Public Sector Future Podcast | Episode 25: Public Interest Technology: This is Our Work

Episode 25 guest speaker, Darren Walker

Public Interest Technology:
This is Our Work

with Darren Walker

Darren Walker is the President of the Ford Foundation, where he leads work to challenge global inequality

Episode 25: Public Interest Technology: This is Our Work

Public Sector Future

Episode summary

In the 1960s, Public Interest Law emerged in the United States as a way for the legal profession to deploy its expertise in service of the public. Today, our guest Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation says that it’s time for the same understanding to emerge from the field of technology. In this episode we discuss how to make that happen and what it will look like in practice when we create the structures for technologists to work in the public interest.

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How technologists can work for the public good

In the 1960s, Public Interest Law emerged in the United States as a way for the legal profession to deploy its expertise in service of the public. Today, our guest Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation says that it’s time for the same understanding to emerge from the field of technology. In this episode we discuss how to make that happen and what it will look like when we create the structures for technologists to work in the public interest.



The role of the Ford Foundation

Darren Walker shared that the Ford Foundation was established in 1936 by Henry and Edsel Ford. Today it has evolved into a foundation managing $18 billion of assets. Walker characterized the role of the Foundation as “social justice philanthropy on the global threat of inequality, because our mission in part is to promote and protect democratic institutions in the United States and around the world, and we believe inequality is a threat to our democracy.”

What is public interest technology?

Walker explained that “the public interest in technology has yet to be fully defined by the public.”

Engaging the public to define what it means for technology and technologists to work in the public interest is one of the first and most fundamental steps in this work. As we figure out how to enable more effective public interest technology, it is paramount that the public – people – take a front and center role in helping determine what that work should be and to what ends public interest technologists should be working.

He continues “The degree that those technologists understand how they can work towards the public’s benefit, how they can work in the public interest, our society, our democracy will be better off”

What we can learn from Public Interest Law

“My belief is that – and I think our belief here at the Ford Foundation is rooted in our history of support for the then new emerging field of public interest law. If we go back to the 1960s, there was no such thing as public interest law. Today, we take that for granted.”

The field of public interest law in the United States was built out of the need to apply the field of law to the public interest in a way that it had not been up until that point. It was built purposefully and deliberately, and Walker says that we should take the same approach to Public Interest Technology.

“But the idea of public interest we need in the technology world, we need for those technologists to be trained that way and to understand that they are only part of the solution, and that without these other disciplines, and also without some training themselves in other disciplines, they won’t be prepared to actually realize the potential for technology to help society.”

Crucially, public interest technology also means training technologists to work effectively with other people working in the public interest. Technologists are an important piece of the puzzle and one that our public interest structures are yet to fully support and nurture, but they are not the only piece to the puzzle. They will need to put their skills to work alongside others and be trained to work effectively experts from other fields.

Recommendations to build public interest capacity

Walker identified three areas for action in building the capability of technologists to support public sector challenges:

  1. “first addressing the curricula, the actual training of these technologists, and I think that’s a critical area for exploration and it’s rich, as we have learned, and very complicated… to pierce the veil of an educational system
  2. Creating pathways for people to gain opportunities between the public and private sector, to help people “realize the potential for technology to help society”
  3. Supporting public sector organizations in “making the case that investment needs to be made in technology and in bringing in talent from industry”

The Public Interest Technology University Network

Walker shared the success in the growth of the United States based Public Interest Technology Network, which now has 50 member universities. This network has built Walker’s conviction that “universities and training of technologists remains the most important transformation we can invest in, because if we can unlock the ways in which young people learn, are introduced to the fields of engineering, computing, technology generally, we can unlock solutions for all sorts of challenges in the world.”

To find out more:

Building a new field of Public Interest Technology: Lessons learned from Public Interest Law / Ford Foundation

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