The Cisco Public Services Summit 2011 ended on an optimistic note Sunday with expert evidence of the public sector’s capability to evolve and innovate – an encouraging counterpoint to concerns raised earlier at the Summit that the digital revolution is outpacing government’s ability to cope.
The positive tone, coupled with exhortations to redesign government around Web 2.0 capabilities, led to an upbeat conclusion of the 10th Cisco PSS, attended by delegates from more than 40 countries.
Experts addressing the Sunday plenary session included author Steven Johnson; former Canadian cabinet secretary and government theorist Jocelyne Bourgon; former Australian finance minister Lindsay Tanner; and Indian telecom entrepreneur Sam Pitroda.
Johnson, author of “Where Good Ideas Come From,” presented cases of innovative public agencies creating new kinds of data and dialogue — from low-tech neo-natal incubators designed for the third world with input from local users, to New York City’s robust 311 information line.
“It’s the borrowing and remixing of ideas 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.”
He compared New York’s dial-311 service to the Genius Bar found in Apple retail stores – and pointed out that Apple based the Genius Bar on concierge services found in luxury hotels. “Chance favors the connected mind,” concluded Johnson.
Canadian researcher and former cabinet secretary 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 – and said “technology can be a crucial driver in the capacity of reinventing.”
“We cannot lament the old world without adapting it to the world in which we live,” said Bourgon. “We need institutional, organizational, innovative, and adaptive capacity, because that is how society prospers in all circumstances – those we can predict and those we can’t.”
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 decisi. Now it is a joint experiment [with the public] amid an ongoing process.”
Former Australian finance minister 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 Tanner said Australian public agencies were rising to the challenge, citing examples 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” as opposed to mere “dialogue.” He defined multilogue communication 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 India, reporting that 250,000 local governments 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 gala Nobel Peace Prize concert Sunday night saluting the 2011 laureates: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian human rights activist Leymah Gbowee, and Yememi democracy campaigner Tawakkal Karman.
Catch all the discussion from the conference on Twitter: #CiscoPSS, and check out these blogs summarizing each of the two preceding days at the summit:
Day 2: ElBaradei Says Egypt Faces Vast Economic Opportunity, but is Imperiled by “Royal” Mismanagement of Post-Mubarak Transition
Day 1: Cisco Public Services Summit 2011 Opens with Emphasis on Political Challenges of New Technology