The public impact challenge: catalyzing change across North America

The above quotes come from vastly different people and places – an influential global executive, a young person in South Africa, a health care technician in St. Louis – yet they echo a common sentiment that is felt around the world: people lack faith in government’s ability to deliver the outcomes that matter to them. New data from the Pew Research Center underscores how deep this challenge runs in the USA with just 17% of Americans saying they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “most of the time.”   

For those of us who believe in the positive potential of government – and who care about the future of democracy in North America – this is sobering. But it also moves us to action.

Public problem-solvers need new ideas, models, and capabilities – new ways of thinking and working – to deliver the outcomes that people deserve. That’s why Boston Consulting Group (BCG) launched the Centre for Public Impact: a global nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that is committed to stepping into this gap and exploring how government can be reimagined so that it works better for all people. 

Two years ago, I was asked to stand up a new CPI team in North America. As we are now well into our startup journey, I want to reflect on our learnings to date and outline our vision to spur impact going forward.

Disrupting the status quo

Governments everywhere face big challenges – economic, political, and cultural division; demographic and technological changes shifting how we live and work; and income inequality and climate change threatening our future. Tackling these challenges and restoring faith in our institutions will require major disruptions in how our governments function and how our leaders lead. To help catalyze these disruptions in North America:

CPI focuses on developing breakthrough ideas and partnering with public servants and other changemakers to bring those ideas to life.

While we are not a management consultancy, our BCG heritage gives us some unique capabilities – analytical rigor, understanding of complex stakeholder dynamics, ability to execute demanding projects, and access to broad networks of experts and changemakers. We see incredible potential to apply these assets and capabilities in new ways towards public impact challenges.

What matters now

In North America, we are excited to focus our efforts on three urgent and inter-connected priorities: legitimacy, city innovation, and economic mobility.

In legitimacy, we have the bold ambition to restore the relationship between people and government, which has deteriorated substantially in the last 50 years. For example, only 30% of young people born in the 1980s believe democracy is preferable to any other form of government, compared to 75% of Americans born in the 1930s. This is both alarming and has the potential to be massively destabilizing.

The initial findings of CPI’s global Finding Legitimacy research project point towards the need for a more human government. In the coming months, we will take a resident-centric approach to understand what this looks like practically in the USA context. Our research will focus on understanding what really drives this relationship, taking into account who you are and where you sit. Then, we will develop tools that empower leaders to engage citizens differently, rebuild trust, and begin to turn the tide on this generational challenge.

City innovation matters now, not only because more and more people and economic activity are concentrated in metropolitan areas, but because cities and towns could show the way for more effective, legitimate government. While our national discourse is broken, relationships among neighbors and communities generally remain strong. Not surprisingly, local governments are consistently the most trusted units of government, often doing a better job of understanding resident needs and engaging people in the process of governing than national governments.

We have seen this firsthand through our work with more than 50 cities over the past two years: managing the Bloomberg Philanthropies Mayors Challenge, building innovation capacity among government teams in the Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, and partnering with The Aspen Institute and BCG to explore how cities can “innovate with intention.” We are excited to build on these experiences by further enabling the capacity of local governments to govern differently to create more livable, equitable, and resilient cities.

Specifically, we see great potential in two ideas that have the promise to deliver more effective and legitimate local government. First, fostering cultures of learning and experimentation to lead to more innovative approaches and better outcomes. Second, making real the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that the institutions closest to the people, and the problems, are most adept to solve those problems. Local leaders are uniquely equipped to guide distributed approaches that shift power, empowering the mediating institutions of civil society and inviting residents and the private sector to contribute towards tackling complex challenges. But, these leaders need help to build new capabilities and approaches.

Finally, a key challenge undermining government legitimacy is the fact that broad swaths of the U.S. now feel like the American Dream is out of their reach and that “the system is rigged.” This motivates CPI’s focus on expanding Economic Mobility for all people.

Over the past year, we’ve completed a bottoms-up research effort to understand economic challenges and which skills and opportunities will allow more workers to succeed in the economy of the future (stay tuned for our forthcoming report).  Now, we are excited to put some of this thinking into action: working with partners like the Beeck Center for Social Innovation and Drexel’s Metro Finance Lab to expand disruptive institutional and place-based approaches to enable greater upward mobility and human flourishing.

Working with partners

We are early in our journey, but we’ve already begun to build an amazing team of impact-minded, entrepreneurial servant leaders and a strong set of institutional partners. We are grounded in a belief in the positive potential of government, a bias for action, a commitment to a more human and relationship-centered approach, and a systems-based outlook rooted in cross-sector collaboration.

Moving forward, we hope to expand our work to partner with more public servants, foundations, community-based organizations, and private companies across the entire North American region.  If you are motivated by a desire to spur public impact and social innovation, please reach out. We are excited to collaborate with you!