Trust in government in Western democracies, in particular in the United States, is at the lowest point in history. Entrepreneur Lisa Witter is determined to change this by empowering the world’s largest workforce: public servants. Witter co-founded Apolitical, a global network helping public servants find the ideas, people and partners they need to solve the hardest challenges facing our societies. Azeem Azhar, founder of Exponential View and host of the Exponential View podcast, spoke to her about the future of government during the World Economic Forum’s Annual Global Futures Councils meeting.
Azeem Azhar (AA): Why did you start Apolitical and how does it work?
Lisa Witter (LW): When I started working on this in 2014, along with my co-founder Robyn Scott, we thought it was crazy that it was easier to find a lump in a bed at a hotel through TripAdvisor than a problem with a policy, if you’re running a country. All this consumer technology was available, whether it was helping you find what book to buy with Goodreads or what trip go on with TripAdvisor. But for the public sector, the largest workforce in the world, where the average OECD government spends 40% of its GDP, the No 1 way they were finding policies was googling. We thought it was crazy that there wasn’t a peer-to-peer sharing platform for finding the best policies in the world – and that’s why we founded Apolitical.
We are essentially optimists about government. We do not think government is perfect, but we think it works better than the media generally suggests. And we are also fans of the committed men and women who work in government, most of whom chose their careers because of a deep wish to serve society. We’re proud to be helping them and we now have public servants from more than 140 countries using us.
AA: As we start to see this transition from an industrial age to a world that is centred around the digital economy where lots of new rules are going to be required, it seems like the role for government is getting larger not smaller. Is that a reasonable assessment?
LW: The role of government is certainly getting bigger. I thought when I went into Apolitical that the big change we were going to make was to help people in government find the best policies to implement. But what we’ve become aware of now is that we have neglected the public-sector workforce for too long. We have not invested in them and helped them get the skills they need, which is a problem because we need them more than ever. If you’re running a company and you don’t have a skilled workforce that’s up to date on the trends of the time, of course you’re not going to perform. After four years traveling the world, I’ve seen that there are extraordinary people working in the public sector.
AA: Does something like Apolitical run the risk of promoting too much technocracy?
LW: To take a step back, my observation about when governments are effective or not is when they answer the first-order question, “What are the values that drive our policy-making?” I know that sounds simple, but if you don’t have clear values then the technocrats will go wild – they’re just going to pass law after law after law. But if you have a screen of what’s important to you, the outcome is very different.
I’m not worried about moving towards these sort of technocratic solutions because we have the data now. We’ve been up and running for a while on the platform and we can really tell that the topics that do the best on our platform are higher-order ones like the future of government and how to engage citizens. It’s not “What sensor do we put on a bus?” Of course, the micro decisions are important, but people are really taking a step back and asking themselves, “How should we govern?”
AA: Is there a tradeoff between governing for the people and governing with the people?
LW: When you talk about the choice between governing for the people or govern with the people, I believe you have to do both. We’re seeing lots of experimentation with new forms of citizen engagement, which is important because it builds trust, and trust often comes with proximity. It’s easier to trust someone you know than someone you don’t. If you have a narrative that everything’s broken all the time, which is often brought up in political campaigns and government seems big and faceless, then of course you have a hard time engaging with citizens because they don’t trust you.
So people are slowly realising you have to bring government closer to the people, and that’s why I believe the cities movement in government is quite good because it creates engagement on a more local level. The caveat with that is that many of the political challenges we’re facing are often in the rural areas, so we need to be careful about only saying, “If we’ve got problems, let’s all do city politics.”
AA: How do you move from physical government to a digitally enabled government and what would that look like?
LW Moving from physical government to a digitally enabled one is a challenge. There are lots of tech-based tools that bring down the cost of doing business for government and increase the provision of services.
If we’re talking about proximity, being able to email government and get an email response back is great. I think the concern about this though is that if government is still faceless, it doesn’t fully deal with the trust issue. You still need a narrative story that says, “When the flood came, everyone got out because we had good services.” So I think technology is important, but I get nervous if people see it as a panacea.
AA: The notion of the lean startup or agile business are very much baked into what a startup does. Are those techniques that can be applied in the government sector or not?
LW: The answer is absolutely yes. There is a procedural way to do it, but there’s also a mindset shift that is really important. What we’re seeing around the world now are innovation labs popping up, which are the first step in thinking differently. You have to teach processes such as prototyping to people, but even more important is the mindset that you have to be willing to try something that might fail. This what startups do all the time – we go in, we try something and sometimes we fail.
When government fails, the stakes are much higher, and the scrutiny’s much higher. So there has to be a mindset change within government, but also with citizens.
Part of changing the mindset of government and citizens comes down to communication again – if we heard more about what works and were able to have this narrative out there, government would be more willing to take risks, and citizens would be more willing to cut them some slack.