Editor’s Note: Steve Grove is commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. He was formerly 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 the United States faces are unparalleled. The information ecosystem is broken. And surveys show trust in government is at an all-time low, having continued to drop even since last fall’s election, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer.
For federal, state and local governments to make real progress and rebuild trust, the country needs more private citizens to consider joining their ranks. In the same way that military enrollment increased after 9/11 to combat global terrorism, we need more people to enter government service to help tackle the unprecedented challenges we face today.
Not only do fresh eyes from the private sector bring new approaches to government, but there’s a lot that can be learned from working in the government, too.
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’d often wondered about trying public service, but it wasn’t until a teacher-turned-politician I’d long admired named Tim Walz was elected Governor that the right opportunity presented itself.
I had volunteered on the Governor’s first congressional campaign several years earlier. Newly minted as the state’s chief executive, he asked me to join his cabinet as the commissioner of the Department of Employment and Economic Development. The job was to lead a large agency designed to grow the state’s economy. It seemed like an opportunity too important to pass up.
My appointment was treated with some curiosity — people don’t often leave tech companies to join government. And I hadn’t lived in Minnesota for the last 20 years, having spent most of that time in Silicon Valley. The expectation that I’d bring a new approach to the department gave me some latitude to do just that.
In my first year, we made some big changes. We remade 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 also built a new program to boost the state’s start up ecosystem called Launch Minnesota in an economy that was growing by the 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 several parts of it down. Within a few months, our unemployment rate tripled and we lost almost 400,000 jobs. Deepening the crisis was the civil unrest following George Floyd’s killing, which led to the destruction of over 500 small businesses in the heart of the Twin Cities.
Hundreds of thousands of Minnesota’s workers and small businesses were in desperate need of support from the state in order to survive, and for many, our agency has been their lifeline. Our unemployment insurance team immediately secured more server space to ensure our website didn’t crash against a surge in traffic. We made rapid changes to our platform to accompany new jobless claims, and our team used their decades of experience and deep understanding of unemployment systems to quickly stand up several new programs from the CARES act.
Other teams at our agency combed through agency budgets to find extra dollars for small businesses, and, in a matter of days, we worked with legislators to stand up new loan programs that brought millions of dollars to Minnesota’s hardest-hit firms. Later, we launched 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 settled on a solution we’d never tried before: partnering with our state’s lottery department to develop a fair system to distribute money across the state.
The need for innovation in government is real, but I also learned that in a crisis, there’s nothing like a stable, experienced bureaucracy that people can rely on. The public servants in our agency know how to navigate government, which helps things move fast in a crisis.
And they have a deep sense of purpose for helping other people. At Google we had a mantra: “Focus on the user.” I didn’t need to teach that to my new colleagues — they knew it already.
There are certainly many things we have not gotten perfect. Building a pandemic playbook on the fly is something that has challenged every state. But I’ve found working in government during a crisis to be the most rewarding work of my career. The public servants I get to work with are smart, hard working and selfless. They are worthy of the public’s trust.
Seeing them perform in a crisis has given me faith that our institutions can respond when we need them most — and adapt when the times call for it.
We have a long road ahead to recover from this pandemic. The coming year will have its ups and downs as the vaccine rollout and economic stimulus take center stage.
As America begins a new chapter in that journey, I hope more people consider heeding the call to step into public service. Our country needs new energy and new ideas in government. And working with people who’ve devoted their entire lives to serving the public will restore your own faith in our institutions, too.