Jan. 12, 2021
This story is part of PIT UNiverse, a monthly newsletter from PIT-UN that shares news and events from around the Network. Subscribe to PIT UNiverse here.
Most people are familiar with the idea of "corporate social responsibility." Companies affect the world around them in myriad ways, and it's important for them to be held accountable for their impact and work to ensure it's positive. But what about a company's position in civic life? What civic duty does a company have, and how should it go about addressing that responsibility?
Clarice Chan, a former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow with experience in private sector tech, sets out to answer these questions in a new report published by the Tech Talent Project. In Corporate Civic Responsibility: A New Paradigm for Companies to Advance Public Interest Technology, Chan discusses the looming crisis of a lack of technology expertise within government, details how private sector technology companies can help, and outlines a framework for how they can collaborate with government responsibly.
PIT UNiverse caught up with Chan to learn more about corporate civic responsibility, why government has fallen behind on tech, the future of public interest technology, and more.
Q. Your paper advances the idea of "corporate civic responsibility" as a new framework for promoting public interest technology. What is CCR, and how is it different from our traditional understanding of corporate social responsibility?
Clarice Chan: Corporate social responsibility (CSR) more broadly focuses on a company’s social impact on the world. As an example, CSR initiatives range from sustainability goals to philanthropic marketing campaigns. However, these programs have one gap: they don’t directly address a company’s civic point of view. Today, the concept of “civics” is mostly thought of in the context of the individual, the citizen. This idea of understanding a company’s civic duty and responsibility is extremely nascent. By introducing the idea of “corporate civic responsibility” (CCR), I hope to bring this civic-minded reframing to the discussion tables of corporate and social impact leaders. The framework described in this paper helps put some scaffolding around the kinds of CCR programs, initiatives, and activities that companies could (and should) further invest in.
You outline five pillars of CCR, some of which (like civic-focused marketing) companies have already adopted, while others (like reimagined corporate ethics) are still emerging. When it comes to these pillars that are still developing, what do we need to see from companies to make real progress?
The first step is simply making a commitment and dedicating formal resourcing towards defining a holistic CCR strategy. Today, many companies have CSR teams, but there isn’t dedicated resourcing to think about CCR. While public policy teams and public sector industry teams work closely with the government, corporate leaders need to first make a commitment towards having a CCR agenda or strategy. Progress will ultimately be formalizing this industry-wide commitment towards public interest technology.
Why do you think the government has fallen so far behind where it needs to be in terms of deploying tech solutions and hiring tech talent?
Today the most obvious gap is in pay, compensation, and benefits. Government is falling behind because its workforce is falling behind. In the next 5 years, 30% of the federal workforce will be eligible for retirement. And because the pay is not nearly as competitive as private industry, the government is struggling to replenish its technical workforce. Fixing this will require developing more cross-sector partnerships and enabling more cross-sector talent exchange. Tech solutions are ultimately stewarded by tech talent. In order for the government’s technology to catch up, it first needs to bring in more technologists. Corporate policies like civic leaves help make serving in the government more accessible. To meet the demands of a 21st century government, we must build more human capital infrastructure to facilitate cross-sector talent exchange at scale.
How can we encourage meaningful collaboration between the public and private sector while still mitigating conflicts of interest?
CCR efforts must first and foremost serve civic and public interests, not corporate interests. Today, the government has a number of rules and regulations in place to help mitigate corporate and personal conflict of interest. While thoughtful and well intentioned, these same rules now prevent us from facilitating some of the much needed, healthy cross-sector exchange. We don’t have all the answers on how to solve this issue completely, but that’s where we invite HR and legal experts to help advance and reform this landscape. The question at hand is how we can bring industry subject matter experts into the space of solving these tremendously important technical civic issues, meanwhile ensuring that we protect public trust. As a starting point, lawmakers and policy leaders should continue to build on the work established by the Office of Government Ethics.
How has your own experience at tech companies and as a Presidential Innovation Fellow informed how you see the landscape of public and private sector tech, and the way forward?
In my own experience, I’ve found that both sectors have contrasting but complementary challenges. The private sector’s strength is process and innovation. Their greatest challenge is often identifying what problem to solve. The public sector faces the opposite challenge. Government agencies have a clear problem to solve, but their greatest question is often how. Both sectors are actually closely interdependent on each other in this way, but I've found their understanding of each other to feel worlds apart. The way forward must be bridging this gap. We need more cross-pollination between the two sectors to understand how to build a more healthy multi-sector ecosystem. Above all, we need thought-leaders to be thinking and empathizing at the societal level, not just at the business level. To promote this kind of thinking, public and private sector technology leaders should embrace and seek more opportunities for immersion and exchange.
What role do you see universities playing in the future of public interest technology? How can we train the next generation of tech talent to be civic-minded regardless of whether they end up in the public or private sector?
Universities create a pipeline and prepare the next generation for the challenges we’ve yet to face or even uncover. In a traditional sense, our education system has trained us in fields defined in a pre-digital era. Often the sciences and the humanities are taught separately, but the greatest problems we face tomorrow are at the intersection of understanding how our human behaviors interface with these digital systems. We need to prepare a new generation of ethical technologists to address these emerging concerns. This means our classroom curricula needs to shift and become more interdisciplinary to facilitate this kind of thought leadership. Universities will play a critical role in growing and developing this new generation of civic thought leaders.