As is my Yuletide tradition, I invoke the name of a fake priest and his made-up institution — Father Guido Sarducci’s Five-Minute University — to identify the things from the last 12 months you’ll remember five years from now. For an old SNL sketch, it is a pretty effective lens for getting at what mattered amid the noise of public service.
1 / New lessons from the final frontier
The year ended with two tough blows for commercial space travel — the launch accidents of Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences — followed by a historic success by a public agency when a small 220-pound probe stuck its landing on a comet, becoming the first spacecraft to ever do so. The former rocked a nascent industry, forcing the startups, their funders, regulators and customers to confront the high cost of risk that comes with doing something new. The latter is an out-of-this-world big data play in which a refrigerator-sized robot millions of miles from home holds the promise, as Vox reported, of “provid[ing] a window into the history of all life on earth.”
2 / Cloud meets the physical world
The promise and strategic risk-taking of space startups have parallels much closer to home. The frothing around business models and regulation of transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft is merely prologue to what awaits cities (and incumbent players) as they come to terms with the commercial introduction of autonomous cars and drones. For their part, drones may prove useful in a number of applications but will face a disruptive challenge of their own. The dream of drone-based package delivery could become unnecessary as 3-D printing builds finished products — virtually anything that can be made of plastic, steel or composites, including food — when and where they are needed.
3 / Lagging or left behind
Policy lags are nothing new, but the rapidity and depth of change at this moment puts government at risk of being left behind. Fundamentally disruptive ideas and forces — many backed with robust funding and fluid business models — are shaking things up more quickly than government can deal with. It all creates new opportunities for communities and the people who live there even as it puts unprecedented pressure on conventional public service delivery. Aided by large philanthropies and universities, governments are purposefully building their innovation muscles and growing the ranks of civic chief innovation officers. Stand-alone innovation officers are not forever. Neither are many startups and even some incumbents. It all has to scale from experimental to sustainable when the dust settles from what will be inevitable shakeouts. That may be the ultimate public policy stewardship challenge for the long term.
4 / An all-hands proposition in confronting the future
Who will do all this work? History tells us that rugged individuals opened the American West but the future demands an ensemble cast. But we’ve known that for a long time. At the advent of modern computing, it was pioneering women programmers who brought Eniac, Univac and other early systems to life. The Internet reflects the combined efforts of a global collaboration among people of every ethnicity, gender, age and national origin. The complexion of the public-sector IT community is increasingly diverse, but there is at least one incomplete conversation that it needs to finish. The generational divide is real — and it cuts both ways. As much of a struggle as it has been to create work environments welcoming to millennials in public service, those who have taken jobs in government are moving into management roles. In discussions with veteran IT workers across the country this year, there is discernable concern about ageism among seasoned employees who complain their young managers assume that their best years are behind them.
Like the American experiment itself, and the laboratories of democracy that are the states, it doesn’t have to be that way.