The Total Reinvention Of The State


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This is the summer of the Great Fear, and never more so than on this grim morning with stock futures sharply down — again — and real worries about the possibility that the banking system might freeze up.  For history buffs, it feels a little bit like 1931.  The US economy and stock market seemed to be stabilizing after the first wave of the Depression when a European banking collapse triggered another, and much deeper crisis here. The rebels are marching (shambling, actually) toward Tripoli, and the Great Loon appears to be meditating flight, and while that is good news, it also means the after party is coming — and nobody really knows what happens in Libya when the Africa’s King of Kings has left for retirement or jail.  The bloodshed in Syria continues, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is once more on the boil, Turkey is bombing Iraq, both Americans and Pakistanis are bombing Pakistan, Russia is selling stealth aircraft technology to China, and so on and so forth.

But there’s a bit of good news this morning that in the long run may be more important than all the gloom and doom.  From a piece by the estimable Chrystia Freedland in the New York Times comes the news that one of the most essential items on the post-blue model world’s to do list is moving right along: the total reinvention of the state.

You could call it the Government 2.0 approach, and its fundamental thesis is that the biggest question is not how much to spend and how much to tax, it is how to adapt the state to the information age.One of the first thinkers to articulate this view was the best-selling author Don Tapscott. Mr. Tapscott, who has been arguing for decades that the knowledge economy requires a new style of government, thinks the time for his idea may have finally come.

“If you look at the current crisis, we have the irresistible force for reducing the cost of government meeting up with the immovable rock of public expectation that government should be better, not worse,” Mr. Tapscott told me. “Tinkering with this will not work. When you are talking about cutting trillions of dollars, that’s not trimming fat, that is tearing out organs, and we don’t need to do that, and we don’t want to do that.”

“We need to fundamentally rethink how we orchestrate and create government value,” he said. “And now we have a burning platform, which could help us do it.”

Tapscott has a book on the subject: Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World (co-authored with Anthony D. Williams).  He argues that we have not yet begun to tap the potential to make government cheaper and more responsive by rethinking the core paradigms of the progressive state.  Instead of government as something that a cadre of lifetime career bureaucrats do to the rest of us, government can facilitate society’s capacity to think and organise on its own.

As an example, Mr. Tapscott cited a recent conversation with the chief executive of Melbourne. He suggested to her that one way to apply his open-government approach would be to make public all of the city’s information on bicycle accidents and where they happen.

“I said to her, ‘If you release all that data, within 24 hours someone will do a mash-up and you will be saving lives within weeks, and it won’t cost you a penny,”‘ Mr. Tapscott said.

Society wants fewer bike accidents; the progressive state assumed that for various reasons the only way to avoid them was to have bureaucrats collect the data, draw conclusions and then issue and enforce appropriate regulations.  Tapscott argues that if society at large has the information, in many cases the people themselves can and will figure out what to do — and then do it with the smallest possible reliance on government power and funds.  Instead of a bureaucratic state developing and enforcing edicts (and jealously assembling and guarding both information and power as the only way to get the job done), there is a spontaneously self-organising society.

This is not the solution for every policy problem.  But nor is it the only way that better and more creative use of IT and the networks it creates can revolutionise the very nature of the modern state so that it employs many fewer people and facilitates rather than supersedes human freedom.

Our economic troubles today and many of our political problems arise fundamentally from the mismatch between our institutions and our ruling ideas and paradigms on the one hand, and the social consequences of the new technologies pouring into our world at an unprecedented rate on the other.  The bad news is that the mismatch is very great, its consequences grave and complex, and that multiple, interlocking catastrophes await if we do not adjust.

But the good news is that the same technology, cleverly and effectively deployed, can solve many of these problems, and the unhappier we are with the status quo, the faster as a species we are going to set about making needed changes.  The jangling and discordance we hear from the financial markets and see all around us is an alarm clock, not the Last Trumpet; it is telling us to wake up and get a move on, not to lie down and die.

The day ahead is bright, its possibilities immense.

This post originally appeared on The American Interest.