Unless you have business at the United Nations, it's not everyday that an opportunity to be immersed in a multicultural environment presents itself. Even more rare: a chance to be there when the (multilingual) dialogue focuses on digital government. Microsoft's fifth annual Global Leaders Conference held earlier this year in Seattle provided this rare experience with more than 450 delegates from 75 countries gathering to share, compare and glean ideas from their global compatriots.
Prestigious leaders finding their way in the digital revolution generally agreed on key principles such as the need for interoperability of systems, the fundamental importance of building a sound policy and technology infrastructure, the need for some shared standards, the deconstruction of silos and the bureaucratic mentality that fills them and, ultimately, the new demand for effective security in a world that's gotten dangerously small after Sept. 11.
Of course, how technology is deployed and to what ends, depends upon the cultural and historical context of individual countries. Great Britain, with its mature governance structure, is engaged in an aggressive e-government project that includes some first-time innovations. In addition to the government agencies rolling out new technologies, such as dot-net services, private companies have been invited to compete with government in providing solutions. According to an IDC study, Great Britain is a flourishing IT market with 71,000 technology companies and thousands more to come in the near future.
Nearby, Ireland has built a strong technology sector, according to a study by Oxford Analytica. In 1991, the country's technology sector produced 4.3 million Irish pounds ($4.8 million). By 1999, those revenues had increased to 20.5 billion Irish pounds.
Singapore, sometimes regarded the "poster nation" for digital government, flourishes, in part, because it has the ability to control electronic information and policies that would, in the U.S., send ACLU lawyers into collective cardiac arrest. Canada, in its understated and determined way, has forged well ahead of most nations and, according to a recent Accenture study, tops the global list of e-government providers. And Portugal, for its modest economic standing and size, is emerging as a promising newcomer on the European e-government scene.
With its many variables, information technology is transforming governments around the world. But like all revolutions, some people will remain untouched by the winds of change. Obvious barriers to change are insurmountable poverty that continues to plague countries, civil and military strife and socio-cultural convictions that prevent open access to the Internet.
Then, there is the not so obvious. Eavesdropping on pockets of conversation, I heard delegates speak with dismay that citizens in their countries would not support the growth of digital government. Their experience with politics and leaders that rise and fall, make promises and then break them, had taught citizens never to trust government. No matter what the politicians promised, the delegates said, the people would suspect an ulterior motive. Digital government is, after all, still government, wired but potentially treacherous.
The frustration in the voices of these delegates -- largely from South American countries -- was palpable. They clearly saw the benefits that information technology could bring to their struggling nations and, at the same time, realized the futility of the vision.
To say that the Internet has no borders perhaps overstates the power of technology to reach into the remote or troubled pockets of civilization where basic survival is an everyday preoccupation. The ability to join the Digital Revolution is a reflection of a nation's cultural and political history, of its stability and its economy and, ultimately, of the determination of its leaders and the faith of its people.
Of the many lessons gathered at the conference this, for me, was among the most valuable: It is natural and easy to be a captive of our own every day reality, and, easy to assume that others share it. A multinational experience is an awakening to a greater reality that reflects the countless differences that create the collective human experience.