With trust in government at an all-time low, the morale of public servants is often overlooked. But they are the largest workforce in the world. Apolitical helps government employees connect to skills, solutions and partners so they can tackle society’s biggest challenges.
The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed for ease of reading.
David Kirkpatrick: Thank you. Lisa Witter is joining me. She is a cofounder of a company called Apolitical, which is basically software and community for government people. It’s both for civil servants, of which there are 200 million around the world she explained to me, and also policymakers, of which maybe that’s part of the 200 million, but. So what’s the problem that you set out to solve with Apolitical?
Lisa Witter: Well, we thought it was crazy—hi everyone, by the way. We thought it was crazy in 2015 that it was easier for a public servant to find a lump in a mattress at a hotel they were going at via Trip Advisor than they could find a lump in a policy. And the truth is, is that most people in government around the world are solving the same problem. So what would happen is they would recreate the wheel over and over again, and the number one way they were recreating that wheel was they were Googling, “How do I solve AI problems in my government?” And they weren’t getting things—literally, to this day, that’s the number one way that governments solve problems, policy problems, is they Google it. So we wanted to solve that problem with a business model behind it.
Kirkpatrick: And what is possible if the problem is solved? I mean, you know, how bad is it? And talk about what’s happened so far. Give us a little bit of the chronology of the company and where you’ve taken it.
Witter: So we started off early 2014 and we could feel this crush of cynicism going on in citizens about government being a force for good. Now, we’re all sitting here in the United States. I live in Germany, we’re a global company. You know how people are feeling about government now. Although, things are changing just a bit. I think the midterms—no matter what your political persuasion is, there’s this like hope that democracy might have an opportunity.
So we wanted to start off by just telling stories about what was working in government. Because mainstream media’s role is not to talk about what’s working in government, what is it? It’s to talk about what’s not working in government. So we started off telling that story, and lo and behold, very quickly, as we were doing that, folks in government said, “Oh my God, I have never heard of a place where I can go find out a) what’s working in government, and b) that actually celebrates people in government.”
So as the company grew and we worked on sort of monetization and how to do all that work, because they’re a hardcore technology company as well that has content as part of it, these really pioneering civil servants, public servants said to us, “It’s great that you’re curating ecosystems around how governments are using AI or what’s going on in blockchain or how to solve violence against women, but we need to and want to learn better.” And basically, most people in government are thrown into the deep end. They move from the ministry of transportation to the ministry of finance and they know very little about those things. They tend to be administrators. So now we have 170 countries using us right now to do deep learning and exchange.
Kirkpatrick: So it’s really, it’s kind of like a publishing platform for government employees, right?
Witter: It’s a learning platform for government employees.
Kirkpatrick: So they could help each other, is that the idea?
Witter: They help each other. And what was super interesting is we opened it up to user-generated content because we thought, “Okay, we’ll start off by doing the curation.” And they said, “That’s great.” And—but when we said, “Hey, you can write”—and by the way, every single investor said, “Oh, people in government are never”—a) they would laugh at us, saying, “Oh, you want to build a platform for innovators in government, all two of them, haha.” You know, there are massively innovative people in government.
Kirkpatrick: That’s what the Americans said, anyway.
Witter: Yeah, that’s what the Americans said. I have a standup thing I’m working on about all the funny jokes people said to us when we were starting a—we wanted to make politics and policy sexy again. So coming soon, maybe I can come back and do a standup routine for you guys on government and politics.
Kirkpatrick: We like standup.
Witter: It’s funny. So what they said is like, “We need more, you know, we really—we want to go deeper and we’re willing to pay for it, and we want to learn from our peers more than we want to learn from the World Bank.” Because—or some random, you know, academic. Hopefully there’s not too many academics who don’t write in the context of, “I’ve been through that political place before.” We have folks from governments, from ministers to former prime ministers to digital, like, natives coming in writing, saying, “This was my experience. This was what worked, this was what could be better.” And everyone said that will never happen.
So we’re basically open sourcing, crowdsourcing the largest driver of a) democracy, but also economies in the world. I mean government spends 40% of its GDP on government itself. So just think, if you’re interested in force multipliers and where the big money’s at, this is the new frontier and you’re seeing that with the growth of gov tech.
Kirkpatrick: Well, you are a tech company, but also we’re at a time when technology’s transforming society at a pace that government is not easily able to deal with. Is that part of the reason why now is the time for what you’re doing?
Witter: It’s the perfect time. I mean I just want to say, remember government is what? Government are people. And most of us, as we were just hearing about cybersecurity, we’re all trying to figure out what the hell this means for us. The difference is that you and I aren’t responsible for millions and millions of people as we’re making our decisions day to day. Hopefully that’s going to change for me soon, but we’re not. So oftentimes, you know, right now everyone’s sort of going at it alone and the real igniting force to what we’re doing, besides this sense of possibility and optimism, is the fact that we’re all going through this together and they don’t know—we get little emails from people saying, “Hey I just got moved from the department of indigenous affairs over to the department of urban planning and I’m in charge of IOT. What is IOT?” Literally, like, “I don’t know what IOT is.” And we’re like, “Okay, it’s Internet of Things, and here are five other governments that have done something on IOT.”
We early days got a call from, an email from someone in—we have like a concierge service for people in government, so we’re learning what folks in government want so we can automate it with bots and all the things that you would do. And someone said, “Oh, I hear Estonia’s doing stuff in the cloud. Our government cybersecurity people say there’s no way we can do it in the cloud. Well, if Estonia’s done it, maybe.” So all these connections are happening.
Kirkpatrick: Are those—I mean, what are some other specific issues that people need help with because they’re changing so fast?
Witter: So one really exciting thing that’s going on is New Zealand is doing machine readable—changing law into machine readable code. So because we need to know what’s going on, be much more agile about changes, oftentimes you just sit in a room and you read really long files. So, governments are sort of learning from each other that—New Zealand is leading the way, that’s a big one. The things that I sit on—and David and I have an affiliation with the World Economic Forum and I co-chair the Agile Governments Council. And the fourth industrial revolution, whether you like that term or not, that is a big driver for all of this. So what happens if I’m sitting in a city and all of a sudden four law firms open their doors and they have robots, they have AI that’s doing that, what do I do as a mayor? Do I kick that up? Who else has done that? So all of these sort of new frontiers. But even in the old frontiers, there are new companies that are solving old problems in new ways, which is why we’ve built a gov tech hub to really help connect—this was at their demand—we’re built by and for government. We listen to these folks a lot. They said, “It’s not enough to know how to solve policy issues, we have to know”—and, you know, the theme of this stage has public private partnership. “Who do I go work with that can do things better, faster, cheaper and with a social screen?” Which is really interesting. Like the UK government right now is giving extra points to companies who actually care. Now, think about it, the global procurement spend is $8 trillion dollars.
Kirkpatrick: Government procurement?
Witter: Of government procurement. We are not going to get anywhere close to solving SDGs if we don’t figure out how to move that government spend. Not to sort of mention that as an entrepreneur, that’s a really big market size that you can tap a percentage of. So we’ve built into our business model impact and profitability. And the good thing about being a European company is we’ve been forced—we couldn’t monetize what a minister would click on. No one would ever use that. Plus with GDPR, which has been a hiccup for many of us because you can’t blast email market, it’s a signaling to our customers that trust is really important and it’s been a real benefit. Like the heart of it has been a big benefit to our growth.
Kirkpatrick: Now, you’re an American living in Berlin starting a global company for government people. The US is a huge market, but I think Americans—and I would not be too surprised if the vast majority of people in this room are very cynical about government’s capacity to absorb change, to deal with change. But you’re now finally coming into the US. Talk about how the US sits in this—if it’s a movement, I would like to think it’s a movement of, you know, digitizing government, what are you doing to help with that?
Witter: Well, a) it’s a massive movement with at minimum a $400 million dollar price tag and 100—it’s really driven by a lot of the tech companies here.
Kirkpatrick: What’s the 400—what is that?
Witter: That’s the gov tech procurement spend, so just—
Kirkpatrick: Gov tech.
Witter: Yeah. So there’s a massive movement, and it’s being moved by the fact that governments are having to do more with less, so they have to save money. Plus, remember, workforces change and young people are going into government saying, “WTF, like it’s crazy that I can’t use these tools.”
So when we went to found the company, it’s myself and another woman, everyone said to us—you know, I’m an entrepreneur, coming to the US is a cool place to do it—I lived in New York City for a long time, I’m from the West Coast, Seattle, and—but people said, this was before Cambridge Analytical, “Whatever you do, do not start this company in the US because if you want to be a global company that works with governments, if you have data, no one—if you’re an American company, no one will trust you. So build the company abroad and then bring it back to the US.”
Now, I would say that—and now we’re spending more time back in the US. There’s this sort of hope that government—whether you like government or not, it’s here. And I think we want it—
Kirkpatrick: Isn’t that shocking that even has to be said?
Witter: And many of you probably want it to be the smallest and most efficient possible, right? That’s at least the American dream. And so with technology, we’re able to—and exchange— that’s exactly what people are talking about. We are talking to high level government official on the West Coast who said to herself, how she motivates her team, she says—this is a Churchill quote, “We’re out of money, now we have to use our heads.” And we are a collective head for governments around the world, and they pay to use us. Companies pay to engage, and in the end we make people’s lives better. I think it’s a damn cool business model.
Kirkpatrick: It’s—I certainly hope it continues to succeed. Now, I want to go to audience in a second, but you do have a woman cofounder and you wrote a book, which I didn’t even quote as I was introducing you, called “The She Spot: Why Women are the Market for Changing the World and How to Reach Them.” Now, that’s not directly related to what you’re doing, or is it? How do you feel about—I mean, your company, you look—go to your website, it seems like the vast majority of your senior leadership is women. What does that mean to you and why does it help?
Witter: Well, on very much the plus side of all of this, government officials, when we sit down to do deals with them or talk with them, the fact that we’re two women, they say, “Oh, we can trust you with a technology company.” There’s this like sense of like, “Oh, you’re not going to screw us, are you?”
Kirkpatrick: Just because you’re women?
Witter: Yes, because they’re women. I like to think it’s our ethics and our values and our reputation as well, but we walk in with that as an advantage and I think that that is an advantage. I will say the downside is, if you’re trying to build a company that has market rate returns, that also happens to do good, completely aligned, oftentimes people will be like, “Oh, you’re women, you must”—like people have said, “Why didn’t you create a nonprofit?”
So there’s a plus side and a negative side, but with people who are at the core of what we’re doing, it’s been a real advantage.
Kirkpatrick: That’s really good. Okay, who’s got anything to ask to Lisa here, government, tech—
Witter: Not all at once
Witter: Any optimism, yeah.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, here. Identify yourself. There’s a mike coming—
Weber: Hi, it’s Larry Weber. What about voting technologies, what are you seeing being asked, what do you see being developed—you know, simple question.
Witter: Well, the cool part about my job and our company is we get a bird’s eye view of every single policy topic you can imagine. And I would say voting technologies is at the top of many democracies list, particularly in the European Union right now. How do you use tech, how do you make sure it’s not hacked? I don’t have any, like, here are three trends that are happening, but democracy in general, like how do you make it better, faster and more accessible and more equitable is a big question you get from government.
Kirkpatrick: Okay, here.
Mondini: Thanks. Hi, Chris Mondini from iCann.
Mondini: How do you keep policy advice that government employees might get through your platform neutral, because different policy advice might have different impacts—
Kirkpatrick: Hey, it’s Apolitical, that’s the name of the company.
Mondini: Well, so what’s—what are the mechanisms to sort of keep bias out of the advice?
Kirkpatrick: Yeah, and why did you call it Apolitical? That’s the question.
Witter: Yeah, well we wanted to call it—look, I’m not naïve, none of you are naïve. There’s no such thing as entirely apolitical because there are biases that are subconscious. That’s why we have racism and sexism, right? But what we try to do is say, look, so much of what policy is, is not political. You hear about the political stuff at the top of the pyramid because that’s the sexy stuff that gets the headlines. But so much of policy is actually not apolitical.
So we’re not the arbiters of what is political and what’s not political. We’re the platform to do that. So we don’t go through and say, “Oh, that’s a good idea, that’s a bad idea.” This is where you open source and crowdsource amongst people and government and they get to decide.
Kirkpatrick: Yeah, good.
Fung: Mei Lin Fung, People-Centered Internet, but I’m originally from Singapore. So Singapore spends 5% of GDP per capita—GDP on health and the US spends 18%. Do you see a role for Apolitical to do some sort of helping people learn from each other in that kind of macro way?
Witter: We absolutely do. I mean that’s the core of what we do is, hey, how did you do this, what didn’t you do that was different? I spend a lot of time with Singaporeans because they are very progressive, very digital, out front on a lot of, you know, self-driving cars and test beds and sandboxes and all these geeky things if anybody wants to talk about, about how government are testing new technologies. And the interesting thing about Singapore is they have—their whole theme is being high tech and high touch. And this is the real cautionary tale about technology. You know, my background is behavioral science, this is what my book was about, and brain science. And it’s very easy for governments to fall in love with technology to solve all the problems. But where trust sits, when you have trust as a function of proximity—and Singapore, luckily they’re a small island, really spends a lot of time being very, very close to the people. And what I hear from people on government is how do we use technology to make things better but not lose that human touch? And one part of Singapore that is—that a lot of governments are looking at, they’re kind of like—everyone likes to go to Singapore and hang out with your government—is your civil servants are very well paid. And this is a conversation that happens in our country all the time, you know, that—why are they being paid so much, you know, and it’s a very well informed workforce. I mean, imagine—one of the things we find in talking to people in government is a lot of them are depressed. They call us the Prozac for public service. And I was listening to Scott at the very beginning talk about the importance of loneliness. The first year that we had our platform out, loneliness was the number one search term on our platform. Imagine all the data we have about sort of what’s going on. We put another survey out that just came back about how public servants want to learn. The number one policy topic they’re interested in is mental health at work.
Witter: You cannot have a functioning government, or a functioning society, if the people who work in it aren’t respected, given the skills, and feel good about their job. So we’re trying to really unleash, you know, humanizing these people who are in charge of many decisions in our lives. And Singapore does a very good job at that.
Kirkpatrick: Well, you’re doing a great job at something very important, so thank you so much for coming to tell us about it.
Witter: Thank you.
Kirkpatrick: We really appreciate it.