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The course of civil life has taken an intense and acute turn over the past few years.  The economic downturn of 2008 offered the first recession of the social networking era, where the interconnectedness and scale of the world economy was only matched by the growth of social networking and micro-blogging.  If Facebook was a country, it would be the world’s third largest.  Since the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, social networking has been a growing force in political life.  Indeed, the threat of removal of Facebook would be the social network equivalent of the international sovereign debt crisis.  As Finley Peter Dunne said last century, “it ain’t beanbag.”

The traditional arc of public sector institutions reflects these forces.  For the first couple millennia of national systems were based on centralized power managed by tight, controlled and slow information networks.  For a few thousand years, storytelling played the primary role in maintaining civil systems.  Five hundred plus years ago, Johannes Gutenberg paved the way for dissemination of public orders and rules.  Indeed, the Renaissance man of the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin, was himself a printer.

The 20th century laid the foundation for the politics of the information age: telegraph, teletype, telephone, mobile and Internet.  The crossover point in civil life from print to electronic communications is best represented by the famous mid-century photograph of Harry Truman holding up the newspaper headline (falsely) declaring he had lost the Presidential election to New York governor Thomas Dewey. What caused the error?  A strike at the Chicago Tribune resulted in a switch in the production process resulting in the removal of the linotype machine (a worthy ancestor of the Guttenberg process) to photoengraving to printing plates.  This forced the paper to go to print hours earlier than normal.

Fast-forward to today, and it’s apparent why the overheated zeitgeist of public life is compounded by handheld, always-connected information flows from a vast array of sources (with or without “fact checking”).  The insatiable public lives on a diet of electronic media matched now by the media and individuals’ ability to support it.  Ten years ago, the journalist Mickey Kaus, in talking about the Presidential primaries called this the Feiler Faster Thesis named after Bruce Feiler the journalist who conceived this during the 2000 Presidential primaries (and a strong voice on finding meaning in everyday life).

We now live in a different climate of expectations regarding public life.   The good news is that the public sector is more transparent and moves faster.  The bad news is that the public sector is more transparent and moves faster.

To illustrate a positive, when Haiti had its terrible earthquake earlier this year, we were able to marshal relief aid quicker than one could have imagined just a few years back.  Through text message donations, the Red Cross set a record via mobile phones: $7 million in 24 hours.

Today we are learning a new balance in the conduct of civil life and instant information cycle.  I am inherently an optimist.  There is a great untapped power in people collaboration, both within and across public institutions and in through private/public partnerships.  Today public sector entities must adapt to the new climate of expectations if they are to advance the populaces forward.

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7 Comments.


  1. Martin Stewart-Weeks

    Nice piece. But I wonder if we shouldn’t stop and test some assumptions:
    1 Facebook is big and unmissable, but how influential is it really? Are we in danger of falling into the trap of believing our own publicity, so to speak, when it comes to Facebook?
    2 Speed and openness are fine and mostly a good thing; the question is whether these inescapable byproducts of social networking combine with, and are impacted by, discernment, judgment and considered analysis. The question for the public sector is not just to become quicker and more agile (to coin the cliches of the moment) but whether it has the capacity to wrestle the tsunami of ideas, information and communication into some kind of sense and meaning. If not, presumably the risk is simply “all sound and fury, signifying nothing”?
    3 When is it good for the public sector to be more transparent, and when is it good for it to be less? Is there any set of circumstances in which less might be better?
    4 “Today we are learning a new balance in the conduct of civil life and instant information cycle”. Really? I’d like to be an optimist too except for when I am a pessmist. What we desperately need is much more evidence over a much longer period that this is truly happening. Assertions and the energetic but lagrely untested faith of the true believers won’t be enough.

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  2. Your post highlights the three main drivers of change for Public Sector, all stimulated by the networked economy : speed, social networking and PPP. Not only do these factors improve performance and service delivery processes, but they fundamentally change the democratic dialog and government capability to empower citizens for the sake of growth & collective well-being. We enter a world in which organizations become less important than their members, in which geography fades into virtual communities, and where growth translates into personal wealth for community members dealing with their own destiny.

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  3. I completely agree about the free-flow of information. Infrastructure coupled with the ‘databaseization’ of information has made collaboration the de-facto standard of how we work. What’s more it has offered the opportunity for just about anyone to mine the data out there.

    How would you characterize a social media experiment like “Wiki Leaks”? – it falls into the social media realm, it is enabled by all of the tools we have worked so hard to create, and it is all about information flow.

    Excellent post.

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  4. I love Thesis…it SEO good…thanks

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  5. “it ain’t beanbag.” this is really true.i tweet this..

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  6. Martin Stewart-Weeks

    Wikileaks, in my view, is a classic example of “range finding” in new and uncharted territory. By that I mean they are testing the boundaries in a world where we can pretty much do anything we like technically in terms of openness and transparency. But that only challenges us to remember that “because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should”. It is a messy and clumsy business and Assange may well be bringing all sorts of personal and other issues into the mix. But the question “how much is too much’ in this debate is a question that can only be answered empirically, I think. And Wikileaks are busy being very empirical! Our job is to look, listen and learn and then maybe come to some useful policy and operational conclusions about what has happened. Bad cases of moral panic do not help.

    Great insights from Anne too, of course .

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