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Bonfire Tales

Flickering firelight illuminated the faces of my fellow campers as my bunk mates recounted the experiences of the trip we had just returned from. Kiri, a slight freckled girl with the personality of a giant, inspired shrieks of laughter with her playful anecdote. Next to go was Louie, who wore his flat brimmed baseball cap pulled so tightly down over his eyebrows that practically all you could see of his face were his gleaming rabbit-like front teeth. He delivered an account, while maintaining his sheepish smile, of  deftly stringing up a tarp for shelter from the rain. When my turn came I was eager to share a story that would elicit laughs from my friends.

Instead of choosing one of the many heartwarming accounts of conversations I’d shared hiking along the trail with my peers or the fun I’d had playing games despite being hungry, dirty, and tired, I opted to make up a tale so unexpected and over the top that people would surely laugh. I shocked my fellow campers into a few chuckles with fictitious characters and blatantly impossible scenarios, but after the fire had burned down and we headed back to our cabins the camp director pulled me aside for a talk.

At first I thought she was merely annoyed that I had flaunted the rules, but her intonation communicated otherwise. The deliberate precision with which she chose her words and hushed  tone of delivery indicated that she was not just disappointing with me for missing the opportunity to reflect on some of the best ten days of my life, but also how sad she was for my fellow campers. Instead of forging a connection by sharing my experience and lighting the way for younger campers I chose to steal a few cheap laughs. Sometimes I look back and imagine myself now, sitting on that rough split log bench in front of the bonfire, sharing the stories that have taken place since then. In my mind’s eye I am offering the authenticity and vulnerability that I failed to share many years ago.

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Not Unmindful

Over three years ago I graduated into an uncertain job market from an institution with the motto “Non Incautus Futuri” which roughly translates to “Not Unmindful of The Future.” The motto was the subject of much derision among my friends and family for its awkward construction and use of the double negative. Since securing a job, a useful set of skills, and a fellowship in GovLab I have come to appreciate the enigmatic nature of the motto. I have interpreted it as striking a balance between acceptance of an uncertain future and resistance to unconscious decision making.

I hope that my time in GovLab will allow me to better recognize my patterns of unconscious bias and rewire the approaches I have learned to problem solving. “Thinking Fast and Slow,” “Drive,” and “The Power of Habit” all address the motivation behind actions we take without much consideration. By first identifying the motives that trigger my routines I will have made an important first step to avoiding routine thinking. However, as the motto accepts, mindfulness is not a static achievement, but a constant struggle to combat our lazier and less engaged selves.

Being conscious of my conventional thought patterns will allow me to avoid using the same problem solving techniques that produce the same outcomes. I hope that new approaches and different inputs will allow me to develop innovative answers to difficult questions facing government executives. The ability to recognize my own constraints and rebel against them is key to my success as an innovator, and I hope will be a measure of my competence in GovLab.

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A Model Civil Servant

The acceleration of information exchange has littered our political, economic, and social landscapes with models once considered robust. Stresses like the global economic crisis and the Arab Spring have forced organizations to rethink decades of management frameworks. These frameworks, from the mundane heuristics we use to choose what to eat for lunch to arcane financial trading programs, are all models. While some laud the big data revolution and data analytics as a panacea, the deluge of information holds as much threat as opportunity. This newfound ability to measure and predict with greater accuracy will increase our reliance on models and allow the Government to attempt projects previously thought impossible. However, it is not the risks that we can measure that will increase the frequency and costs of model destruction, but the risks we cannot quantify. The transformation will not be in the amount of data or our tools to manipulate it, but the increasing velocity with which we must develop and dispose of models to interpret this data. To address this paradigm shift and avoid increasingly frequent crises, the Government must invest in its human capital to prepare its workforce to challenge assumptions, consider counterfactuals, and embrace, not eliminate, risk.

Forecasts are only as good as the people who use them. The power of abundant and cheap information poses ethical, statistical, and philosophical challenges. Will Government workers be equipped to wrestle with the implications of making personal predictions with secret data, or prognostications based on medical diagnostic software? Will regulators be savvy enough to know what a technological crystal ball won’t tell them about future risks? Will a workforce equipped with data-analytics dashboards and predictive models be skeptical enough to investigate underlying assumptions, perceptive enough to distinguish correlation from causation, and agile enough to react when predictions inevitably disappoint? The next transformative issue to impact government will be the ability to grapple with the answers data oracles lay before us.

Government cannot leave it to the engineers and mathematicians to understand the pitfalls of simulations. To wield data with dexterity and confidence the Government must take three steps. First, inspire the Federal space by offering a Federal-wide predictive analytics platform to offer high-profile recognition and lucrative prizes for the best solutions. Second, the Government must make the availability of predictive tools contingent on investing time and effort in training to reframe thinking about analytics. Finally, the Government must enable future leaders by providing them the qualitative skills necessary to assess the underlying weaknesses of models and the communication skills to impart these weaknesses to others. Before Departments are awash in erroneous predictions, sloppy thinking, and the hubris of numbers for numbers’ sake the Government must choose to arm its soldiers with critical reasoning skills. Despite concerns, I am optimistic that America will benefit from the accelerated pace at which we discard and redevelop our tools of prediction. It is only through this process of creative destruction that Government can harness the power of emerging technologies.

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