While the focus in recent years has been on Web 2.0 in government, the public sector’s digital evolution suggests that we are now witnessing the third and by far the most significant wave of reform.
The first stage in the evolution, rooted in the rise of mainframe computers, was about processing, what are now commonly referred to as legacy systems in order to underpin large scale data operations in the back office. The second, built upon the emergence of the Internet through the 1990s and much of the previous decade, centred on infrastructure, new service delivery channels revolutionizing the online face or the front end of government.
Although neither wave has yet to fully reach shore, a third and much larger wave is now taking shape, namely, a culture and mindset of mobility. In fact, previous eras pale by comparison to the coming tsunami-like wave of innovation fuelled by forces of mobility. By mobility, we are not simply referring to the near ubiquitous usage of cellular phones but rather a much wider and more profound movement driven by three inter-related trends: the explosive growth of broadband capacity (network speeds have increased 18 million times over the last 15 years alone); the proliferation of personal, handheld devices of all kinds (by 2015 there will be nearly one connected mobile device for every person on earth); and the demographic emergence of what some commentators have termed as “Generation C.”
According to Booz & Company, Generation C, those born after 1990 and destined to encompass roughly 40 percent of the populations of North America and Europe by 2020, refers to an increasingly digitized youth segment that is “connected, communicating, content-centric, computerized, community oriented, and always clicking.” For this group, traditional boundaries between the workplace, education, socializing and organizing have dissolved into a more seamless landscape blending physical and virtual dimensions.
All sectors thus face significant upheaval with both opportunities and pitfalls.
How will governments respond to ensure their relevance and legitimacy in this new era?
To MEET the challenges of the mobility wave, an unparalleled renewal of the public sector ethos is necessary. This renewal entails simultaneously addressing four central elements: Mobility as a culture and mindset; Empowerment of government workers; Engagement of key partners and stakeholders including and beginning with the citizenry; and Trust, the virtuous lubricant of systemic learning and ongoing adaptation.
M = Mobility:
Large scale processing was accompanied by desktop computers and a landline phone that enshrined office boundaries. More recently, online infrastructure has chipped away at such structures offering limited flexibility for the fortunate few. The advent of mobility, by contrast, signifies the massive displacement of traditional hardware by a widening assortment of mobile devices including smart phones, net-books and tablets.
As processing power expands exponentially via a more widely accessible and low cost infrastructure (depicted as the cloud), the impacts of mobility heighten dramatically. Intensifying friction between a more informed, networked society and the traditionally inward and control-minded culture of government is unavoidable. New patterns of work are needed.
As video rivals and eventually surpasses voice and text (already 24 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube each minute), multimedia creativity and interactivity will drive more virtualized workplaces via tele-working, video conferencing and real-time collaboration. When combined with climate change and productivity strategies targeting the staggering costs of commuting, the de-coupling of workspace and physical location becomes an imperative. As the U.K. government has begun to do, this means a serious re-evaluation of real estate usage and the creation of alternative workspace schemes such as shared campuses that can also facilitate intra- and inter-governmental networking and more integrated governance.
E = Empowerment:
The bureaucratic foundation of any large organization stems from two central assumptions: first, the costs of organizing resources from within are less than via the marketplace or other cooperative arrangements; and second, that task specialization yields the most efficient workflow. The mobility era shatters such logic.
As Don Tapscott, Clay Shirky and others demonstrate, plummeting costs of organizing collectively, coupled with a constantly informed workforce and citizenry, produce conditions that are ripe for networks. Management theorist Gary Hamel speaks of a new era where the “work of management is less and less the responsibility of managers” Within more dispersed and chaotic work arrangements, Hamel is blunt that the ability to follow orders counts for little.
The implications for government are profound. The prototypical public servant of the bureaucratic era is anonymous and deferential to authority, with only those most senior in the ranks permitted to “speak truth to power.” A new more outward and collaborative public service is taking hold; yet too often process trumps performance, constraining the potential for collective innovation. Genuine empowerment is needed.
E = Engagement:
An informed citizenry is no longer enough: information must be shared and not stored. Open data strategies pioneered by several Canadian municipalities highlight the potential for directly engaging the citizenry in policymaking and service design.
The private sector too faces new challenges in working with government bodies, as engagement requires greater openness and collective accountability for shared infrastructures migrating to the cloud. As virtualization expands and ownership lines blur, tough questions surrounding privacy and security can only be answered through open and meaningful stakeholder and public engagement.
Engagement underpins the formation and sustainment of collaborative communities and government’s new role as a partner and facilitator is categorically different than its traditional role as host and convenor. The mobility era requires constant engagement via outreach and openness, blending the inwardly empowered public service with a host of new applications and solutions designed and co-designed in partnership with others.
Empowerment and engagement are indeed closely interlinked, as exemplified by recent remarks from the head of the Australian Public Service: “Government needs to empower individuals and communities in ways that allow it and public servants to have effective exchanges with citizens.” Former Clerk of Canada’s Privy Council, Jocelyne Bourgon, echoes this sentiment (CGE March 2011) and the necessity of embracing citizens as “value creators.”
T = Trust:
What binds together efforts both within and outside a mobility-driven public service is trust. As underlined by Edelman’s Global Surveys in recent years, trust is both fluid and contested. In past eras of processing and infrastructure, trust was ordained in a technocratic manner. For government suppliers this meant secretive contracts for scarce competencies and proprietary solutions overseen – with varying degrees of effectiveness – by bureaucratic control.
Although the infrastructure era brought customer service to the forefront, the mobility era requires a truly collaborative and participative ethos where trust is nurtured through empowerment and engagement. Via new social networking initiatives and collaborative tools, public servants are freer than ever before to break new ground in seeking ways to leverage engaged communities and the power of collective intelligence for