interview  | 

GovTech as a force multiplier: Interview with Lisa Witter

"Right now we have 18th century politics with 19th century institutions/government with 20th century technology trying to solve 21st century problems."

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Lisa Witter is the Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of Apolitical: a network connecting impactful public servants around the world to inspiring ideas, solutions to shared challenges, and the best professional resources and opportunities. Apolitical’s media tells the stories and shares the learnings of heroic men and women in government, and highlights what’s working in the public service globally. Its mission is to make government great for citizens everywhere.

Firstly, what is Apolitical?

Apolitical is a global peer-to-peer learning platform working hand to hand with helping the government transform itself by really focusing on what makes up the government. We help them with the skills, knowledge, and the inspiration they need to really help our society. Right now we have 18th century politics with 19th century institutions/government with 20th century technology trying to solve 21st century problems.

What are your key goals and challenges?

My key goal right now is to be consistent. To wake up every day and be kind and work hard and have fun.

And we believe that by supporting the people in government, it can be a force multiplier for good.

Let me just give you one example. If apolitical can help move half of a percent of GDP more effectively, we can unlock $150 billion just that little bit and imagine what you could do to clean air or improve our schools.

Let’s talk about good governance. Governments are critical to solving global challenges, but are often criticized for being out of date. How can public institutions ensure they stay up to date with the skills, knowledge and expertise that are required today?

We’ve created institutions that by design don’t change quickly because a lot of what we need in society is stability. So when there are waves of change, there’s some anchor that can kind of hold with the wind of change. You can build new laws and structures, but if the people inside don’t understand why, when I say people, I mean civil servants themselves, and don’t cocreate and have the skills and mindset that it’s going to be very difficult for them to sway with that swaying system. So when we build Apolitical, and when we think about it, we co-create everything we do with people in government.

Government cannot regulate things it doesn’t know. So it has to really broaden its expertise.

Apolitical aims to connect public institutions and servants across the world too. Why is it so important that there is a global communication at work available and in what ways can it benefit governing bodies?

When we started Apolitical, we said: okay, the problem that they have is they don’t have the right access to knowledge. The number one way people in government get information is Google. You can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you don’t understand the skills, you don’t know how to run a good meeting, you don’t communicate clearly, you don’t understand how digital works… It’s a problem. You need to have skills. If they can share with one another how to do things better, the world would change a lot.

How does Apolitical help public bodies be more agile and effective?

Apolitical helps public bodies be more agile and effective by really focusing on skills. What I like to talk about is just a more flexible, anticipatory government. And I point this out because at Apolitical, we really think about behavioral science. We put the person in the center, not the shiny new object, that comes and goes, but if you put the people at the center, you have much better policies.

Why is it key to empower youth to see governance as a future change?

I find engaging youth in the political system, a vaccine to cynicism. Now that only works though if we listen and respond. And I think it’s a really critical time for young people. We’re at a precipice right now where we have this very powerful, inspiring young woman named Greta who’s inspiring people like my son Bruno to go out and if nothing changes because of it, that vaccine won’t work. And so we need to respond to them and get out of their way. Let their voices be heard.

You've mentioned inspiring women and actually gender equality is one of the flagship topics on your platform. Why is it important to try and tackle this issue?

I get asked a lot about why gender equality is important. We’re half the population. Imagine when you have a society where everyone gets to operate at their full potential. For a long time women haven’t been engaged in policy making as much because they haven’t had the power. Now we’re seeing governments change because women are using their political power to get into government and ask different questions. It’s as simple as that. It’s time for women to see themselves in leadership and to encourage other women to get involved in leadership and most importantly, support each other while we’re in it. I want to get to that point where we’re not even asking the question about why gender equality is important.

In fact, most part of your team in Apolitical are women.

You just hire the best people.

I believe in gender equality and I purposely believe in seeing gender as non-binary as well, which I think is going to be a huge challenge for governments of the future. Right now there’s something like 82 classifications of gender and something like 70% of people under 20 don’t see sexuality as a one one gender affair. And so, governments are going to need the flexibility to go way beyond gender/women’s empowerment to think about who we are as a gender.

We're facing a crisis in terms of diversity and gender, particularly in the fields associated with tech. How can the public sector encourage more diversity in computer science and engineering?

One of the things I love about government is that it has a lot of power, the largest workforce in the world. And if they decide that they want to change their workforce, someone would pass a law and they will have to do it. Government could say this is important to us and we’re going to make it happen. And they do make it happen. And I think activists miss the fact that the force multiplier for good is government.

Public innovation is mostly about citizen engagement and empowerment. That's what they've been talking about so far, rather than technology. In what ways can governments encourage a more vocal and active citizenship?

There’s a big move in government right now to think about digital and tech.

I am so positive and optimistic that citizen centric policy is here and it’s coming and that if we stay committed to it, it will stay.

Why? If done well, it will have better outcomes. If you have better outcomes, you have better satisfaction. And that’s that healthy cycle that happens over and over again.

Many public administrations are now using ADM (Automated Decision Making) systems to make decisions that directly impacts the lives of many people. What are the most significant opportunities and the biggest challenges when it comes to governance?

Technology allows for you to make faster, more accurate decisions if and only if the underlying assumptions built into the system are accurate or just or fair. I think there’s a drive right now because of technology, maybe driven by capitalism, that faster is always better. And you know, the tortoise and the hare, right? I think one mindset that we have to have when we’re making policies is that fast isn’t always better.

Are administrations sufficiently prepared to regulate technologies that come from the private sector?

Government is not sufficiently prepared to regulate new private sector things. Why? It’s new. I mean it’s not their fault. It’s us. We are the government, right? Citizens. It’s very hard. We think about it. We take medicine, law, automobiles. We would never let a new car out on the street without testing it. And without coming up with regulations before we put it on the road because it might kill people. With technology, we basically said it’s the wild west until you prove us otherwise. And then we try to reign it in.

What are the challenges and opportunities this time of building public-private technology partnerships?

The challenges for any partnership are the underlying assumptions and trust in one another.

And I think one of the challenges we have in societies now is what are our shared values and goals. One exciting thing I’m seeing in the private sector right now is this movement of B-Corps. With businesses that don’t just measure their value based on their profit, but they also measure it on social value. So having alignment of values is really important.

How can we make sure that we use technology to be a little more equitable?

I’m an athlete and I think about two modes. Offense or defense. The Chinese are playing offense right now. They know what they want. They know what sort of economy they want. They know what sort of society they want. They have a long term plan. They got an offensive strategy undergoing. The West and a lot of the rest of the world is playing defense. What have we been and how do we hold onto that? The world’s changing. We don’t have an offense. You cannot do effective policy making if you’re not clear about the values. I think it’s a big opportunity right now to say what we want to be and that’s something that for the government to decide, that’s the political process. That’s democracy. I’m optimistic if and only if we’re clear about what sort of future we’re going to make for ourselves and not just play defense.

Are we too late to create a more sustainable equitable framework?

Just look at history. We figured stuff out. We dropped bombs on Hiroshima, the American state, and we said: End of nukes, right? Dolly, the sheep was cloned and we said: we don’t want cloning anymore. Genetic engineered twins in China last year trying to make people HIV resistant. We don’t want that. We get to decide our future, you know, it’s not up to the government. That’s up to us.