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Mission possible: How start-up thinking can help public projects

We need more risk-taking in the public sector, says Mitchell Weiss

Mitchell Weiss, former Chief of Staff of the Mayor’s Office in Boston and now Harvard Business School Professor

The assumption that Government and public agencies lack the capacity for innovation and do not have an entrepreneurial-like ability to find novel solutions to major problems is a myth that needs challenging. However, a shift is required from “probability government”, overly focused on performance management and mimicking best practice, to “possibility government”, embracing greater imagination and risk.

That’s the view of Mitchell Weiss, former chief of staff of the mayor’s office in Boston and now Harvard Business School professor, as set out in his new book, We the Possibility. In it, he argues that some of the practices of lean start-ups can be applied to major public projects, ensuring better outcomes and smarter use of resources.

“It’s a myth that most entrepreneurs like risk and it would be a mistake to think the lesson of possibility government is to go out and seek it. The point is, rather, that risk is inherent in doing bold, new things and we need to encourage that in the public sphere,” he tells The Irish Times.

Weiss says we need to think differently about public projects. There is a tendency to spend large sums and too much time on planning and consultancy in an attempt to achieve optimum results. This attempt to de-risk can often have the opposite effect. Solutions are delayed, cost overruns occur, and the results often don’t align with the initial objectives.

Instead, he advocates a metered approach, with risk and its inevitable failures tolerated. Adopting the “make small bets” playbook from the lean start-up movement, Weiss suggests experimenting with multiple potential solutions, quickly abandoning what fails, adjusting what shows promise and scaling the things that are clearly working.

Weiss says this is the difference between convergent thinking and divergent thinking.

Convergent thinking tries to find the optimum solution from a limited range of options and is an efficient way of deciding amongst alternatives to well-defined problems, he explains. It is often supported by evidence of what has worked before and is sometimes expressed as “best practice”. It is not so good, however, at exploring the future and creating new possibilities,and proves to be a vulnerable approach in game-changing scenarios.

Diverse range

Divergent thinking, on the other hand, involves looking at a more diverse range of options. It is challenging and at times complex but, in the longer run, often proves more flexible and successful. While both approaches have their merits, the balance needs to move towards having a greater degree of divergent thinking in the public sector, is Weiss’s nuanced message.

“We need to encourage people in public life to experiment and, while we need to hold them accountable for those experiments, we shouldn’t punish them for failure so long as they learnt efficiently from them, moved on and invested in the things that are working.”

Experimenting in the public space with public funds is challenging, especially if you are looking at an issue such as public health or safety, he concedes. “You need to get buy-in from the public, so you are experimenting with them not on them.”

He has learned some other valuable lessons in researching this problem. You could be deluding yourself or the public in the following scenarios, amongst others: if your idea targets symptoms of the problem rather than underlying causes; if the rewards don’t substantially outweigh the risks; if you haven’t cross-checked with the people your idea is supposed to help; if your idea isn’t testable, observable or measurable; if your tests are not reversible.

Weiss has personal experience in these matters. Working in the mayor’s office at the time of the April 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, he was instrumental in establishing One Fund Boston as a way of distributing funds quickly to victims and survivors. Traditional ways of dispersing donations were slow and plodding.

One Fund Boston established a PayPal account and a post office box within hours of the attack and raced to collect and distribute as much money as possible before Independence Day in July. Greeted initially with scepticism by those experienced in these matters, it was soon lauded as a successful and innovative public project having distributed $60 million in 75 days.

‘New things’

“A year after the marathon attacks, two survivors asked me to tell them how One Fund Boston had come to be and then urged me to tell the story to others. ‘You have to show people that government can do new things.’

“There is evidence that by raising expectations inside organisations that you can encourage people to try new, riskier things. It’s perhaps a lesson for us all. Let’s raise the bar so we can possibly get over it,” he adds.

Bringing in private sector actors is one way of shaking up conservative practices in the public sector, and Weiss is an advocate of “tour of duty” periods where those who have achieved success in the private sector could impart their wisdom for periods of time. He cautions against celebrity entrepreneurs as humility is a key attribute to get stakeholder engagement. He also notes a further potential problem.

“There is a danger of people coming in, lobbying for their own interests and then leaving through a revolving door. If you guard against this, however, it’s a good way of accessing those with skills and savvy.”

At the moment there is also a lot of kickback against major players in the technology space, he notes. The abuse of power among Big Tech, now the subject of antitrust actions, is eroding confidence in the ability of tech to solve public problems such as transport, renewable energy, climate change and urban planning.

“There’s a view abroad that they have been too cavalier with our privacy and have unearned the right to work on public issues. The downside of that is that it may prevent a new generation of technologist gaining the right to work on these issues and we’re going to need their input to solve these major issues,” says Weiss.

Ultimately it is ordinary citizens who will make the difference, he notes.

“The public should recognise that by employing a probability government approach, many of the things that we are doing simply don’t work, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We get the government that we invent.”

Mitchell Weiss’s tips for innovative thinking in the public sector

Lean on existing and new talent Seek out employees who have an appetite for challenge and encourage experimentation. With new recruits, you need people who don’t come in and condescend about the way things are in the public sector but rather are empathetic.

Fund projects on a metered basis When experiments are generating negative signals, funding should be cut off or allocated towards a change. If successful, ramp up funding and scale the project. Adopt a portfolio approach so that a few wins cover many minor losses.

Organise for ambidexterity Balance managing present operations with planning the future, but have separate teams to manage these. Most people in the organisation will be better suited to one or the other.

Seek to alter the narrative Three stories need to be addressed if you want to change the status quo: change can’t happen; change is not allowed; change will hurt me. These stories need to be replaced with positive alternatives.

Engage the public Be candid about what’s required to change and raise expectations, but be honest about what’s required and the possibility that it won’t work.

We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems, by Mitchell Weiss, is published by Harvard Business Review Press

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