Don Tapscott is one of the foremost experts on the impact of technology and has been called the fourth most influential management thinker in the world. Returning from the World Economic Forum in Davos, he spoke in January at the Digital Governance Forum in Ottawa. In a conversation, editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe began by asking why the digital revolution has failed to deliver on its promise of cheaper, better government.
I don’t think governments have changed fundamentally since Al Gore made that famous commitment 20 years ago. We’ve largely paved the cow path and I think we know what needs to be done: we need to change the whole architecture of government. We need to release raw data so that governments can become a platform where civil society, the private sector and other government agencies can self-organize to create public value. That would be the strategy but, as Peter Drucker says, “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and I think you have these old industrial-age bureaucracies with a very deep culture.
One of the arguments in support of those bureaucracies is that they manage risk in a volatile political environment.
I think it’s pretty ironic that people think the old model helps us manage risk, because the world has never been a riskier place. We have catastrophic developments in the making around climate change. We have a global economy that’s in terrible shape where we’ve got massive structural unemployment – there’s economic growth but it’s not generating jobs. We have growing social inequality. The world is very conflicted in many areas. We have many, many global problems that are not getting better and some are getting worse, so the risk is very great.
All that is evidence the old model doesn’t work, it’s not evidence it does work. In fact, network models can help us manage risk better because they engage people. And we need to create a more secure and predictable future. We need to engage all sectors of society, not just government – the private sector, civil society, academics, foundations and individual citizens. And we’re not really doing that yet.
What impact does this approach have on the power of government to assert control?
Well, the irony of the current situation is that people say we need these tight structures to control our future, yet we’re out of control. Control and power needs to be achieved through people, not over people. And in a multi-stakeholder, volatile world, the only way to achieve some kind of order, from my perspective, is to engage people. There is an alternative – you have an iron fist and try to subjugate a population.
When you’re at Davos and talk about Global Solution Networks, what is the response from political and business leaders?
Everyone is very open to it because they know that the current model is broken. The UN was a very appropriate organization for 1945 when it was created. And we need the UN today because we need states to cooperate together around security, for example. But if you actually look at the UN, and we did in the Global Solution Networks program, it is already engaging these multi-stakeholder networks on almost every issue on the planet. We documented a dozen key initiatives by the UN to curate the power of multi-stakeholder networks as opposed to doing things the traditional state-based way. Is that culture infused throughout the UN? No. Is the UN still a bureaucracy controlled with very low metabolism by states? Yes. But the winds of change are blowing.
Is it fair to say that we need to be thinking more about outcomes?
Absolutely. If we come at this from an outcome point of view, we’re going to decide that our current models for creating desired outcomes are deeply flawed because they’re traditional industrial age models. The industrial age was about standardization, about scale, where something at the top controlled things and pushed out whatever to passive recipients. Mass production, mass marketing, mass democracy, mass education, mass media, and the recipients were passive and inert. It all enabled us to achieve the kinds of outcomes that we wanted.
We also had an industrial age model of government where we had bureaucracies. But that was a good thing because they enabled us to have accountability, to protect the public purse, and to mitigate against graft and corruption and patronage and so on. And we had an industrial model of democracy: you vote, I rule. We could control the future. In a country like Canada, there were a lot of great prime ministers and governments that did good things. But now the situation has changed very radically and that old industrial model doesn’t work anymore.
Do we still need bureaucracies to guard the public purse and have accountability?
Sure, but we can have streamlined bureaucracies and we can increasingly move toward a networked model where the public purse is not guaranteed by people pushing paper and processes, it’s guaranteed by transparency, where sunlight is the best disinfectant, and where the tonic of the marketplace gets brought to bear on every function within an organization like the government. That’s how we’re going to solve these problems.
Throughout Latin America you have huge corruption. Well, we’re not going to fix that by having more control. We’re going to fix that by dealing with the systemic issues that cause it, by paying policemen enough money to live so they don’t have to be corrupt. And then you bring sunlight to bear. Transparency is a huge force so that governments get themselves naked and buff.
You spoke about policy networks. What do you mean by the term and how do they work?
Policy networks are one of the ten types of Global Solution Networks. So by definition, they’re multi-stakeholder, they’re trying to solve a global problem, a creation of, say, a competition policy. They use the digital revolution as core to their operations and they’re not controlled by states.
The International Competition Network is a policy network. It started out being a standards network, but it’s created all these best practices that are really driving government policy around the world even though the network isn’t controlled by governments.
What’s the cost if governments don’t respond and make the changes you’re advocating?
My emphasis with this program has been on global problem-solving. And this is a huge opportunity for national governments because right now the way we try and contribute to solving problems in the world is through diplomacy, or it’s through direct aid, or it’s through participating in global institutions like the United Nations. And sure, we need to do that, but there’s now a whole new vector.
We can develop the power of networks, and when you do that you get network effects. And you get much greater capability brought to bear on the problem because you’re mobilizing not just your own government resources, you’re mobilizing the private sector and civil society, which includes NGOs, maybe foundations, philanthropists, academics and other government agencies at different levels.
This is a time of huge opportunity to be more effective in the world and to bring the values of Canadians to bear on the global situation. And it’s also an opportunity to reduce the cost of many of our foreign affairs activities.
Do you see this strengthening legitimacy of our public institutions?
For sure. We have a crisis of legitimacy with our democratic institutions. Young people are not voting; increasingly they agree with the bumper sticker, “Don’t vote, it only encourages them.” And they’re wrong because we need representative democracy. But it’s kind of understandable because many of our governments today seem focused on self-perpetuation. They have great difficulty collaborating to do the right thing for the country. They’re beholden to vested interests.
The U.S. government is the supreme case in point, where you have something like 92 percent of the population that thinks there should be background checks for firearms, but a Congress that can’t pass a law that reflects the will of 92 percent of the population. A typical Congressman will spend two thirds of his or her time raising funds. And when they’re done, half of them go work on K Street where they become lobbyists. So this is deeply corrupt, not in a pejorative sense, but in a technical sense.
We need to fix this problem, because the alternative to representative democracy is troublesome. And if we have a whole new generation turn their back on democratic capitalism we’re in big trouble.