Inside Microsoft’s UN Strategy: Q&A With Lani Cossette

Do corporations have a role to play in reforming important public institutions such as the United Nations? Absolutely, says Lani Cossette, chief-of-staff of Microsoft’s UN office, which opened last year. The tech giant claims to be the first company to establish a permanent presence at the UN. When Driving Change spoke recently with Cossette, we began by asking her why.

Lani Cossette (LC): Microsoft has engaged the UN for a couple of decades.  What’s new is that we have opened offices in both Geneva and New York where we will have a daily presence. We want to both deepen existing partnerships and broaden our work across the UN system. Being present in New York and Geneva also gives us an opportunity to bring people together which we hope to do when it’s safe to do so.

Driving Change (DC): What is the process for setting up an office at the UN? As no one has done it before, how did you figure out what to do?

LC: Well, if you could see where I’m sitting at my dining room table surrounded by devices, you’d see that we haven’t gotten very far!  In all seriousness, our vision for this office includes convening stakeholders.  That’s on hold for the time being but we hope to occupy our space at some point this summer.  We’re all working remotely and doing our best to meet people and explain what we are up to. It’s tough to do during Covid, but we have made some progress. 

It’s been interesting to live through the changing attitudes toward online meetings over the last ten months.  We see more willingness to convene virtually.  I think this changing attitude will serve us well when we are in our office space eventually.  When we do, we won’t have only in-person meetings and convenings.  We can reach so many more people by having a virtual component.  

DC: You have been engaging with the UN for many decades, as you said, and this is part of a broader trend of non-government actors, NGOs and the private sector becoming involved both in international policymaking and in the delivery of UN programs. What role do you think that companies such as Microsoft can and should be playing in the international policymaking system?

LC: The opportunities are endless. I can give you an example of something we’ve been thinking a lot about over the last six months or so based on our many conversations about connectivity and the digital divide.  We’ve observed that a more human-centric approach to how we think about connectivity is needed. We are working with others to help advance this idea. For example, even if a country has the infrastructure for people to get online, this is meaningless if a student goes to school but can’t access the Internet.  That’s a problem.  Our thinking about this has been influenced by the circumstances we’re all facing now. 

DC: That sounds great, but at the same time, it is controversial for private for-profit companies to be involved in this sort of thing. How do you make sure that you are doing something that is genuinely for the public good and not simply driven by a profit motive? How do you ensure transparency and accountability for private sector organizations when you are dealing with public service delivery?

LC: We publish a lot of reports on our work that is relevant to the UN.  Last month for example we published our first annual environmental sustainability report.  The report underwent an independent third-party review to check our metrics.  We wanted to do this to have greater accountability and transparency in our work.  The report is 95 pages chock full of information describing our learnings about what we think will work and what won’t work to save the planet. That’s an important first step and something that will be of interest to people and organizations who are working on the same problems that we are.   We also publish details of our work on sustainable development annually as a member of the UN Global Compact, which is a publicly available resource.  

DC: Do you think that Microsoft, and the private sector in general, have a role to play in reforming organizations such as the UN?

LC: Absolutely. Our thinking has evolved. We are a global company.  Increasingly we see that the problems we’re trying to solve are also global.  We want a seat at the table, whether we are advocating for a particular position or listening to others. One of the roles we think we can play in New York and Geneva is advancing this idea of inclusive multilateralism.  This basically means that you need to bring others to the table, including industry, to combine efforts to solve problems. 

We see that a lot of problems can’t be solved by governments alone. In my last role at Microsoft, I worked on this really difficult problem of law enforcement needing to access data stored in the cloud by private companies. Technology companies are really stuck in the middle of this and we had to come up with a solution together with governments and civil society to make it work.  

More than ever, it’s important for us to help others understand that these kinds of global problems mean trying new ways of working together. Some may work; others may not. But it’s something we have to try.

DC: In your experience, what is the key to a successful multi-stakeholder partnership? What makes it work?

LC: A good partnership is one that solves a problem that, in the normal course, regular approaches can’t solve. Take climate, a complex global problem.  There will be some aspects that can be regulated directly by governments, but there’s also a lot of work that needs to be driven by the private sector.  We can bring a lot to the table by innovating new approaches and investing in new technologies to bring others along.  At the end of the day, we all want the most promising solutions can see to see the light of day.  We can work with others across the ecosystem to accomplish this together.

DC: There are challenges too. Microsoft is a big company, but it’s a technology company. It’s about moving very quickly, being at the cutting edge, whereas I’m not sure anyone has ever accused the UN of being at the cutting edge in terms of the way it is run. It is a large, hulking bureaucracy. How do you get these two very different types of organizations to work together? What are some of the challenges?

LC: You’ve identified the challenge right there. We can’t be everywhere. There’s so much going on. We are still learning how we engage and how we define what success looks like. We’re trying to understand how we can refine and scale our engagements to be more effective. Given the circumstances, we have really focused our attention on what the UN (and the world) is most concerned about right now:  COVID recovery and rebuilding.  For us, rebuilding means focusing on the digital divide through connectivity and digital skilling.  It so happens that solving this problem is perhaps one of the most important tasks for both the tech industry and those in the UN working on COVID recovery and rebuilding.  We are aligned so now is the time to work together.

DC: The UN is increasingly using technology, as are all organizations around the world, to manage these problems. Does the UN have the skills and capabilities it needs to do this alone? Or does the UN need Microsoft as much as you need the UN?

LC: We need each other. It’s an interesting time to be setting up this office and thinking through exactly the problem that you describe. Across the department, we are trying to come up with ways to help the UN solve some of its most significant challenges with technology.  There is a lot of work to be done on capacity building, but even before that, we are thinking through problems together to identify the right solutions. Using technology to help people, sometimes in fragile climates and situations, raises all kinds of very important challenges.  We must think carefully together about the technology solutions we are crafting so that what we end up building really aligns with the UN mission, including about human rights.  

Human rights questions are coming up almost every day and this is a topic that anchors almost everything that we do across the team. We have two human rights lawyers on our team based in our headquarters in Redmond and another human rights specialist who will be with us in New York.  They help us understand and think through questions about human rights and digital technology every day.  Being able to have these conversations at this great level of depth has been incredibly motivating and is helping us think deeply about the applications of human rights frameworks to the technologies that we’re advocating for.

Driving Change: Do you have examples of interesting new and innovative ways in which you are working with the UN to deliver projects?

LC: Our philanthropies team is doing interesting and cutting-edge work in innovating how to leverage and scale our digital skilling programs. They are bringing a digital technology curriculum directly to the trainers, the so-called “train the trainers” approach. It’s an interesting innovation to see how they are defining a way for the private sector to scale digital skills and education so that the programs can really have an impact across multiple continents. Coming up with a sustainable and scalable model is important to address the digital divide at a global scale.  And this is what the UN is trying to do.  We want to partner together to achieve this.

DC: Let’s change tack and talk about you personally. You have had quite a varied career. You started off as a journalist. You’ve been a lawyer. You’ve had a brief stint at the NGO Transparency International, then moved to government affairs at Microsoft. What advice would you give to young graduates or to other people considering public service careers? How can they make the most difference?

LC: An important piece of advice is to focus on the opportunity that is right in front of you. I think a lot of times we get caught up in an idea of the direction your career is supposed to go. After working as a journalist, and then a lawyer, I found myself working on anti-corruption policy in Washington, D.C., but working on policy in D.C. as opposed to working in the field just didn’t feel right. Around this time, somewhat out of the blue, I interviewed at Microsoft and received an offer. It was one of those rare moments where you must make a decision in your life, and your career could go in a completely different direction than you originally anticipated. 

I ended up joining Microsoft. That was 10 years ago. It was the right decision for me. It helped me realize that you can do a lot regardless of whether you are working in government, for an NGO, or in the private sector. What was most important for me was to be in the right environment, on the right team, and working for a company that provided deep leadership from the top on the issues I cared about most.  This gave me an opportunity to work on the kinds of issues and challenging questions that I was always interested in, even if I didn’t know I could do it in the private sector for a technology company. 

DC: You sit on the policy side of Microsoft, but of course, it is a tech company. What are some of the new roles you’re seeing, emerging technology-related roles, that you think UN agencies and other similar organizations will be recruiting for in the next decade?

LC: I just finished five years in Brussels, which is a very deep policy environment in which to be working. I’m learning that our team’s work with the UN requires a much broader, more interdisciplinary approach, but at the same time it will require a lot of discipline to really have impact.  It’s not only about making policy.  We are spending a lot more time championing the work of others and finding ways to scale good projects.  We are also acting as matchmaker and convener so that we can identify and execute projects when we see that our technology really can make a difference in people’s lives and help the UN achieve its mission. 

DC: If there was one piece of advice you could go back in time and give to your 20-year-old self, what would it be?

LC: Every person you meet when you are 20 years old could be a great friend or colleague 30 years later. You don’t realize that at the time because you are just starting out, but it is important to keep track of those relationships and friendships and help each other along the way.

NB. This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and context.

Jessica Brown

Jessica is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She was previously global head of event programs at The Economist, based in London and Hong Kong. Her work has been published in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Australian.

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