AT THE BEGINNING, says Kirsten Rulf MPP 2017, she felt like someone throwing water balloons at a fancy wedding reception. As the first head of digital issues in the German chancellery, she didn’t find it easy to bring the agile, imaginative approach of a tech startup into the precise, regimented heart of the German bureaucracy.
But that, essentially, is the job. Rulf leads the strategy and policy unit for digital and innovation issues in the German federal government. “We’re basically reimagining anything digital,” she says of the 10-person department she heads. “How does government become digital? But also, how do you regulate technologies, especially disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence? And moreover, how can the German government ensure that technology companies and startups thrive here in Germany and in Europe?”
It is a position—in the digital sector and at the highest reaches of government—that Rulf, who had been a self-described “hardcore” television journalist, says she could not have imagined prior to her Kennedy School experience.
“When I came to HKS, I’d never done anything else in my life,” other than journalism, says Rulf, who came to the Kennedy School with the aid of a McCloy Fellowship, an exchange program for German and American journalists and policy experts. “And I thought afterwards I would go back and bring more of a social technology voice to the role.”
But classes with Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science James Waldo and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy Bruce Schneier, and the fledgling digital community curated by Lecturer in Public Policy David Eaves, pointed Rulf in another direction, and by the middle of her second semester she could see another path ahead. An internship in Silicon Valley between her first and second years brought further confirmation.
Her Policy Analysis Exercise on autonomous vehicle policy led her to Lecturer in Public Policy Mark Fagan’s Autonomous Vehicle Policy Initiative, and she stayed on after graduating, also working on artificial intelligence as a fellow at Harvard Law School.
The private sector came calling, but the opportunity with the German chancellor’s office was something Rulf could not pass up: “It was just such a big opportunity to actually build a startup inside the government." She is convinced that the mix of technical and policy skills that she acquired at the Kennedy School allowed her to prevail over a thousand other applicants for the position.
Jumping into her job, which started in January 2019, felt a bit like being thrown into a washing machine, she says, as she built a team while being pulled in a hundred different directions. Besides her many individual projects, one of her main challenges is bringing a different mindset to government.
She is doing workshops with ministers, teaching agile development, and developing policy projects using a lean startup methodology. She has also implemented initiatives, such as a year-long fellowship that brings together technologists and government officials for joint projects and teaches them the basics of AI, data science, and computational thinking. In addition, her office was able to shepherd through Germany’s first digital strategy—a white paper that set the country’s overall goals for all things digital across ministries and sectors. The strategy was developed in collaborative workshops and guided by “user personas,” fictional characters that represent the types of people who use the government’s services and technology. Putting the user—the citizen—at the center of her work is very close to Rulf’s heart.
Rulf accompanied Chancellor Angela Merkel to Harvard in May when Merkel spoke at Commencement. She finds herself constantly returning to her Harvard mentors and the frameworks that she learned here.
“Bringing a different, more digital and agile mindset to government as the foundation to long-term entrepreneurship and institutional change is something that I really took away as essential from my classes at HKS, for instance my courses with Nick Sinai and Dana Chisnell, adjunct lecturers in public policy. Time and again, I learnt at HKS that good public service starts with the user at the center. This user-centered approach helps guide my decisions,” Rulf says.
“My main focus every day is on policy implementation. The German government has several great strategy papers for the digital sector, for example on AI, on the usage of big data, on transforming the education system or the medical sector to be robust in the face of digital disruption. Soon we will be the first country to have a blockchain strategy. Germans are precise and thoughtful when it comes to writing good strategy papers. Where we are less good is when it comes to implementing our goals. So bringing agile development and user-centered design to government kills two birds with one stone: It changes the mindset of government officials and it helps us implement our own good ideas faster and better for the benefit of our citizens. This will help my country to foster all things digital in the future.”
“Time and again, I learnt at HKS that good public service starts with the user at the center.”
Illustration by Israel Vargas; Photos by Stefanie Loos/AP