The Digital Revolution is Here

The Governance Lab is home to innovative minds determined to change the way public policy is approached and applied

If you weren’t looking for it, you might walk past the new Governance Lab without even seeing it. GovLab headquarters moved into Two MetroTech at the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering in September, setting up in an open, concrete-floored space at the end of a narrow, unadorned hallway that is soon to be totally renovated (see “Transformative Process”); a handful of arrows printed on foamcore quietly announced its arrival. But what many people don’t notice might be one of the most exciting experiments in public policy today—an “action research” organization focused on facilitating innovations in governance at the intersection of law, policy, and technology that improves people’s lives.

“It’s like a secret, underground operation of brilliant thinkers and doers trying to imagine, test and deploy the bottom-up solutions that every government needs, even if they don’t realize it yet,” notes one online participant in “Solving Public Problems Through Technology,” the flagship course offering of the Academy, the part of GovLab devoted to educational and training offerings to both degree students and public officials.
Okay, so it’s not actually a secret, or underground. It’s on the ninth floor and looks more like a tech startup than a Bat Cave. But the people here are rethinking the biggest problems facing the world today, using emerging technologies, public data, and civic engagement. They’re partnering in innovative ways with students, as well as civic leaders and entrepreneurs, to build tools to improve healthcare, prisons, immigration, elder care, literacy, and more.

The common thread running through it all can be found in the name: governance. What does governance mean—more importantly, what can governance be—in a technologically advancing, information-oriented, and socially networked world? Quite simply, how can technology create a more open and representative government?

Moving Mountains

“Every survey will tell you that the rate of trust in government is declining,” says Beth Noveck, the GovLab’s Co-Founder and Director. “People are actively banding together to express these concerns—just think of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Climate March. But we don’t have a clear conception of what could replace the things that people are so dissatisfied with. We don’t have the models of how we might do things differently.”

It’s a late September afternoon, and Noveck has just finished meeting with a half-dozen students, discussing open government, online resources, and crowdsourcing. Toward the end of the conversation, she is heard to say, “We’re not sitting on a mountaintop, here.” The students lean forward in their chairs when she speaks.
Just three years ago, Noveck was in the Obama White House as Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the Open Government Initiative. She is also the founder of the New York Law School “Do Tank,” the State of Play conferences, and co-founder of a software company launched to encourage democratic deliberation in the early days of the commercial web.

“People are actively banding together to express these concerns—just think of Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Climate March. But we don’t have a clear conception of what could replace the things that people are so dissatisfied with. We don’t have the models of how we might do things differently.”

The American critic Alexander Woollcott once wrote, “I'm tired of hearing it said that democracy doesn't work. Of course it doesn't work. We are supposed to work it.” From her early days as a student of fragile democracies in 20th-century Europe, Noveck has been devoted to working democracy. So has the GovLab’s other Co-Founder and its Chief of Research and Development, Stefaan Verhulst. Verhulst spent 13 years heading up the research activities of a private foundation, looking at solving public problems through information technology.
“I became frustrated that most of the problems we know can somehow be solved, but are mostly not solved because we don’t manage to actually engage the public or because the government’s mechanisms are flawed,” says Verhulst. “There is a lot of experimentation regarding governance and solving public problems.

Unfortunately, there’s little evidence as to what works when or for whom or in which context. I thought our biggest contribution would be finding out what works and what doesn’t work through action research.”
Action research means implementing changes or processes while simultaneously reflecting on and evaluating their effectiveness. In a fast-moving world, action research means solving problems in real time and tailoring the solutions as you go. 

So when Noveck says “We’re not sitting on a mountaintop, here,” it’s because she and Verhulst agree that if you’re going to move a mountain, you can’t be sitting on it.

Working Democracy

Verhulst and Noveck met years ago at a conference in the United Kingdom. They shared an interest in creating an information culture that would serve the goals of democracy, so when they co-founded the GovLab in late 2012, says Noveck, “We start[ed] from the core hypothesis that more open and collaborative ways of working, enabled by technology, [would] lead to decisions and solutions that are more effective and more legitimate.” 

The GovLab’s approach to proving this hypothesis is three-pronged. First, it runs education and training programs through the GovLab Academy. Its primary offering is “Solving Public Problems with Technology,” a masters-level course delivered both in person (alternating between the NYU and MIT campuses), and online to students across the world. (Plans are underway to launch shorter, intensive workshop versions of the course, too.) Whether for credit or not, students apply to the course by proposing specific social problems they’d like to address. Student projects this fall include tools to monitor and report neighborhood noise pollution; encourage cardiovascular health; track library usage among educationally at-risk minority boys; and improve the living conditions of women immigrants in the Bronx.

“We’re focused on opening up data, then using it for a variety of public interest projects [and] on how [to] tap into the collective intelligence to solve problems differently.”

“The course is offered as a series of supports, interventions, and exercises to help people get real projects done—it’s all about how to create and implement governance innovation in the real world,” says Alan Kantrow, the Gov- Lab’s Chief Learning and Communications Officer. ““The research reflex runs through it all.”
Secondly, the GovLab undertakes research projects with partners in civic leadership. Like the Academy students, these organizations come with problems to solve. One recent project, with United Kingdom health officials, explored the delivery of open data to citizens to make informed healthcare decisions. Another reimagined Internet governance with ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). A number of upcoming partnerships are with governments of American cities. “None of the content [of this work] is proprietary,” Kantrow points out. “It’s all available for use and dissemination.”

This is key to the GovLab’s efforts because, according to Verhulst, the two biggest assets in society today are the amount and availability of data and the level of connectivity between people. “We’re focused on opening up data, then using it for a variety of public interest projects [and] on how [to] tap into the collective intelligence to solve problems differently,” he says.

The GovLab’s third endeavor is to attract and cultivate the in-house technical talent to build tools that enable organizations and citizens to solve problems and participate in their communities and government. To work democracy, as Woollcott put it.

Arnaud Sahuguet, the GovLab’s Chief Technology Officer, came to this position from Google, where for years he pushed for projects around open data and access to civic information. “I’m not yet convinced that we can actually solve all these problems,” he admits, “But at GovLab I can give them my full attention and see what we can do.”

Sahuguet is building software tools while also building a technology team. He’s recruiting product designers and engineers passionate about governance. He says Brooklyn, infused with the spirit of collaboration and invention, is the perfect place for this. “At [the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering], there is a reservoir of talent [and] a rich engineering environment. We’re creating an infrastructure where we can welcome contributions.”

“If you look around, turn on the TV, governance is the number one issue everywhere,” Sahuguet says. “Selling you on the mission is a complete no-brainer. The challenge is to convince people to join a risky adventure.”

In other words, never mind climbing Everest—who wants to help move it?