DPI663
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DPI663

DPI-663 class picture, April 27 2018

Why Harvard Students Should Blog

[Note: In Spring 2019, I’m blogging regularly about my Harvard field class, Tech and Innovation in Government—this is Part 1.]

One of the requirements of Tech and Innovation In Government (DPI-663), the field class I teach at Harvard, is that each student team blog publicly about their experiences, throughout their semester.

Here are 10 reasons why:

1. Recruiting advocates and teammates

A small interdisciplinary teams of five Harvard students can do a lot in a semester! But think how much more they can do if they tap into existing initiatives, leverage past work, and find people inside their government client to “join” their team. I’m a huge fan of what the military calls “force multiplication” — and what better way to do that then publicly describe your project, invite feedback, and see who wants to help?

2. Explaining yourself

During the semester, the student teams will need to explain this field class, who they are, what they are doing, why they are doing it, and what they have learned so far — to government officials in the agency they are working with, other government officials, experts, and the teaching team. Why keep this information trapped in individual emails or verbal conversation?

3. Navigating the bureaucracy

Being an effective public-sector entrepreneur means being able to navigate across a government agency. I want students to figure out how to build authentic relationships with public servants across their government client, not just with the executive and points of contact they start the class with. If the student teams can send links to exisiting well written blog posts, they can quickly establish immediate credibility, and hit the ground running with new contacts inside a government agency.

4. Building trust

In this class, students have to quickly figure out how to get their government client comfortable with the idea about a blog series, and negotiate what the process will mean in practice. Some student teams use explicit communications clearance processes with their clients; other teams informally check with their client before publishing. Either way, if the student teams are attentive to client needs, it builds trust and deepens the partnership.

5. Failing quickly

Government doesn’t do failure well. Occasionally it fails quickly and spectacularly, but more often it fails slowly — wasting time, resources, and opportunity. If the students find that something isn’t working, sharing that can help others. Writing about negative results is important — and I want students sharing something that didn’t work or a dead end they went down, rather than hiding it from the world.

6. Creating momentum

Creating momentum is a great public-sector entrepreneurial strategy — and I love that it’s one of the U.S. Digital Services’s values. But how do you know that you are making progress and creating momentum if you aren’t measuring and documenting your work? Doing so publicly adds some forced accountability, of course!

7. Practicing writing

For many students, writing a simple blog that will be published helps them write more clearly. If they think I’m going to read an assignment, they might put in a certain level of effort. But if their post is going to sit on the Internet for eternity, it can encourage them to write more clearly about their project.

My Harvard Kennedy School colleague and former White House boss, Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s Science Advisor, is a stickler about writing clearly. In the White House, if you submitted a memo to Dr. Holdren that required more than a handful of edits, he’d send it back without finishing reading it. Many years ago he authored a memo to his HKS students about writing clearly, and it was something we also used in the White House. With his permission, I assign his memo on writing clearly to this class too!

8. Writing for your neighbor’s mom!

I like to ask my students who they are writing for. They’ll say they are writing for their government client, for the teaching team, for other students and faculty at Harvard, for future students, for future clients, and for their future employers. All good target readers.

But I want them to write for their mom, and even their neighbor’s mom. Here’s why.

Your mom may not care about technical jargon — but some do, of course! Your mom loves you and might read your blog post all the way to the end. But your neighbor’s mom probably doesn’t know you, nor love you enough to suffer through long-winded or repetitive writing. You have to hook her with a simple and interesting title, open with tension, avoid jargon, and create a narrative sufficient to get her reading to the end.

9. Modeling for other field-based classes in tech and innovation in government

My class is one small field-based class at Harvard, and there are other interesting ones on campus, as well as the Hacking For Defense series that started at Stanford. (As context, my class is more focused on government service delivery, and Hacking for Defense is more focused on defense mission problems — but both use user-centered design and lean-startup principles applied in a government context.) Openly sharing about what we are doing can help us create a movement where governments innovate and students learn through doing!

10. Creating a portfolio

Some students in my class have personal wesbites or a portfolio. But many don’t. I want them to make sure they have every advantage in networking and applying for jobs. Being able to say that they have experience with user research and product management in government is helpful, but even better if they can point to their work, the output, and even the outcomes!

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Read more about the challenges the class has tackled so far:

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Nick Sinai

Nick Sinai

Senior Advisor at Insight Partners; Adjunct Faculty at Harvard; former US Deputy CTO at White House; Author of Hack Your Bureaucracy