Breaching the Wall

Digital government benefits when CIOs look beyond their borders for ideas.

by / February 2, 2007
In early October 2006, I stood on the Great Wall a few kilometers north of Beijing. It was the fifth day of my first trip to China, and despite all the reading I did to prepare, I was reeling from the experience. The wall is a magnificent feat of determination and engineering, snaking along mountain ridges for thousands of miles. Built over a span of 2,000 years, the wall represents the geopolitical past of China more vividly than you can imagine, saying in stone and mortar, "We stay inside. You stay out."

But here in the present, on an unusually clear day, Chinese and international tourists climbed up and down the steep steps and ramps, snapping countless digital photos of the wall and each other. I took out my cell phone and woke my son, a history buff back home in New York, to describe it to him. On the uphill climb to the cable car that takes you from the parking lot to the wall itself, scores of vendors called out in English for us to buy their wares. They gave us their business cards and amazingly remembered our names when we returned hours later. My trip to the wall followed several days in the stunningly new and reinvented city of Shanghai, which could not be more open to international trade, technology and economic development.

So what does this have to do with public-sector CIOs? I was not actually in China as a tourist, but as a member of a U.S. National Science Foundation delegation to a bilateral workshop on International Digital Government Research. Also in the delegation was Norm Jacknis, CIO of Westchester County, N.Y., on his fifth official visit to China; and D.J. Harper representing the CIO of Arizona, on his first visit.

In the Chinese delegation, sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Science and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, were directors from several government agencies, including the State Information Center (think Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and governmentwide IT agency all in one), and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Both countries sent university researchers who are exploring, experimenting with, and evaluating technology and digital information in the work and performance of the public sector. The major topics of discussion included environmental monitoring and remediation, vital records, public health surveillance, citizen services and international cooperation.

I was also there as president of the new Digital Government Society of North America, launched in summer 2006 to serve the interests of government leaders and scholars who care about how information and communication technologies influence government and democracy. Similar organizations are forming in other parts of the world, including one already operating in Europe called the European E-gov Society, and others getting started in China and the Pacific Rim. All intend to cooperate through an informal global network of societies concerned with these topics and willing to share ideas, strategies and solutions.

For me, the big lesson from this experience is that we are not alone. Not in any sense of those words. The public-sector problems we discussed in China are simultaneously local and global -- and every level of government in both countries is affected by and challenged to do something about them. The potential for productive partnerships between researchers and government leaders is evident in both places, and equally difficult to achieve.

Government policies, commercial investments and millions of individual decisions made in one place can profoundly affect others. We increasingly see this compounding of effects in the quality of the natural environment and human health; in the size and nature of the global economy and its local consequences; in the migration of students and workers (and their skills and knowledge) across national and cultural boundaries; and in the tendency of digital information to infuse every aspect of our personal and public lives. All of these are public policy challenges -- all are linked in important ways to government information and IT -- and how we use them.

Public CIOs are players in this game. It may not be obvious yet, but as advisers, strategists, problem solvers and buyers, they are already working in a truly global context. IT products, workers and vendors are part of a global IT industry. Information problems, such as security and identity, have evolved into international concerns. Good ideas for using and managing IT in government can and do come from all over the globe, although not every idea can work in every place. In China, I learned that while the Great Wall has no doors in or out, there are many openings (and opportunities) in the still-real virtual walls of culture, language and philosophy. More of us should step through.
Sharon Dawes Contributing Writer