Boral wants public officials to retain and share what they learn tackling the most complex public problems—from election administration to homelessness response—and build government’s institutional memory along the way.
May 11, 2023
Where do the combined wisdom and experience of public sector workers go? All the years of tackling the most difficult problems, all the lessons learned? The answer could be that they are largely lost, and that is something Austin Boral MPP/MBA 2023 is working to change.
Boral, who graduates this year from the HKS/HBS dual degree program, is the co-founder, with classmate Madeleine Smith MPP/MBA 2023, of Civic Roundtable, a secure collaboration platform that’s built to engage and empower over 22 million government workers at the federal, state, and local level. It’s a place where public officials can tap into networks of peers, ask tactical questions, find existing resources, and immediately get up to speed on whatever public problem they face.
Civic Roundtable is a product that has its roots both in Boral’s deep sense of civic duty and in his varied professional experiences working both for the public sector and for private sector firms consulting with government agencies. It’s also a product that has an urgent need, Boral says, as “vacancies and burnout among public sector employees have reached all-time highs across all levels of government.”
Boral’s sense of civic duty was shaped by the legacy of Andrew Goodman—a relative by marriage and one of the three Freedom Summer workers who was murdered in Mississippi while registering voters in June 1964. Boral’s experience growing up with and learning from his extended family instilled a deep understanding that public institutions cannot be taken for granted and that they did not serve everyone equally.
Growing up on Long Island, Boral worked with Habitat for Humanity to address housing affordability and volunteered with the Andrew Goodman Foundation to promote civic engagement across college campuses. Before starting out as an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, Boral says he felt “public service would always be a big part of my life, but it would not be my life—because I didn't really see the connection between providing for myself and providing for my community or society.”
That quickly changed when he arrived in the small New Hampshire town where Dartmouth is located and he saw how people around him combined both, such as professors serving in the state legislature. “The switch flipped,” Boral says, “because in the Upper Valley, the region where Dartmouth is located, how you chose to earn a living was how you chose to serve the public. And in reality, it shouldn’t matter if you live in a town of 8,000 or a city of 8,000,000—your career is your contribution to society.”
He immersed himself in policy research and government work, both academically and through internships on Capitol Hill and the White House. Following graduation, he worked in public sector consulting for McKinsey & Company. It provided him with a baseline understanding of how government agencies operate—“not too differently from other big bureaucracies that exist in the corporate world,” says Boral. It was also there that he came to realize the importance of knowledge management for any organization—large or small, public or private.
“Every project that I kicked off started with a base of knowledge that was created by analysts, associates, partners who had come before me,” Boral says. “I was able to dig through this whole database of resources, decks, white papers. I was able to find experts who could answer questions about supply chain management or procurement. Government doesn't have time to do that for itself. It's just not a muscle that comes naturally. The idea that I could leave consulting and lose all that institutional memory, when all of the lessons that were being generated and learned actually came from governments themselves, felt like a real missed opportunity.”
His next professional experience, working in economic development for the City of New York, highlighted the difference. “I was one of hundreds of practitioners within New York City government thinking about some component of workforce or economic development,” he says. “But it was impossible for me to track down peers who might be able to provide some insight into a challenge that I was facing, and I was spending too much time reinventing the wheel.”
“Our public institutions depend on the drive and dedication of public officials. It’s only been getting more difficult to work for the government—and if individuals on the frontlines of solving public problems don’t feel supported, then the public institutions that so many citizens take for granted will fall apart,” says Boral. The problem had become apparent, and it would take his time at Harvard to allow Boral to begin thinking about a solution.
“I knew that I had identified the problem, but didn't know that I was going to be able to solve it from within government,” Boral says. “So I wanted to take that step back and also get a chance to better understand the way that public institutions operate from a more academic perspective.”
“That's where the joint degree experience became really valuable: the Kennedy School does a phenomenal job of helping you understand problems that you're looking to solve, and the Business School helps you operationalize solutions to those problems. At HKS I was able to invest in understanding why bureaucracies struggle from an academic perspective, and at HBS I was able to build out the product and implement the solution as a proof of concept.”
It was also at Harvard that Boral met Smith, with whom he would co-found Civic Roundtable. She was “somebody who also cared about this public servant experience in the way that I did,” he says. He also found support from the Center for Public Leadership (through the Rubenstein and George Fellowship programs), the Social Innovation + Change Initiative (through the, Cheng Fellowship), and Harvard Innovation Labs.
And as Boral and Smith experimented with their idea, the Kennedy School also provided a valuable testing ground, giving them access to people with deep experience, including Mid-Career Master’s students and alumni from the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, who could show them what value a platform like the one they were envisaging could have.
After developing and launching their product last summer, Civic Roundtable has on-boarded more than 1,000 users through partnerships with over a dozen state agencies, federal agencies, and national nonprofits. Their communities are working together to tackle meaningful public problems at the state and local level, such as administering free and fair elections and rehousing veterans experiencing homelessness. They have achieved over $1 million in revenue and they are committed to scaling the product and building their team after graduation.
“Our long-term vision is one where Civic Roundtable sets a new standard for government collaboration by empowering the frontline, supercharging systems change, and laying the groundwork for continuous innovation,” Boral says. “Just like the federal government built our Interstate Highway System to connect citizens across America’s cities and towns, we are building digital infrastructure that connects public servants across all jurisdictions and levels of government across the country. Our goal is to be the glue that holds our 90,000 local governments together so that it's easier to for public servants to get the work done and learn from what's been going well a few doors, departments, or localities away.”
“We started by serving election officials that are registering voters and administering elections; we are expanding to serve homelessness practitioners that are rehousing veterans and delivering supportive services to LGBTQ youth; and we are just scratching the surface of the communities that our users are asking us to build,” Boral says. “Our work will always be dedicated to protecting public institutions and serving public servants, and our origin story will always begin with the Harvard Kennedy School.”
Portraits by Lydia Rosenberg