The art of the ‘possibility government’: Mitch Weiss, Prof of Management Practice, Harvard Business School

Mitch Weiss Harvard Business School

“We need a government that can imagine, we need a government that can try, and we need government that can scale.”


For Mitch Weiss, one of the world’s leading luminaries in public sector innovation, governments in the West are stagnating. Democracies are ailing, bureaucracies bloated and inefficient, with public trust in government, and faith in it as a servant of the people, being rapidly eroded.

It’s no longer enough for governments to simply act on probability – relying on safe solutions and simply mimicking ‘best’ practice. To win back the hearts and minds of citizens, and ultimately restore faith in democracy as an agent for positive change, governments must embrace possibility.

As Professor of Management Practice at the renowned Harvard Business School, Weiss has been at the forefront of a movement to embed entrepreneurial vigour and innovative nous into today’s byzantine government bureaucracies an idea he defines as ‘possibility government’.

Here, we speak with Weiss on the existential challenges facing democracies today, the need to overcome inherent risk-aversion within the public sector workforces, and why governments must embrace the art of the possible or risk terminal decline.


FST Government: Looking at the enormous social, technological, political and environmental challenges facing democracies today, which would you rate as the most pressing?

Weiss: I would say sustaining democracy itself. We’re living in what political scholar Larry Diamond has called a ‘democratic recession’. It’s not a new thing, and it’s not located in only one country. In democracies around the world, we’re seeing worrying signs around participation, of trust in government, and of trusting each other.

Somewhat related is the extreme levels of inequality. And then, also at the top of that list, climate change and the protection of our planet.


FST Government: You’ve written extensively on the need to empower government with a sense of entrepreneurial vigour. What then do you consider some of the hallmarks of good government?

Weiss: It’s no surprise, given what I work on, I see good government as possibility government. Good government is equipped to try novel programs that only might work – but if they did, they’d be transformative. They’d be up to the task of solving the problems we just identified as well as all the others that face us, and even those we don’t yet know about.

Good government all around the world has to be government that can invent again: invent solutions to old problems that are still with us, and to new problems emerging.

 

Frankly, we don’t have that kind of government in enough places or enough times. Of course, possibility government isn’t the only aspect of good government, but it’s a really important aspect of good government. We’ve just gotten way too far away from it.


FST Government: Could you pinpoint any reason as to why we’ve perhaps strayed from possibility government?

Weiss: In part, it’s just by virtue of our age. Ageing organisations and ageing bureaucracies have a harder time being innovative. A second reason is that we have what I call in my book ‘hot stove government’. It’s a riff on two scholars, James March and Jerker Denrell, who’ve written about the ‘hot stove effect’; they, in turn, were riffing on Mark Twain’s ‘cat on a hot stove’ idea, where a cat gets burned and learns never to jump on a hot stove again – but it also refuses to jump on a cold stove. Essentially, it’s a problem of overlearning.

I’ve observed that governments have overlearned from past mistakes, and today’s stove has been turned up to scalding.

 

Social media and other things have made it very fraught for public officials to try new things.

 

FST Government: Do you feel governments are perhaps overwhelmed by risk aversion, stifling more creative problem solving, or are there are some legitimate reasons for this cautiousness?

Weiss: The main reason people in government are risk-averse is because, at the end of the day, they’re people – we’re all wired that way. We tend to think, “Oh, our public officials are risk-averse and there must be some special reason for that”. And that’s mainly not true.

People in government can tell you of all sorts of fears they have about trying new things: fears that, if elected, they’ll lose office, that if they’re appointed, they’ll get into trouble or they’ll get called before a hearing. Many of those fears are unwarranted and mostly baseless.

We have to help people in public life realise that it’s okay to try new things if you do them without wasting too much money and too much time.

 

We need to arrive at a new kind of accountability. If they’re inept, lazy or corrupt, sure, they should still get called into a hearing room and they should get voted out of office – there’s no question about that. But if they try something new or novel – and again, relatively quickly, without expending too much public trust or financial trust – then we should say, “Thank you for showing us what wouldn’t work. Now go try something else”.

 

FST Government: There is an assumption that the private sector is far more predisposed to take – at least calculated – risks. What lessons can be learnt or strategies adopted from the private sector’s innovative nous?

Weiss: That’s not just an assumption. Despite the fact that people in government are risk-averse, mostly because they’re people, economists have in fact shown that people in the public sector are more risk-averse than people in general. There’s room for bringing in more entrepreneurial skills and tactics into government. I don’t necessarily like to characterise that as bringing private sector skills into government, because the private sector doesn’t own entrepreneurship.

Private entrepreneurs weren’t the first entrepreneurs; public has been inventing things since the public existed.

 

To say we should bring entrepreneurship into the public sector – absolutely! We should bring start-up tactics into government. We don’t have to valorise them as purely private activities, because they’re not. Also, you can’t just take things from the private sector and port them into the public sector and expect them to work. There is adaptation that has to go on. However, entrepreneurship in the public sector? Yes, absolutely.

 

FST Government: We’ve seen a troubling rise in anti-democratic, pseudoscientific and even authoritarian-friendly movements around the world. Do you feel the West can sustain its core liberal democratic values in the face of these erosive forces?

Weiss: I hope so. I don’t want to oversimplify things; there are so many reasons why democracy is under assault, if you will. But I will say, one of the reasons for people’s mistrust in government – and this is just one of them – is when government hasn’t solved problems. They can look at the end of their driveway, on their street, or in their kids’ school and see that things aren’t working.

I do think one of the ways we can strengthen our democracies and refurbish people’s trust in government is to solve problems. Again, ‘possibility government’, as I describe it, is a way of doing that – to solve problems and therefore build back up that public trust.


FST Government: From a tech perspective, what do you see as some of the core ingredients to delivering a successful, citizen-focused and – as you touched on – a trusted digital government?

Weiss: We tend to think of technology as bits and bytes, of chips and devices. But if we broaden it and think about it more like tools, if you will, I believe there are three tools that are essential for good government, for possibility government and, ultimately, trusted government. Number one is that we need a toolkit of new idea-making.

We need to know how to come up with new ideas; we’ve lost that skill set in many places and over time.

 

There are some actual ‘capital T’ technologies that can support that, but I don’t think they’re the most important part of it.

The second thing is, if we have ideas, we need to be able to try them. We have toolkits from, for instance, Eric Ries’s The Lean Startup or Steve Blank’s Build, Measure, Learn, or simply hypothesis-driven entrepreneurship or the scientific method, but we need to be able to try our way to new things and sort the bad ideas from the good.

And then, ultimately, we need to be able to scale them so these ideas don’t just help some people but everybody. And the toolkit of ‘government-as-a-platform’, a concept developed by Tim O’Reilly, is potentially very important. We need a government that can imagine. We need a government that can try. And we need government that can scale.

 

FST Government: You mentioned that the public sector has potentially lost some of that innovation drive. What’s are some of reasons behind this?

Weiss: Some of it goes to what I mentioned earlier around our being. We’re older than we were when these governments were born. Some of it goes to this risk aversion, which exists in people in public service. And then part of it has to do with this overwhelming drumbeat for efficiency over the last several decades.

We want efficiency in government; I’m certainly not arguing against it. But it’s become the dominant mandate for many governments. Efficiency is perhaps only half the formula. In design thinking lingo, they’d call that ‘making choices’. But we’ve focused so much on making choices, we’ve stopped exercising those ‘create choices’ muscles. We need to get back to that.

 

FST Government: In response to the Covid pandemic, we’ve seen a flurry of technological innovations – from new contact tracing apps to breakthroughs in vaccine and medical device technologies. How do you rate governments’ newfound abilities to deliver and facilitate innovation in response to moments of crisis?

Weiss: I’d say the record is mixed. First of all, we saw some public officials at all levels of government around the world leap into action, become instant public entrepreneurs, and race to keep people safe, housed, fed and schooled. And we saw some officials who didn’t. And we also saw people who leapt to action instead of blaming and misdirection.

 

FST Government: Indeed, the US alone presents as almost a microcosm for the rest of the world, revealing trials, troubles and successes across each of the 50 states.

Weiss: And then even within a state, pick any governor, I’m certain you could say there’s things she or he did incredibly well and other things where they sort of fell down on.

I don’t want to take anything away from the amazing public servants all around the world who’ve laboured over the last year, gave up sleep and family and in some cases their lives to try to save others. But if we’re being honest about it, looking back on it, we’re going to say that this was a mixed result. Sometimes we delivered innovation, sometimes we didn’t.

I have confidence that we can do it; we’ve seen episodes of it. They are actions of humans who came together, were inventive, solved problems and saved lives. But we should’ve been able to do better and we need to do better next time.

 

FST Government: What does that better look like to you?

Weiss: It means two things at least. One is getting better at this process of rapid problem-solving, of experimenting our way through to solutions. For instance, the kind of approach taken to developing a vaccine, with new methods, lots of trials and data, all delivered in record time, coming up with something that really works and extending that thinking to other responses: to be more experimental, more inventive, more creative, more data-oriented and so many other parts of problem-solving.

So how do we do better next time? One is to harness this toolkit of possibility and get better at it. The other thing we’ve got to do is not wait until crisis to make change. We can’t wait to realise we have deep problems in our public health infrastructure or deep inequity, housing insecurity, food insecurity, or small business insecurity, and just wait for these things to fester. We’ve got to deploy this toolkit of possibility to make change before crises hit.

I hope that will be one of the very powerful lessons out of all this. People said they’ve learnt to be more inventive, so I hope that’s true.

 

FST Government: Whether true or not, suspicion has remained that unsolicited personal data is being captured and that citizens’ every move are being tracked through Covid apps. In your view, have governments effectively managed the ethical complexities and questions surrounding these apps?

Weiss: Without singling any geography out, society as a whole – meaning people and our governments – did not handle this altogether that well. There are episodes where, if government had acted, they could have saved more lives, but they didn’t because they or the public was worried about privacy. There are also examples of governments that did do things that they shouldn’t have done. This all speaks to the paucity of language and understanding we all have for wrestling with the privacy implications of new technologies.

One thing I found particularly frustrating early on with contact tracing is that it was criticised as ‘surveillance’. However, that largely fails to recognise that, yes, it is – it’s literally called ‘epidemiological surveillance’. We already do surveillance in societies and we recognise it as a cost. We need, as a society, to better wrestle through such costs and benefits.

To say that, “We don’t want surveillance!” is a misunderstanding of 500 years of history of public health.

 

I don’t want to paper over the problems of surveillance and the deep ethical issues that it brings up – the problems of inequity, the problems that governments, when they surveil, often don’t roll back those surveillance techniques. But we could have had a better conversation if we’d been more honest about discussing what we’ve had, what’s worked, what’s not worked. All in all, it was a not great on this front.

 

FST Government: Certainly, leaders in the West have not necessarily fully accounted for growing levels of public mistrust in government. The increasing adoption of AI, machine learning, automation-based systems in government – all dependent on complex algorithms – has only increased this suspicion. What can governments do to ensure that algorithmic bias does not compromise or invalidate insights, harm citizens, and sow more seeds of distrust?

Weiss: Again, there’s no easy answer. A lot of it will come down to ensuring, as we’ve discussed, we have a well-informed public and democracies that are accountable to their electorate.

When you say AI, people immediately assume you’re going to use it to surveil or they rightly get concerned about the issues of exacerbating or perpetuating bias, especially in our country against black and brown Americans. You’ve got to ward against all of that.

There are examples of AI used to the opposite effect. Protect Democracy, for instance, which a friend of mine helps run, created an ML-based product called VoteShield, which detects aberrations in voter registration lists, making sure hackers don’t break in and change addresses and potentially disenfranchise marginalised voters.

 

FST Government: Many have looked with hope to e-voting as an effective means of increasing public participation in the democratic process, an area you’ve also explored in your book. However, concerns remain around its vulnerability to hackers, rogue actors, and even simple coding errors. As governments look to further adopt e-voting, how can we ensure the integrity and increase public confidence in these systems?

Weiss: I had the chance to follow a fascinating story on a mobile voting pilot in West Virginia which enables overseas voters to use their mobile phones to vote, particularly for our armed forces stationed abroad. The state partnered with a start-up company, Voatz, which was founded by a gentleman who’d seen, in his country of origin, people forced to vote at gunpoint. The mobile voting pilot goes off, apparently without a hitch. But nonetheless, afterwards, people jumped on Twitter claiming the whole thing was bonkers.

The really important question is, which is more bonkers: to do nothing around the challenges of participation and inequity in the voting process or to try something like mobile voting? It’s a very difficult question to answer.

 

Mobile voting is risky. While there will ultimately be technological ways to guarantee their integrity, or at least make them as safe as any other way of voting, public confidence is another question entirely. And until you have public confidence in the vote, which has been consistently undermined of late, you don’t have a vote.

Renowned democracy scholar, Richard Hasen, famed for his book The Voting Wars, has noted that elections have effectively turned into battlegrounds – it’s not about which candidate gets the most votes, it’s about the whole voting process itself. So, without minimising the problem or solution of mobile voting, the main problem right now is credibility in our democracy and trust in the voting process at all.

The first step to ensuring confidence in e-voting is – and this is a giant step – restoring people’s basic faith in unbiased, professionally run elections as a way of arbitrating who gets to serve. I’d have never thought this way two years ago, but in some bizarre way right now, whether you’re voting on a paper ballot or in the blockchain is perhaps secondary to people trusting the voting process at all.

 

FST Government: Governments around the world have been hailing the emergence of the ‘smart city’. What to you defines an ideal metropolis – smart or otherwise?

Weiss: I’ve said in other places, I don’t think the objective of a city should be to be ‘smart’. Nobody who lived in a city has ever said “I want to live in a ‘smart city’”. They say: “I want food on my table. I want the commute to be smooth. I want access to a job. I want to be able to breathe clean air.” I’d encourage leaders to be more focused on solving those problems as opposed to making their cities ‘smart’, so to speak.

A responsive city, a possibility city, an inventive city, these are all things to aspire to, all in the service of solving the problems that people face.

 

Where technology can be helpful – great. Where technology, including connected devices, including perhaps new modes of broadband or what have you helps that – great. But I’d advise people, it’s not so much about having a smart city, but about responsive cities, inventive cities, chasing possibility prudently and using technology where need be.

  

FST Government: You earlier touched on the ‘government-as-a-platform, a key theme you also address in your book. The tech space is awash with countless as-a-platform solutions, some more useful than others. Could you offer us a bit of an insight into government-as-a-platform and how the framework can improve the effectiveness and policy outcomes of government?

Weiss: Scholars who write about platforms would point out that they do two things: they allow people to either exchange (data, money, et cetera) or to innovate.

They’d also point out that one of the things that make platforms so powerful are network effects. This is the idea that the second person adds value to the first person. Consider a telephone – one person can’t do anything; add in a second and you suddenly have a conversation.

Government-built roads are great examples of platform. Tim O’Reilly, who coined the term ‘government as a platform’, points this out. If you’re the only person on a roadway, it’s not really of much value, but somebody moves down the road, and suddenly you have a neighbour, restaurants, museums, et cetera; secondary and tertiary users add value to the first user.

The next thing they’d tell you is to remember that network effects can also run the other direction, which can impact people negatively – for example, roads suffer congestion.

But as soon as you think about a government’s job, in many instances, it’s not necessary to provide a service directly, but to provide an architecture that allows someone else to.

 

In other words, governments’ job in many instances is to help lay the architectural foundations with hardware and software, rules and processes for either exchange or for innovation.

Whether it’s getting money to people in need or solving issues of public safety, education or job training, if we think of government through the platform metaphor – as one of exchange or innovation, how do we all make each other better off? – that concept can be very powerful.

 

FST Government: Is there a jurisdiction you’d consider a leading light for government or digital government?

Weiss: This isn’t digital government per se, but when it comes to possibility government, and a government that’s willing to try something new and novel, Melvin Carter is someone I admire a lot. He’s the mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Mayor Carter was elected to office on an equity agenda, really trying to bring a sense of group ownership to his city, as well as a focus on public safety and ensuring people are treated equally under the law.

On announcing a series of pilot programs to experiment with new ways of delivering what he calls community-first public safety, he said, openly, “We won’t get everything right the first time around”.

What mayor gets up and says – on the matter of public safety, by the way, in the city next to where George Floyd was murdered – we won’t get everything right the first time around?

 

He’s brave and he’s honest with the public about what it’s going to take. He says what we’ve been doing for the last 30 years isn’t working and we need to try something else. In that way, at least, he’s a model for many other leaders.

 

FST Government: Finally, a bit of crystal ball gazing. What will a successful, citizen-focused government look like by 2050 – and how can go about creating it?

Weiss: There’s a line here under a statue in Boston that I quite like: “Paul Revere started a ride, which in a way has never ended”.

Paul Revere was the American revolutionary who alerted everybody by horseback that the British were coming. I like to think about the process of governing as never reaching an end point. Government can’t ever stop; there are always more problems to address, always more problems to solve.

For government, success is such a hard thing to achieve, because the minute you address one thing, Covid or something else is on your doorstep. That’s why by 2050 we really need to have (and probably quite a lot earlier) possibility government – a government that is constantly inventing.

And they’ll offer more than just a citizen focus, by the way. Ideally, we’ll get back to being citizen-led.

It’s not just government for the people, it’s government of the people.

 

But we can’t get to possibility government unless members of the public tolerate, encourage, and co-participate in it. Our best governments will be those that solicit the permission, the encouragement, and the co-participation of their public to pursue new solutions to the problems that face us.

 

FST Government: How can we go about creating that co-participatory government, engaging citizens, public sector workforces, and leaders together in this process?

Weiss: It starts with the candour that we talked about. It starts with leaders explaining the stakes and what’s needed.

From there, it’s a matter of getting to work sooner rather than later. People in government and outside government are going to be fearful of new things. They’re not going to stop being fearful if you just tell them to stop being fearful. They’ll only stop when they see that you build stuff that makes their lives better, not worse, when their jobs are more secure, not less.

We can’t talk our way to possibility. We have to make our way there.


Mitchell Weiss is the author of We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems, a treatise on cutting through bureaucratic inertia, empowering entrepreneurship, innovation and people-centricity in government through possibility thinking.

Weiss is also a featured keynote presenter at the 6th Annual FST Government New South Wales 2021 event.