The Anniversary Paradox

Getting on with the American experiment, anyway.

by / September 5, 2002
On Sept. 11, 2002, at 8:46 a.m. (EDT), the country enters the second year of a new era. The once foreign sounding idea of homeland security is now part of everyday conversation, and the term hero is no longer squandered on sports stars and celebrities.

The moment will be marked by earnest commitments to never forget the victims and heroes of that infamous day, together with urgent appeals to regain a future orientation after a year of reflection and recovery.

"Getting on with it," says New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, "is the best way to stick it to the terrorists."

Author Kent Keith provides a slightly more nuanced perspective:
"What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight."

"Build anyway."
That comes from a republished book called Anyway: The Paradoxical Commandments. The commandments are observations about our everyday state of affairs, first penned by Keith a quarter century ago, punctuated by admonitions to do the right thing -- anyway.

The book's re-release comes as the country marks the first anniversary of 9-11, with its confidence further shaken by allegations of misdeeds by people who should know better in both the public and private sectors.

In a demonstration of the highest form of flattery, consider the paradoxes of public service, circa 2002:

- Firefighters continued the dangerous and backbreaking work of containing wild fires, even as two of their own were arrested for starting massive fires in Colorado and Arizona.

Serve with pride anyway.

- Revenue shortfalls of $50 billion across 45 states cause public agencies to turn inward.

Keep looking outward and thinking about the citizen anyway.

- Inward-looking bureaucrats defend the status quo against cuts, rather than looking for opportunities to innovate.

Innovate anyway.

- The short-term impact of new technologies on government processes is often overstated, while the long-term effects are radically understated.

Maintain a long-term view anyway.

- Wayward technology contracts in Florida and California have created bicoastal blemishes on public-sector procurement, with the attendant investigations and calls for reform.

Remain focused on taxpayer value and public trust anyway.

- The corporate accounting crisis has raised serious questions about the continued viability of a number of companies on which government relies. Stay with long-standing business partners, but have a contingency plan anyway.

- The historic values of open government and personal privacy are being buffeted by the winds of change as states broaden exemptions to public disclosure while other changes give government a freer look at private information.

Strive for openness in government and safeguards of privacy anyway.

- Cyber terrorism and homeland security - not IT - have captured the public and political imagination - for now.

Lead anyway.

Cyber terrorism and homeland security are leadership issues for CIOs, just as elected officials and other state executives shared in the leadership of the campaign for digital government.

The rate and degree of change has been accelerated by leaders, working together, who serve as catalysts, champions and change agents.

As we anticipate a still uncertain future, we would do well to remember the counsel of former presidents - even allowing for the non-inclusive language of their day.

President Harry S. Truman reminds us that, "Men make history, and not the other way around. In periods where there is no leadership, society stands still. Progress occurs when courageous, skillful leaders seize the opportunity to change things for the better."

For his part, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote that such undertakings are not for timid souls, "Life is not easy, and least of all is it easy for either the man or the nation that aspires to great deeds."

Finally, the pursuit of great deeds can come at considerable cost -- sometimes extracted by the most unworthy of opponents.

On that point, Keith's original commandments conclude:
"The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
"Think big anyway."
Paul W. Taylor Contributing Writer

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.