Editor’s note: Steve Grove is Commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Jobs and Economic Development. He was previously the founding director of Google’s News Lab and an executive at YouTube. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
The health, economic and political crises facing the United States are unprecedented. The information ecosystem is broken. And polls show trust in the government is at an all-time low, having continued to decline even since last fall’s election, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021.
For federal, state, and local governments to make real progress and restore trust, the country needs more private citizens to consider joining their ranks. In the same way as military enlistment increased post-9/11 to fight global terrorism, we need more people to enter public service to help meet the unprecedented challenges we face today.
Not only does the fresh look of the private sector bring new approaches to government, but there is also much to learn from working within government.
I know this because in 2019 I left a 12-year career at Google to join the government of my home state of Minnesota. I had often wondered about trying public service, but it wasn’t until a teacher-turned-politician I had long admired named Tim Walz was elected governor that the right opportunity presented itself. .
I had volunteered for the Governor’s first congressional campaign several years earlier. Newly appointed Director General of State, he asked me to join his cabinet as Commissioner of the Ministry of Employment and Economic Development. The job was to run a large agency designed to develop the state’s economy. It seemed like too big an opportunity to pass up.
My nomination was treated with some curiosity – people don’t often leave tech companies to join government. And I hadn’t lived in Minnesota for the past 20 years, having spent most of that time in Silicon Valley. The expectation that I would bring a new approach to ministry gave me some leeway to do so.
During my first year, we made big changes. We redid the department’s core mission statement, established a review process to track progress against our goals, and launched an innovation lab for staff to test new ideas without fear of failure. We have also built a new program to boost the state startup ecosystem called Throw Minnesota in an economy that was growing day by day.
And then the pandemic hit.
Everything changed overnight. While I was hired to help grow our state’s economy, we were suddenly working to keep Minnesotans safe by shutting down several parts of it. In a few months, our unemployment rate triple and we lost nearly 400,000 jobs. Worsening the crisis was the civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd, which led to the destruction of more than 500 small businesses in the heart of the Twin Cities.
Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota workers and small businesses desperately needed state support to survive, and for many our agency was their lifeline. Our UI team immediately secured more server space to ensure our website didn’t crash in the face of increased traffic. We made rapid changes to our platform to support new unemployment claims, and our team used their decades of experience and deep understanding of unemployment systems to quickly implement several new CARES Act programs.
Other teams in our agency combed through agency budgets to find extra dollars for small businesses, and within days we worked with lawmakers to put in place new loan programs that brought in million to Minnesota’s hardest-hit businesses. Later, we started a grant program for small businesses that had been devastated by the pandemic, and we had to figure out how to distribute the money fairly when everyone was hurting. We decided on a solution we had never tried before: partnering with our state’s lottery department to develop a fair system distribute money throughout the state.
The need for innovation in government is real, but I also learned that in times of crisis, there is nothing like a stable and experienced bureaucracy that people can rely on. Our agency officials know how to navigate government, which helps things move quickly in a crisis.
And they have a deep sense of purpose to help others. At Google, we had a mantra: “Focus on the user”. I didn’t need to teach this to my new colleagues – they already knew that.
There are certainly a lot of things that we haven’t perfected. Building a pandemic playbook on the fly is something that has challenged every state. But I have found working in government during a crisis to be the most rewarding job of my career. The public servants I work with are smart, hard-working and selfless. They are worthy of public trust.
Seeing them perform in times of crisis gave me the belief that our institutions can react when we need them most – and adapt when the times demand it.
We have a long way to go to recover from this pandemic. The year ahead will see ups and downs as vaccine deployment and economic recovery take center stage.
As America begins a new chapter in this journey, I hope more people will consider answering the call to enter public service. Our country needs new energy and new ideas in government. And working with people who have dedicated their whole lives to public service will also restore your confidence in our institutions.