Modern Times is the 1936 comedy starring, written, and directed by Charlie Chaplin in which his iconic Little Tramp character struggles to survive in the modern, machine world. The film satirizes the desperate conditions people faced during the Great Depression, caused in Chaplin’s opinion by the efficiencies of industrialization.
There has been nothing short of an information and communication technology revolution in society since. Marshall McLuhan’s 1960s musings on “the medium is the message” have been surpassed at the speed of light. People in this electronic age of robotics, artificial intelligence, and social media are obsessed with BlackBerry stock futures and becoming “early adopters” of the latest Z10 app.
e-Government takes many forms, whether an institutional tool for transparency and combating corruption in Tanzania, Canadian assistance for post-secondary distance education in the Caribbean, or self-service channels via mobile and web-based technologies “anywhere, anytime, any device.” Government-to-business applications matured early, but government-to-citizen development shows greater promise.
Game-changing outcomes are at stake in the headlong rush towards ICT saturation:
• ICTs as a means for achieving government ends, not an end in themselves.
• ICTs as tools for managing information and disseminating knowledge.
• ICTs that enable accountability by promoting transparency.
• ICTs that protect privacy, as well as catalyze open government.
• ICTs that extend the reach of public consultations and inform good policy.
• ICTs that close the digital divide by bridging gaps in global, societal, and cultural access.
If viewed as an enabler and harnessed to the cause, ICTs can be instrumental in serving the public good. But value for money is not a sure bet – things are rarely what they seem in government. It is estimated that productivity gains from training public servants generate more than twice the return of the equivalent capital investment in ICT. Yet governments are reluctant to invest adequately in the people who use technology compared to the Chief Information Officers and “geek squads” who manage it.
A whole generation of technocrats has populated the ranks of the public service. They came with amazing aptitudes and high expectations only to find transient values and hollow opportunities – hidden and hard to navigate web sites, politically manipulated social media, bureaucracies struggling to adapt to digital era information networks.
Time perhaps to add value with soft-wired competencies rather than shackling bright, young professionals to hard-wired infrastructure? Time again for a renaissance in public service excellence, with leadership that renews the commitment to people and openness in a time of austerity?