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Can Public Entrepreneurship Solve Government’s Complex Problems?

A new book by a founding member of Boston’s Urban Mechanics calls for changing how government addresses its problems and provides an operating manual for generating new ideas and putting them into practice.

There were no shortages of complex challenges that public-sector leaders had to navigate in 2020, from a global pandemic to the collateral fiscal constraints that followed. These problems forced agencies to respond rapidly in a new, unfamiliar landscape. After the first wave of the pandemic, the common phrase heard from government leaders was that years’ worth of work and progress had been completed in a matter of months. 

Many of us have looked forward to getting to the new normal or next normal, where things would slow down and return to a more manageable pace. Our current tempo is the new pace of change and, even when this public health crisis is behind us, government leaders will be expected to move quickly and solve complex problems. This requires a new model for getting things done and, fortunately for us, Mitchell Weiss has written an operating manual for what to do now and for what comes next.

Weiss has been a pioneer in government innovation for many years, co-founding the city of Boston’s New Urban Mechanics, a first-in-nation research and design team launched under Mayor Thomas Menino in 2010. Since then, Weiss has been researching and teaching public entrepreneurship at Harvard Business School as a professor of management practice and Richard L. Menschel Faculty Fellow at Harvard Business School. Weiss’ deep experience in innovation has allowed him to ground this thinking and research into an actionable framework.


Mitch Weiss

The thesis of his book We the Possibility is that to solve the most complex public-sector challenges, we must leverage an entrepreneurial framework to move government from safe, probabilistic approaches used to navigate change to one that enables us to explore and experiment in the art of what’s possible.

Using countless examples and stories, Weiss breaks down the key elements of a “Possibility Government” into three distinct attributes:

  1. A government that can imagine with new ideas. There is no shortage of new ideas in the public sector, and Weiss makes the point that agencies need a process to generate proposals from multiple sources and not just from the top. Good ideas also do not always originate on the inside or an agency; they can come from the government outsiders that are the daily users of services and see problems firsthand.
  2. A government that can experiment with things by testing ideas. Experimenting and testing ideas may seem like foreign functions in a government agency. Still, Weiss shows that experimentation can generate results by having a defined process with pre-set expectations and transparent results. This portfolio approach also allows government agencies to further mitigate risks by having a portfolio of experiments with different risk and yield factors.
  3. A government that can scale by expanding successful ideas. One of the biggest challenges many agencies face is how to scale one best practice across their organization and beyond. Weiss points out that government agencies should embrace a “platform” mentality to accelerate the scaling of best practices, leveraging the network effects one can see with most online platforms. This same process and connectivity can also enable government agencies to learn from failures together. 
As we look ahead to what comes next, state and local government leaders must equip and deploy new tactics to rapidly navigate and solve complex problems. The impact of COVID-19 has raised public expectations on the government’s role in problem-solving and innovation, making them more significant than ever and providing an opportunity to redefine what’s possible. We the Possibility offers an actionable framework to inspire and equip public-sector leaders ready to begin this journey.

Listen to Dustin Haisler’s interview with Mitchell Weiss here.


Title: We the Possibility: Harnessing Public Entrepreneurship to Solve Our Most Urgent Problems

Author: Mitchell Weiss

Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press. Pages: 288. Price: $30.00.

About Governing’s book reviews and excerpts: In addition to its original reporting and analysis, we are committed to curating ideas from leading thinkers to help elected and appointed officials and other public leaders who seek smart insights and a forum to better understand and manage through this era of change in state and local government.


Dustin Haisler is the Chief Innovation Officer of Governing's parent company e.Republic. Previously the finance director and later CIO for Manor, Texas, a small city outside Austin, Haisler quickly built a track record and reputation as an early innovator in civic tech. As Chief Innovation Officer, Haisler has a strategic role to help shape the company’s products, services and future direction. Primarily, he leads e.Republic Labs, a market connector created as an ecosystem to educate, accelerate and ultimately scale technology innovation within the public sector. Read his full bio.
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