May 7, 2018

Hacking the Bureaucracy Like a Pro — An Interview with Nick Sinai

Nick Sinai in front of white board with sticky notes

Graduation season is approaching, and many students will soon be back in the public sector where they’ll have the opportunity to make meaningful change. I sat down with Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Nick Sinai, former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer, for a conversation about what it takes to create real innovation in the public sector.

Nick Sinai is a venture capitalist and adjunct faculty at Harvard Kennedy School, where he teaches a field course on technology and innovation in government. Previously, he was US Deputy Chief Technology Officer at the White House where he led or helped found a number of signature innovations, including the Open Data Initiative, the Open Government Initiative, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.

Q: As someone who has worked at the heart of government innovation, what does ‘hacking the bureaucracy’ mean to you?

Essentially, ‘hacking the bureaucracy’ is about being a public-sector entrepreneur. It’s about having an outsized impact, at a scale beyond the resources under your control. Successful entrepreneurs in the private sector are able to attract co-founders, employees, capital, and customers with a vision. Similarly, public-sector entrepreneurs are able to excite others with their vision and use this excitement to generate impact.

In practice, this means recruiting allies and navigating organizational forces to accomplish your goals. To do this you need extreme empathy. If you have an appreciation and love for your organization’s mission, and respect for its culture, you will be better at understanding what changes are feasible. But you also need some healthy irreverence, as my friend Raj Shah [who most recently served as managing director of the DOD’s Defense Innovation Unit Experimental] calls it, to help you nudge it in new directions.

Q: Where have you seen this done well in government?

There are several examples. Government start-ups like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) started small but were able to scale up, in this case to go after predatory financial products. Their founding team did a great job of integrating design and technology into the core rulemaking process. For example, the CFPB was responsible for designing the mortgage disclosure notice that every American gets when buying a home. CFPB workshopped and tested the disclosure with thousands of Americans online and in-person during the rulemaking process, so they could be confident they were approving a disclosure that all Americans can understand.

Digital services start-ups like the Presidential Innovation Fellows program, US Digital Service and 18F have helped solve real problems and attract great talent from industry. They give top talent an opportunity to serve in government for shorter time periods. These organizations only succeed when they partner with existing innovators in government. The US Digital Service, for example, is making it easier for millions of Americans to get their own health records, and making it easier for veterans to get the services they need.

Q: Do you have any tips for those pitching innovative ideas to their bosses in government?

It is important to show public-sector leaders how your proposal relates to the organization’s mission and core function. Where possible, the idea should be practical and time-bound, and have a human element. You should try and show, rather than tell, them how it would work. If the idea is novel in your field, you might find analogues from other fields. Chances are someone has already tried what you’re proposing in another context.

Momentum is also important. Lots of small wins will give you political cover to advocate for something harder.

Leaders will want to know ‘Why now?’ Explain why conditions are right for your idea. Having a sense of what you want to prove and having data to support your case will also give you credibility.

Q: With privacy and cybersecurity increasingly in the news, are there risks to increasing digitization in government?

I don’t see an alternative. We would still have cyber and privacy risks in society if government were not digitizing. I think government is part of the solution. If we don’t try to address these risks, then who will?

Talented people can help us overcome such contemporary challenges. How do we skill-up and recruit the right people? Everyone should consider a tour of duty in public service, including people with expertise in cybersecurity, privacy, and product management.

Q: Any final thoughts you would like to share with us?

Always put the user first. Conversations in government often dive into laws, procedures, policies, and personalities. Large organizations tend to focus more on the executive and can lose sight of their core customers — citizens. The UK Digital Service had “what is the user need?” printed on their business cards to remind them to stay focused on the primary objectives. Current and future public servants should find ways to be relentlessly focused on the people and their needs.

The views expressed in the Government Innovators Network blog are those of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the John F. Kennedy School of Government, or of Harvard University.

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