The Power of Connection

John Paul II not only led an international institution with both political and social power, but also established a personal connection with many millions around the world

by / April 9, 2005
One thing seems to have surprised American television broadcasters covering the passing of Pope John Paul II -- the fact that so many millions of Catholics felt personally connected to the spiritual leader. He clearly was not simply the head of a church institution that counted a billion of the planet's inhabitants as members. Rather, he was their spiritual father and the grief so many of them felt at his passing was truly profound and personal.

Only a couple of days after his death, CNN was noting with surprise that the amount of media coverage had already exceeded that of the last U.S. election. To think that it wouldn't is perhaps an indication of the insular view of the world that Americans sometimes hold.

We are, for instance, fond of believing that the president of the United States is the most powerful person in the world. After all, he leads the world's last "superpower." Yet John Paul II, quite apart from his spiritual role in the world, may have played as significant a role as Ronald Reagan in ending the communist Soviet Union regime. And this was undoubtedly one of most significant political events of the last century -- the ending of the cold war.

Certainly the death of an American president from old age would never result in millions of people traveling from all over the world to personally offer their prayers and farewells.

Those of us who work in government, or whose work focuses on government, are perhaps too prone to think of the nation state as the fundamental foundation of power in the world. Or that politics in the pursuit of national interests is the highest aspiration of government.

Yet in John Paul II we find a man who not only led an international institution with both political and social power, but also someone who established a personal connection with many millions around the world. He was their Holy Father. They felt personally connected with him, in part perhaps because so many of them had met or seen him in person, but also because of how he lived and acted. He was a spiritual and moral force in the world in ways that many of his predecessors were not.

The passing of John Paul II certainly brought to the world stage, the power of connection, at a time when we tend to rationalize IT and networks as providing only better efficiency and service to the public.

At its most basic level, a network is about connectivity, and the Internet grew and became a force because it allowed an almost infinite number of possible connections. But I've yet to come across a mission statement for a local or state IT department, for instance, that said: "and above all else, we seek to foster better connectivity between government, business, private institutions and citizens."

Of course, on one level, better service to citizens and increased efficiency using IT inevitably also involves better connectivity. However, there is a difference between viewing connectivity as a by-product and viewing it as a distinct goal in itself. And perhaps we should consider connectivity as a worthy goal in its own right.

For example, during a recent visit with New York City CIO Gino Menchini, he indicated that the city's 311 system was not just about improved service to the citizen, but about connecting citizens to services that already existed. And citizens were very enthused about the development because they felt more connected. They could pick up the phone 24/7 and reach someone to get something handled. And moreover, it would be handled because IT allowed the tracking of each item. The connectivity was real.

Feeling connected is a vital part of community, and as we learned this week, many millions of people around the world felt a deep personal connection to John Paul II, a connection that clearly extended beyond just the position he held as the leader of their church. And the resulting power and influence of the man was immense, extending beyond just his spiritual role in the world.

Disconnected citizens do not vote or participate in the political or social life of their communities, regardless of the technology resources available. And when governments consider their use of IT and the Internet, one question worth asking is: "Are we doing enough to use these to foster a much higher level of connectivity, one that is valued and appreciated by citizens? Could we do more to better connect citizens with government (and citizens with citizens for that matter) on a multi-dimensional community basis?"

We still have a long way to go in this regard. Connectivity is important because community is important. And multi-dimensional connectivity is what network society is all about.
Blake Harris Contributing Editor