Two great posts today – an interview with the “federal CTO” and a book review in Atlantic – come to a neat focus: the core problem of corporate culture, in government and business. I’ve written about it before, and I shall again. We have not quite exhausted the issue. For now, a brief comment, and a suggestion that you read these two pieces in parallel, one with each eye, and see what you see.
The book is about how our elites are failing us. Part of its argument resembles mine yesterday on the problems of the “expert” and an expertise too narrow to bring with it judgment or innovative capacities. Part is more focused, and like the reviewer Conor Friedersdorf I am more taken with his summary of the analysis than with the solutions proposed by the writer. But the book looks well worth a read, and I plan to add it to my list.
The interview draws my attention to one of the deep problems of Washington – that its assemblage of thousands of smart, hard-working people seems increasingly inadequate to the task of leading the world’s most advanced civilization through fast and cumulative change. My point is entirely bipartisan. I was interested that the panel I moderated at the Tech Policy Summit last week in Napa agreed that whoever wins the upcoming election will not make much difference to the tech/innovation agenda. There’s no question that the current administration has taken many steps in the “right” direction, including the CTO/CIO appointments. Yet (read the interview) these smart people have little strategic impact. They are some way down the totem pole. The brief campaign suggestion (did I imagine this?) of a CTO in the cabinet did not go far. (Fyi, I have argued for “under-secretaries for the future” in every department and agency; a new White House Council along the lines of NEC, NSC, DPC; and the inclusion in cabinet of the science adviser as well as these two C guys. Still waiting for a call asking me to fill in the details so the executive orders can be drawn up just right.)
Point is, and this needs to be shouted from the roofs and stuck on every bumper, DC’s core problem is a corporate culture problem. It is, as it were, the ultimate old-economy corporation, with guaranteed revenues, tenure for most of its operatives, and the most elegant blinkers that elegant minds can design.
This is where the power of “social” to transform institutional culture is potentially vast, since it opens the doors to fresh and powerful forces that will if unimpeded force the (re)alignment of the organization with its customer/citizen base. We tend to call this “social” when it comes to biz, and “Gov2.0/3.0” when it comes to democracy and its systems of governance. Point is: This is the strategic rather than the tactical significance of social media. It’s a huge challenge to take this in, especially as so many of the leaders in government and biz are, ahem, decidedly old-economy in their thinking. And talk is not enough. I keep referring to the bizarre fact that hardly any of our top 250 corporate CIOs use key social media (Google Mark Fidelman’s HBR piece or search this blog for my discussion of it). Here’s another (sorry, enthusiasts for the present administration). In a revealing speech in 2010, the President shared the fact that he does “not know how to work” the iPod, iPad, XBox, or PlayStation – the whole speech is worth reading for the decidedly negative context in which these technologies are viewed. Point here is simply this: Like the aforementioned CIOs, the President hires good people and tells them, at a certain level, to get on with it. Until corporate culture fundamentally shifts, that is going to make only a tactical difference. Strategic shift is awaited and will depend on two things: The appointment of leaders at the highest levels who are intuitively in sync with radical innovative approaches and can lead from the top; and the co-ordinate opening of the organizational boundaries to unstoppable pressures from the customer/citizen base.
There is much more to be said, not least in that the mitigation of the ill-effects that can also flow from these technologies (from uber-surveillance to killer drones to job destruction to fundamental dehumanization) will only ever be addressed in the context of an embrace of the pace and scope of change that is implied in the Moore’s law-driven digital revolution.
The Obama speech:
Atlantic book review:
CNN Interview with the US CTO:
Obama’s chief tech officer: Let’s unleash ingenuity of the public – CNN.com.
Fact check: The President has been personally using an iPad2 since spring 2011. http://www.theatlanticwire.com/technology/2011/04/obama-has-his-very-own-ipad/37155/
Indeed so, and for all I know also an iPod, an XBox, and a PlayStation! But not, according to him, when he made that speech in 2010.
Yup. But you wrote this in 2012.
1. You labeled your response Factcheck, and in fact my fact (that this was said by the President, as I indicated, in 2010) checks out 100%. Whether he currently uses an iPad or other equipment is of interest but of no relevance to the checking of facts.
2. The point I was making in my post was that there is a gap between the many efforts mounted in Washington on the tech front and the actual strategic impact they have. This is in no way to demean many valuable initiatives that are underway. But it is to note their broader context in which for many reasons tech-related issues like their cousin, future-related issues, are not highly influential in policy-setting in Washington. While I don’t necessarily buy all his solutions, Rob Atkinson’s work at ITIF lays out much of the evidence for this proposition (as in another way does the Academies’ The Gathering Storm). In a public teleconference I hosted (still linked I believe on c-pet.org) with Tom Kalil I raised this specific point after he had reviewed the administration’s innovation agenda, referencing the ITIF metric on trending against OECD nations.
3. The President’s candid 2010 admission, from the man trumpeted as the pro-tech candidate, is illuminating. At the same time, I admire many of the individual efforts that are being undertaken.
Yep, your statement is 100% true, but the context around is, I think, somewhat diminished by fact that POTUS has an iPad2, reads blogs and logged into Twitter not so long ago personally. It’s also true however, that the ‘factcheck” label was awry.
That said, I’m not sure about the larger point you make about the strategic impact of various tech initiatives, particularly with respect to policy around healthcare (open data, NHIN Direct) or the substantial advances in battlefield care for soldiers, to name just one sector.
I think it’s fair to say that this president’s White House made significant investments of the IT shop AT the White House (moving from Lotus Notes to today’s BYOD & virtual machines) and in the larger federal government, with respect to evolutionary change towards the cloud and mobile devices. I’d direct you to the strategic implications of the approach taken at the CFPB for specific evidence of how both policy and implementation choices under the administration are relevant to mission outcomes.
While the country may not have a “Geek in Chief,” in terms of someone who can hand code a webpage, set up a DMZ for his home network or beat Skyrim in a run through, he has delegated tech policy to a US CTO and CIO that have, working with other tech officials and agency staff, made a number of strategic decisions that will be relevant for years to come, in terms of the policy decisions for the Internet, security and privacy. I’m willing to sign off on the notion that these investments are for nought — nor that the next incumbent of the Oval Office will be able to be fire walled from their consequences.
When geek culture has gone mainstream, Internet penetration is at 80% smartphones and tablets are in the hands of average citizens, to be ignorant of their use or potential is to be at a disadvantage politically, though perhaps less so than an understanding of energy or foreign policies.