Enabling an Ecosystem of Civil Servants in the Age of Platforms — with Robyn Scott



Enabling an Ecosystem of Civil Servants in the Age of Platforms — with Robyn Scott

Robyn Scott talks about Apolitical’s work to unlock colossal public value by enabling peer-to-peer learning among civil servants around the world. By providing a space for exchanging success stories and challenges, the platform helps to speed up innovation in the public sector while making the world’s largest workforce proud in their profession.


Podcast Notes

In this episode, we’re talking to Robyn Scott, co-founder and CEO of Apolitical, a global learning network for public servants. The Apolitical Academy, Apolitical’s non-profit arm, helps young and traditionally excluded people run for political office.

Previously, Robyn co-founded OneLeap, an executive education company, and two southern African non-profits teaching coding and entrepreneurial skills to vulnerable youth, women, and prisoners. She has written a critically acclaimed memoir about growing up in Botswana. She has also worked for the Financial Times.

The team at Apolitical works passionately towards “fixing” the Democracy Flywheel on three levels: making politics a credible and trustworthy path, making the narrative around governments and civil servants one of talent and pride rather than “necessary evil”, and reviving interest among citizens in a democracy based on free-flowing and accurate information, where democracy is not “traded in” in return of quick fixes.

In our conversation, we talk about how Apolitical is working to facilitate peer learning among civil servants, creating a go-to marketplace for new ideas and innovations. Beyond that, we also explore emerging aggregation possibilities in the space of government platforms such as the potential to aggregate private sector suppliers to let the best emerge across the space.

We also talk about current tensions between the imagined “global village”, a trend of fragmentation and localism, and the fact that we won’t find all solutions in any of these extremes.

A very thought-worthy conversation about a sector that arguably has to yet reap all the benefits in a platforms and ecosystems world.

To find out more about Robyn’s work:

Other references and mentions:

Find out more about the show and the research at Boundaryless at https://boundaryless.io/resources/podcast/

Thanks for the ad-hoc music to Liosound / Walter Mobilio. Find his portfolio here: www.platformdesigntoolkit.com/music

Recorded on 15 December 2020.

Key Insights

1. One of the key motivations for Apolitical is to unlock the colossal amount of value “locked up” in governments, partly due to the insufficient sharing of lessons learned between them. By enabling peer-to-peer learning, civil servants can go beyond word of mouth and start adopting solutions that have worked elsewhere. More than providing great opportunities for saving public resources, being part of a platform like Apolitical also helps increase motivation and a sense of pride among often (portrayed as) “faceless” civil servants locked up in a bureaucratic machine.

  •  Listen to an excerpt by Robyn on how they unlock value through peer learning at min 6:26.

2. Governments are facing “existential competition”, with the last few years showing us that liberal democracy is more vulnerable than we might have thought. Therefore, they need to invent ways to regain the trust of citizens, not the least by involving them more directly in policy-making processes. Apolitical is working to make the relationship between governments and citizen-med innovations more porous, leveraging on new technologies and creating new supply aggregation possibilities in areas like public procurement. Robyn also urges us to think of governments as systems part of the Democracy Flywheel, where it’s enough for one part to be broken, for the network effects to slow down and erode over time. That’s why they have developed the non-profit arm — Apolitical Academy — to forge a new path for politicians across the political spectrum.

  •  Listen to Robyn on the “existential competition” governments face at min 25:40.
  •  Listen to an excerpt explaining the Democracy Flywheel at min 36:36

3. The counterforces between globalization — the dream of a “global village” — and regional fragmentation are difficult to balance. While we’re seeing a correction to an idea of globalization that was probably too generic, Robyn believes that we might need a correction in the other direction, not to fall entirely on the localism side of the spectrum, since some issues really require more united responses.

  •  Listen to Robyn’s thoughts on the Global Village and fragmentation at min 45:11.

Boundaryless Conversations Podcast is about exploring the future of large scale organizing by leveraging on technology, network effects, and shaping narratives. We explore how platforms can help us play with a world in turmoil, change, and transformation: a world that is at the same time more interconnected and interdependent than ever but also more conflictual and rivalrous.

This podcast is also available on Apple PodcastsSpotifyGoogle PodcastsSoundcloudStitcherCastBoxRadioPublic, and other major podcasting platforms.


This episode is hosted by Boundaryless Conversation Podcast host Simone Cicero with co-host Stina Heikkila.

The following is a semi-automatically generated transcript that has not been thoroughly revised by the podcast host or by the guest. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Simone Cicero:
Hello, everyone. I’m Simone Cicero, your usual host of the Boundaryless Conversations Podcast. Today, as often with my usual co-host, Stina Heikkila.

Stina Heikkila:
Hello, everyone.

Simone Cicero:
And today with us, we have Robyn Scott, founder of Apolitical and we are very glad to have you, Robin.

Robyn Scott:
It’s great to be here.

Simone Cicero:
And thanks for your time. I’m really looking forward to this amazing conversation, I’m sure. Stina, I will lend the floor to you and let you start this conversation today.

Stina Heikkila:
Thank you. Yes, like Simone said, we’re really excited to have you and I think our listeners as well. We have a lot of interest — as we’ve mentioned to you — in the public sector and how they are adopting and adapting to the platform revolution. So, we hope to get some great insights from your experience. And we’re happy that Lisa Gansky actually, our co-founder and advisor, pointed us to your important work. So, I wanted to just start by asking you to tell our listeners in the sort of high-level view about Apolitical, what it is, and what is the ecosystem that you are trying to mobilize around your platform.

Robyn Scott:
So, Apolitical is a learning network for government. One way of thinking about it by analogy is it’s a little bit like Wikipedia, in the sense of crowdsource knowledge meets LinkedIn, in the sense of a network and profiles for government. So, we make it really easy for public servants anywhere in the world at any level of government to find and share what’s working on common and similar problems and challenges, and to develop their skills on frontier issues and areas by taking short courses on the platform. So, we are now used by more than 100,000 verified public servants and policymakers in 170 different countries. So, essentially, the ecosystem in which we work is the public sector. The people who work for public institutions of all sorts that can span multilateral organizations right down to local governments, cities, towns. We take a very broad interpretation of government. And indeed, we think one of the most important roles we can play is actually connecting, we sometimes refer to as the Gov stack, borrowed from the idea of a tech stack, but connecting people in government at the different levels. Because often policies are made in a national level, but implemented at a local level. And there’s not very good communications between those levels.

Simone Cicero:
From my point of view, I would like to ask you a quick follow-up question to this, mostly focusing on understanding how much you see these ecosystems really interacting in peer-to-peer fashion, versus just there to learn, to learn from someone that can tell them what to do, or what new skills they need to develop. So, how much do you see this ecosystem, really, I would say exchanging value between them, the players in this ecosystem? And to some extent, my question is essentially, how much are you when founding and creating this platform have chosen to resonate with what was already happening in the ecosystem in terms of exchanges?

Robyn Scott:
Just before getting into what we see people actually doing, I want to contextualize this question with a quite astonishing piece of data, which is a calculation that McKinsey ran, figuring out how much value would be unlocked, all money would be saved, if governments just did what was already working elsewhere, in other cities or other countries. So, this is assuming no further innovation, it’s taking what exists. And obviously, that should be done through a peer-to-peer modality. If governments just implemented what exists elsewhere best practice, it would save up to $3.5 trillion a year. So, a colossal amount of potential savings is locked up in the silos of government, which are quite considerable. And that’s what we are excited about unlocking. And there’s an interesting dynamic in government compared to the private sector is that there are no competitive barriers to sharing. Maybe on certain things like sensitive military areas.

But for the most part, a government probably only gains if another country adopts something that’s working. So, you’ve got this really interesting dynamic where you’ve got the people in government, the people we serve, who’ve mostly come into the public sector, wanting to make their society better. That is the primary motivation for most of the public servants we meet. You’ve got the fact that there are no legal barriers to sharing what’s working. There are lots of bright spots, lots of amazing things going on. And yet, historically, sharing between governments or between cities in the same country has been very poor. And I think some of that has to do with technical barriers. For example, there haven’t been platforms that have made it easy. Sharing is often relied on word of mouth and taking trips to other countries to see on the ground what’s working, which isn’t particularly scalable, or comprehensive. That’s one part in readdressing that.

There’s also sort of a cultural part, which is that there’s been a perception that you don’t necessarily need to look outside of your immediate sphere of work or responsibility because the problems you’re facing are so local, have so much local context, and there’s a limit to what you can learn. And whilst it’s certainly true that there are always particular circumstances that require the consideration of local factors in context, increasingly, the challenges that government — the biggest, hardest challenges that government faces are shared globally. And increasingly, that solutions are underpinned by new sorts of business models or approaches, new technology solutions, which are inherently more transferable about across borders. So, we came to Apolitical space that Apolitical is in, excited by the amount of value you can unlock if you enable and speed up peer to peer sharing. And sort of bewildered by the unnecessary barriers that seem to exist in government and excited by the challenge of unlocking those.

So, what we’ve found in terms of dynamics of how it works, public servants generally are very, very willing to share and to go out of their way to invest time and sharing with others and other countries, even though there’s not necessarily any gain for them. And I think that partly comes out of the culture of service. I think it also comes out of the fact that, in government, people aren’t typically getting high salaries. And one of the greatest rewards you can get is seeing your good work, not only implemented in the government in which you work, but respected to the degree that it gets implemented elsewhere. So, that’s a reward, the place to value our community holds that we’ve tried to tap. So, we make it easy for public servants to tell the stories of what they’ve worked on, what they’ve learned, and celebrate them for doing so. And interestingly, there haven’t been that many platforms for government to do that. There are lots of platforms for entrepreneurs to share their work, for civic activists to share their work, for social innovators to share their work. But the people in government haven’t had a platform.

I’ll just speak to, there’s obviously so much to say on this, but I’ll just speak to one other interesting dynamic in government. And I’m particularly talking about the civil service part of government. So, these are, they’re not the politicians, they’re the non-elected officials who make and implement policy based on high-level policy directives, and advise political leaders. And traditionally, that part of government has been faceless. And the people in government have always sort of been perceived by the outside as part of a machine. And we believe it’s really important in a world where government has been so often unnecessarily criticized, and treated as this monolith that is not fit for purpose anymore. To show that the government just is made up of lots and lots of people like you and me, the world’s largest workforce, people who’s also worried about their kid’s education and paying their taxes and are trying really hard to make their countries and their cities better. So, humanizing the government and the people who work in it is one of our great areas of focus.

Stina Heikkila:
Thank you. And I would like to ask more about this specifically. So, now we’ve covered a bit about the ecosystem, and you’ve sort of zoomed in on your main target audience or users, that is civil servants. How do you control who is on your platform? I would love it if you could talk more about the onboarding and the kind of vetting that you have in place to make sure that it stays relevant without sort of being too controlling.

Robyn Scott:
Sure. And this is an area that we have a lot of sort of internal conflict about and debate about, and it’s a constant conversation within Apolitical. We know that to deliver on our mission, which is to make government work better for people and the planet, and to revitalize democracy, and I can talk a little bit about what we do on the latter through our foundation. That can’t just be government alone. You know, government is deeply interwoven into all aspects of our society and economy, and touches everyone, and can’t be successful if it acts in isolation. So, with that sort of big overarching mission in mind, we know that we have to reach outside of government at some point. That said, we feel that government has been historically really neglected and left behind, particularly by innovation and tech. And it’s also often poorly understood by the outside. Many people who haven’t worked in government, or worked closely with government have no idea how difficult it actually is given laws and constraints to make a new policy happen.

And I so often meet people who’ve joined government from the private sector then like leave a few years later, so humbled and shocked with how difficult it really is. So, we wanted to create a space initially as a starting point, the core of our community, where it was the people in government, who understood each other, and felt that it was a protected, safe space where they could candidly share. That’s said, we have, from the beginning, allowed some other groups into the initial community. Those are people working with government, in nonprofits, in philanthropy, and in academia. So, they’re sitting very closely with government. We’ve deliberately not allowed people from the private sector in initially. Mainly, that’s because while we think the private sector interface with government is really critical, and it’s ripe for innovation, and democratization of access to things like procurement, but it can be so loaded and delicate with things like lobbying that we just didn’t want to go there initially. So, that’s sort of some design principles for the community, at least in this stage of our evolution.

Then if we look at particular innovating processes, we have a database of government email addresses. They’re from all sorts of government institutions all over the world that we’ve built up. If you sign up using one of those government email addresses, you will be automatically approved and on the platform. If you can’t provide a government email address or choose not to, you have to submit your bio, your LinkedIn profile, and then there’s a human in the loop doing the vetting.

Stina Heikkila:
Great. Interesting. So, when you are on the platform, what are the opportunities to sort of emerge from the crowd of civil servants? You know, I’m imagining something like a “superstar civil servant” that grow on the platform. Do you see this happening? Or how is it working internally?

Robyn Scott:
Yeah, they’re definitely influencers in the civil service, the wider public service. So, the primary modality on our platform is sharing ideas through written content. So, we give guidelines to our members about how to communicate policy or organizational ideas in a way that is digestible, succinct, relevant to other public servants. So, we sort of provide design support around the content creation process. And then we provide a light editorial layer. We’re actually looking right now at ways to enable scale that allow us to delegate that editorial amongst members, trusted members of the community, who’ve shown that they can edit so we can dramatically increase the volume of content on the platform while still keeping the quality high. So, sharing content is a big part of it. And that’s the majority of engagement, day to day engagement on the platform. And some of these pieces of content go very viral.

I mean, there was an amazing piece coming out of New Zealand on how New Zealand is piloting, making all its laws machine compatible, so that it’s much easier for — One of the consequences, for example is a small company without legal intermediaries can read how laws are changing and understand the implications. Another one is, if all your laws are machine-readable, it’s much easier to forecast the impacts of policy because you know how a complex network of laws might interact and the consequences of a proposed policy. So, that could potentially avoid a lot, either bad policy mistakes or unnecessary spend. So, really exciting pioneering idea in government. And that was read by thousands and thousands of people all over the world. And the person who was featured in it, I believe, spoke to a number of people who had read about it. So, you get stuff that gets real traction. And then we also have members on the platform who’ve contributed multiple pieces.

You know, obviously, that depends on your role. Some people are in a role that makes it easier for them to contribute fresh ideas. But we encourage that as much as possible. And we share and promote stuff that we know is going to be especially useful for our community. We also have a lot of live conversations on Zoom, or Microsoft Teams. And particularly in 2020, with the demand or people at home still wanting more connection, working from home and wanting connection, and the rapidity at which changes were happening and problems were surfacing. And solutions were bubbling up in response to those problems, live conversations became especially valuable. And I think we had something like it was 67 or 69 webinars in 2020 to which more than 60,000 people signed up, 60,000 public servants. So, there’s also a huge appetite for those conversations.

And often, there’s a particular dynamic on webinars where I think because stuff is not written down, and whether we record them, because it’s not like, it doesn’t have the gravity of writing a whole article insight. There’s just a lot of free-flowing sharing, which is often very valuable. We also see a dynamic in webinars which is particularly moving and makes us very proud where you see how lonely people feel, and how gratified they are to be connected to others working on similar challenges and to be heard. One of the features of being a public servant is you, perhaps more than many sectors, you spend a lot of time because it’s so complex to make things happen. A lot of time working on these big projects that can matter so much, and sometimes they don’t work out. Sometimes you invest half a decade, a decade of your life. And for public servants to be heard by others who are facing those similar constraints is very powerful.

Simone Cicero:
So, my question — as kind of a turn a bit from the conversation we’re having now, which is more into how you facilitate this community of and how these communities interacting with each other around new possibilities, new narratives, new content — my question is a bit more into something that you shared in the first question, when you said that the public sector is a particular sector where basically, you don’t have this competition. So, it’s strange to see that, for example, there is not so much sharing. But I want to piggyback on this idea of the government sector, having no competition to nudge our reflection and sharing maybe some cases that maybe you have been encountering during the years. So, my point is, we are seeing, to some extent, a moment where it looks much more clear now that the government sector needs to as well change model. Also, we have been used to see this happening in corporates, companies have been pushed to change their business models, for example, into more network ones, I would say departing from the industrial idea of a corporation.

And so my question is, how do we depart from the industrial idea — or from the institutional idea — of the government into the age of platforms? And to make it more practical, now for example, in Italy, if I refer to something that I’m witnessing firsthand, I would say. We have seen the debate around the next generation funds in the EU, which is a massive amount of money dedicated to essentially investing into sustainability or care economies and much, much more infrastructure. So, we have a debate in these very days, between certain political forces that are, I would say reinforcing the idea that the parliaments and the government bureaucracy needs to be driving the implementation of these funds, or they did the deployment of these funds. And on the other hand, we have the PM that is pushing towards a more like a management structure. So, he’s talking about essentially three layers and you have the three layers of management that should be, supposed to be the ones that oversee the deployment of these funds.

And what I want to say with this, essentially, and I’m pushing towards a reflection from your side, in what do you see in this transition between the institutional-age government into these kinds of technocracy industrial version that our PM in Italy is pushing now these management structures that are more inspired from the corporate sector, for example, that I think is a shared path, and also outside of Italy, of course. And what I believe is actually the future where we should go, which is a more complexity friendly way to play the government role. And essentially, I’m referring to more overlaps between private, public, citizen-led. So, often I use this sentence, and I used to call it “the age of overlaps”, the age that we live because technology has been breaking so many barriers. And so my question for you will be, do you see this process happening? So, this transition from maybe the 18th-century version of the government into the 20th-century version, which is industrial government now into the 21st-century version that seems to be much more, requiring much more complexity-friendliness? And do you see these social movements, these social innovations in your ecosystem coming up more from the citizen-led perspective than the traditional government’s top-down strategies?

Robyn Scott:
Wow. There’s a lot in this question, and I’m going to come at it in a few ways. So, I think the first thing to say is to pick up on where you started off with the point about government having no competition. Governments don’t have competition between one another. But they do have a kind of internal competition, which is that the alternative to government is government not being valued and being trashed. And we are seeing that in many liberal democracies, where there is diminishing faith in government and an arising in its place of populist leaders who don’t respect the institution. So, government does have a sort of existential competition, which is that if it’s not delivering for citizens, if it’s not meriting trust, and growing trust, there is nothing to guarantee. It’s going to stay as we assume it will. And I think the last few years have taught us that in many of the biggest democracies that it’s much more vulnerable than we think and we’ve assumed.

And I think where there is the kind of innovation that you’re speaking to, which is hard innovation, because it’s a really quite fundamental change, very citizen-led government. Where we’re seeing more of that, and we need to see even more than we are, a lot of it is going to come from governments realizing they are in existential Jeopardy if they don’t do things differently, if they don’t rebuild trust with societies that increasingly aren’t valuing democracy as much. I mean, you’ve probably seen the horrifying figures of the diminishing faith that young people have in the necessity of democratic leaders and the increasing belief that maybe it’s just easier if you have an autocratic leader that can get things done. So, because people are so frustrated at things not being done, that they would trade in democracy, to make things happen quickly. That’s sort of one simple interpretation of one layer of that sentiment. But I do think this is existential pressure is going to accelerate openness to innovation, that’s quite hard.

I would just say one… Now taking a step back, and I’ll come back to that citizen-led innovation. But I think it’s really important not to draw too many parallels between the trajectory of corporations and the trajectory of government. First of all, I think government historically, if we look back to the 1950s, 60, 70s, before the corporation and capitalism became such a powerful narrative and magnet for talent, government was understood in a way and did some stuff that is useful to preserve and not throw out. So, for example, it attracted — it was seen as prestigious. It attracted some of the smartest people from top universities. It was seen as a place that you could make a real difference. It was the fact that government invested in early-stage research and science and put lots of money behind infrastructure that wouldn’t necessarily be needed immediately, but might be needed in certain circumstances, things like health care.

Government had a lot more license to do that, a lot more license from society to do that, prior to the 1970s onwards, where there was this shift to believing that the corporation could basically deliver better on almost everything, and government was at best a necessary evil and worst, undermining our society’s ability for innovation and progress. So, I don’t want to couple the institution of corporations with the institution of government too closely, although there are parallels, And I do think the move to more open systems and platforms is a relevant one for both.

Back to the question around what’s happening now. I mean, technology’s a huge accelerant for some of the best and worst things that are happening, right. We don’t need to spend much time on the worst things. But you know, think misleading information, distorted views of truth, and undermining necessarily good things for society, all of those are obviously, accelerated by technology, and often at huge cost. But what we’re seeing around citizens having voices that are heard more widely, can be heard faster, can be acted on more rapidly, that is very, very powerful. And in some places, it’s very unevenly distributed. But when seeing the power of the voices of citizens, in cleverly designed systems. So, in Reykjavik, I think something like 50% of people have participated in making policy, which is incredibly empowering and as it should be for government

When seeing an extraordinary explosion of participatory budgeting, which was first pioneered in Brazil, it’s now in more than 2,000 locations around the world. Paris allocates a bunch of its budget according to how citizens want to spend. It’s been used to great success in a number of places. So, there’s a lot of innovation around communities that’s been enabled by technology, which is very positive, and I think just needs more visibility. Because it’s lack of why the adoption is not really anything to do with a fault of it. It’s just habit change and culture change.

Simone Cicero:
Right. And it looks like there are two directions where I would like to ask you to explore. Because you also wrote these amazing posts recently where you shared what our governments can learn from Amazon in terms of, for example, being able to think about flywheels, and technologies, and so on. So, it looks like there is a layer of this conversation, which sees governments embracing grow, data, and technologies to maybe as you just said, right to better policies, maybe by leveraging on data. That’s another very important point I know that we have been discussing in the past.

For example, now also to regulate, policymakers really need to look into the data because it doesn’t — I think Benedict Evans a few days ago, released this podcast when he said, basically now the metrics of saying something is a monopoly doesn’t really help anymore to regulate it. And also, because you really need to look into the impacts that these monopolies are having on people’s life. So, I think there is a layer of this conversation, which relates to how do you build a digital native government, I would say, a digital-first government that can use data and technology to regulate, to leverage on the citizens’ voices. For example, in participatory budgeting, or policies that can leverage on the wisdom of these crowds. Or in our paper, we also spoke about Salus Coop, this Spanish experiment collecting health-related data, and putting them in the hands of citizens to generate more collective policies around these very sensitive data. So, that’s one point.

But then there is another layer that I’m talking about, which is essentially the entrepreneurial layer. So, you’re right, that we don’t need to draw too many parallels between the corporation and the government. But the question is, how do you transition towards government process or governing process that is much more — where there is much more skin in the game? Because essentially, this is, I think, what these new disruptive technologies. So, for example, the blockchain technology, or you know, all the technologies that allow collective decision making, for example. Or designing financial instruments for citizens to co-invest in something new, in terms of micro infrastructure, for example. I’m thinking about energy or even food production or environmental regeneration. All these things that entail radical intrapreneurial spirit and a lot of skin in the game, possibly investments that require the citizen to really become participants in the management of the public property, or in general, their future. So, these are the two directions.

So, my question for you, just as a recap is, do you see Apolitical’s mission, also getting into that? So, also getting into essentially, for example, producing technology that can allow these processes to happen? Or even as a point, aggregating supply and demand like real aggregators platforms do? So, do you see you guys stepping into your company, Apolitical — stepping into this space? It’s moving into producing processes, technologies, or even integrating them into enabling a much more technology-capable government form or even a much more entrepreneurial, citizen-led government facilitated deployment of the economy.

Robyn Scott:
I just want to begin by being a bit of a politician and starting by not answering the question. I will come to the question. But you reference the article I wrote on Amazon and what governments can learn from Amazon. And there is a lot on technology. And I’ll speak to that. But the real lesson that I think is most important is to think about government, and democracy as a system. If you hear someone who’s angry about government not serving us, they’ll tend to like point to something. They’ll say, this is so broken that’s so broken. And it’s true that different aspects are broken, but there is no one fix. It’s a very complex system that I think can be seen as a flywheel where you have to have these interacting parts, which are politicians, inform politicians elected in free and fair elections. So, that’s one critical part. And an informed connected civil service, making an implementing good policy that delivers on the reasons that citizens elected those politicians. And then an informed population that values and participates in democracy. And the great thing about flywheels is they’re self-reinforcing.

So, if you improve any one piece of that loop, the whole loop strengthens and it speeds up. The Achilles heel of flywheels is if any one of those; the citizens, the politicians, or the civil service are impeded in any way, the flywheel slows down and democracy gets in trouble. And I think that’s one of the reasons why it seems so strange that government’s in so much peril recently. But in fact, that flywheel has been slowing down for a long time because we’ve neglected all of those different components in different ways. And we have to reinvest across the board in different ways. And we have to also invest in the medium in which that flywheel exists which is accurate and free-flowing information. So, that, to me, is the biggest lesson for government from these very powerful tech companies who figured out these incredibly powerful reinforcing flywheels that become seemingly unstoppable forces.

So, just to transition to your question on technologies. Absolutely, this is a role we want to help facilitate. We don’t know exactly what it looks like. But my view on how government should approach this, there’s a wonderful child psychologist called Alison Gopnik, who’s written a famous book. I have a two-year-old so I’m really interested in this famous book called The Gardner and the Carpenter about parenting. And the basic thesis is that many parents set out trying to be carpenters to create children in exactly the image they want. And the much better way to allow for people to see their potential and for innovation to happen in society, and for generational change is to be gardeners. So, you create the conditions where individuality can flourish, people can find their own way. This is obviously in the context of children. But I think there’s something to be learned by government. Government shouldn’t be prescriptive. It shouldn’t be saying, this is how it’s done. It’s not set up to and shouldn’t be set up to generate those original innovations. It should play a convening role. It should be watering what exists, and what has potential. And then being very vigilant and adopting and accelerating in different ways what’s working. So, it needs to think of itself in that gardening role. I think some of that can be done through smart regulatory infrastructure.

There’s obviously, huge opportunities there around addressing tech monopoly, challenges and so forth. It can do a lot around the news environment and regulating misinformation and supporting smart ways to deal with that. And then it’s about how do you make the interface between government and the more grassroots-led innovations more porous. And that’s something in Apolitical we’re very interested in doing so finding a way to give visibility to innovations that wouldn’t normally cross government’s path, so that early on, they can get the support they need. One of the, I think big travesties of government is you have a procurement budget, that in most countries is around 10% or more of GDP. So, it’s about $8 trillion a year is being spent by government procuring services largely from the private sector. And an embarrassing proportion of that goes to the most giant companies, when that money could be spent much more creatively on sort of constructively for society on smaller ventures whether for profit or nonprofit, on greener ventures and so forth.

The procurement dollars could play a much greater role in policy outcomes than they do. And finding ways to facilitate that through the right sort of visibility is something we’re very, very interested in doing. One just has to be always mindful of the fact that government has to be unbiased and there has to be due process and fair evaluation of different solutions. So, we have to build that in such a way that we don’t in any way, prioritize some people over others. So, there’s some very particular design considerations when you’re working with government. But absolutely, super exciting area that we want to try and facilitate. And there’s some interesting sort of analog examples happening already. Boston, which is seen as — It has been innovative in a number of ways has, I think they describe it as office hours for startups. So, they make it really easy for small organizations to come to them and talk to the city about what they’re doing. And I think that’s a principle that we want to, at some point unlock at scale.

Simone Cicero:
Right. That sounds very interesting. Let me highlight some more for our listeners. So, what I get from your answer is that you guys are looking into, essentially, for example, aggregating suppliers across regions, or at least locally, partially, so that many, maybe government players can have efficiencies in purchasing, for example, that’s very clear use case. And also, it’s a supply aggregation, I would say, move that should come of course, with some kind of technology, the marketplace that allows. That’s very interesting. And so I just wanted to highlight this for our listeners, because for example, they will see similar trends in other context. And so this supply aggregation potential is really interesting, I believe. I’ll talk, maybe in also as a quick follow up reflection, and then I’ll leave it to Stina for another question on the topic. We’re also seeing more and more regional fragmentation. And also it’s another challenge to see how we can drive those efficiencies in a world that on the other hand, from a digital perspective. Especially if I think about digital policies, like the GDPR, or something like that, it’s really going into more regional fragmentation than ever. So, I think we are seeing a world that from the digital standpoint, we have been dreaming about this global village. But it’s not. In reality, it’s fairly fragmented. But these kind of challenges make your reflection even more interesting. How do you build something that maybe can go cross those fragments and allow this to happen across regions? So, really interesting stuff.

Robyn Scott:
Yeah. Can I just comment on the global village point, which I think it’s really a hard one in a really interesting area right now. So, I think part of the problem with it is it was too generic. It was seen as just a sort of unchallenged good that we were a global village instead of a more nuanced view, which would have been there are some areas where it pays to be a global village. And there’s some areas where the cost is perhaps too high. And we need to dial things down. And the risk now is that we overcorrect in the other direction where we realize all the problems with the global village approach or what doesn’t work. And then we throw out the stuff that necessarily should be global. And I do think with some of these fragmented regulations, it absolutely is what’s happening. But I think we’re going to have to see another correction. Because you cannot, you cannot successfully do some of this regulation, and control of things like data of corporate behavior unless there’s a united approach. So, I just think we need a more discerning approach to the global village.

Simone Cicero:
That resonates a lot with some of the considerations we also did in the paper, in our chapter 2 of our whitepaper when we talk about risk. We underline this tendency towards strategic disconnection. Or this idea of strategic disconnection that is taking a lot of ground, especially in the US, but in general. Jack Murphy, has this idea, but essentially the idea that localities can become less prone to risk if they actually disconnect from the global discourse. And not just in terms of conversations, but also in terms of processes and investments and infrastructures. So, I think this is the challenge that we have. And I really, I resonate with your point that we should hope probably from certain bound towards a more genuine and more, I would say conscious and more informed discussion about global trends and to some extent this also connects with the question on moving from the globalization to the terrestrial that Bruno Latour has been pushing us to reflect about. So, that was very interesting. Thanks very much.

Robyn Scott:
Just one other comment on the marketplace of solutions which we’re heard excited about developing in the medium to long term. I do think that can extend beyond solutions in the sense of things that can be implemented. And I think there’s a lot of opportunity around a marketplace for ideas as well, and just making more porous conversations when government has a problem, helping facilitate people coming forward with solutions. And that’s, again, an area we interested in principle. But I think those direct conversations between government and citizens, we’re still just at the very foot foothills of what we can do in terms of unlocking value from them.

Stina Heikkila:
That’s really exciting. I wanted to zoom in exactly on that actually a little bit. So, you know, we talk about in platform design to design for disobedience. So, it comes back to what you were mentioning about the carpenter and the gardener. And it’s something that it’s quite hard for governments to do, because they have a different relationship with risk. And like you mentioned in public procurement, a set of constraints that somehow you can see as hampering innovation to a certain extent. So, I don’t know if you’ve seen, what are the rebels in your network? And how do they get around certain constraints that might hinder some areas of innovation that could be not huge risk areas. But of course, this what you’re mentioning, citizen involvement could maybe be an area where you should have more innovation.

Robyn Scott:
One of the defining features of a lot of the rebels or innovators or disruptors, whatever you want to call them that we see being successful in government, is they often come from outside of government, and they look around them in bewilderment, jaws open and say why are things done like this? And that leads them to question the status quo. And one of the most interesting consequences of that questioning is that often what they find is that the barriers aren’t legal. There’s often a perception that all these barriers are legal preventing people doing more than government, but often they’re cultural. And if you are willing, and it’s always easier as an outsider who’s feeling a degree of sort of outrage, at what they perceived to be a silly system. If you’re willing to just bulldoze through those sorts of ephemeral cultural barriers, then you can get a great deal done. So, it’s often just that ability to take risks, to make stuff happen. And to slightly like, do an “emperor’s no clothes number” and just call out the fact that, hey, technically, there’s nothing stopping us from doing this. So, we could go ahead and do it.

Obviously, they’re very real consequences, potentially, at the end of that. If you are seen to have badly screwed up and it gets out to the public, you can be held accountable, sometimes correctly, sometimes incorrectly for taking risks. So, even if there’s no legal barrier, there can be negative consequences and very negative incentives for trying new things. But I do think, increasingly, governments, even if they don’t always implement as well as they should, there’s an awareness of the need for sandboxes and communities of people who are approaching things differently, and are acting from a place of like, real curiosity and passion. Canada, for instance, has this really thoughtful program called free agents, which encourages talented people to choose the part of government they want to work in, and then go and make things happen in that department. So, it’s much more empowering for the individual. And I think that’s a much more constructive foundation for innovation than a lot of historic structures where you’re told where to go, and you’re told to sort of work with the system you’ve got.

Stina Heikkila:
Yeah. That comes back to the skin in the game that Simone was mentioning. So, you can provide that in a different way, than maybe through ownership, but you have ownership because you choose a certain place, it sounds like. And just as maybe heading a little bit towards the end of the conversation, you are obviously providing one of these spaces that you were mentioning as well without being humble about your amazing community. To what extent are you enabling a disobedience within the confines of your community? Have you seen someone do things that you didn’t expect, that you didn’t even think that you would allow and that made you change your mind? And that’s one part of my question. And the other one is maybe looking into the future, what are your dreams and ambitions, plans, projects that you would like to highlight?

Robyn Scott:
So, the lines that we draw, the inviolable lines at Apolitical are around, trying not to politicize issues. Now, at one level, this is impossible because everything can be politicized. But we believe, really passionately in conversation that respects different views, in having, if we’re going to allow someone to speak to one side of an argument, we should allow a voice on the other side as well. And our constraints around or rather, guides around how to write stuff always speaks to not overly politicizing stuff, talking about the outcomes for citizens rather than any ideology that might be associated with the policy, etc. In terms of disobedience, I wouldn’t — I mean, the standard for disobedience in government compared to other sectors is it’s quite a low bar. So, what would sometimes be considered, where public servants often feel they’re taking a risk on us is just by speaking very candidly about hard problems, because often these problems haven’t been shared. And that’s something we are provided, it doesn’t jeopardize trust or confidences or take an idea into very political territory. We were really pleased to encourage that, and excited to facilitate it. As for our plans, we have very big ones. They’re the least 200 million public servants globally. Those people collectively are responsible for allocating approximately 40% of GDP each year. So, yeah, well north of $30 trillion. And that’s just the direct impact they have. And obviously, indirectly, through the laws that they make and implement, they have enormous impact.

So, it is potentially one of probably the world’s most powerful community of purpose that you get, if you just look at the levers they can pull. So, we want to be serving them at scale. And given they’re in the hundreds of millions, that means we need to be serving at least 10s of millions of public servants to really make an impact. We want to see policies shared, good policies shared much faster, the stakes learned much faster, gains for society delivered much faster. Those are sort of the direct effects of once you lubricate policy sharing and exchange. And the indirect ones, but perhaps even more powerful are want to help change the narrative around government and show that there are great people working in the public sector who are incredibly purpose-driven, attract more great people to work there, improve the morale of people in the public sector, because they’re being recognized, and they feel a sense of community. Because if you change the shift of talent, if you make it easier to attract talented people to government, and easier to keep them there, the dividends for society are practically unlimited. So, that’s an area that we find incredibly exciting.

We also are building up a very unique data set on government, which we call the GovGraph. So, that’s information on the people in government, the problems, they’re facing the trends, how money is spent. This is built up both through content generated on our platform, and also content we’re scraping from around the internet that’s open source and available and putting it in one place where it can be easily queried and understood. So, we want to be a one-stop-shop for public servants to understand what’s happening in their governments and how to solve problems faster and better. But that data set can also be deployed in all sorts of ways creating tools for citizens, but potentially creating tools for the private sector. And that places an enormously important stewardship responsibility on us. If we are governing all this data to be of the highest integrity with regard to our users, we can’t ever — We certainly don’t want to and we couldn’t afford to lose the trust of the public servants on our platform. But used in the right way that data can be very, very powerful. So, that’s sort of something that is growing in the background that will enable us to do things that in some cases we can foresee. And in other cases, we just can’t foresee yet, but is tremendously exciting.

And then adjacent to the work on the civil service in particular, we have politicians using our platform, but the majority of our members are our civil servants. We have a foundation. So, our company is a B Corp. So, mission-driven, for-profit company. The company has given stock to a nonprofit foundation, which is focused specifically on democracy. Stuff that’s hard to do in a for-profit modality without creating conflicts or unintended outcomes. And the flagship work of the Apolitical foundation is something called Apolitical Academy, which is programs helping new leaders get into politics. So, we currently have programs, we have one in Sweden, one in South Africa, a global one, random partnership with the World Economic Forum, and we have a whole pipeline that we are about to get started elsewhere in the world. And for each of these programs, whereas our platform is very high tech, these programs are high touch, and we select high potential leaders from across the political spectrum, deliberately from across the political spectrum, who represent accurately the society in which they’re seeking to serve. And we help them think about how to run for office, how to build networks, how to govern once you’re in office.

Often, your only qualifications to get into office are you run a successful campaign. And a lot of new politicians know nothing about policy and actually governing. So, we want to create much better pipelines into government. And as part of that also, help change the narrative around democracy. Make it prestigious, again, to run for political office, make it clear that you don’t have to be a dodgy politician in order to succeed in political office, that there are alternative pathways. So, that’s another great passion of ours. And it links back to the multifaceted nature of the democracy flywheel I talked about.

I’ll just start by mentioning the third part of the flywheel which we haven’t really talked about, which is citizens, or people that are voters, informing voters. And we would like to use some of the technology we’re building in the company around training and online learning in very engaging bite-sized ways. And deployed that to do civic education as well for people who don’t understand their governments, as well as they could or should. Because if there’s a big gap of — We talk a lot about governments not understanding citizens. And that’s totally true and needs to be fixed. And some of the approaches we’ve talked about, like participatory budgeting and at least citizen engagement technologies that are doing a lot on that front. But equally, we need to find ways for people to better understand their governments. Because if you don’t understand, you can’t know what criticism is merited, what criticism isn’t, what’s possible, what’s not. So, creating bridges between the two in all sorts of ways is a huge passion of ours.

Simone Cicero:
Right. I mean, you seem to point to a future for these contexts where there’s much more responsibility to be taken from all the perspective. So, from the perspective of the government, but also from the perspective of the citizens. And to some extent, also, from the perspective of the private sector that is apparently a very, I would say that very underestimated as a very underestimated role in deployed public policy and public choices, than most of the people tend to think about in terms of the involvement that private companies have in making policies happen actually and deploying policies. So, if I can just ask you to finish with two things, first of all, to share the thing that mostly excites you about this feature that you’re talking about, in a few words. And then maybe you can just to help our listeners to find you online, where should they look. Especially, I’m thinking about on hand citizen, but also, on the other hand, of course, public servants that want to be more informed about what Apolitical is doing.

Robyn Scott:
What excites me is that, in so many of the most important challenges we face with regard to these challenges, we know what to do. We have the technological solutions. Increasingly, if you take something like climate, we have the political will. And it’s often just that our systems and a lack of coordination within the systems are letting us down. So, there is so much opportunity through making government more connected internally, and more connected externally to solve problems; stuff that doesn’t require new solutions. And that makes me incredibly excited. And there’s so much good will waiting to be tapped. And then so much innovation on the horizon that we don’t even — we haven’t even yet sort of quantified or factored in that stands to improve things. I’m also excited because this is a pivotal moment, a little scared by it, too. I think democracy has never in recent times been in more peril. And we’re running out of time to fix it. And to shift trust back to government to cultivate value placed in democracy again. If we get that right, we can reinvent it along the way, make it much closer to citizens, much more responsive to them, and much better. So, there’s a huge prize and there’s also huge jeopardy if we don’t, we risk a real reversal of so many of the things we hold dear. So, that’s the kind of adrenaline sort of excitement with very high stakes, which motivates a lot of my energy.

In terms of finding out more about us, visit Apolitical.co. And you can find out how to sign up if you’re a public servant, or you work closely with government. You can also follow us on social media. Our Twitter handle is @Apoliticalco, all one word. And then even if you’re not in working closely with government, so you wouldn’t yet qualify for our network, we share lots of great content, which you can click through to and read on a case-by-case basis. If you visit the website, you can click through to information on our foundation and learn more about our work specifically on democracy.

Simone Cicero:
Thank you. Thank you very much. That was a very interesting conversation. I think maybe we’re going to get back to you in the following moans maybe to compare notes again, about the progress of what seems to be on your notepad of ideas. It seems a very exciting moment for Apolitical in general, and we really support your mission, I think. So, really looking forward to catch up again and compare notes. So, thanks for the insight. I’m sure that our listeners will have lots to think through after this conversation. Stina, something that you want to add?

Stina Heikkila:
No, just thank you very much. This has been a very conversation that I’ve been really keen on. Especially considering that I’ve worked, for a big part of my career, in public policy myself and really excited about the things you shared. And thank you very much.

Robyn Scott:
Thanks for having me. It’s been fun.

Simone Cicero:
Thanks so much and catch up soon.