When Wake-Up Calls Don't

The dilemma of waiting for something big to happen.

by / October 10, 2006
"We need another sputnik!" That sound bite is reminiscent of an international competition won by the U.S. while cleverly placing the responsibility for galvanizing the needed political, economic, academic and personal will on some external catalyst. Recent history suggests that sputnik-style wake-up calls simply don't work anymore -- if they ever did -- even as we continue appealing to their magical powers.

If such wake-up calls really worked, 9/11 would have galvanized, not fractured, the national will; hurricanes Katrina and Rita would have made it "cool" to be seen in public with emergency management personnel; and the storms' aftermath, coupled with last spring's massive street demonstrations that mobilized the Latino community, would have sustained a public conversation about social justice.

For those concerned with infrastructure issues, the blackout that rippled across the Northeast in August 2003 raised questions about the nation's electrical grid. In the absence of answers, cities from New York to Los Angeles limped through this summer's heat wave, which pushed electrical capacity to the breaking point again. Escalating oil prices supposedly were a wake-up call for energy independence, yet consumption rose with the prices at the pump this year. Closer to where we work, the efforts related to Y2K remediation sounded a wake-up call about the worrisome state of system documentation. Five years later, those who have carried mental maps of the systems in their heads are now eligible for retirement.

Congressional committees, academicians, an increasingly involved media, watchdog groups and activists keep sounding the alarm on a number of these fronts -- but the collective response is to hit the snooze button.

The sputnik fallacy risks lulling us into equating the space race with the rather more complex challenges of global competition, climate change, pandemic control and disease eradication, and peaceful coexistence. The debate over the future of America's middle class and the country's leadership position in original research, innovation and adoption of new methods has become analogized in books arguing about the planet's contour -- flat, tilted or still round -- without getting traction for their calls for more innovation, math and science, and basic research. Perhaps it is a function of wake-up call fatigue. The term has been used to instantly analyze everything from the drinking habits of Hollywood starlets and the dark side of social networking sites to the defining events of our time. At the level of global geopolitics, the alarm was said to have sounded in Lebanon in 1983 ... and again this year. Bombings in Bali, London, Madrid and Mumbai echoed the wake-up call heard in the U.S. five years ago on that fateful fall morning.

Earlier this year, Mary Sue Coleman, president of the University of Michigan, told the National Press Club why she thinks we slumber. "We have no enemy, except perhaps ourselves. Our national priorities are not necessarily shared priorities, as any observer of Congress -- or American culture, for that matter -- knows. There's not a whole lot that we rally behind together as a society, except perhaps who should be the next American Idol."

In a straw poll earlier this year by their national organization, the majority of state CIOs seemed to be in touch with their inner Simon Cowell. More than 70 percent responded that CIOs are less defensive or less likely to look over their shoulders than they once were. Yet three-quarters cited external factors for perpetuating the continuingly high turnover among public CIOs -- others' unrealistic expectations (15 percent), insufficient understanding of the needed change by executives (33 percent) and inadequate resources (26 percent). They also have a dim view for 2007's contestants, 59 percent agreeing that legislators elected next month "will be clueless about state government IT."

It was only a straw poll, which holds out the possibility that there is more hope than the numbers suggest. Yet there is something of a wake-up call in all of this -- the public-sector IT community has largely failed to rally its friends and natural allies in the cause of government modernization around external catalysts that dwarf sputnik. So the conversation with executives and legislators must necessarily begin again -- not about shared services, but shared priorities.

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.