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.