The Evolution of #Gov30: Training the 21st Century Public Problem Solver

gov30Last week, we put out a call for applications to participate in the Gov 3.0 online mentoring and learning program.  With only a few days notice, we received over two hundred applications from officials in federal, state and local government, community activists and organizers, professors and students, consultants and CEOs. They all shared a passion for solving some of the most compelling public problems of our time, ranging from food security to mental health to climate change. They told us they were looking for help developing innovative solutions and wanted better methods and tools for tackling public interest problems more effectively.

In its original incarnation a decade ago, the Gov 3.0 course (known as Law, Tech and Democracy or the Law of E-Govt and E-Democ or Networked Governance!)  was designed to teach non-engineers about how technology is transforming the way we govern. Law schools typically teach their students how to use the tools of lawsuits, legislation and contracts as tools for social change. If being a lawyer was about solving problems, we wanted to think about how the latest tech trends can be applied to tackle legal and social issues

The idea was to:

  • Blend insights from law, policy and technology to create more realistic and expeditious solutions to problems.

  • Offer an active learning environment working on stuff that matters.

  • Flip the classroom and offer content online and via video and audio, reserving in-person time for group collaboration.

Over the ensuing years we’ve started to focus less on general trends and more on how to develop effective solutions to specific problems. Project based learning works! (Check out what Steve Zipkes has accomplished at Manor New Tech High School) Students coming out of this program, for example, designed, built, ran and assessed Peer to Patent and a wide array of projects (, such as a kiosk to help indigent litigants navigate landlord tenant court and expert systems to make law more accessible to the layperson. The program rapidly transformed from a lecture course about technology and innovation to an active learning environment where we used technology combined with law, and other strategies in order to:

  • Design new platforms and policies to support their use.

  • Learn by doing, working in collaborative teams to design every aspect of real world projects, requiring mastery and integration of legal, financial, design, communications and tech skills. Inspired by the work of Kip Hodges at MIT (now Arizona State) (this is a must read by him on solving complex problems) and what it means to be a good lawyer, the goal was to learn by solving complex problems.

  • Demonstrate the kinds of innovations in governance we were studying by applying them to real world institutions. We knew we’d have a better chance of getting institutions to collaborate if these were student-led projects.

Last semester, I taught a version of this class to students from the graduate schools of public policy (Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service), interactive design (Interactive Telecommunications Program) and engineering (Poly) at NYU. From them, I learned what has been the most valuable aspect of this program all along: It’s not about solving specific problems as much as training effective problem solvers. We are committed to focusing on this objective and improving our training this term.

We have two goals:

To help problem solvers learn how to apply technology, legal, policy and other strategies to challenging public problems, and to help them develop the mindset and skillset for taking an innovative idea from concept to implementation.

It is not enough, for example, to study how open data can improve healthcare outcomes or how crowdsourcing can be applied to anti-crime efforts. Good ideas, by themselves, are worth little (see Albert Savoia on “Pretotyping” on the Gov 3.0 Syllabus) without the knowledge needed to turn them into implementable solutions in real world institutions. As we take the program online and attempt to make it available to more people, we are seeking to:

  • Afford everyone who participates an opportunity to work on stuff that matters to them. You come to the course with a topic about which you are passionate and a willingness to devote time to it, which may be far in excess of whatever credit hours are awarded.

  • Help people understand the problem as well as possible before developing a solution. The best approach may not be to build an app or a website, but fighting to change a law, designing a compelling visual, or combining different small pieces into a larger approach.

  • Teach a method for solving problems that combines Innovation Skills, Prototyping Skills and Presentation Skills. Innovation Skills include applying novel approaches to problems. Prototyping focuses on learning to embody and represent an idea visually. Presentation Skills focus on the ability to communicate an idea in a compelling manner. It will be a challenge to deliver this training effectively in a short time frame. We’ll say more about what we are planning and seek your feedback in our next post.

  • Get people to set their own goals for skills acquisition. One size doesn’t need to fit all: Participants can customize what they would like to learn.

  • Invite a network of mentors with subject matter and skills expertise to coach participants at every stage, from developing ideas to devising solutions and mastering the skills to implement them. Effective problem solvers need help from those who are working in the field they’re interested in, whether it’s biofuels or prison reform. They need to know what else has been tried and whom they might partner with to be truly effective.

  • Connect people to each other by forging a network of like-minded peers dedicated to solving problems that matter. We incorporate Skills Sharing into the course under the theory that every student can be a teacher. With the group we are assembling this semester, that’s never been more true.

Despite the fact that I’ve taught versions of this course at law, communications, and design schools for a decade, it is still very much in permanent beta. This term will continue to be an experiment in two ways.

First, we will be trying ways to combine online and offline real time learning to create an active, vibrant and enriching environment for traditional and nontraditional learners. The online course complements the in-person version I teach at NYU. It’s unique in that the online course is not a MOOC where people sit at home and watch videos of lectures. It’s a real time, peer to peer learning environment where we’ll try to connect (fingers crossed) people across a distance or in the same room to mentor, coach, cajole, encourage and support each other’s desires to become more effective problem solvers. View the full syllabus.

Second, and most important, the goal of this term is to develop a v. 1.0 of the curriculum for training the 21st century problem solver and learn how to deliver it at scale. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that the only real learning happens when students teach themselves and each other. All we can do is inspire and support them. With the generous support of the Knight Foundation, the hope is to form a “Rebel Alliance”: partnerships with organizations around the country — whether universities, companies or governments — who want to become part of a network offering their own training programs. We are happy to supply content and a platform to support those who want to give of their time, energy and talents to doing stuff that matters and who have the mindset and skillset to be effective.

If you read the applications to Gov 3.0 that I had the privilege to see, you would be heartened and inspired by the number of dedicated, creative, interesting and passionate people who want to contribute to the life of their democracy. Our program is designed to help give them the chance to do so.

For more on Gov 3.0, visit

Or Follow along on Twitter at #gov30

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