This summer, five MIT graduate students will travel to Mexico, Brazil, Kenya, and Cape Verde as part of a new fellowship to explore how governance innovations are making governments more transparent and accountable to citizens in regions of the world that are underrepresented in global innovation and design research.
The students will be embedded within government innovation labs, or other think tanks that work closely with governments, for eight to 12 weeks. They will research the challenges and opportunities that governments face when digitizing services, sharing public data, or setting up innovative team structures to improve public services and processes.
“MIT trains students to become leaders in science and technology, but there are few opportunities to apply these cutting-edge skills to public sector innovation,” says Lily Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science at MIT and the director and founder of the MIT Governance Lab (MIT GOV/LAB). “The governance innovation fellowship fills this gap by supporting students’ understanding of how government can work for citizens and for the greater good.”
Studying government teams working to improve experiences with citizens
The fellows bring diverse backgrounds ranging from women’s entrepreneurship and computer engineering to urban transportation management. Many of the students have worked or researched within Global South governments and are seeking comparative perspectives during their time at MIT.
For example, Lakshmi Gangamreddypalli, a masters’ student in city planning, will be placed in NOSi, a public enterprise in Cape Verde, to research an open-source platform that connects both developers and citizens to e-governance resources across the archipelago.
Eli Epperson, a masters’ candidate in city planning, will work within the Digital Agency for Public Innovation in Mexico City’s mayoral office to research the “Mexico City Master Key,” which allows the public to access all of the Mexico City government’s digital platforms through one username and password.
Other fellows include Vineet Abhishek, a masters’ candidate in city planning, who will be placed with LaBORA!gov in Brazil to research a program that allows civil servants to work on intragovernmental innovation projects and develop design skills while continuing to serve in their respective ministries.
Deepika Raman, a masters’ candidate in technology and policy, and Leonard Vibbi, a masters’ candidate in media arts and sciences, will be based in Kenya’s African Center for Technology Studies. They will research the ethics surrounding the collection, use, and dissemination of citizen data by governments and governance technologies.
Collaboration across MIT enables new fellowship
The fellowship is made possible through the joint effort of three MIT groups that have historically supported students to advance research and social impact initiatives on the global stage — MIT GOV/LAB, the MIT International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI), and the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center (PKG Center).
The fellowship was conceived by MIT GOV/LAB, a lab based in the Department of Political Science. “The fellowship is a key part of documenting what these innovation teams have tried so that civil servants in other countries can reflect on what it takes to make the relationship between government, citizens, and civil society more transparent, accountable, and responsive,” says Carlos Centeno, associate director of innovation at MIT GOV/LAB.
MISTI brings 40 years of expertise in pioneering and organizing international student education at MIT. “Through our global education, we catalyze innovation within MIT and its global partner communities,” says Ari Jacobovits, the managing director of MISTI-Africa, “so, supporting GOV/LAB's goals with this program was a no-brainer.”
Alison Hynd, the assistant dean and instructor at the PKG Center, which trains students to pursue entrepreneurial and social change projects, hopes to expand students’ social impact opportunities and career explorations within government innovation teams: “We’re excited to combine the expertise of each office to support work in the Global South.”
After in-country research, the students will produce a series of case studies that spotlight how mid-level bureaucrats are shaping the culture and approaches to innovation within their respective government teams, so that governments can become vehicles for better addressing citizen needs.