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Cisco PSS 2011 Wraps on Encouraging Note; Experts Cite Public Sector Capacity for Innovation, Evolution

A quartet of distinguished experts on government and innovation closed the 10th Cisco Public Services Summit Sunday by presenting  a cascade of public sector innovations – all supporting the view that government can and will keep up with fast-moving digital technology.

Author Steven Johnson, former Canadian cabinet secretary Jocelyne Bourgon, former Australian finance minister Lindsay Tanner and Indian telecom entrepreneur Sam Pitroda provided an invigorating finish to the 2011 Summit, attended in Oslo by delegates from more than 40 countries.

Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” cited examples of public agencies creating new kinds of data and dialogue from low-tech neo-natal incubators designed for the third world to New York City’s 311 information line.

“It’s the borrowing and remixing of idea that is so often the key to innovation,” said Johnson.  “When you break down silos you get new approaches to problems… There’s no reason why your ideas shouldn’t be free to flow and be improved upon in other peoples’ minds.”

“Chance favors the connected mind,” concluded Johnson.

Canadian researcher and former cabinet secretary Jocelyne Bourgon said government must redesign itself in a world of diminished funding – “I have not found any country that has been able to balance its budget by ‘doing more with less,’” she said – adding that “technology can be a crucial driver in the capacity of reinventing.”

But Bourgon expressed optimism that governments will answer the call. “We now have a generation of public sector servants raised in virtual communities,” she said, noting that traditional, vertically-structured agencies are learning to co-exist with distributed networks.

“We used to define policy as a decision,” said Bourgon. “Now it is a joint experiment [with the public] amid an ongoing process.”

Former Australian finance minister Lindsay Tanner agreed, noting that public sector institutions built on industrial-age principles of hierarchy, control and secrecy “cannot survive in a world with universal instantaneous communication.” But he cited examples of Australian public agencies rising to the challenge, from  obtaining Creative Commons licensing for government documents to asking citizens to co-manage a database of World War I military vets.

Tanner  dubbed the new level of communication afforded by web technologies “multilogue” versus mere “dialogue” – multilogue communication defined as “collective, interactive, and collaborative, involving an unspecified number of people who are talking to each other as well as the government.”

“Technological change alters human behavior,” said Tanner. “It doesn’t just mean a better way to do what we’ve always done. It changes the calculus of what we do.”

Pitroda, the Indian entrepreneur, added that government has a moral imperative to innovate on behalf of the poor. “Technology tends to be used to solve the problems of the rich, who don’t actually have many problems,” he said. “To me, technology is the key to begin to change the fabric of Indian administration and delivery for education, health care, everything.”

Pitroda noted the astonishing speed with which digital technology is spreading in Indi, reporting that 250,000 local government will be connected to optical fiber within two years. “The key is to use this infrastructure to really begin to transform business models,” Pitroda told the PSS audience.

Before departing Oslo, PSS 2011 delegates attended the traditional Nobel Peace Prize concert Sunday night honoring the 2011 laureates: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian human rights activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yememi democracy campaigner Tawakkal Karman.

For a recap of the 2011 Public Services Summit visit cisco.com/go/pss2011.

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