SUCCESS project profile: The State of the States


21st August 2020

The SUCCESS programme is helping social scientists transform innovative and marketable ideas into a business or social enterprise.

We spoke to Chris Gilson – Managing Editor, LSE’s US Politics and Policy Blog, at the LSE US Centre, and Creator of The State of the States – about his project and how he is benefitting from the SUCCESS programme.

Q: What’s the nature of your project and what are you looking to achieve? 

Two years ago, together with a small team at the LSE US Centre, I created The State of the States, an interactive resource dedicated to explaining US state and local politics to a general audience. This website has since been used by teachers and educators and won a Guardian Universities Award for Digital Innovation in 2019. 

My project builds on these successes to create a new resource aimed at those working in and around US state and local politics. There are nearly 20,000 cities in America and about 10 million people working in state government. How can they learn from one another to improve policy outcomes? The State of the States will give them the tools to do just that. 

Q: What’s your background and why did you decide to focus on this idea? 

I originally trained as a geographer but have been looking at US politics since 2013. Through my work running the LSE’s US politics and policy blog (USAPP), I’ve gained an appreciation of, and insights into, the importance of US state politics and policies, and how they can filter up and inform what’s going on at the national level. This project is an outgrowth from this earlier work – by building databases of best practice and practitioners across the US states, we can help to improve policy outcomes and help state and local governments to work better for the people that they serve. 

Q: What are you hoping to get out of the SUCCESS programme? 

I am hoping to come out of the programme with a much more entrepreneurial mindset, as well as a better understanding of how academic research and expertise can be used to present often complex information in a way that allows it to help people to do their jobs better and create better outcomes for society. 

Q: What has been the most useful part of the SUCCESS programme? 

As you can imagine, trying to put together a successful venture whilst juggling other aspects of your role can be a challenge at the best of times. SUCCESS has provided a much-needed framework of training, meetings, and expertise that I have been able to draw on as I have conceptualised, framed, and re-framed The State of the States.  

In addition, the programme has taught me an important lesson – the problem which you think that your innovation solves may not be the one that people are experiencing or think is the most important. To understand that, you need to talk to them! I began the project thinking that the solution I had in mind would be helpful for my target market of those working in US government. But, when I started actually speaking to people working on the ground, it turned out that I had only part of the story. Asking open questions, together with hearing about other projects through SUCCESS, meant that I’ve been able to pivot my idea to better fit the problems that people are actually experiencing. I’ve also been able to sense check aspects of my potential solutions with people I’ve been speaking to, which has been incredibly useful. 

Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your research? 

Many academics have a habit of working in silos – looking at one particular research or policy niche. The programme has taught me that it’s important to hear from a variety of audiences, and to ask open questions, rather than just those directed at the immediate things you want to find out. By keeping an open mind, I’ve been able to learn new things which has subsequently helped me to modify my approach to (hopefully) better fit the needs of my target audiences. 

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