“We are at a turning point in history. Once again the technology genie is out of the bottle, but this time it is very different than the printing press … The printing press gave us access to recorded knowledge, the Internet gives us not just access to the knowledge, but to the intelligence contained in the crania of other people around the world in real time on a global basis; and this is taking us into a new age. It is not an information age, it’s an age of networked intelligence; and collaboration is fundamentally changing every institution in society.”
– Don Tapscott, author of Wikimonics and Macro Wikinomics
I’ve spent the better part of the last five years working at the confluence of public policy, people and technology and can say with certainty that the experts in the field agree: the proliferation of digital communication technologies is fundamentally reshaping all sectors of society.
While this may be most apparent in the newspaper, music or television industries, to think that governments are somehow immune to the changing environment is irresponsible. Thus far we’ve managed to operate under the radar, espousing collaboration as the new modus operandi of the public service while hiding in the murky rhetoric of “doing more with less.” But frankly it’s no longer a viable option for dealing with the coming change.
If you don’t believe me, look at what is happening in the United Kingdom where budgets are being slashed on average 20 percent, but up to 35 percent in some cases. The harsh reality, as the Brits are learning, is that they can’t even afford to do more with less. Being more collaborative isn’t the same thing as being innovative: all the collaboration in the world doesn’t break you out of old mental models or help you re-imagine your role in an ever-changing society.
We need to cut through the noise of “greater efficiency through greater collaboration” and the rhetoric of “more with less” and focus instead on doing things fundamentally differently. Given the impact of digital communication technologies, I think that starts with cultivating a better understanding of how digital is reshaping what citizens expect from their public institutions and how public servants can best meet those needs.
In my role as an advisor to the Assistant Deputy Minister of Acquisitions at Library and Archives Canada (LAC), that means reconciling the fact that everyone is now a content creator with the mandate of the institution responsible for preserving Canada’s documentary heritage. While there are undoubtedly a number of things I could speak to, two things stand out immediately.
First, superabundance has replaced scarcity with respect to information resources; second, citizens expect instantaneous access to those information resources. Together these things pose a number of challenges for LAC in the midst of its modernization. But the most important are (1) determining what has value in a digital world and what doesn’t, and (2) figuring out how to make those digital assets available to citizens and stakeholders in a timely way that meets their needs.
The issue of Usage-Based Billing serves as a good example. The issue has elevated the importance of how the government regulates the Internet in Canada to the mainstream and prompted me to question how LAC should document the issue. I have no doubt that LAC’s traditional approach to acquisition will get us part of the picture, but I’m left with lingering doubts that it will provide Canadians with a truly representative and illustrative one given the diversity, depth and speed of information resources produced on the web around the issue. For example, should we acquire digital assets such as Michael Geist’s blog, Jesse Brown’s podcast featuring the then Industry Minister Tony Clement or, perhaps most important, the names of Canadians who signed the OpenMedia “Stop the Meter” online petition that prompted the mainstream attention in the first place? If so, how do we then best make those resources accessible to Canadians?
Make no mistake: digital is affecting all our lines of business. While government budgets will invariably continue to shrink we cannot afford to rely merely on collaboration to close the gap. Governments must be willing to fundamentally rethink the very nature of their business.
Nicholas Charney is a public servant, blogger (cpsrenewal.ca), speaker and digital citizen.