have thoughts on the types of preparatory experiences that would support emerging public servants in the field of gov20?

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