In early October I attended a small meeting on "Digital Media and Democratic Participation,” sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation. The goal of the meeting, as articulated in the invitation letter, was "to explore how digital media may affect political participation and civic engagement. The Foundation is interested in understanding how digital media tools – which enable new forms of knowledge production, distribution, social networking and collaboration – might influence citizen engagement, political activity and democratic participation."
One of the items on the agenda was devoted to networks, collaboration and participation. I was asked to make some opening remarks as a way to frame the dialogue. I started my remarks by discussing the evolution of governance in business and other institutions. As I have been writing in my blogs, I believe that corporations and institutions in general are undergoing dramatic, positive changes in organization and governance.
In the industrial economy that dominated the 20th century, companies were generally centrally organized, with a hierarchic approach to management where authority and information flowed down from small groups of executives in headquarters. This model worked well when technologies and markets changed slowly. But as technology and market changes have accelerated, along with global competition and opportunities, corporations have had to become more flexible and adaptable, which is leading them to embrace a more distributed, collaborative organizational style.
Wise companies recognize that the real expertise is out there in the wider world, with their employees in labs, manufacturing plants, sales and customer service. To capture such expertise, they need these employees to become much more involved in the actual governance of the company, including operational improvements, strategy formulation and innovations across products, services, processes and business models.
A participatory governance model would have been very difficult to implement only a short time ago. Such a model requires that all those working together have access to the information they need to make decisions, as well as having an effective means of communicating with each other.
The Internet and World Wide Web have changed all that. They have enabled the more distributed, collaborative governance style being embraced by leading-edge organizations. Let me give a couple of examples.
The open source community responsible for the development and support of Linux represents one of the most innovative organizational models around. The Linux organization has no central authority at all. Instead, Linux has a distributed decision-making process in which different people - the Linux maintainers - decide which ideas they will accept from contributors around the world. The maintainers are selected by the community, based on which people have the right technical and communications skills, and which are best connected with and trusted by the members of their community.
What makes it all work is the very effective leadership of Linus Torvalds, who initiated the development of Linux and now serves as overall project coordinator. Linux is very successful both because its community includes the best and brightest programmers around the world, and because of Linus’s creativity and leadership qualities. It is clear that Linus's personal style has proven tremendously effective in leading one of the major forces in IT today.
My second example concerns IBM. In the process of becoming a globally integrated enterprise over the last decade, IBM has embraced a more distributed, collaborative management style.
Five years ago, everyone in IBM was invited to engage in a kind of Internet-based town meeting to shape and define the values that should guide the company and its people in the years ahead. "Trust and personal responsibility in all relationships" was one of the three chosen values, along with "Dedication to every client's success" and "Innovation that matters - for our company and for the world."
In a note to employees, IBM chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano wrote, "Clearly, leading by values is very different from some kinds of leadership demonstrated in the past by business. It is empowering, and I think that's much healthier. Rather than burden our people with excessive controls, we are trusting them to make decisions and to act based on values - values they themselves shaped."
“To me, it's also just common sense. In today's world, where everyone is so interconnected and interdependent, it is simply essential that we work for each other's success. If we're going to solve the biggest, thorniest and most widespread problems in business and society, we have to innovate in ways that truly matter. And we have to do all this by taking personal responsibility for all of our relationships - with clients, colleagues, partners, investors and the public at large. This is IBM's mission as an enterprise, and a goal toward which we hope to work with many others, in our industry and beyond."
Recently, I have been wondering how similar Internet-based participatory models can best apply to government itself at all levels - from local to national - in order to tap into the expertise and energy of its citizens.
Volunteering to assist governments and their institutions is nothing new. Many of us already do this in one way or another. For example, I am a member of my local library's advisory council, as well as having served in various councils in Washington, such as the President's IT Advisory Committee (PITAC). How can we best leverage digital media and social networks to encourage citizen participation?
In the ensuing discussions at the MacArthur Foundation meeting, it was pointed out that what I was talking about was more civic engagement than participatory democracy. While participatory democracy emphasizes the involvement of its citizens in government, this involvement is often limited to voting, leaving actual governance to elected politicians, their staffs and appointees.
Civic engagement, on the other hand, has been nicely defined as "working to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and developing the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that difference. It means promoting the quality of life in a community, through both political and non-political processes."
Voting, while absolutely critical to a good representative democracy, is not enough. What we are looking for is the kind of active involvement that is the hallmark of open source communities like Linux, and strongly encouraged in companies like IBM. We want something much closer to participatory governance to help government make better decisions and to help it better manage those tasks for which it is responsible.
There is no doubt that Internet-based technologies have become a great tool for significantly improving the way people work together toward a common purpose. But this is far more about effective leadership than good technologies. All those people out there need to be motivated to get involved, and contribute their time, energy and ideas. That is the responsibility of leaders - in government, companies and communities in general.
Over the past three decades, quite a number of politicians have run for office by putting down the very government to which they want to be elected. "Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," they have said over and over, quoting a phrase used by Ronald Reagan in his first inaugural address on January 20, 1981. A recent poll found that 59% of those polled agree with Ronald Reagan that government is the problem. I wonder how many of those people who have a low opinion of government will want to become involved, regardless of how easy it is to do so. Perhaps a net result of politicians disparaging government is to turn off citizens from wanting to get involved in improving it.
I think it is time to stop putting down government. We need our government leaders to motivate us to help address the very tough problems around us. We need them to issue something like John F. Kennedy’s famous call to arms in his 1961 inaugural address: “And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country"
Such a call represents an appeal to each of us to do what we can to help improve government. Doing so frees us up from feeling victims of the government we ourselves elected, and empowers us with the responsibility to get involved and help fix it. If we do not do so, we only have ourselves to blame.