When Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in 1964, personal computers, mobile phones, and the Internet did not exist. We appreciate today his foresight in predicting how thinking is influenced in this fast-paced, complex digital era.
Nicholas Carr wrote in The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: “[Media] supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.”
The march and impact of technology are inexorable and constantly changing. Deloitte’s top-ten predictions for Canada in 2016 are mind-boggling:
- Mobile touch commerce will increase 150% to one million users;
- Mobile games will become the leading platform with 37% of sales;
- Mobile ad-blockers will place less than 0.1% of the market at risk;
- Millennials will use mostly laptops, not just their smartphones;
- Virtual reality headsets will become a massive market;
- Women will occupy less than 25% of IT jobs and education;
- Movie theatre admissions will slide another 3%;
- Traditional pay-television markets will continue to erode;
- Cognitive technologies like Artificial Intelligence will grow 25%; and
- Gigabit-per-second Internet connections will surge to four million.
Start the revolution without me
The Digital Revolution has liberated information monopolies and consumption. The marketplace of ideas is booming, supported by innovation hubs, communities, and networks. Social media are having an impact on virtually everything — citizen and stakeholder engagement, political discourse, policy making, service delivery, social activism. It is important for public managers to know and apply these new tools.
But digitization is not evenly distributed. While more people globally have access to mobile phones than electricity or water, the anticipated digital dividends of higher growth, more jobs, and better public services have fallen short of expectations. Despite tripling to 3.2 billion Internet users in a decade, 60% of the world’s population is offline and remains excluded from the digital economy.
What will it take to better leverage digitization for development? World Bank President Jim Yong Kim says, “We must continue to connect everyone and leave no one behind because the cost of lost opportunities is enormous. But for digital dividends to be widely shared among all parts of society, countries also need to improve their business climate, invest in people’s education and health, and promote good governance.” In short, the analog must catch up and realign with the digital.
Tech-savvy managers needed
What is the role of digitization in public service? What potential improvements could digital technologies bring to public administration? Which enduring issues will still remain? What practices and research are needed to function in the emerging digital environment?
Middle managers are a key group for establishing technological relevance within government. Asking public servants to engage in innovation means giving access to technological platforms that enable connectivity, inside and out. It also means coaching them to use tools in ways that add productivity to their jobs. Tweeting suggestions up the chain of command can be an innovation enabler. But it is not a panacea and depends upon wise leaders who recognize good ideas.
Enabling middle managers to stay technology-relevant prompts behaviours that better navigate data and communications. For example, corporate systems can facilitate scheduling of teleconferences across time zones, looping in senior managers and stakeholders to promote collaboration and enrich dialogue. Mobile devices can also access enterprise apps that improve mission efficiency and citizen apps that foster public engagement.
Governments that invest prudently in technology also capitalize on good practice — innovation, collaboration, incentives, training, metrics. They redeem and multiply the benefits of cultural change and comparative advantage. The managerial challenges are threefold:
- Motivating public servants to contribute intellectual property to the cause;
- Accessing promising external ideas that advance internal processes; and
- Melding ideas and resources to improve the capacity to innovate.
In times of growing demand and constrained resources, governments must find and deliver innovative technological solutions to operational problems. Cognitive governments learn from interactions with data and people, continuously reconfiguring in pursuit of better outcomes.
John Wilkins is Executive in Residence: Public Management at York University. firstname.lastname@example.org. He was a career public servant and diplomat.