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Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: Part 6: Bringing it Together

Okay, so to recap, here at the Kennedy School of Government I’m interested in 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.

We have a range of students who fall into three broad camps:

To whom we are focused on teaching a culture of learning as well as a number of key foundational topics and skills:

Core foundational topics for understanding digital

To help them grasp a wide range of concepts, processes and tools made possible by digital technology:

An illustrative list of possible concepts to teach at a Policy School around digital

I combine those to provide a more general framework for how I think about teaching digital at a policy school that looks like this.

Starting to put it all together here.

One element I like about this chart is that it identifies some shared learning areas of which students should have a solid understanding. This enables one to concentrate resources in one or more core courses that provide students with basic building blocks of knowledge that can be used to learn and be critical about a range of concepts and ideas.

It also allows us to create a set of courses that each dive deeper into each of the foundational topics and related concepts secure in the knowledge that such courses will be useful to a broad range of students. Examples of these courses include Bruce Schneier’s class on securityJim Waldo’s class on privacy and Dana Chisnell’s class on design thinking.

This approach also allows for flexibility. As I mentioned in an earlier post, depending on their career paths students may invest more heavily in some foundational topics. A regulator may be more concerned with privacy, design and data while a cyber security expert may be more interested in security and data. Thus students can opt to dive deeper into areas they think will be critical to their career. Nonetheless, my sense is that regardless of role, a basic understanding of each of the above foundational topics (as well as the underlying culture and norms of iteration and learning) will serve them well in any role and so getting an overview of each is critical.

With more students having been exposed to a range of the foundational topics I also feel more comfortable offering courses that focus on some of the concepts. Again it is worth noting that the “concepts” part of the chart encapsulates thousands of possible issues. Not only are there far more than can be taught, but they are in constant flux. Some fall out of favor or become obsolete while new ones are constantly emerging. That said, some are likely essential to everyone (for example, I teach all my students about the concept of a platform) and others are likely to be important to specific roles, indeed part of the function of a school and a teacher is to figure out which of these concepts — for a given role — are essential versus merely good to know versus unnecessary. A great example of this type of course includes Nicco Mele’s course on technology and the media and his course on technology and political campaigns.

I’ll talk more about how we map out classes in a subsequent post.

The Big Questions

Part of the goal for a policy school is to educate and train students, equipping them with the skills and knowledge they need to be successful in creating public value and engage public organizations in digital transformation.

But as a school of public policy and, frankly one that has a global reach, we have a responsibility to also ask bigger questions. One hope I have is to push the school to understand how some of the questions that are asked in the “digital” sphere are in reality Big Questions that affect society at large, the fabric of democracy and governance, the nature of human rights, etc… and need the engagement of the school at large focused on them. This is not to say that these questions are the only questions that matter. Climate change, massive inequality, and managing the US-China relationship probably represent the great challenges, if not in some cases, the existential threats of our time, and deserve much attention. But there are questions created by issues in the digital sphere that are similar in nature.

These include:

  • Have we become a surveillance society? With both the state and companies tracking our every move, what does this mean for freedom? For dissent? For citizenship?
  • If the 20th century was about harnessing the power of the state to reshape the distribution of wealth under capitalism from a power law into a bell curve, how will we do the same in the internet age?
  • What does an API-driven government look like? What will be the checks and balances around power, surveillance, and privacy in such an institution?
  • Will artificial intelligence and the second machine age leave (almost) everyone unemployed? And if they do, what then?

I see these and other questions like them as core to the role and purpose of a policy school. They may not be the questions that all, or even most of our students are required to ask day to day in the jobs they take up, but they are the questions that we all, as citizens, need to start wrestling with as we think about what we want the future of our world to look like.

Okay, I’ll stop there. More to come soon.

This is the sixth 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:

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.

Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: Part 4: The Trap — Teaching Tech and Concepts

Before talking about the framework for thinking about digital at the Harvard Kennedy School, I want to discuss what we aren’t doing. I do this because I frequently get asked by students and others to respond to needs that I think are poorly articulated. I believe we should listen to users (students) but that doesn’t always mean they know how to articulate what they want perfectly.

Sample of Technologies and Concepts

One risk is that a policy school ends up focusing on either what is easy or sexy (or both). This is compounded by the fact that professional degree students (as well as exec-ed students) who feel real pressure to skill up for the job market may gravitate to courses that focus on tactics or tools. This includes subjects like how to use a technology of the day, such as Twitter, Slack, or Bitcoins, or perhaps a specific skill, such as learning to code in rails or python.

Courses on these topics appeal for many reasons. They are practical: one learns how to “use” a technology or leaves with a greater awareness of it. They are bounded: by focusing on a specific technology or application, they are narrow in scope. This creates nice boundaries for the student, and it also makes teaching them easier (but not necessarily effective). The more tactical the course, the cheaper they are likely to run: finding people willing to teach a course on how to program or how to use social media in a campaign is probably easy and cost-effective. But even when the course is around a broader concept rather than a narrow tool, there are still drawbacks. There are so many important issues that are shared across technology, like issues of privacy or security, that students risk re-learning core concepts over and over again as they go from course to course about each new concept or technology.

This is not to say policy schools should teach no courses that meet the above criteria. It is just the wrong place to start. Why?

First, technologies evolve and change over time — sometimes quickly — so learning how to use a specific technology may simply set a student up to become rapidly deskilled. Second, learning how to use tools, while at a policy school, has a huge opportunity cost. Third, policy schools (and universities in general) are ill equipped to teach these skills cheaply and quickly. Here at the Harvard Kennedy School students have access to Lynda.com which teaches many of these technologies quickly and cheaply. But finally and most importantly, this work is generally tactical. For a policy school a set of technologies cannot make up an organizing principle around which a curriculum can be structured. This isn’t to say that a specific technology isn’t sometimes important, but it is not the point of departure. I’m not interested in teaching specific technologies. I’m interested in how all digital technologies may impact systems, organizations and the delivery of public goods. Insofar as is possible, I’m much more interested in policy schools providing students tools to assess all digital technologies than a specific one.

I mean, each of these are really interesting and you could (and maybe even should) legitimately do a course on each one.

Any serious policy school should focus on how these digital technologies are changing governance, the provision of public services, social norms and/or the economy. This requires that students have some shared sense of critical questions they should be asking about any digital technology and how it may or may not benefit government or society.

As for “tool learning” this should — where possible — be a byproduct of assignments, but it should not be the lesson in of itself. As a result I encourage my colleagues here at HKS to build assignments that involve tools: for example I make all students submit all assignments via blogs, so that they learn how blogging tools work, but learning how to blog is never the assignment in of itself.

Sidebar: The second point from above is why I advise students not to take the popular CS50 course. If students want to learn to code, they shouldn’t do it while at school of policy. It is possibly the singularly most expensive way I could imagine to learn to code. Encourage students to do it via Code Academy or some other resource the summer before students arrive. They’ll learn more than they would in CS50, it will cost a fraction of the amount, they’ll be able to apply what they learned in classes immediately and, it will free up time to take courses they they’ll never be able to take outside of the policy school environment.

Next up, let’s talk about what foundational knowledge students should learn at a policy school that will make it both easier to learn the tools and concepts outlined above as well as position students to be more critical and thoughtful while engaged in that learning.

This is the fourth 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:

Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: Part 3 – Our Users and What They Need

Focusing on the User: Who Policy Schools Teach

While students from Schools of Policy and Government go on to do a variety of work, whether in the private, nonprofit or for profit sector, most will take a role in one of three functional areas: Politics, Administration/Operations and Public Policy.

Like with much in life, there isn’t always a clear dividing line between types. In addition, over the course of their career many students will occupy jobs in all three and some roles will blend responsibilities. However, as a heuristic to help organize a policy school’s thinking around what it should teach, these are helpful definitions.

This felt further validated while reading Craig Lambert’s interesting case study on the founding of the Harvard Kennedy School (sent via co-conspirator Nicco Mele). In it, Edith Stokey, one of the school’s founding mothers, had a similar view when describing how the school’s curriculum emerged.

“Another new invention was the KSG curriculum which, from the start, emphasized policy analysis and systems analysis to improve decision-making. “That grows out of the [Robert] McNamara and the ‘whiz kids,’ ” says Edith Stokey, referring to the coterie the helped McNamara transform Ford Motor Company when he headed it in the 1950s. “But then came the discovery that good policy isn’t any use if it isn’t implemented at the street level, so we began to worry about implementation and management. Thirdly, with Neudstadt the moving force, there was growing emphasis on politics, including persuasion, legitimacy, and how get the power to get things done.”

Stokey’s three curriculum areas, roughly mapped to the roles I outlined.

A Framework for Organizing our Users

Having established these roles as the “product” that schools of policy and government produce, I’ve fleshed out personas for each. Below are illustrative examples of what a school of policy and government should focus on, from a digital perspective, to equip students with the judgment, knowledge and experience to be successful in each role:

First, I expect people may disagree as to what is most important for each role to learn. I’m okay with that. The point is that fleshing out the framework will prove useful to anyone seeking to engage in education in this space. The goal is to focus on user needs (the students) to help schools determine where to target resources and/or how to structure courses by type (and would love feedback). This is my best effort and is one way by which to structure courses (I have a second framework I do as well that I’ll be sharing in the next post or two).

In addition to understanding what type of product you are trying to create, my hope is that this chart will prevent people from creating courses that lump all the roles into a single course. There are ways that can work, but it is hard, and if you don’t structure it correctly there are real risks you’ll end up making everyone unhappy.

Second, this framework helps me because it identifies key common traits about the key roles students will have in a student body that is both:

a) insanely diverse: I mean this both in the students’ backgrounds (students range in age from 23–50+, come from over 80 countries and span the range of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and socio-economic class); and

b) in terms of career focus and interest: The types of jobs people had when they arrive and when they graduate is also exceedingly diverse.

You may not suffer from problem (a) or (b) which is lucky. But most governments’ educational programs and many policy schools do, so the framework provides some structure despite this heterogeneity.

Third, our students come to us with varying degrees of knowledge and skills when it comes to digital issues and technologies. Some are software engineers and data scientists, others have never had a gmail account. Maybe in 20 years’ time the baseline level of knowledge will normalize, but I doubt it, and well, that’s so deep into my career arc it isn’t worth thinking about. Yes, I want to prepare people for careers in public service who will go on to be CIOs… AND I need to prepare that overwhelming majority who won’t and for whom digital will be just a part of their job, not all of their job. This chart gives me some lane ways to organize them and a way to begin thinking about what knowledge, in which domains, I need them to know in order to feel like the school is preparing them appropriately for each of the roles outlined.

And of course even if you don’t suffer from the challenges above, I think it still serves as a useful starting point if your students are yelling “we want more technology courses” (which they were here). This may provide a little of a map to discern what kind of digital courses, the types of case studies and possible topics for events or guest speakers, that will be useful to them.

The Goal: Digital Leaders and Partners

I’m not going to go into details about what skills, knowledge and capabilities I think students need to have (yet). But I do have two other categories of students, those who will be technology leaders and those who need to be effective partners.

I don’t expect (nor do I have the skills) to have all 110 students in my main course on technology and government — DPI-662: Digital Government — to magically emerge as Todd Park clones (although that would be amazing).

Rather, I have two goals.

The first relates to those who come to me with a strong digital background. Here the goal is to equip them with language, frameworks and tools that set them on a path where, with hard work, experience and luck, some could emerge as Todd Parks one day in the future. I take great care to attract students with digital backgrounds. It isn’t easy. But it also isn’t impossible. Policy schools need to attract students with strong digital background. It is, to put it bluntly, much easier to turn a software engineer into a policy wonk than a policy wonk into an software engineer. As a result, any school interested in focusing on digital issues will need to actively pursue and accept students with technical backgrounds. Contrary to popular belief that software engineers are impossible to hire and recruit, USDS, 18F, Code for America and numerous other programs demonstrate that many software engineers, designers, product managers, and data scientists are deeply interested in foregoing salaries to serve the public good. Cultivating this small group into the next generation of IT leaders who can help support and ultimately lead the digital transformation of governments and other important institutions at the enterprise level is a major goal of mine, and Digital@HKS.

The second group is the larger group and those who come to the school without a strong digital background. The goal here is not to magically turn them into digital experts (although some can leave HKS as effective product managers and data scientists). Rather the goal is to enable them to:

a) at a minimum: equip them with sufficient knowledge to have solid BS detecting skills to ascertain when direct reports, vendors or even executives try to push initiatives that will fail or not work from a digital perspective. (This is akin to what we try to do in statistics with many students — some arrive skilled and leave as deep experts, but most arrive with less skills. We don’t turn them into statisticians, but we enable them to spot good from bad practices.)

b) ideally: have sufficient skills to help the departments in which they work or oversee be able to adapt its work to a digital world; and

c) preferably: know how to be effective partners to CIOs, vendors and digital types so they can help support digital transformation at the agency or enterprise level when appropriate and push back when ideas are poorly conceived or technology-centric with no clear purpose.

Having now worked with several hundred students here, what is nice is that I can clearly lump them in to both buckets. I have those with clearer digital skills looking for CIO or say product management jobs and I have those that are returning to a policy area (such as housing or eduction) as an analyst or manager who have a clearer idea of what questions they should be asking before anyone starts trying to engage in technology initiatives.

This is the second in a series of pieces about how I’m wrestling with how to teach about digital technologies at policy schools. If you’re interested follow me here on eaves.ca or at the Digital@HKS blog. You can also read part one here and part two here.

Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: Part 2 – Defining Digital

Why Digital?

For the purposes of our thinking we will use “digital” an umbrella term to describe the set of challenges, opportunities and issues that arise from a combination of information and telecommunications technologies.

Why digital? For one, “technology” is too broad a term. At HKS — and I suspect schools of policy and government in general — technology refers to not only information technology but all technologies and what I think many in the public would think of as areas of science like nuclear energy, biotech and climate change. This is clearly outside the purview of digital (and/or what I’m personally focused on). Words matter. If you run around using technology synonymously with information technology, some very smart and generally supportive people doing important and good work will rightfully be offended. Let’s not fight academic battles with allies — we have more important ones to engage in (privacy, user centric approaches, security, surveillance, regulation, etc..).

On the opposite end, “information technology” feels too narrow. Yes digital is about things like software, the internet, big data, and innovations like smartphones and artificial intelligence. But it must also be more than that. I’ve always loved how Clay Shirky wrestled with this in Here Comes Everybody:

“The tools that a society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life. Though the hive is not part of any individual bee, it is part of the colony, both shaped by and shaping the lives of its inhabitants.”

Here at Digital@HKS we are as much, if not more, interested in 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. Information technology risks focusing us on the technology. The intent of using “digital” (while admittedly imperfect) is to try to be broader, to allow us to acknowledge the foundational role information technology plays, but focus on how we as individuals and society think about digital, interact with, use and are shaped by it.

This is the second in a series of pieces about how I’m wrestling with how to teach about digital technologies at policy schools. If you’re interested follow me here on eaves.ca. You can also read part one.

Teaching Digital at the Kennedy School of Government: A Road Map (part 1)

Part 1: Why Digital Matters

Digital technologies matter because our society, our economy, and our organizations have — for better and worse — become digitized. If policy makers and public servants can’t understand what this means, how it alters the production of public goods, or its impact on management, regulation, the economy, and policy, we are in trouble.

  • The Indian government is tying biometrics of its 1.3 billion citizens to a (nominally voluntary) digital identification system that will be required to access key government services and bank accounts. What does this mean for privacy, security and how the state delivers services?
  • In France and America, foreign actors hack into the main political parties’ email systems and leak contents in an effort to sway elections — or at least, to destroy the information sphere and make coherent public discourse impossible. Can democracies survive persistent digital disinformation campaigns?
  • In America, the failure of the healthcare.gov launch almost cost a sitting president one of his signature policies. Do governments possess the capability to deliver digital services?
  • Simple artificial intelligence systems could displace call centers, threatening to remove one of the lower rungs of the economic development ladder for some of the world’s poorest countries. Will digital technologies impede economic development for the world’s poor?

Digital: it is just beginning

In August 2011, Marc Andreessen — inventor of the first widely-adopted web browser and founder of Andreessen Horowitz — wrote a Wall Street Journal piece, “Software is Eating the World.” For many, the piece smelled of hubris, as markets (and the public) could still remember the dot.com bubble of a decade earlier.

Andreessen’s assertion has proven prescient. Today, the five largest companies in the world (by market capitalization) are technology companies. And those that are not, like GE, are busy trying to redefine themselves as such.

But this ascension of digital in the world of business is only a part of the story. Andreessen’s confidence rested in part on the observation that across the business and public sector — and even one’s personal space — there existed millions, if not billions, of processes which today are either analog, undocumented, or automated but unconnected to the internet. He saw billions of tasks and activities — from the mundane (renewing your parking permit) to the critical (detecting tax fraud) — that software can or could do. And as more systems, more “things” and more services digitize, the possibilities and challenges will grow exponentially. This is why software still has much “eating” to do.

Andreessen’s piece has numerous implications. There are three I believe will matter above all others for schools of policy and government like the Harvard Kennedy School.

Digital — Why it Matters to Schools of Policy and Government

The first involves a fairly straight forward implication of Andreessen’s analysis. An alternative reading of Andreessen’s op-ed title is “How digital is eating the physical.” It is the digital sphere — and the rules, norms and structures that come to define it—that will, in many cases, control the physical sphere. This is why digital’s impact on the economy, democracy, and society should not be underestimated. It is also why understanding, shaping and engaging in those rules, norms and structures is essential to a policy school. Those interested in the public sphere will need frameworks and tools to address questions of ethics in digital technologies, to say nothing of its impact on equity, the public good, safety, privacy and innumerable other issues.

The second involves a renewal of institutions. Digital is transforming how we work and how institutions are structured and managed (imagine running a company in the present day without email — or for the hip among you, Slack). Government is no exception. What government can and should look like in a digital age is a real and pressing question. This is why digital transformation is such a buzz word. Organizations (governments, NGOs and companies) are all grappling with how to stay competitive or relevant, and it is forcing them to rethink how they are structured, how they process information and what skills their employees have. This is true in the private sector; again, GE serves as an example as it tries to shift from manufacturing to information services. The advantage of the private sector is that when organizations fail to make the transformation, they unwind, and their capital and assets are redeployed. The public sector has no such advantage. And you don’t want to live in a country where the government becomes obsolete or incapable. This makes digital transformation for schools of policy and government both urgent and critical.

Which brings me to the third way digital matters to schools of policy and government. People often talk about how technology — our digital world — accelerates the pace of change for both good and ill. There is indeed much that is speeding up. I believe the core opportunity and requirement of the digital age will be to accelerate how organizations learn. Digital provides the infrastructure — systems to measure, collect and analyze data, more easily than ever before. The question is how public institutions will adapt to and responsibly use these capabilities. Can governments become learning organizations that move at the speed of digital? And I mean this not just in the provision of services but in the development of public policy, regulatory regimes and innumerable other areas? At its heart, digital is unleashing a cultural and organizational change challenge. One that pits planners (bureaucratic systems comfortable with detailed but rigid plans and policies laid out in advance) and learners (agile oriented systems that seek to enable governments to learn and adapt), sometimes in real time. Balancing the world views of learners and planners, while continuing to constrain both with a strong system of values and ethics essential for public institutions, is a central challenge.

Digital matters in policy schools because unlike many of my technologist friends, I don’t think government is irrelevant. Nor do I believe it has permanently been left behind. Governments are slow moving, but immensely powerful beasts. They are also beasts that respond very aggressively to threats. I do not worry about governments failing to adapt to the digital age — they will eventually do that. I fear how governments will adapt. Will a world of agile, learning governments power democratic rights that enable us to create better societies? Or will they surveil us and eliminate dissent to create societies that serve their interest?

That future is up for grabs. It is why digital matters to schools of policy and government. It is why it matters to me. It is why I’m here at the Kennedy School.


This is the first in a series of pieces about how I’m wrestling with how to teach about digital technologies at policy schools. If you’re interested in part two, follow me here at eaves.ca or on the Digital@HKS blog on Medium.

Lawful, Neutral and Chaotic: mapping the drivers behind social media, companies and states in the public sphere

My own view of this space was initially shaped in 2004, after I first watched Laurence Lessig’s Free Culture OSCON talk. I became more conscious of the earlier debates (which continue today) around freedom and the online sphere.

Back then, I took comfort knowing we had a map of the terrain; we knew the players and their power. On the one side sat organizations like Mozilla and the leverage provided it by Firefox. On the other was Microsoft with its platform, marketing budget and customer base. As it turns out, a small, and effectively self-organized subset of the public (Mozilla & others) was able to tackle a de facto monopoly (Microsoft) and win.

Snowden (and Evgeny Morozov had much to say on this before Snowden) crystallized in the public’s mind that the real challenge to freedom on the internet is not companies, but states. China and Russia (and even the UK) offer a view into a dystopian world of persistent surveillance, while the NSA’s activities (and the US government’s response to his leaks) have destroyed people’s confidence in it as a model — particularly for non-Americans using US-based online services. In my mind, the biggest consequence of Snowden is that the United States functionally legitimized mass surveillance. While this prompted some governments to (publicly) recoil in horror, I suspect many more said “I’d like that too, thank you.” The post-Snowden era is defined by the state’s overt efforts to reassert control over the online space, particularly via company proxies. In the battle of the internet versus the state, today states want to win, and are comfortable saying as much publicly.

Probably not the right breakdown…

Given all this, for those of us who believe the internet should be a place where people can work, debate, shop and live without the threat of persistent surveillance, it is easy to assume certain actors are inherently good or evil. Governments must be evil — and the online public sphere, those organizing via social media must be good.

But nothing is ever that simple. And the good/neutral/evil moniker is almost never a fixed thing for a group of actors. So what is a more helpful frame?

No map is perfect, but as a simple tool to tease these differences out, I’ve enjoyed leveraging a current internet meme about good, neutral and evil. There are an endless number of these (the computer geek and The Office examples are particularly fun), but as I enjoy The Princess Bride, here’s an example:

Recreating a chart like this in the online space, I see countries as (generally) concerned with control, companies with money, and social media as chaotic. This description, albeit still imperfect, is at least accurate around what I believe to be the fixed variable:

Lawful Neutral and ChaoticThis in turn helps provide a frame for a conversation around how these actors behave. Take social media (a nebulous actor at best, I know). Several years back, Ethan Zuckerman, while talking about his then upcoming book, described the online social media environment as a giant unpredictable ball which people try to push or temporarily sway (at the time the Stop Kony movement was an example). I see him now as describing the public sphere, with its diverse interests, opinions, goals and ideas constantly clashing and in flux, as inherently chaotic. While this was true of an old bazaar, one element that make the online public sphere particularly chaotic is its ability to scale up in ways that were previously more difficult, and at a much faster pace.

However, there is nothing about the discussions in the public sphere — in person or online—that are inherently good. A public sphere conversation can be as much about promoting racism or doxxing activists as it can be about ending tyranny.

So here are some illustrative examples of where some actors are currently positioned in relation to some of the policy debates I think about.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 12.39.18 PMSome observations

First, I’m sure people will find reasons to disagree with the choices above — although the X axis is relatively fixed in my eyes, the Y axis is both more fluid and subjective. My goal is less about accuracy than to help provide a framework for thinking about this space and prompting conversation. If it causes you to debate where actors fall, or maybe where your own employer or country falls, great.

Second, it also outlines the challenge around some policy debates. In 2005 the focus of those who cared for freedom, privacy and self-expression on the internet focused (more) on companies. Post-Snowden, companies matter, but the real challenge is the state. There are legitimate reasons why a state would want to surveil a specific target: child pornography, terrorism, etc… what I think people fear about is the capacity for institutionalized mass-surveillance.

And by legitimizing such mass-surveillance, the US has prompted more actors in the “state/lawful” column to move downward towards (what I would define as) evil. More critically, these state actors are asserting significant pressure on the companies (the neutral column) to move downward to help them fulfill that objective.

The current strategy, as I see it, is to grow the “chaotic good” group as a way to try to first counterbalance the state and its efforts to coerce companies, but to ultimately shift the state upward to at least a neutral and ideally a “good” place. There is a world of lawful, limited surveillance. The question is how are we going to ensure it is created.

Third, your allies are probably not other actors in your column — so people who look, organize or act like you. Rather your allies are people in your row. So how do you connect, empower, leverage and enable them?

Fourth, one thing I like about the above is that social media and self-organization genuinely is chaotic. It is also often far better at protesting and “tearing something down” than it is at building something. Stopping a proposed law or seeking to destabilize a government is something social media has been effective at. Creating an alternative law, or forming a coherent government in waiting, much less so.

Finally, I am deeply conscious of several actors who aren’t listed and not sure where I would put them. EFF (lawful good?), Mozilla (Chaotic good?), W3C (true neutral — although the DRM stuff…?), so none of this is perfect.

Again, I’m playing around with this to try to build tools that simplify some complex thinking around players, organize the online sphere, and make it easier for people to access the conversation. Feedback, public or private, is always great.