These are dark days in the United States. Crisis builds upon crisis, and we face complex societal challenges that have no easy answer, no one-size-fits-all solution, no quick fix at the ballot box. There is a persistent sense that our institutions, especially government, are failing us.
But in a world beset by profound and deepening problems that the global coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has only made worse, there are leaders who recognize the need to work differently to accomplish their goals and change the world. I call these leaders “public problem solvers.”
There is no preexisting single definition of public problem solving. It is not yet a defined field. Some people use the term “social innovator.” Others prefer “change agent.” Universities do not normally offer public-problem- solving courses or provide consistent career advice focusing on public-interest work in different sectors. Although some offer capstone projects and internships, there is generally no accepted “methods course” to teach people to take a project from idea to implementation. Nor is there a centralized and consistent set of data, crossing engineering, public policy, law, business, and other disciplines, about how many students want to do mission-driven work during or after university. Training programs for those who work in nonprofits or for government do not offer a problem-solving curriculum.
By contrast, “public-interest law” is a term of art in legal circles. Loosely speaking, it means performing legal work to serve the underdog and promote civil rights (as opposed to work to serve corporate economic interests). It does not refer to a body of law or a type of organization but, instead, covers using legal techniques such as litigation, law reform, and legal advocacy to advance the public good. Most law schools have a public-interest law program and provide career counseling for those who wish to do public-interest law. Resources such as the Public Service Jobs Directory (PSJD) comprise a network of more than two hundred member law schools and thirteen thousand law-related public-interest organizations. Public-interest law has come to be understood as a broad but coherent field with a defined skill set.
Similarly, with the growth of entrepreneurship programs in universities, first in the 1970s and then their explosion in the past twenty-five years as a result of the dot-com boom, entrepreneurship is also well understood today. We all know what it means to start and grow a business. Thanks to the significant growth of business entrepreneurship programs in universities and community colleges over the past forty years, entrepreneurship has become a staple of university education, cutting across disciplines. In the early 1980s, about three hundred schools had entrepreneurship and small business programs. By the early 2000s, eager to help students become the next Mark Zuckerberg, more than sixteen hundred schools had created entrepreneurship programs offering over twenty-two hundred courses. There is a robust scholarship on business formation as well as a pedagogical discipline focusing on teaching people to start their own businesses.
In my book Solving Public Problems, I seek to articulate a learnable set of tools that, when combined with subject-matter expertise, make it possible to design interventions that improve people’s lives. In so doing, I hope to define what it means to take a public-interest project from idea to implementation. Public problem solvers possess a replicable skill set that can be applied to any public problem for making measurable change. These skills include the following:
- Problem definition: Public problem solvers know how to define a problem that is urgent, that matters to real people, and that can be resolved.
- Data-analytical thinking: They know how to use data and the analysis of data in order to understand the breadth and nature of the problem.
- Human-centered design: They shun the closed-door practices of the past and design interventions in partnership with those whom they are trying to help, deepening their understanding of the problem by consulting people directly affected by it.
- Collective intelligence: They adopt more participatory and democratic ways of working that build on the collective intelligence of communities.
- Rapid evidence review: They take advantage of new technology to scan for the best available ideas and the best people who know what has worked.
- Powerful partnerships: They know how to build teams and partnerships that cross many disciplines to become more effective at implementing change that others will adopt and accept.
- Measuring what works: Finally, they use experimental techniques and collaboration to evaluate what has worked and what has not and either pivot or stay on course as a result. They know how to expand work that has a beneficial and measurable impact on people’s lives.
Many of these skills and methods are made possible by the development of new digital technologies in the past decade. Taken together, they offer a process for more agile and rapid means of action, implementation, and validation. They elevate evidence over politics and egos. They reject closed-door workings by professionals in favor of ways of identifying problems and interventions in collaboration with those who are most affected and most knowledgeable. They emphasize tapping the good ideas of communities and leveraging law and policy as well as technology to produce more just and effective results. They eschew rigid and rules-based ways of organizing work in favor of more flexible, experimental, and innovative approaches.
Yet public problem solvers are not reckless. Despite their willingness to innovate, they hold fast to the values of the public interest. They are ethically conscious of obligations to due process and equity. Rather than merely complying with rules, they act with alacrity, ingenuity, integrity, and a relentless focus on solving some of the most urgent and difficult challenges of our time.
Finally, public problem solvers are not content with slow and incremental approaches. They are impatient to deliver results in a short time, and they experiment with new processes and ways of working, despite the risks of doing so within a bureaucracy. Perhaps most importantly, they do not want simply to solve the problem in front of them but to institutionalize a process that others can learn from, copy, and scale up.
Given the complex, interdependent challenges facing our world—which have only grown since it succumbed to a pandemic and recession in 2020—we must tackle our abundance of societal problems with ever-greater urgency. We can do so by adopting the techniques that these public entrepreneurs use. In addition, if more of the people who work in government adopt these techniques, we may also make government more effective and legitimate because it gets things that matter to real people done.
Excerpted from Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World, by Beth Simone Noveck, new from Yale University Press. Copyright c 2021 by Beth Simone Noveck. More information—and a free online course—at solvingpublicproblems.org.