Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: Part 5: Foundational Topics

One challenge I’ve observed about how digital technologies are taught at most schools of policy or government is it takes a relatively ad hoc approach. It is a mix of courses that emerge due to either student demand or faculty interest. To be fair, this is often better than nothing, but it offers little in terms of methodology or structure for thinking about digital. Students are left to themselves to draw connections between subjects, or the underlying principles and challenges that span across them.

My goal is to educate students around the social, economic and policy changes brought about by the way digital technologies expand or threaten how we can solve problems, relate to one another, and reimagine institutions and the world.

Achieving this requires a structured approach, to bring clarity to the core issues and ensure students leave with a solid foundation of knowledge.

The intent is to enable students to understand how digital challenges rules, norms and structures — for good and ill. It is also about getting them to manage learning organizations that can absorb and leverage the fast feedback digital systems create.

Prerequisites

As a brief aside, in my classroom I assume students come to me with some basic knowledge. At the Harvard Kennedy School, students in the MPP program have a set of “core” classes required in the first year. This include some economics, stats, and most importantly, ethics. So I assume many of my students come into my class with some background in these subjects.

Foundational Topics

My bias in all this is around how digital will impact the provision of public services (I’m happy to own this bias and recognize it, meaning I make choices others might not) but I have attempted to design a structure for my students I believe works across a broad range of policy and governance challenges.

Here at HKS I’ve tried to lay out six foundational topics of which a basic understanding is essential. It is not that other skills or domains of knowledge don’t matter, (such as economics or leadership — these should be taught as well, but are likely already covered in a leading schools) but it is that these are most likely not to be taught, particularly in the context of digital.

The first starts with some culture shock. Getting students to understand how technology is challenging the speed and way public goods could be built and delivered.

A part of this is teaching agile, not just as a project management skill but also as form of organizational culture. It is about having students understand how digital technologies alter how quickly organizations can learn.

To be clear, the point is not to worship at the alter of agile, but to think critically about where agile can work to increase speed and learning in policy development and the delivery of public services, as well as where it makes less sense as an approach. Should 100% of government work adopt an agile approach? Definitely not. But more than 0% should. And this is particularly true when it comes adopting digital approaches to organizing work within government and delivering services. Enabling students to see a universe beyond multi year inflexible plans and to provide them with language and frameworks for an adaptive and agile approach is an essential foundation for both thinking about digital in government and frankly, for a great deal of other work that has little to do with digital.

Once this foundation is laid, students then look at the topics of User Needs, Design Thinking*, Data, Privacy and Security**. These five topics are a useful way to talk about the politics, tradeoffs and challenges in digital sphere.

A basic analytical framework in each of the above areas provides students with a foundation for asking critical and important questions when confronting a new policy question or mobilizing assets to deliver services digitally. Each of these foundational topics are packed with both practical operational questions as well as significant political and ethical questions:

  • Who are our users? (this is a deeply political and practical question that should be answered at multiple levels).
  • Are we capable of designing for our end users and the administrators who must serve them and the broader public interest?
  • What data do we collect? Are we using it to learn? Is collecting it necessary? How might this data be mis-used?
  • Does this service, process, or product protect users’ privacy? Should it? What is the benefit? What is the cost?
  • What threats should we protect governments systems from? Economic systems? Broader democratic and social systems? Who is responsible for this protection?

These issues are also listed in priority. While all are critical, each one must be understood and informs one’s understanding of the next one. And while all are essential, they may be weighted based on the learning and career objective of a student. A student interested in service delivery will need to know more about user needs, design and data than, say, an information cybersecurity expert who will have a stronger focus on security and data.

I use this framework in two ways. First, in my DPI-662 Digital Government course, I seek to transform students into foxes, by giving them some basic introduction to each of these concepts. My assumption is that, when confronted with a online service to regulate, a vendor trying to sell the government software or trying to deploy an government service online, asking a question on any of the above 6 topics will probably serve them well. Thus, learning to think critically about each of them will provide a crucial foundation for learning about any new technology or concept.

The second way I use this framework at the Harvard Kennedy School is as an organizing structure for other classes. The intent is to give students the opportunity to become “hedgehogs” and receive further instruction on each of these foundational topics. As a result we offer multiple deeper courses on each of these topics so that depending on the career a student will have — either as a politico, administrator or regulator — they can do a deeper dive in a manner that will serve their interests. More on how we do this in a subsequent post.

* Note: Some readers may wonder why User Needs and Design Thinking are listed separately. It is true that these would traditionally be merged. I’ve separated them for two reasons. First, there are a set of questions about who the users are that are deeply political that should be answered separately from the issue of how we would design for services, policies and regulations to serve them. The second is, I’ve found governments are frequently not great at a) identifying and understanding users and b) engaging in design thinking, so separating them out is another way to emphasize the need to invest in these these capacities.

** Note: Security and Privacy are also deeply related topics. I’ve purposely listed them separately. Security and privacy interests can clash, particularly when discussing the interests of an organization versus those of an individual. My experience, in the government context, is that when privacy and security are lumped together, privacy has a funny way of taking a back seat in the discussion. This risk is particularly real in schools of policy and government, where organizational interests — usually those of the government — are front and center. Separating them out hopefully ensures they remain on a equal footing.

This is the fifth in a series of pieces about how I’m wrestling with how to teach about digital technologies at policy schools. If you’re interested you can read:

here at Digital@HKS or on my blog.

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