Sid Espinosa

Policy Experimentation and Paralysis

Air Date: May 17, 2021

Microsoft Civic Engagement director Sid Espinosa discusses how civic tech, corporations, and governments need to fix systemic inequities.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome Sid Espinosa to our broadcast today. He is senior director of philanthropy at Microsoft and former mayor of Palo Alto, California. Thank you so much for joining me today, Sid.


ESPINOSA: Pleasure to be here. Thank you.


HEFFNER: What do you think right now is the landscape in understanding the long-term impact of the pandemic on the civic use of technology for good, and how that can be sustained during the pandemic, because it’s not going away contrary to what some people think or say, and, and of course, once we do overcome this virus.


ESPINOSA: Great, it’s an important conversation to be having. I’m so glad you’re bringing it to the show and to America and beyond. I think one of the first things to do is step back and recognize what the conversation really is about civic tech, where we were before the pandemic to understand where we might go. The first thing that I would highlight is that we saw the growth of an industry, of a sector, when it comes to civic tech, really in the 15 years before the pandemic. We saw it at a city level. There used to be IT directors say in a city that would be thinking about, does everybody have the latest laptop or the latest technology. Then you started to see chief innovation officers, chief data officers in the last couple of years. And you saw the decision-making switching. You used to have mayors saying, I don’t know anything about technology, I’ll let the techies decide. And then it became every mayor wanted to be the innovation mayor around the world. What does that look like? What is Gov 2.0 what does E-Gov look like? And we saw of speed of change, a change in the decision-makers a completely new and different conversation that was taking place. I remember Code for America, great organization that works to improve government services and the connection of technology to government led by Jen Pahlka. They, at a 2015 summit that they had, highlighted their first summit just a few years before where there were about 40 people in the room. A couple of years later, there were 1200, and with an incredible waitlist. So this is a new, it’s a new sector, it’s a new focus. The problem is partially, we don’t really have a clear definition of what civic tech is. Is it technology that enables greater participation in government? Is it that it assists government and citizens in their connections and their ties? Some think that it really has to be driven by the public: citizens, nonprofits, businesses, building tech tools for government. Tech Crunch calls it empowering citizens to help government be more accessible, efficient, or effective. So there’s that debate first. And you look at some of the great organizations that have come out of this change of thought, or Tomal, Amidyar, they’re doing incredible work, the U S Digital service 18F are thinking about how to infuse a government with technologists, but we need to come to a better understanding of what civic tech really means. Is it about government data? Public access and transparency? Is it about community organizing, social causes, civic engagement? Is it about the social networks, place-based networks or community forums?


Some people think it’s crowdfunding and thinking about how to enhance public services through crowdfunding or collaborative consumption; think about peer sharing or shared ownership of services. That’s where we were. That’s where we were before all of this, trying to figure out what that looks like, understanding that tech was moving at a pace that government had a hard time keeping up with. You saw this as people questioned it. And I know on, on your show here, there’ve been conversations about the testimony that’s happened before Congress and whether or not they’re even asking the right questions, whether or not policymakers are prepared to engage in really the understanding of how technology on a day-to-day basis is changing every way that we work and every way that we buy and that we communicate with each other, the government function in that needs to be smarter about how to, about what’s happening how it impacts public life so that they can better understand how to influence it, how to change it, how to empower it and when to regulate it.


And that is evermore the case, I think, coming out of the pandemic, because there are some critical issues, public policy-wise that will be transformative in the coming years. We’ll be thinking about that. What we’re seeing, of course, an infrastructure bill that could have massive impacts. We’re seeing investments on a policy side from a local level, state level, federal level at a rate that we haven’t seen, you know, in a hundred years. And so that is going to be a critical component. Technology will be a critical component in thinking about those changes, how we leapfrog some of the stalemates that we’ve had in the past. How we empower communities on the ground. And the civic tech component is going to be critical and making sure that we’re, we’re able to understand that.


HEFFNER: I think that is really essential, the definition of civic tech. And that’s what was inspiring, a myriad of debates and conventions and town halls for months and weeks. When the pandemic struck it was not abstract or intangible anymore. The deployment of civic tech to socially distance and to now vaccinate the public and to be accountable for public health outcomes has to be there. And there are communities in this country that don’t want to be accountable for public health outcomes. There is also genuine concern about algorithmic and racial bias in the devising of such vaccination passports or identification cards. But the truth is, we can’t really be concerned as much with the long-term trajectory of ensuring broadband, for example, for the entire nation, something we’ve talked about at The Open Mind long before the pandemic, until we figure out what the public policy is and what is the legal and ethical deployment of technology to preserve public health. And so I wanted you to weigh in from both the policy and philanthropic lens on the passports, the vaccination passports, and specifically the mechanisms with which we can stay accountable for public health.


ESPINOSA: Let me first say, that on your first point about that accountability, the transparency, the policy framework, related to civic tech more broadly, it’s critical that people understand that our civic town square has fundamentally changed since you know, since, in the last 30 years. You see it every day traditional media and trusted sources of news are struggling for credibility, even survival. There has become an echo chamber of social media discourse hearing really from others like ourselves, at unprecedented volumes, there’s an unchecked level of false information being amplified at lightening speeds. You know, there’s a fundamental erosion of trust in government and public institutions, and that can be disastrous for democracy. Underlying that are concerns around privacy, around artificial intelligence, around the appropriate uses of data. And so we’re seeing technology, both being a great tool, but also being weaponized in ways, and policy frameworks that check those developments, that check those affronts to democracy are fundamental, are, you know, this is critically important that every policy maker understand these shifts, start to understand where this might be going and think about in really every aspect, how we you know, how we get smarter as a community, how do we stay on top of this. This isn’t a learn it, and we’re done. It’s a continuous cycle of understanding. And that criticality, I think is understood by a few policymakers, but not enough. When it comes to health issues and when it comes to whether or not we have passports or other checks coming out of this pandemic, you know, we’d need at a federal there’s, there’s always, of course this balance in the, in the United States between what we lead with at a local level or a state level and what’s done at a federal level. What we’ve seen and what we’ve seen repeated throughout this pandemic is the need for leadership at a federal level to create broader guidelines, to create systems that ensure transparency, that provide guidance to states to then make decisions. We’re still fragmented in that. And I think we’re seeing that already, just in the last couple of weeks with the rollout of, by different governors for and against passport models, there really needs to be federal leadership in this space. And you know, the sooner the better it is, it is critical that we come to understand from a federal level how we structure this


HEFFNER: As someone who’s expert, both in the conduct of government and the conduct of business, it has struck me in not just recent years, but in decades that one of the paradoxes in American capitalism is that often the corporations that are most entrenched in kind of further exacerbating problems, right, are not recognizing the blowback from those problems until it’s time to be the philanthropist, right, and until it’s time to kind of rectify do the rectification that that is necessary. And I don’t at all impugn the tech sector specifically, or any individual, I think this is more specific to social media companies than the old guard, traditional media or tech like Microsoft or IBM. But the concern is one about whether the business models of companies at this stage in the pandemic are still operating in a way that necessitates the philanthropy to clean up the bad decisions and actions of the enterprises themselves. And I wonder if that’s something that keeps you up and you know, that concerns you at all.


ESPINOSA: You know, I don’t want to, I’m not in those companies to understand how the models that they use and why they’re doing this work. But I do study field broadly. I think it’s important that people understand in philanthropy, there are both private and family foundations that exist of all sizes. There are corporate foundations, there are community foundations, in many communities, most communities across the United States, there are venture funds. So there’s these different models of philanthropy. When you look at corporate in particular there have been major shifts in how that sector has changed really over the last couple of decades. And I think that there is an increased focus on ensuring, you know, there used to be terms like greenwashing around environmental issues to ensure that companies aren’t doing bad things on one side, and then seeking to hide that through funding good things on another, right? That there’s really a deeper integration both the values of an organization, the impact that it’s having a community. And more recently, amongst tech to your point, the impact that technology inherently has had in some of the problems that we’re talking about here today, whether it’s you know, related to democracy, related to social fabric, related to the social impact that we’re having. I’m here in the Bay Area. People point to some of our most pressing problems: homelessness, affordable housing, et cetera, and tie that directly to the impact that technology companies have had in this region, and the responsibility that they have, or not do not have in solving those problems. I would suggest that they, that they that we all need to think about connecting those dots a little bit more, and that companies have a responsibility to understand the impact that their employees, that their business, that their facilities, et cetera, have within a community and the broader landscape. And thinking about how to address those on the front end and not just sort of on the backend as cleanup, as you mentioned. So I think they’re inherently tied. I think that we need to have a deeper conversation about that as a country. And I think when it comes to the issues of technology, it’s even more so the case, because we don’t always see it, you know, it’s not affordable housing where you can really point to changes and, in of a local economy because of pay differentials, et cetera. You know, you’re really looking at worldwide impact in sort of our, our social structures, our government structures, and the ways that we communicate and buy and work and all of those things. And how is that changing at such a quick pace without an accountability for those tech companies in the impact of that work. Philanthropy plays a role in that, but so does policy making, I mean, so does really understanding how this, how this impacts and changes the operations of government at all levels.


HEFFNER: What are your chief priorities right now?


ESPINOSA: You know, one of the things that we have seen as a trend in philanthropy over the course of the pandemic is first a response of course, to COVID related needs. First responders. There were the closing of schools. Kids were no longer receiving lunches. There was increased homelessness. The Chronicle of Philanthropy highlights that we’ve seen about a 10 percent increase in the U.S. in the last year in philanthropy, across the board. But most of that frankly has come from smaller donations and mostly related to these immediate needs. Then there was a shift by many companies, but philanthropy in general, last summer as the company focused on racial equity and a reckoning, reckoning, really on racial issues across the country. And you saw philanthropy questioning itself in the roles that it has in this, had it really been adopting models of trust-based philanthropy, had it really focused on empowering communities of need in real, in real ways. It’s really a power dynamic that exists there that the philanthropy field had to address. Now after then seeing nonprofits shutting down, major layoffs, you know, you hear about the small businesses constantly in our communities that are closing because of the recession related to the pandemic. And, and now in my world, we hear the same refrain related to nonprofit organization. So we started to see this shift then towards recovery, which is where we are now, which is what, what I’m spending a lot of time thinking about. How do we support communities? How do we support families and students and frankly, the nonprofits that are seeking to serve them? And so, you know, some of those areas for us really focus on the workforce. We of course have seen 22 million workers, U.S. workers losing their jobs. And we were told about sort of a V-shaped recovery that we would see, but about 10 million of those jobs have not returned and many are questioning whether or not they will.


And so when you look at roughly 47 percent of the nation’s workforce, having some initial jobless claim over the course of the pandemic, you know that this is impacting every corner of our, of our country. And we really need to get smart about how we leapfrog over and get people back into the workforce in a different way. We’re thinking as well, a lot about education, you know, all around the world. We haven’t had since World War II every country around the world having so many children out of school and for the same reason. And there are serious impacts relate to that and how we come out of this will be critically important. We’re also thinking about connectivity. You talked about the policy concerns that need to be addressed before we think about broadband, but with this latest infrastructure package, broadband has been put on the table and how we get smart about that, how we think about that need and that infrastructure resource and the rollout of that is something that’s sort of its top of mind for us.


HEFFNER: One thing to recognize is that prior to those job losses, for so many in this country, the economy was inequitable. And so knowing that now, in that President Biden’s campaign mantra was Build Back Better. And, and maybe even that does not underscore the extent of trauma and hardship pre pandemic. You’re describing how we should possibly approach the broadband provision within infrastructure. There’s also increasing connection between the tech community and distributed forms of income. So new economic security guarantees, whether that’s a direct payment to constituents or forms of unemployment. But there seems to be in your mind and understanding a cognizance that the way things were before is not sufficient and that the American economy will continue to symbolically make strides. But even in those symbols of, you know, revenue of shareholders, that’s not reflecting the body of the country. And if that cognizance is there, then what do you do about it? The fact that you have those 10,000 or 10 million rather people you just mentioned still out of work. And when they were employed previously, along with the 50 million others who were employed, they weren’t getting equitable wages. Now we’re back. We can’t work within that same system. And part of that system right, is tied into the perception that the stock market is the economy. So I’m wondering how you tackle all of those things from your position.


ESPINOSA: It’s exactly the right question. It is, it is complex, but there’s a critical point that you raise. And that it’s before even the recession, we were having a conversation about both that inequity, but also the shifts and changes that were taking place in the workforce. And for workers. The World Economic Forum highlighted that about a 65 percent of primary school children today will be in jobs that do not currently exist. We were seeing whole sectors change because of AI, because of the role of data, because of robotics, because of face and voice recognition. Call centers were changing, you were seeing that there, there had been a whole conversation about how technology was impacting those jobs that required brawn, if you will, which is not surprising. I think that the shift that a lot of people it’s causing people, a lot to freak out was that as computers became more intelligent, if you will, those jobs that required brain, as opposed to brawn were being impacted at even greater rates. So frankly, more and different people were starting to pay attention. And some would argue that almost all companies were becoming technology companies. That regardless of your sector of business, whether you’re going to be a nurse or you’re going to be an architect here, that technology is becoming infused in every aspect of our life. That if you don’t understand how it works, if you can’t innovate and lead in that space, you are not prepared. Moreover, Department of Labor statistics highlighted the fact that the highest paying jobs of the future, the not only the fastest growing job sectors, but those that were higher paying had technology components. And we were seeing major divides for an urban community versus a rural, U.S. versus some emerging markets. There were communities that were understanding how these changes were happening and how to tap into it and those that weren’t.


And so, we knew that if we were going to prepare our workforce for the jobs of the future, that we needed to really rethink continuous learning, skills training, how we really change as a country our approach to, to sort of this new speed and pace of a job sector and all job sectors changing. And who would really lead that? We don’t have a sector that’s prepared for that. Is it community colleges where a lot of that re-skilling has taken place in the past? Is the onus on government agencies to rethink a different model? Is it businesses that need to think about retraining in a different way? It’s probably a consortium of all of these, but there wasn’t leadership in this space, then the pandemic, you know, then the pandemic kids and millions are out of work. So here is the chance here’s this opportunity to rethink this model, to rethink how lifelong learning works, to think about access, to think about skilling, to think about a pipeline to jobs in new and different ways. And it is incumbent on all of us and policymakers in particular, to get really smart about how we’re going to take this opportunity to leapfrog again, over what probably would have taken us 20 years.


HEFFNER: I think you point out correctly, Sid, that we were paralyzed. My fear is that we still are paralyzed, even though there are experiments underway. For example, the Universal Basic Income, or the provisions of direct payment stimulus in the legislation both in 2019 or 2020, and then this past, you know, these past months, 2021. So there is experimentation going on, but the reality is I still think that on questions of basic economic decency and security, like, I guess we’ll find out with this broadband legislation because it’s common sense what we need. We need broadband in every zip code, in every part of this country, high speed broadband. I mean, that’s just a no brainer, right? And I would argue furthermore, that we need economic security for a generation that lacked the benefits and doesn’t really have the benefits of economic mobility, right? FDR’s generation had social security and Civilian Conservation Corps, then, you know, LBJ, you see Great Society, Medicare, Medicaid, but as the safety net has been wiped out, right, this generation, if you want to say the Millennials and Gen Z will have nothing. And so small experimentation is just not going to cut it in terms of dealing with the systemic problems you just described. So I still feel as though, maybe as a result of the two-party system and the politics of it, we are paralyzed.


ESPINOSA: We are paralyzed in many ways. I want to come back to your point on, on broadband just quickly. For folks that haven’t focused on it nearly half the planet’s population currently lacks access to any form of internet connection and millions across the United States lack access to reliable high-speed internet at home. And if the pandemic hasn’t highlighted anything, when we’ve all been working from home, when every child needed to do school at home, et cetera, government agencies, trying to provide services, us trying to manage a national health crisis from home, we’re privileged that we are able to connect in this way, but millions of Americans cannot. And what we saw back in the thirties, that, that, you know, people, people may not remember back to is that there was a very similar debate in this country around electricity, that Americans couldn’t fully participate in modern society, in the modern economy, without guaranteed electricity.


And so we saw at the federal level in 1936, the Rural Electrification Act invest in a historic way in bringing electricity to every home and every farm in the U.S. And it had major economic impacts for millions. It’s critical that we have the same type of investment just as a basic infrastructure now. It is part of the infrastructure package that’s been suggested by the president. There’s going to be a lot of debate about that. You know, a lot of questions about the dollar amounts and the priorities within and, you know, that’s I think another show, a whole other show.


HEFFNER: And we’re about out of time, unfortunately, as surprising as it may seem, but the point is, I think you’ve, you’ve tweeted about this: school children have missed basically a year of college. It would make sense to incorporate in that infrastructure, a kind of CCC for teachers online and eventually in-person, we need Teach for America on steroids or, or, you know, more equipped to deal with every zip code in every place where there ought to be connectivity. Sid Espinosa, senior director of philanthropy at Microsoft. Thank you so much for your insight today.


ESPINOSA: Thank you so much for having me,


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