Who Are You Calling Old and Selfish?

Are Civil Servants Too Old and Selfish for Gov 2.0? That’s the title of an interesting blog post and discussion on Generation Shift. When I saw the tweet about the post well, of course, I took it personally. I’m 55, I’ve been tweeting for almost two years and I can’t really remember when I started Facebook it’s been so long. Not only did I adopt these practices personally, but I promoted them as best as I could at CIA, including being a senior sponsor early on of the Intellipedia effort. I must admit however that all of these activities made me “a person of interest” at CIA–that‘s meant to be funny. (I’m reminded of a conversation I had once with a colleague, during which no doubt I was lamenting the slow pace of change and the general reluctance of government to engage with the new. He looked at me wisely and wryly and observed: ” being for change in a government bureaucracy is not unlike being a mobile home in the path of a tornado.”)
So of course I agree with the principle that government is slow to change, but I don’t think it’s because we are too old and selfish. Yes we are old and no doubt selfish, but that hasn’t stopped us from doing other things that clearly were better for us. In our lifetimes we’ve stopped smoking, started walking long circuits in our neighborhoods most evenings, and learned to recycle plastic and paper products…….so we’re not like dense.
But clearly there is a problem. Why have so many in my generation, particularly in government, decided to draw the line against transparent collaboration (except, of course, they don’t use those terms–the terms I’ve heard are “waste of time” or “lonely hearts clubs.”) Some factors that I think are more credible than the cheap shots of  old and selfish are:
  • Insulation. This applies particularly to government civil servants in managerial slots. Once they reach a position of authority their days become so programmed (with both necessary and Alice-in-Wonderland events) that it becomes impossible for most outside factors to penetrate their consciousness, at least not without serious lag. It takes a real act of will to step outside “the cone of importance“ to look at what is actually going on in the world. This is not necessarily related to age or selfishness.
  • This brings me to a second point, related to insulation, but worth calling out separately. Let‘s call it  Government Exceptionalism. Not unlike the view that America holds an exceptional place in the world and a special role, government exceptionalism argues that the role of government is somehow different from other functions in human and civil society. I don’t know that this position is often explicitly expressed but I would argue that it is implicitly accepted by almost everyone. Those outside government even espouse this view, except they often argue that government is exceptionally inefficient. The function of government itself is inherently broken, they say. But within government, the exceptional argument goes more like this: what we do is very hard, very critical, very special and we just can’t accept any new method that comes down the pike. (I actually don’t believe that most of what government does is exceptional. Most of what government does is actually transactional or knowledge work, which makes it very eligible for the introduction of transparent, collaborative practices.)
  • The final factor I’d offer is Existential Fear. I admit this is probably rather rare, but I do believe there are those in government who understand that Gov 2.0 implementation would eventually lead to a different, and I believe necessarily smaller, footprint for government. Often government is simply the mechanism by which one group of citizens connects to another for necessary interest or mutual advantage and through which the norms of behavior in that transaction are stipulated and enforced. These are exactly the types of activities that mature social networks can do automatically. In the same way that the internet paradigm has destroyed the middleman role in many economic and social activities, social networking has the potential to do the equivalent for government.
(I’m reminded of a visit to my local Post Office almost fifteen years ago. If you remember AOL installation CD’s were everywhere then. It was raining AOL CD’s. This particular year the Post Office had a stack of AOL CD’s available for perusal as you stood in line. When I got to the counter, the postal worker, whom I thought eccentric at the time but now realize was prescient, said “I can’t believe we have these AOL CD’s here. Don’t people realize they will drive us out of business?”)
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