Renewal
January 23, 2014

Reinventing government and democracy for the Digital Age

The push for government cutbacks is running up against growing public expectations about what government should be and do. They should offer better services, healthcare, safety and provide stability for our troubled economies. So while cost-control measures may be necessary they are clearly insufficient. We can no longer tinker with government – we need to reinvent it.

Even though it’s the 21st century, most governments still reflect industrial-age organizational thinking, based on the same command-and-control model as industrial-age enterprises. As government got bigger, and the revenue of government increased, it became necessary to build more elaborate procedures, structures and controls, all run by new layers of professional managers.

These bureaucracies operated like individual “stovepipes”with information only flowing vertically and rarely between departments. During the last forty years, governments, like corporations, applied computers to their work as each agency acquired and built data processing systems to meet their automation needs. The result is that old procedures, processes and organizational forms were just encoded in software.

This is not sustainable. Governments face a reality in which they are more and more dependent for authority on a network of powers and counter-influences of which they are just a part. Whether streamlining government service delivery or resolving complex global issues, governments are either actively seeking – or can no longer resist – broader participation from citizens and a diverse array of other stakeholders.

The first-wave of digitally-enabled “e-government” strategies delivered some important benefits. It made government information and services more accessible to citizens while creating administrative and operational efficiencies. But too many of these initiatives simply paved the cow paths – that is, they focused on automating existing processes and moving existing government services online.

It is the next wave of innovation that presents an historic occasion to fundamentally redesign how government operates, how and what the public sector provides, and ultimately, how governments interact and engage with their citizens.
But transforming the deeper structures of government remains a struggle. Deep and resilient traditions combine to frustrate progress, including conflicting time-frames and motives, a lack of incentives in the system to innovate, and deeply engrained cultural and institutional legacies. But just as new waves of innovation are washing over the private sector, the imperative to harness new models of collaboration and innovation is arriving at the doorstep of governments everywhere.

It is truly a time when either government plays an active and positive role in its own transformation, or change will happen to it. The good news is that glimmers of this second wave of innovation are beginning to appear in capitals around the world. Knowledge, information, talent and energy are being moved, shaped and channeled in brand new ways, inside, across and outside of the boundaries of government. A growing number of governments understand the need to distribute power broadly and leverage innovation, knowledge and value from the civil society and private sector.

There is a new kind of public sector organization emerging: open government. This is government that co-innovates with everyone, especially citizens; shares resources that were previously closely guarded; harnesses the power of mass collaboration; and behaves not as an isolated department or jurisdiction, but as something new: a truly integrated organization. Today, it’s a radical notion, but perhaps it’s only as fantastic as the current version of government would seem to a feudal prince from the Middle Ages visiting us now.

FDR and Winston Churchill wanted stronger government. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the Tea Party and today’s Republican Party in the United States want less.

Thanks to the Internet we can now have it both ways. In the U.S. and many other jurisdictions, government is becoming a stronger part of the social ecosystem that binds individuals, communities and businesses – not by absorbing new responsibilities or building additional layers of bureaucracy, but through its willingness to open up formerly closed processes to broader input and innovation. In other words, government becomes a platform for the creation of public value and social innovation. It provides resources, sets rules and mediates disputes, but allows citizens, non-profits and the private sector to do most of the heavy lifting.

Given examples like the human genome project and the global positioning system, it’s not a stretch to imagine that successful business models could be formed around the exploitation of open public service platforms to create entirely new services or even replace some of those currently delivered by government today. The idea is to emphasize variety and choice in service venues, providers and options, rather than the old industrial-age model of “one-size-fits-all” government.

Imagine if every citizen was granted their own MyGovernment web page from birth – an interactive space through which they channeled all of their interactions with government, whether renewing a driver’s license, filing taxes, finding a new doctor or registering a business. Using a combination of widgets, RSS feeds and other social technologies, service providers from all sectors – public, private, and non-profit – could offer up services and citizens could assemble their own customizable packages using their tax dollars.

There would be true competition among service providers and genuine choice for consumers. Government could continue to develop their own apps to address constituent needs that may be underserved by the market. But other areas – licensing and permits, small business loans and grants, consumer protection, location-based services, for example – would be ripe for competition.

Rethinking democracy
The need to reinvent e-government must take place within the context of a new vision for democracy. In Western countries a growing number of citizens can’t be bothered to vote. Many don’t care who is in power, since they feel the end result will be more of the same. They question the legitimacy of public institutions.

Opposition parties champion a more “participatory democracy,” but it rarely happens. What we end up with is what I call “broadcast democracy.” Citizens listen to speeches, debates, and television ads. They give money and vote. But when it comes to having input into policy and real decisions, they are relegated to the sidelines.

This first era of democracy was once appropriate because public policy issues were simple and evolved slowly. The public didn’t have the education, time, resources or communication tools to participate more fully. This is no longer the case. The policy specialists and advisers on the government payroll can barely keep pace with defining the problems, let alone craft the solutions.

Such collaboration often encounters civil-servant resistance because of something I call the “cult of the policy expert.” Many policy makers and senior administrators still tend to think of themselves as an elite group who are in a unique position to make dispassionate decisions in the public interest. As experts, they assume that they have the access to the best information – or at least better information than the public.

While that may have been broadly true in the past, it is not necessarily true today. Ubiquitous information networks can enable organizations to tap the insights of large numbers of people to arrive at decisions and outcomes that are superior to those presided over by individuals and small groups of decision-makers.

The second era of democracy requires governments to create opportunities for sustained dialogue between voters and public officials.

To be clear, this is not some kind of direct democracy, where citizens would vote online every night after the evening news. That would be tantamount to a digital mob. Nor is this just a means to determine voter sentiment. Opinion polls already do a good job at that.

Instead, we need ways to allow citizens to contribute ideas to the decision-making process – to get them engaged in public life. When citizens become active, good things can happen. We all learn from each other. Initiatives get catalyzed. People become active.

Public office holders need to embrace integrity, which is basically about doing the right thing. Politicians everywhere know that negative advertising is toxic to democracy, poisons reasoned political debate and dumbs down the discussion. Nevertheless, they trash their opponents with attack ads.

Elected officials and the public need to recognize that the public and private sector have a role to play in sustaining a healthy society. When politicians say the best role of government is “to get out of the way,” they are shirking their responsibilities. Strong regulations saved Canadian banks from being sucked into the US sub-prime mortgage crisis. The banks and Canada are healthier because of this.

We also need fuller transparency. Everything should be done in the full light of day. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, and the Internet is the perfect vehicle to achieve this. Post online all government activities and financial transactions. Perhaps Rob Ford’s life would have unfolded differently if we could all have seen his daily schedule. Municipal corruption in Quebec would have been thwarted if Quebec citizens could have compared the cost of construction contracts with similar work in Toronto or Vancouver.

To restore democracy in the public’s mind requires stronger, more open institutions, active citizenship and a culture of public discourse and participation. This will change the nature of democracy and the relationship between citizens and the state – for the better.

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