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The Citizen

In Defense of Digital Government at the Harvard Kennedy School

We came to study digital government at the Kennedy School from three different worlds. Sasha chose the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) specifically to pursue a career in it, building on her work in digitizing elections and elections’ policy at WhatsApp. Tiffany came to pivot from a previous digital transformation role, but was pulled back in by the quality of the digital government electives. Derrick stumbled into the field when he realized it offered a through line between the work in startups and the government capacity-building he’d come to HKS to study. Though we all found this field from different paths, we are equally committed to the value of HKS’ digital government courses, which offer a distinct perspective from technology policy’s focus on regulating rather than using digital tools. We are therefore deeply concerned to see HKS dropping its core classes in the subject at a pivotal moment when they are more important than ever.

For reasons not yet clear, the HKS administration has chosen not to renew three critical courses for the next academic year: David Eaves’ Digital Government (DPI-662), Dana Chisnell’s Designing Government (DPI-676M), and Nick Sinai’s Applied Technology and Innovation in Government (DPI-663). Despite the urgency of the subject matter, this decision appears to treat digital fluency as an optional skill for the policymakers of tomorrow. In reality, it is foundational. 

We know this from our own experiences spanning every area of policy. Sasha witnessed the perils of election misinformation spreading through social media firsthand, and as the 2020 Election has highlighted, no country is immune to it. Tiffany worked with data and tools critical to counterterrorism. Derrick saw digital tools play a critical role in realms from social enterprises in Myanmar, to COVID-19 contact tracing in Africa, to campaign communications in the United States. As governments increasingly turn to digital services to save money, improve efficiency, and meet the expectations of citizens accustomed to doing everything online, digital tools will be essential to every form of policy. That is as true of human challenges like achieving racial and economic justice in the face of algorithmic bias and tech-driven superstar effects as it is of engineering challenges like running smart grids to minimize carbon emissions.

The courses and instructors that HKS may leave behind are an irreplaceable core for the study of digital government. David Eaves’ DPI-662 provides a “gateway to digital” that brings students and practitioners together across fields and countries of origin, offering a uniquely rich discourse on the foundations of digital government. DPI-662 fuses technology-agnostic digital management philosophy with thematic areas such as design thinking, user needs, privacy, and security into an essential lens for all government work. Professor Eaves’ course sits at the center of a digital curriculum in a policy school: at the confluence of topical courses such as Privacy, Cybersecurity and Media Manipulation and Misinformation on the one hand, and more skills-oriented courses such as Machine Learning and Programming for policymakers, on the other.  

Designing Government (DPI-676M) builds on this foundation with impactful design thinking that bridges the digital and analog, a mental skill critical for anticipating how any public service will truly impact a diverse citizenry in the real world.  The Technology and Innovation in Government Practicum (DPI-663) offers an exceptional opportunity to gain practical, client-centered experience in digital service implementation. With their complementary approaches, wide-ranging real-world experience and deep bench of clients, former students, and guests, these three courses augment the research of HKS’s tenured technology faculty and could never be replaced by academic study alone.

Today, digital transformation in the public sector is at an inflection point. For governments near and far, the past few months have been the ultimate test of citizen services and resources. Where limited budgets, bureaucratic processes, and legacy systems have traditionally stymied efforts at digitalization, COVID-19 has created fresh urgency for governments to reimagine how they can best serve their citizens, from user-friendly online motor vehicle registration, to secure contact tracing databases. As citizens and bureaucrats grow accustomed to these new digital services, they will only become more central to the way government works.

The Kennedy School cannot let a basic understanding of digital fluency fall to the wayside—not when digital governance has life-or-death consequences on every scale from the personal (through access to welfare services or the risk of algorithmic profiling) to the world-historical (shaping the future balance of power between India, China, the US, and the EU). So for the public servants of yesterday, today, and tomorrow at the Kennedy School, we call on the administration to institutionally prioritize teaching digital at HKS. That effort begins with reconsidering the decision to not renew these foundational digital government courses. Without these core courses, the school cannot equip students with a shared language and analytical framework to understand the challenges and potential of digital technologies for government. HKS students come from many worlds, but we are all entering a digital one—and without a robust commitment to the digital faculty, we may all too easily lose our way there.