Professor of Management Practice
Harvard Business School
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Possibility government. Mitchell Weiss, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, joined the podcast to talk about his new book We the Possibility. He discusses how bringing entrepreneurship into government can help solve complex problems and improve services. He also shared how public entrepreneurship is different than starting a pilot program.
Host: Kirsten Wyatt
An entrepreneurial approach to ‘possibility government’
Mitchell Weiss | Public Entrepreneurship: We The Possibility
How Thinking Like a Startup Helps Governments Solve More Problems
We Need To Think Broader About Human-Centered Design
Kirsten Wyatt 00:07
Coming to you from Portland, Oregon, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. Gov Love is produced by ELGL, The Engaging Local Government Leaders network, we engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Kirsten Wyatt, the ELGL co founder and executive director and today I’m joined by Mitchell Weiss, the Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, and the author of We the Possibility. Welcome to Gov Love.
Mitchell Weiss 00:34
Thanks, Kirsten. I’m thrilled to be here.
Kirsten Wyatt 00:37
Today we’ll talk about Mitchell’s work in local government as a professor and all about the ELGL March book club selection of We the Possibility. But first, we’ll get started with a lightning round. So what is your most controversial non political opinion?
Mitchell Weiss 00:57
Wow. My most contr- I wasn’t ready for this. Harry Potter is not worth reading.
Kirsten Wyatt 01:10
Wow. Oh, my goodness, right out of the gate. Bringing the controversy. Okay. We’ll see what our listeners have to say about that. All right, what was the first concert that you ever attended?
Mitchell Weiss 01:25
Ever? The first one I remember attending is Dave Matthews. Back in the day.
Kirsten Wyatt 01:30
Oh, that’s a good one. That’s a really good first. That’s not too embarrassing or anything.
Mitchell Weiss 01:35
Good. Wow. Okay, so I’m one for two I guess.
Kirsten Wyatt 01:37
Okay. And then what is the food that most people enjoy, but you do not?
Mitchell Weiss 01:45
Kirsten Wyatt 01:47
Wow. Are you a dark chocolate fan? Or just no chocolate?
Mitchell Weiss 01:49
Dark chocolate, yeah. All the way.
Kirsten Wyatt 01:51
Okay. Okay, good. And then last one, if you had a theme song that played whenever you entered a room, what would it be?
Mitchell Weiss 02:00
Is it too nerdy to say maybe the Big Bang Theory theme song?
Kirsten Wyatt 02:04
Not at all. Not at all. And, and you know that Gov Love listeners proudly embrace the inner nerd, so.
Mitchell Weiss 02:12
I’m in good company then.
Kirsten Wyatt 02:14
There you go. Alright, so let’s get started. First, tell us about your career path. And how did you get to where you are today?
Mitchell Weiss 02:22
Well, I went to business school originally to transition to the public sector, which must seem like an odd thing to do. But I think I figured that, that the public sector need leaders and the business school I went to was was mostly Leadership School. And so I did that. Actually, that was when I got my first job working in the public sector, I had a summer internship working in the budget office of the city of Chicago where I’m from. And I had my first full time job in government working for the legendary mayor of Boston, Tom Menino. The first time actually in his third term, and and one of my first tasks then was to actually take the surplus computers that have been left over from the democratic national convention that had been in Boston that year. People remember it, because that’s the convention that Barack Obama had the keynote at. And my first task as a full time public employee was to find places to take all those computers and I remember delivering them in the back of an animal control truck. Because, you know, it’s government workers, right, we scrounge for the resources that we can find. Later, I ran a social venture and then returned to government and in 2010, to become mayor Marino’s Chief of Staff actually in his fifth term in office, which turned out to be his last. He retired in 2014. And then unfortunately, passed away. But I joined the Harvard Business School faculty that year in 2014. And that’s where I am today.
Kirsten Wyatt 03:45
And what did 10, 10 year old Mitchell want to be when he grew up? Do you remember?
Mitchell Weiss 03:50
Oh, a secret service agent.
Kirsten Wyatt 03:53
Okay. So kind of close.
Mitchell Weiss 03:57
Not exactly. But, you know, adjacent, government, you know, like government work, but they, they have to be much braver than then when we do yeah.
Kirsten Wyatt 04:06
And I was interested to read that you once dressed up as a voting booth for Halloween. Did you have any other notable governmenty Halloween costumes?
Mitchell Weiss 04:16
I did it. Although, now that you mention it, I definitely would challenge a lot of our listeners to dress up like the filibuster this October.
Kirsten Wyatt 04:26
I mean, it’s on at this point, now that you’ve issued that challenge, I think I think we’re gonna go for it.
Mitchell Weiss 04:31
Kirsten Wyatt 04:32
So let’s talk about that jump from local government to higher education. I mean, obviously, the result was this book, which we’ll get into but, but talk to us about, you know, making that pivot to teach and to research and to leave local government.
Mitchell Weiss 04:51
Well, I had been planning to leave because the mayor announced his retirement I ran into the Dean of Harvard Business School who asked if I was going to run for mayor to succeed my boss. And I laughed and said, No, there’s, you know, for many reasons, including I would never get elected. But he said, What are you going to do? And I said, Look, I don’t know. But I’ve seen all the opportunity from entrepreneurship inside government, we had done a lot of startups inside government. And I’ve also seen the obstacles to that. And I think one of the reasons why it’s hard to do entrepreneurship inside government is because we’re training people wrong. And in part, what I said to him was, if you look at like policy schools, I think we’re teaching people who want to go into government to be mostly analysts and strategists and not inventors and builders. And I think we’re, if you look at places like business schools, where we have lots of people inclined to invent and build, we’re not teaching them that they can invent and build inside government or for it. And so that’s when he sort of said, Well, why don’t why don’t you come do that here? And so that was how I made the leap, to come to Harvard Business School, to create a course on public entrepreneurship, to train people who were inclined to invent and build to do some of that in government and for it, and so that that explains the jump.
Kirsten Wyatt 06:07
And share with us some of those experiences in inventing and building that you experienced in your career that really drove your interest in this field of public entrepreneurship.
Mitchell Weiss 06:21
Well, the one that that people tend to know the most about, is, is this thing called the mayor’s office of new urban mechanics. I co founded that with two great public officials, Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, it was one of the first big city, it was one of the first big city innovation offices in the US and exists to this day. And it was just a great engine of invention. This citizens Connect app, which was one of the first mobile reporting apps, the street bump app, which sends potholes and a host of other inventions. The one people know less about, but was as a startup, if you will, but was probably more seminal in my own writing of this book, was one fund Boston, which we started up in the wake of the Boston Marathon attacks. And you know, that that, that was one of always one of Boston’s very best days of the year that was shattered in an instant, and lives were ruined, and people were broken. And yet all this generosity started flowing in from around the world. And the question was, what do we do with that generosity. They, mostly what happened after a horrible tragic tragedies and attacks like that was the big, long established institution in town, collected and distributed funds, we sort of knew that when that happened, that often took much longer than then maybe it should, and the monies went out in ways more just sort of spread out than they should. And so we decided to start up our own new fund. And well, that you can imagine that the head of a local Foundation was not was not happy about that. And I remember that, the day after the bombings, he was yelling at me on the phone saying you can’t start something new, you’ll raise less money. By the way, he’s a very good person that he was probably right, you know, starting something new was the was the risky, it appeared to be the risky thing to do. But we did anyways, we started that night on a PayPal account and the next morning with a post office box and ultimately collected and distributed $60 million dollars in 75 days. And so that was really the one of the startup experiences inside city government where, where I said, Look, we can do we can probably do more of this, and but moreover, a year afterwards, two survivors asked me to tell them the very long story about how this particular government startup got started. And, and I told them, and they said, you have to tell that story to others. And I told them, it wasn’t my story to tell, I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t save anyone’s life. And they said, you have to show people government could do new things. So I mean, part of the reason for writing the book was, was to try to, you know, basically fill my commitment to them, you know, show people government can do new things, and also to try to answer the question of, well, who was kind of they saw the government could, the foundation had believed government probably shouldn’t. Who was right, you know, can we basically solve public problems anymore? Was this question lingering in my head from that moment and the real reason I ended up writing the book.
Kirsten Wyatt 09:15
You know, I underlined the the PayPal and the PO Box section, as you know, taking that very first step and doing something new as being so notable. So it’s, it’s interesting that that’s also kind of that initial response to that question. So I appreciate you sharing that. And then also just reminding us that sometimes it’s about trying something different, starting small and then scaling to something bigger. So let’s let’s dive into into this premise of probability government. And then also, I want to talk mostly about possibility government. But let’s start with this concept of probability government. What is it and what are some examples?
Mitchell Weiss 09:56
So probability government is the pursuit of a programs and services by government and their partners that are sort of, probably, quote unquote, work. They’ve often been done before. They’re sort of tried and true, if you will. But honestly, I think if we’re being clear eyed about it, in many cases, they sort of lead to middling or mediocre outcomes. And I contrast that with what I would describe as possibility to government, which is the pursuit of programs and services by by public leaders and their partners, which will, which are new, and which, by virtue of their novelty will only possibly work, which means they probably won’t work. And I know how fraught that is and how scary that is, and how insane that must seem to suggest, especially at these moments right now. But I really do believe that if we’re going to solve the big problems we, that face us, we have to shift in more places towards possibility government, not in every place, but in many more instances towards possibility government, and I suppose, just to be concrete about it. I mean, we could we could talk about the, the one of the biggest crisis, of course, facing us right now in COVID. And there are certainly elements of probability government that should have been and were deployed in fighting COVID. So all the apparatus for example of human contact tracing, which which had been done in in many other instances, tuberculosis, HIV, in other countries from MERS and SARS, like when COVID emerged in the world, it was smart to, to go back to what had been done before. But if you actually look into it, look at the studies of say, human light contact tracing say during the Ebola crisis, you’ll also find that it also had its limitations, it was hard to scale, it was hard to do swiftly. And those limitations turned out to be especially acute when you look at a virus that spreads like COVID does. So but that’s probability government, and it’s probably, it was definitely worthwhile doing human contact tracing. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have done that at all, like anybody who wasn’t doing that should have been doing it. But possibility government is, for example, and this is a very controversial example, is trying say digital digitally supported contact tracing and the Bluetooth apps that emerged to support contact tracing. And at the time they were basically brand new. They were pioneered in Singapore and other places they had been talked about in years prior actually, the Bluetooth version was probably suggested by a sophomore in high school in Virginia, actually several years back. And so so but there’s a chance to try a new thing. And honestly, may not work probably won’t work by virtue of its novelty. But if it does, it’ll mean that we can actually scale contact tracing support the human, the humans doing the human lead tracing, and and try to cut down transmission chain. So probability government in that instance, and possibility government and I think what I would argue if we go back and look over this whole entire crisis, is that we we have had not enough instances of possibility to try to slow the spread, expand testing, now expand vaccination, I’ll just put out one more riddle Kirsten, which is we want to move from probability to possibility but we don’t want to also, you know, of course, move all the way to delusion. And so there was plenty of that in the in the COVID crisis too. I’m not suggesting that we should, you know, be just throwing spaghetti up against a wall, or lying about what works, either. But there’s a there’s a middle ground here between the two. And I think we should try to pursue it.
Kirsten Wyatt 13:26
Is it fair to say that possibility government requires more openness to partnerships and to learning cross sector, whereas probability government is more insulated and kind of the way we’ve always done it?
Mitchell Weiss 13:44
I think it’s half fair. I think that absolutely possibility government requires more openness, requires more openness to new ideas at all. It requires more openness to the people who might provide those new ideas, who to your point haven’t been part of what we’ve been doing, haven’t been part of the establishment, haven’t been insular. It means opening up to the crowd, it means opening up to non experts, it means opening up to to citizens and neighbors who might be full of ideas. So I absolutely think possibility government is, requires more openness. But it’s not it’s not inherently more cross sectoral than probability government in this in this one way, which is, you can imagine there are plenty of other aspects of probability government that also, you know, find comfort with their their probability, you know, private sector partners. I mean, I just think, to some extent, to look at the look at the military industrial establishment, I mean, I, I have written and studied a bunch of these sort of new military tech startups. And that’s a possibility end of the spectrum, but, but there are there are plenty of, you know, of entrenched incumbents and all sorts of aspects of government, whether it’s, you know, people selling contracts to the DOD or selling contracts in any other agency or in here at the state and local level. I think all of us can identify some private partners who maybe have been there too long, too. So, I think probably possibility manifest, you know, across sectors in both instances. But I do agree that possibility requires a massive massive amount of new openness to new partners, for sure.
Kirsten Wyatt 15:12
So I want to read a passage that that I thought was particularly impactful, and then talk about it. So you write, “Can we solve public problems anymore? A decade later, I had my answer, we can possibly, what history and the present show us is that there is a set of tools and practices for trying new things to solve pressing problems, we’re able to have a government that imagines, that tries new things, and that scales, those things to make an impact. That kind of government, possibility government, would be very different from what we expect or witness in most instances, but it has existed and does and can exist.” Tell us more about this, about this statement, or about this premise that you write about in your book?
Mitchell Weiss 15:55
Well, I think that there’s maybe two key premises embedded in it, which is, which is one, this sort of theme of problem solving and invention, and saying that it has existed before, I it’s really important to point out when people say to you, Kirsten or any others, they’re like, Oh, you know, government can’t invent, government shouldn’t invent, government shouldn’t take risk that or shouldn’t take on risky projects, that government has invented, government has experimented every apparatus of government we have was invented at some point. We’re not a young country anymore, but we’re still youngish. And we still need to be inventing. And so I think it’s really important to point out a bit of what I was saying there’s to say, possibility government has existed, and we have to tap back into that experience and those instincts. The other part of that is, is obviously the we, the number of times, you know, that I sort of, I guess I referenced we and we were able to, and we the possibility, and it really is we all of us together. And this means, right, many of your listeners who are in local government, public officials at all levels, but also any listeners who are just members of the public. The public needs, going to need to be a part of this as well, whenever we’ve had invention that’s been true too. The public is going to need to grant permission, encouragement, and even call participation. So I think those are the two threads there that we do get the government we invent. And we can do this, we if we tap back into our past. And also if we all do it together.
Kirsten Wyatt 17:26
And so you share three basic tenets of possibility government. Imagine, try new things and scale. Let’s let’s talk about those. And let’s first start with the concept of imagining.
Mitchell Weiss 17:39
Right, so if we’re going to solve the problems, and that still face us, I start by saying we need new ideas. And that’s already a bit of a controversial idea. Because some people would say, Oh, my gosh, we’re like, flooded with ideas. The last thing we need are new ideas. But I really do believe that, that too much of the apparatus of government is spent on on making choices and not enough. And not not too much spent on making choices. I mean, I’m glad we have a lot of apparatus on making choices. But on balance, what we need is more also, on creating choices, we need more ideas, and more different ideas. I mean, I remember my old boss, man, when you know, you start when he gets frustrated with with some of our stale thinking. He would say if we had a new idea around here, it would die of loneliness. And so I do think it’s the place to start. And this goes back to your question about openness, I think we have to open ourselves up, we have to have new ideas. And look, we’re gonna get a lot of bad ideas if we solicit more ideas, right, like we just are. But we’re also going to get some good new ideas, some very good new ideas. And one or two of them might just be the ideas that that we finally need to keep people healthy or keep people housed or keep people in jobs or get them into new one. So I really do think the whole thing starts with new ideas. And, and in the book, I end up writing about a series of waging go after new ideas through the lens of what the US Special Operations Command was doing, via something they created called soft works through the lens of what sort of citizen design or citizen centered designers or human centered designers are doing. Like a person like Jimmy Chen at a place like propeller on food stamps, but there’s always these instances where we really do need to go to users go to the crowd, go to outsiders, and try to solicit some new ideas.
Kirsten Wyatt 19:23
Your comment earlier about how in public policy or public administration schools, sometimes the focus is on analysis instead of inventing and building new things. If we’re going to cultivate local government employees, who have that ability to imagine and think differently and propose new things. What might a curriculum change for public policy or public administration students look like? And then how do we also cultivate that curiosity in our current employees?
Mitchell Weiss 19:57
That’s a great question. Some of this shift is already happening. So now, if you look at at policy schools and gov, schools of government, you will start to see more focus on, on, say, going to users to solicit ideas and designing with citizens themselves, and doing doing things with them and not to them. So I think this shift is already underway. But I would say, at a sort of tactical level, what policy schools need to do is, is get students out of classrooms and into the field, to observe, observe, you know, humans living in their communities, and the public workers helping them. And that’s, that’s absolutely got to be step one. And then you can, you can, you can compartize that and, of course, work around, again, around sort of human Human Centered Design or citizen centered design or some of the other toolkits to, to, to observe what’s going on around people. I mean, around communities and ways to help people, I would say, in some, in some instances that you could adopt similar techniques in, in city and in local government, I mean, get people out of the building. I know that sounds almost trite. But, but so many public workers are so busy, and so tied to their job, and just, it’s so hard to be in the community, especially these days with COVID. But you do need to get out and see how people experiencing the community, see how they experience that, your programs and services, don’t expect that they’re actually going, you know, working through the website, the way you designed it, or, or, or filling out the forms the way you design them, right, like, go go watch, if you want a one specific thing to do, go print out a half dozen of your of your forms, and go go watch your neighbor’s try to fill them out. And I promise you even in that one little instance, you’ll see ways for not just improving those forms, but actually improving the services that are hiding behind them.
Kirsten Wyatt 21:57
Well, and I think even just the introduction of the concept of public entrepreneurship, in, in public policy and public administration programs, is a huge step forward. And, and I think at this point, we really plug your book, as something that that students should be reading in these programs to think differently about, you know, what it means to become a bureaucrat, or to become a government worker. So I so I appreciate that.
Mitchell Weiss 22:22
Well, I appreciate you saying that, I was gonna say there’s a like, there was a book like this written in the 90s, which inspired me when I was in college, called reinventing government, you remember it? Yeah, and it’s, it basically said to me, that I can combine my interests, which I had as a young person, not not just in dressing like voting booths, but my interest in public service. And my interest in entrepreneurship and building things, and I didn’t know, I didn’t know, you could combine those things. And frankly, you know, I think it would, I would love it if this book inspired students in colleges and graduate schools to say, Oh, I grew up as a digital native, I have these instincts towards entrepreneurship. I also am very concerned about what’s going on in the world these days, I would like to help, and to say, Oh, I can actually combine all that in one thing in a career in public service or around public service. I mean, if this book did that, for another generation, I would be so I would be so proud.
Kirsten Wyatt 23:18
And I kept thinking during the book about, even if entrepreneurship or thinking creatively isn’t in your wheelhouse, this is also a reminder that you can be a manager of those people, or you can be a manager of processes and still cultivate that mindset, even if that’s not what comes to you naturally at first. And, and so kind of the implications on how a manager of people read this book, and then empower their employees to invent the government that they want.
Mitchell Weiss 23:47
I think that’s right. I mean, as a manager, for example, even if you didn’t come up with some new idea, but you know, somebody on your team has and has suggested it for you, the book gives you a sense for what what what to ask. I mean, the first thing a manager should ask, is, okay, so what are all the assumptions you’re making, about your idea what would have to be true for it to come to, to, for it to deliver in the way that we expect to deliver for, for for our community. And then, you know, your, your, your public entrepreneur in the in the hallway down from you can lay those out. And then you can then as a manager, you can say to them, okay, how are we going to test this idea? in what order? In what ways that minimize expenditure of money, in what ways that shortened amount of time, in what ways to maximize our learning? So there are absolutely managerial techniques in here, even for people who don’t, you know, regard themselves as being sort of, you know, sort of the the creative type, if you will, although I’ll just mention one other thing, which is, which is there’s been a lot of research done about entrepreneurship, and about whether entrepreneurs are essentially born or made. And do you have to have been sort of Steve Jobs, you know, from the womb or something, and the answer is mostly No. And so, I think you have lots of listeners, who may not have been sort of self, you know, they don’t self conceptualize as entrepreneurs, or as public entrepreneurs. But I bet you that they are, if we invite them to experiment, if we raise our expectations of what’s possible, I bet you will have a lot more public entrepreneurs
Kirsten Wyatt 25:12
Agree, and that’s kind of a perfect segue into the second tenant from the book, which is trying new things and giving people that sandbox to try things and talk to us about what what you found and and how you address that in the book.
Mitchell Weiss 25:27
Well, the reason I, you know, move on and try new things is because if we start with this openness to new ideas, and we as you know, we’re gonna get bad ones and good ones, we’re gonna absolutely have to sort the good ones and the bad ones, you know, I’m not suggesting you want to spend a lot of time and energy and bad ideas in government. So the next step is figuring out how to sort the good from the bad. And how to do that, in ways as sort of I was alluding to, how to do that in ways that minimize waste and maximize learning to borrow the language of sort of the Lean Startup methodology from Eric Ries, and others. So I spend some time talking about, okay, how do we try new things in government? We want to take on riskier projects, right? We want to take on new projects that are risky by virtue of their novelty, but we don’t want to take on more risk, right? I’m not saying I’m not saying let’s go like, Don’t as a manager, go go tell your team like, Hey, everybody, we’re going to take on more risk, no. Is it possible? You know, is it possible to try new things, while actually not taking on more risk? And I argue that yes, it is possible and for at least two reasons. One, is that sometimes the old things are actually the riskier options, when when kids aren’t graduating from school, or, or they’re not being fed, or we’re not prepared for COVID, doing nothing is actually the riskier choice. So so so first of all, you know, try new things isn’t always inherently riskier, as compared to what we’re doing today, if we’re being honest about it. And the second thing is that there are ways of getting started on programs and services that don’t mean spending, you know, $5 million in four years, and lots of consultants and four commissions and 10 RFPs, to deliver something, you know, late and, and and basically too late for the problem it was trying to solve in the first place. And instead, to get started with, with minimally viable products, to again, use the lingo or just prototypes. And to, to try to, essentially what Steve Blank would say, and others build, measure, learn our way through. And I think we need to do more of that. I just want to be clear that I don’t mean, excuse me, I don’t mean, you know, 1000 more pilot programs, oftentimes, what a pilot program, I think a lot of your listeners, I think would probably agree, what that means is Oh, the mayor or the city manager, or the county commissioner, or somebody goes out and announces, you know, some new pilot program, and it’s going to keep you know, it’s going to help our kids graduate from from high school on time. And then when the newspapers leave, or the press leaves, then the little program just withers on the vine. If it was successful, no one puts more money behind it. If it was unsuccessful, nobody, nobody ends it. And we just we have all these little things lying around. No, that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying if we if we try and experiment, and we build out a portion of the program, and it’s working, build out some more, if that’s working, building on another element, if that’s working, and then add to it. And so there’s a real other, there’s a, there’s a way to try new things in government that would allow us to take on riskier projects, not take on more risk. And I think we have to do more of that.
Kirsten Wyatt 28:25
Then, talk to us then about the third tenant of scaling. And I think this again, kind of relates to this idea of, it’s quite one thing to pilot something or it’s quite one thing to try something, but quite another to scale it up and put it in motion for at least that the short term, if not the long term.
Mitchell Weiss 28:44
Right. If we’re going to help everybody, we’ve got to make these programs and services really reach many more people than they often are. And I think there are a handful of ways to do that. In a resource constrained world. I think that one of those ways may be essentially government as a platform, Tim O’Reilly has been writing about that for a decade. And I I think it’s an important idea. it borrows basically from the idea of platforms at all. And as people understand platforms, their modern incarnation is sort of Facebook or, or Amazon and but they forget that platforms have existed for forever. So let me just say a word about that. So platforms are basically my colleague, David Jaffe, and others would say platforms are basically organizations that do one of two things. They either they connect people to have them exchange information, data, exchange other things, or to help them innovate on top of the platform. And they would point out the Amazon is an example of this. Amazon, via AWS, Amazon Web Services, you know, allows other companies to innovate on top of it. And Amazon Marketplace, of course, allows small business to sell sell stuff, us to buy stuff from them. And so we’ve got exchange going on, and we’ve got innovation going on. And the key thing is, of course, an Amazon isn’t doing all the work. And if you go back and think about it, government invented platforms, not not the Amazons of the world. Roads, roads, O’Reilly and others point out our canonical example of a platform, especially in the sense that they that basically, what the government does is lay down some foundation. And then people sort of, alongside that foundation, build up and connect with each other. And so when government has had a massive impact, it’s often been in the form of these platforms. Note that government itself doesn’t build all the stores along that road, or it doesn’t, you know, open up all the businesses along that road, or doesn’t, you know, even create all the museums along that road, other people do. And so I think we need to adopt that mentality more places. If we’re going to scale government can be a platform architect, they can invite others to innovate on top of what they’re doing, they can invite people to help each other exchange information, data with each other. And that’s a, that’s a perilous suggestion, because platforms can break too. And platforms can be dangerous too. But I think it’s going to be what’s required if we if we scale this work.
Kirsten Wyatt 31:08
What struck me from this section was, I think sometimes you think scale, and you think of tech companies, and it seems big and daunting, but what I felt like you conveyed really well is that sometimes it’s also just about sharing and opening up what you did in your organization, and what you learned and where you failed. And, you know, kind of the mechanics of the How to, rather than staying, you know, in these silos of, well, I’m this city, and you’re that city, this willingness to share and be open. That in and of itself helps scale big ideas. And it’s when we keep things too closed off from one another, that the rest of government can’t learn and thrive from the successes or the failures that we’ve had.
Mitchell Weiss 31:51
I think that’s right, it certainly is a very big, it’s a very, it’s a very big change in mindset from kind of closed off to being open. I think you’re right, that’s absolutely fundamental to it. And I think you’re right, that it doesn’t have to be complicated. And techie. I mean, you know, one other example of governance platform, which is timely these days, and still controversial, is look at things like neighborhood watch, or or community policing. Right. So when, when a community has has a public safety problem, the traditional thing, that that, you know, local officials say is well, let’s put more police officers, and that’s that’s government providing the service. Well, what’s the alternative? What’s the platform alternative? Which is well, what if government instead just provide some basic foundation, some basic architecture? What if they provide a gymnasium in the school, and a folding table, and an email list and some data about crime, and then let the community help, help, at least to some extent, look after itself? Now, I think that’s a really, really important example of, of government, not just providing service, but opening up opening up its data, inviting, inviting the public, it’s, and I think it’s, and I just think it’s sort of illuminating when you think about it that way. It’s also it’s not a panacea, right, because because, you know, community policing can also have some of the same pathologies of of, of the society that it can be racist too. So and we’ve seen examples of that, for sure. People call up on you know, always a suspicious person on my street happens to be a person with darker skin. So I’m not saying these things are panaceas. But I’m saying, oftentimes, when government is looking to scale solutions, they do need to open up and think about how they invite other people in including the community to help solve the problems.
Kirsten Wyatt 33:37
Let’s talk about possibility government in practice. And for our listeners, the book includes some great case studies, from Mitchell’s time in Boston, stories from communities around the world, and then the chance to hear from Local Government Leaders and entrepreneurs working with government. But what advice would you give to a listener who wants to introduce entrepreneurship, or even the three basic tenants of possibility government into their organization, but they’re not sure where to start. And I’d be especially interested for your views on someone who’s maybe mid level or you know, isn’t the top boss isn’t calling the shots and charting the course. But someone who really wants to implement some of this, and they’re not quite sure how to get started?
Mitchell Weiss 34:24
I would, I would say to that person, start on concrete problems that the members of the community are facing, and don’t start with sort of back office type stuff, which can seem counterintuitive, because if you’re going to start experimenting, I can imagine why you wouldn’t want to do that on things that are sort of, you know, you know, you know, community facing, but I really think it’s important that you you do this work, where, where you’re where you’ll be, oh, he’s sort of you know, basically in partnership with the community. You will learn more if you’re doing work that’s community facing, you’ll get more energy from that work If you’re doing it, you’ll get more energy from them, you’ll get more feedback from them. So I don’t mean to be reductive about it Kirsten. But I honestly think my advice would be start with the problems are.
Kirsten Wyatt 35:10
Well, I often find myself telling people of the value of, of getting into a government process, and really understanding it and kind of getting your hands dirty, versus trying to just enter into government and just solve problems without actually knowing what the problems are. So it sounds like, you know, you’re kind of calling for the same thing, like figure out where those pain points are, and solve the problem rather than, you know, just try to figure out what the solution might be.
Mitchell Weiss 35:39
I do think it starts with, it oftentimes starts with understanding the problem. And, and, and, and I guess, understanding it from the, from the perspective of the members of the community, you know, go you know, and we and obviously, the state and local level, one thing, that’s so beautiful at the city level, I mean is, is that we’re, we are members of the community. And so we we experience, we experience our government, both sometimes as people in it, and as people live in the community. And we are at, you know, baseball games and hockey games with our neighbors and whatever. So, but I think it’s really important if you want to start kind of make sure to put yourself in the shoes of people experiencing it as not as government workers. But just as people living in that community.
Kirsten Wyatt 36:22
What do you tell government officials about failure? Kind of the other side of imagining and trying new things? How do you address failure? And how do you encourage your staff when trying new things doesn’t go right the first time?
Mitchell Weiss 36:39
Well, what I’d say to them is like failure is not something I’d seek out, it’s not like more failure is better, per se, but to your point, like it’s a fact of life of trying new things. So what I would say to public leaders is, be honest with yourself, be honest with the public, that failure is going to happen, you know, spend as little time and money failing as you can, right? Learn as much as as much as possible from failing as you can. But what we need to start doing is stop promising success at the outset of new things, and instead, start promising learning. And what I would say to, you know, one of my staff, if if, if they had tried something that hadn’t worked. The first thing I would, I would say is, you know, what did we learn, so that we can not make the same mistakes again. I would, I would, you know, probably try to understand how much we spent so that I was sure, and I’d be confident because they’d be great staff that we didn’t spend too much trying. And I would say, look, here’s the thing, you are not a failure, right? Maybe this project in it’s nascent stages here didn’t work. Maybe in fact, you succeeded in showing us that it wouldn’t work. And then we need to try something else. And so go out and do some more of it. If in fact, we learned a lot and if in fact, we didn’t overspend, to acquire that learning, that’s what I would tell them, I would say, go do more, go do more of it.
Kirsten Wyatt 38:11
Any advice for managing up when it comes to innovation and creativity? You know, especially as it relates to maybe a governing board, elected officials, or even, you know, the the mayor or the city manager to help them kind of weather the inevitable ups and downs of trying new things?
Mitchell Weiss 38:33
I think that transparency up down in out of city halls is is is key here. When you go to that city manager or that Commissioner or the council person, again, I think being upfront at the beginning, that we’re going to, we’re going to try something new, it may or may not work, we’re not going to try all of it at once. We’re going to we’re going to learn in a deliberate fashion. And we’re going to build on our learning and ultimately, ultimately deliver a better program or service than we would have if we either just kept doing what we’re doing now. Again, I would go back to them and say the status quo is the risky choice, you know, Mrs. Commissioner, or Ms. Mayor, or, or, like or Mr. councilperson. Like the status quo is a risky choice, right? Whatever we if, you know, if the kids aren’t in school, if they’re absent, if they’re not eating, if the small businesses can’t be open, like that’s the risky choice, and I think you start there. And then I think you promise learning and, and you promise, you promise that to them, and then they promise that to the public, I think we might we might be able to try to get some new things done.
Kirsten Wyatt 39:53
It’s often said in local government that no one wants to be first but everyone wants to be second. What’s the motivation For an organization to go first to be the first one to try something, or the first one to work with a startup, when it can seem scary and untested. How do you make that case in local government?
Mitchell Weiss 40:17
Well, a party argument is that somebody has to go first. I mean, if we’re all waiting, right, I mean, like, so there’s that story I tell in the book about Mayor Peduto of Pittsburgh, and the testing about autonomous vehicles, when testing autonomous vehicles is dangerous, and somebody could die. In fact, in Arizona, somebody does die. And I don’t want to, you know, in any way paper over that. But Peduto basically says, you know, like, someone has to do it, right? And so I think there’s that great, you know, greater societal good motivation. The problem with humans driving cars, is that humans driving cars are also killing people, texting and driving, drinking and driving, being angry and driving. Someone has to try, someone has to do it. So I, there’s a reason to be there’s a reason for you to go first. I think in addition, we could begin to flip the narrative in places, which is that when when public leaders are actually trying new things, it’s not that they’re sort of being foolhardy, or that they’re being you know, that they’re being overly, they’re throwing caution to the wind. That, no, that, in fact, they’re Yes, they’re trying something new. But again, they’re doing it with some of the methods that are in the book. So that it’s not, it’s not going to spend too much money, it’s not going to waste too much time. It’s not going to result in catastrophic failure. And it is going to result in a quicker solution one more attune to the problem than the ones we have today. So that going first. I mean, I think we have to flip the narrative, which is that going first isn’t inherently the riskier choice that doing nothing is the rescuer choice.
Kirsten Wyatt 41:51
Right, right. I found this book hugely inspiring. I found the stories to be a reminder of why we work in local government, why ELGL supports local government. But I’d love to know who or what is inspiring you right now.
Mitchell Weiss 42:09
There are three people I have on my mind right now. Two of them are women who run this company Viabot Analytics, which is trying to harvest data basically from from sewage, and doing that, they were the pioneers in doing that first for opioid consumption and now on COVID. And their, their their two women who had this, you know, who who pursue this notion that we could, we could work with cities, to help them, you know, lift up the public health in our communities. And this should not have worked, right. I mean, this is a great example of possibility government by the part of the cities that went first in Boston and Cambridge and Cary, North Carolina. And yet they and their local partners pursued it around opioids. And now we’re, we have this, we can avail ourselves as technology during COVID. I find that very inspiring. And then, Mayor Melvin Carter of St. Paul, it just I get inspired every time I hear him. You know, he’s so clear about what he wants to get done in his community around equity. He’s so he’s so good. To your point about openness earlier, Kirsten. He’s so good about saying you’ve got to be open to others. He’s so good on, you know, he says, he says, my best ideas and our other people’s heads. He’s so good about engagement. At his inauguration. He says, you know, don’t stand up and clap if you’re not going to help. I find him really, he says patience is for the privileged. I find him inspiring every time I hear him.
Kirsten Wyatt 43:35
I agree. I agree. Alright, so one last question for you. If you could be the Gov Love DJ, what song would you pick as the exit music for this episode?
Mitchell Weiss 43:47
Oh, Gov Love is a perfect name for a DJ besides for a podcast now that you mention it.
Kirsten Wyatt 43:51
You know it really is.
Mitchell Weiss 43:57
So there’s this song. I’m like an Andy Grammer fan. There’s a song. Andy Grammer sings called Fresh Eyes. And, it’s a love song. But I think he could be talking about a city or a county or a country. It’s, it’s really a song about looking anew at something and really realizing how, how amazing it is if we just get rid of what, what’s familiar. And so maybe that would be fitting.
Kirsten Wyatt 44:21
Great choice. And a reminder to everyone that we are giving away six copies of Mitchell’s book and you can enter the drawing at ELGL.org and then please save the date for March 18th at 4 Pacific, 7 Eastern, we’ll have a book club discussion with Mitchell and you’ll have a chance to talk with him, talk about the book, and then meet with each other everyone who read the book. But for folks who aren’t lucky enough to win the copy from ELGL, tell us where people can get a copy of We the Possibility.
Mitchell Weiss 44:51
Anywhere books are sold in stores you can get there and support them online. And you can follow also at wethepossibility.com, and I’m on Twitter at @mitchwei and Instagram @WeThePossibility
Kirsten Wyatt 45:06
Wonderful. Well, this ends our episode for the day. So I want to thank you for coming on and talking with me.
Mitchell Weiss 45:11
Thanks Kirsten. This was a lot of fun.
Kirsten Wyatt 45:13
Gov Love is produced by a rotating cast of ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. You can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter @GovLovePodcast. Thank you for listening. This has been Gov love, a podcast about local government.