Getting business and government on the same page

Collaboration between the two sectors is the key to tackling societal problems

WE LIVE in an era of tough and intractable problems, ranging from climate change and racial and income inequality, to an alarming erosion of trust in all our institutions and a profound and immediate crisis of democracy.   Eighty-four percent of the public believes that we are on the wrong track and a majority are despondent and feel that our best days as a society are behind us.  Clearly, we have our work cut out for ourselves if we intend to be good stewards and leave the next generation a world better off than we know it now.

It has taken decades to dig ourselves into the deep ruts we now find in our society, and it will take innovative and even herculean efforts by many to dig our way out. But we must, if we are to build a better, more just, legitimate, and sustainable future.

Louis Brandeis famously observed that the states can and should be the laboratories of democracy, shining a light on innovative approaches that can be tried and tested locally, and replicated nationally, if proven to work.  Many institutions and individuals in our Commonwealth, where Brandeis first made his mark, are experimenting with new and novel approaches designed to stem this tide and to reverse the disheartening trends all around us.

One of those recent innovations is the Civic Action Project’s CAP Collaborative, a unique cross-training and problem-solving program that brings together senior executives from both the public and private sectors to learn from one another, to help see things through the eyes of leaders from the other sector, and to work on problem-solving that might advance both business and government, and, more importantly, society as a whole.

It’s been said, only half facetiously, that there aren’t many corporate CEOs who have read the Constitution, and there aren’t many public officials who know how to read an income statement or a balance sheet.  Too often, leaders from these two different arenas are worlds apart in terms of language, timeframe, and culture – and oftentimes at loggerheads and viewed suspiciously as adversaries, breeding an air of mutual distrust.

The CAP Collaborative brought together 20 executive fellows–prominent leaders from business and government–for a day a week over an intensive two-month period. We tested the premise that walking in one another’s shoes, and seeing things through the lens of leaders from the opposite sector, might generate a new mutual respect and appreciation, and perhaps sow the seeds of future collaboration.  In a curriculum taught by successful practitioners from both government and business, our executive fellows not only get grounded in a shared set of facts, but also spend a day shadowing one another and then reporting back in pairs on what they observed and learned.

Based on an independent evaluation of the program, the CAP Collaborative exceeded even our own highest expectations.  To a person, our fellows felt it was a valuable and worthwhile experience. They uniformly learned a great deal not only from our faculty but from one another, and left feeling inspired to make an even greater difference in collaboration with others going forward.  And to a person, they recommended the program strongly to others

We believe that many of the lessons we’ve learned through the CAP Collaborative may be leveraged by others to accelerate the pace of change. Here are five key take-aways:

Public and private sector leaders face surprisingly similar challenges.  The public and private sectors are very different worlds, with different time frames and certainly dramatically different cultures. Business leaders, for example, have longer tenures, are driven by profitability, and answer to a small board of directors. Public leaders, by contrast, need to run for regular reelection and are accountable to the public. Both face accelerating change, a highly competitive marketplace for talent, escalating costs of living, and the challenge of unavailable as well as unaffordable housing. They also share a concern for systemic and structural issues that loom heavily on the horizon, including a grotesque racial wealth gap, the general failure of  schooling, our profound polarization, and existential threats from rising sea levels and climate change, to name just a few.  Neither business nor government can avoid confronting these hard truths and realities.

After spending time together and a day walking in the other’s shoes, leaders almost uniformly came away with greater respect and appreciation for one another.  As one female executive from the private sector commented after spending an exhausting and exhilarating day shadowing a mayor: “I sure was glad I wore flats!”  The CEO of a highly successful publicly traded IT company spent a day observing an elected district attorney and observed: “The range of issues, the quality of the staff, the pace of the office, the multiple stakeholders, the need to prepare for reelection while also governing . . . it was all just so unexpected, impressive, and, frankly, daunting.  My business is pretty simple and my job is relatively easy in comparison.”

Meet the Author
Meet the Author

Corey Thomas

Chief executive officer, Rapid 7
Many of our public sector leaders were equally surprised to see and learn that the private sector CEOs they shadowed follow a business model that puts people on a par with profits, and incorporates genuine commitment to advancing equity, inclusion and diversity, as well as environmental sustainability.  As one public sector leader commented: “I was genuinely shocked to hear the CEO (of a major development company) talking about diversity and racial equity when pitching investors. So, this isn’t just PR or greenwashing.  They really have internalized those values into their corporate DNA.”  Added another elected public official: “Yes, the company needs to stay profitable, and it does.  But I was blown away by how much their strategy relies not just on pricing or products alone, but by engaging their people, treating them with respect, dealing honestly with suppliers and even regulators, and gaining and maintaining a reputation for caring about the communities where they serve.”

There is general recognition and agreement that the role for government is to “lay the tracks,” and for business to “build the trains and get them rolling down the tracks.” In other words, government needs to establish the public values, the aspirations, and the enabling conditions that unleash the creativity of the private sector (and nonprofits) to innovate.  Government operates less efficiently and slower than business, but it represents the will of the people, and its cumbersome checks and balances are the necessary price we pay for living in a democracy.  Business, on the other hand, can act decisively and more creatively, and can harness enormous resources that can power innovation and accelerate the pace of change.  Neither sector, participants agreed, have sufficient authority or legitimacy to do it alone, and the key to progress is collaborating constructively together.

The dramatic success of the Massachusetts life sciences initiative – a partnership among government, business, and academia – is an instructive example.  Fueled by former governor Deval Patrick’s $1 billion life sciences bond bill; shaped by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and its apolitical, evidence-based decision-making model; and driven by industry through their professional association, MassBio, Massachusetts has emerged as the undisputed life sciences capital of the world.  Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to use $750 million of ARPA funding for clean tech and offshore wind provides another example of this collaborative strateg. This is a formula worth preserving and replicating – keeping both sectors in their respective lanes but working together in a win-win for the Commonwealth and beyond.

The greatest threat to our future is complacency and self-satisfaction. Massachusetts has exceptional and unique assets and advantages that can propel continued progress on most pf the urgent challenges of our day. We have arguably one of the most innovative economies in a world where ideas and innovation will be the clean and renewable fuel of the future.  We have more Nobel Laureates than any other country in the world, except the United States itself. We possess the best educated workforce in the nation.  Our politics are generally civil, our size is manageable, and our history is rife with firsts – the first public school, the first college, the first public park, the first public library, the first to abolish slavery, the first all-Black regiment in the Civil War, the first to legalize same-sex marriage, the first to enact nearly universal healthcare, the first use of ether in surgery, the first radar, the first mutual fund, the first COVID vaccine. Our regional economy is larger than Israel’s or Iran’s or Singapore’s.  And we are rich in world-class and diverse cultural assets and history, dramatic natural beauty – and the blustery weather off our coastline could yet make us the Saudi Arabia of offshore wind.  As one participant plaintively noted: “If we can’t do it here in Massachusetts, it can’t be done anywhere.  So, let’s just do it.!”

Do we possess the will? More of the same, business as usual, and coasting on our laurels won’t achieve the success we need.  One member of our faculty, who has enjoyed successful careers in both the public and private sectors, shared his conviction that “I am not a revolutionary, but evolution is not working.  We must do better and faster, and the only way we can achieve the kind of breakthroughs and transformational changes we need is with much greater trust.”   Another guest speaker observed the embarrassing truth that “for all our successes, we are among the most unequal places on the planet.”  New collaborative approaches, creative new innovations, and engaging a new generation of diverse leaders are absolutely required.  These new approaches are possible, but only if we get out of our respective institutional silos, convene without preconceptions and preconditions, think strategically and creatively, and only if we can build lasting relationships driven by trust and mutual respect.

We discovered that senior executives from both business and government love their work and feel equally purpose- and mission-driven. While the monetary rewards differ sharply, the bottom line for leaders in both sectors is meaningful work and making a difference in the lives of others.  This is yet another simple truth worth remembering, as we seek solutions across boundaries and with people perhaps even once viewed as adversaries.

The CAP Collaborative isn’t designed to solve society’s woes, but it is one among many other innovative initiatives designed to contribute to breaking the policy logjams and the prevailing cynicism that our system is broken and can’t be made to work. We are blessed here in Massachusetts to have most if not all the ingredients for success.  If we fail to leverage these assets, shame on all of us.  Together, there is almost nothing that we can’t achieve if we only have the will, the imagination, and the willingness to collaborate in new ways.

Ira A. Jackson is a co-founder of the Civic Action Project, the principal facilitator of the CAP Collaborative, and former director of Harvard’s Center for Business and Government. Corey Thomas is CEO of Rapid7 and a member of the Board of Trustees of Vanderbilt University and of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership. He was an executive fellow in the first CAP Collaborative program.