From the White House to the d.school: Seeds of the Governance Collaboratory

About a year ago, I came back to California to resume teaching political science at Stanford after two years on President Obama’s foreign policy team at the White House. I returned a different person than when I left – more grey hair, permanent bags under my eyes, and lots of scars from policy battles won and lost. I was changed by the experience in other ways as well.

Before going into government, I had followed a pretty typical academic path – a Ph.D. in political economy, a post-doctoral fellowship, a position as an assistant, and then associate professor. And while I focused my research on questions that were relevant to current policy debates, my primary role was as a social scientist, contributing to a deeper understanding of the causes of conflict, poverty, and democratization, with the goal of drawing lessons that might shape policy.  Then I went to Washington to make policy. It was often hard and at times the obstacles to change seemed enormous. But I left government inspired by the possibility that new ideas actually can take root and substantially reshape the way that we do things, with potentially huge impacts on the well-being of real people.

When I returned to Stanford, I was itchy to keep “doing.” I wanted to find ways to complement my research and teaching with opportunities to have a direct impact on the pressing challenges that affect developing countries, especially in Africa. I roamed campus looking for interesting conversations and new partners and stumbled on a building full of people who exuded passion, creativity, and the ambition to tackle some of the world’s toughest problems in innovative ways. The building housed the d.school.

I was struck immediately by the posture of the d.school faculty. Subject matter expertise was valued, but it wasn’t prized above all else, as it is in the rest of academia. Instead, there was a starting recognition that radical collaboration – bringing in all kinds of expertise, from lots of different sources – is a valuable tool for problem-solving. And that to tackle complex problems, one has to unpack them, finding your way to the basic human needs and motivations that drive people’s behavior. It is a simple insight, but one that is too often forgotten as experts map out grand plans to address long-standing challenges. Also, there was a bias is towards action – a priority is put on prototyping new solutions, trying them out, and learning from them. I was energized.

One of the goals of the design process is to generate radical and unexpected solutions – innovations with the potential for disruption. I was attracted to this notion, in part, because I spend a lot of time thinking about a problem which seems intractable, and is desperately in need of models of disruptive change: the poor quality of governance in many developing countries.  As scholars, we have good ideas about what well-functioning governments look like, what they do, and how citizens and groups keep them honest and hold them accountable. But we have much less clarity about how to help poor quality governments become good ones, how to overcome high levels of corruption, how to break down political practices that rely on patronage, or how to create a system in which citizens are truly empowered. The sad reality is that people, typically elites, benefit from corrupt, incompetent, and inefficient governments, and it is hard to imagine incentives that will provide these folks with the motivation to change the system.

I had an idea about a new way to approach to this issue, though I wasn’t sure it was a good one. Perhaps design thinking – this powerful tool for innovation – could be harnessed to support civil society activists and government reformers in developing countries who are battling entrenched interests, and trying to figure out how to reform broken systems and deliver the things that citizens really want and need. And that Stanford, with its roots in Silicon Valley and its unique access to the frontiers of new technologies, could provide an environment in which activists and reformers could come together with technologists to develop disruptive innovations that might improve the quality of governance in developing countries.

But it wasn’t clear to me how to structure this new effort, and I knew that I needed a partner with technology acumen to complement my expertise in governance. The good news was that, if I could find the right person, the d.school would bring on my new partner as a d.school fellow in 2012-13, giving our team the background in design thinking we would need to make this a success.  I wanted someone with a profile that often seemed unattainable: expertise in development economics and politics, on-the-ground experience in developing countries, a background in technology and product development, and the creativity, ambition, and inspiration to try out something totally new. After searching far and wide I found the right fit in former Googler and Kennedy School alum Jenny Stefanotti.

The fellowship program has launched, and Jenny is now on board. On this blog over the next year, Jenny and I will share insights into our process of thinking through how best to leverage design thinking to foster innovation in governance in developing countries. We have a lot of questions to ask and answer, and in true d.school spirit, we look forward to your reactions, your feedback, and your input.