"It's not about moving to the Internet, it's about a multi-channel ecosystem."
That line, which originated in the keynote address at a recent Government Technology Conference, spread like a virus through the breakout sessions, and then across the exhibit floor.
Captains of industry were repeating it, as were some public-sector managers and chief information officers.
Before we accept the assertion at face value, and have it permeate our speech, thinking and assumptions, it is useful to unpack it for its potential (un)intended consequences.
The "multi-channel ecosystem" - an elegant coupling attributed to Tom Siebel of the software company that bears his name - encompasses Web services, call centers, customer relationship management and the like.
This new conventional wisdom reflects, at best, the perfection of means and the confusion of ends - "it" is no more about a multi-channel environment than "it" is about moving to the Internet. It is about the relationship between citizens and their government. Will technology be used to give government back to the people, and, in so doing, transform old, tired processes?
The answer to that question becomes clouded because the multi-channel ecosystem commingles both disruptive and enabling technologies. The combined mass appears to grow, creating the impression that expanding capacity must surely bring with it additional layers of cost and complexity.
What of the promise that the disruptive nature of the Internet holds the potential to drive the cost out of processes and ultimately simplify the relationships among citizens, businesses and government?
That appears to get lost in the fog, as does the legitimate proposition that government can, and should, prioritize service delivery and make choices among delivery channels.
We are told that unlike the private sector, government cannot choose its customers. True. Therefore, we are told, existing channels cannot be shut down in favor of the new avenues. History suggests otherwise. Governments still care for at-risk parentless children and people with infectious diseases, but gone are orphanages and sanitariums.
In closing these historic institutions, deliberate policy and investment choices were made to move toward a different and improved future.
We are nearing another such historic decision point.
Budgets are being balanced through deep cuts to programs people care about - social services, education and parks. One governor has even put the state library on the block. In such a climate, the notion of a multi-channel environment is being appropriated to provide cover for processes that might otherwise be in jeopardy - including paper forms, the original red tape channel.
While the public sector has adopted the multi-channel story line as a defensive posture, the private sector is playing offense with the concept. The multi-channel approach opens new opportunities to sell a greater range of business software into the government market, which some regard as a safe haven during a recession. As the two sectors use a common phrase to talk past each other, it could well wind up as a festival of unmanaged expectations.
The other tension here is an impulse to add new layers on top of existing structures, rather than working back from a preferred future and making tough calls about what fits and what does not in the long term. There is value in some existing processes, which can and should be a continuing part of the mix.
For example, big iron data processing is uniquely able to handle the volume and complexity of data needed to administer government programs. There are other processes for which there is only a Fiddler on the Roof defense, a Tevye-inspired declaration of, "Tradition!"
The Internet is uniquely able to cause us to confront arcane bureaucratic processes and put services directly in the hands of citizens and businesses.
Still with Tevye, the singing milkman philosopher animated the folly of adhering to traditional means when the underlying reason for the tradition had long since past, or been forgotten. It happens to the best of families, and to the most established of institutions.