Trust in the Age of Information

Wednesday, October 16, 2013
by Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

Last week Bill Eggers from Deloitte was in Ottawa, explaining his view of The Solution Revolution: the idea that for-profit businesses and social enterprises will solve societal needs before government can, in creative, interesting ways. The question post-presentation was "How can government help this ecosystem of solutions?" One of the themes we hit on in response was that supporting such counter-intuitive approaches is a hard road.

The Triple Bottom Line

There's a common case study in business literature - whether it's about innovation or marketing - about Gilette's "safety razor." This is the standard now: you buy a handle once, and expensive disposable blades frequently.

But when introduced, it was a disruptive innovation, undermining barbershops' monopoly on shaving. From the marketing standpoint, it's a example of knowing what your customers want. As it turned out, they didn't want a steady hand with a straight-razor in a nice barbershop, they actually just wanted a clean-shaven face.

Or as Harvard's Ted Levitt put it: "No one ever buys a shovel. What they're buying is a hole."

But for governments, this level of disruption and slight counter-intuition doesn't go far enough. Government isn't looking for a shovel or a hole. It's more like government wants a vibrant environment in which kids can grow up. The hole is just for a post, which supports a volleyball net, which isn't even really for volleyball at all - in the long run, it's actually just an interaction device for the neighbouring kids, to build friendships and community.

So the savvy marketer, when approached by someone looking to buy a shovel, might then say "Are you sure you don't want a soccer league, instead?"

With so many stakeholders, this actually is the level of complexity governments are experiencing in their outcomes, whether or not they actively pursue it. Or even know it.

It's the idea of the Triple Bottom Line, taken to extremes. Former Clerk of the Privy Council Jocelyn Bourgon provides case studies from this future: what she describes as a New Synthesis of Public Administration. There is a fascinating common thread running through each case study. Not only do the programs she describes solve the short-term problem at hand, they actually work to obsoletize the government's involvement in that solution in the long run by building communities around the problem. That would be part of my True Bottom Line for Government.

(Another would be organizational learning being a core component of any approach to solving problems. For another day.)

The Sound Bite World

The problem is that this level of nuance is really - and understandably - hard to explain to taxpayers.

An example: a few months ago a House Committee in the US released a report detailing $50M in spending on conferences for the IRS between 2010 and 2012. Outrage, predictably, ensued. It seems extravagant until you take the step of dividing that figure by the three-year horizon and by the organization's 106,000 employees. All of a sudden they're spending about $157 per person per year on conferences. Which seems borderline paltry, especially if you compare that to what they spend on each of those employees.

To boot, the longer and more accurate story about conferences is that their key benefit is the interaction and relationship building between colleagues and industry partners, far in excess of the value of simply having ideas changing hands and minds.

Or for an analogous example, as Clay Shirky put it yesterday at the Code for America Summit:
"The product of a hackathon isn't running code. It's the social capital people created among the people in the room."
Or what about building civic awareness by gamifying recycling with rewards, which Eggers explained has raised recycling rates from 30% to 90% in some U.S. neighbourhoods?

These are harder ideas to sell. Why hasn't the information age changed this?

Trust in the Age of Information

Even fifty years ago, the machinery of government would have been largely opaque to many Canadians. But as the availability of information has increased, Canadians' trust in government has not. Today, I would posit, we're at an awkward point in this evolution where we have information without understanding; availability without transparency; content without context*.

But this situation may be a side-effect of The Connected World: that of radio, television, photojournalism, and globalization, which is giving way to a new one.

Which dotted line path will it be, as even more information becomes available? What happens to the trend in public trust in The Hyperconnected World? As the age of Open Government unfolds? Are we going to see an acceleration, or a slowing and reversing?

I don't know, and I think much hinges on it. But if government lacks the relationships, willpower, and evidence to pursue messy, complex outcomes - to return to my original analogy, communities, rather than holes - The Hyperconnected World will be characterized by a lot of getting the wrong things done, with stellar efficiency.

* Another link to come out of the Code for America Summit yesterday: Transparency is Not Enough, by Danah Boyd. Suddenly I feel bad for having partially rehashed a three-year old argument (I wrote this over the weekend (and to be fair, this is actually somewhat of a synthesis of a handful of themes I've already gotten in to)), but considering that we still haven't moved past weak transparency yet, I'm okay with it.