How to turn your public interest project from idea into reality: Professor Beth Noveck

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  • Published Date: 28 July 2021

How can public servants become problem solvers, and spark innovation within the cautious world of the bureaucracy? US Professor Beth Noveck’s new book Solving Public Problems outlines the skills that they need to make a difference and shows how to take public interest projects from idea to reality.

Professor Noveck is the director of the Governance Lab (GovLab) and a Professor of technology, culture and society at New York University. In 2019 she travelled to Australia as part of an ANZSOG research project into innovation in the public sector, which involved a world-first survey of public servants on innovation, and the publication of a report: Today’s Problems, Yesterday’s Toolkit which has provided some of the research for the book, along with interviews with public managers across the world.

The report found frustration among public sector employees who see senior and middle management as failing to encourage innovation, with only 40 per cent saying that senior management are willing to take risks to support new ideas.

Professor Noveck says that Solving Public Problems outlines a learnable set of tools that, when combined with subject-matter expertise, make it possible to design interventions that improve people’s lives, and take public interest projects from idea to implementation.

She described the impact of COVID-19 and the aftermath of the Trump presidency as “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.

“In a world beset by profound and deepening problems that the global coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has only made worse, there are leaders who recognise the need to work differently to accomplish their goals and change the world. I call these leaders ‘public problem solvers.’”

She says that 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-centred 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.

Professor Noveck said that there was no single definition of public problem solving, with some people using the term “social innovator”, and others preferring “change agent”.

“Public problem solvers are not reckless,” she said.

“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.

“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 institutionalise a process that others can learn from, copy, and scale up.”

Professor Noveck said that the challenges faced by society, from inequality to climate change to systemic racism, cannot be solved with yesterday’s toolkit, and public servants needed to take advantage of digital technology, data, and the collective wisdom of our communities to design and deliver powerful solutions to contemporary problems.  

The author of Solving Public Problems: A Practical Guide to Fix Our Government and Change Our World, Professor Noveck directs The Governance Lab (The GovLab). She is a professor at Northeastern University (on leave from NYU) and has decades of experience advising global leaders, including leading the USA’s White House Open Government Initiative from 2009 to 2011 under President Obama.