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The Replacement Track

Readers mark the spot.

by / March 28, 2005
Inspired by results of the original X Prize, in which teams from around the world renewed the near-orbit race for space, January's signal:noise invited readers to opine on government problems that could use a fresh start. Back-page devotees did not disappoint -- more on that in a moment.

In the months since, the foundation behind the X prize narrowed the field for the next round of competitions. After a call for submissions that ends this month, the foundation and its partner, the World Technology Network, is expected to publish the next generation of X challenges at the Web site.

As is common in the public sector, the foundation's call for nominations was overtaken by events -- namely the devastating result of a failure to communicate about a coming tsunami that placed hundreds of thousands of people in harm's way.

The idea of fixing the problem through an X-style competition surfaced in the blogosphere within days of the tragedy.

Early lessons from the tsunami demonstrate that some problems demand a combination of entrepreneurial catalysts, such as X, the steadying institutional hand and marshalling strength of government, and the unique strengths of civil society. The civic sphere -- comprising hundreds of nongovernmental organizations worldwide -- had boots, materiel and money to be the first movers in the rescue effort.

Notably the logistics of assessment, transport and record-breaking fund raising were all function-smart uses of the Internet.

Public-private-civic partnerships are not new, but that they now form in real time is -- and that's changing the game again. That's the central theme of a new report from the Center for Digital Government, optimistically titled, The Sawyer Principles: Digital Government Service Delivery and the Lost Art of Whitewashing a Fence.

With a wink and a nod to a classic bit of American literature, it digests Tom Sawyer's furtively helpful approach to getting others to covet and help do your work. Sawyer would have loved the X prize because it does much the same thing. Readers agreed that a catalyst for change is necessary, but wondered whether X was within government's reach, constrained by entrenched interests and bureaucratic inertia.

In making the case for endowed innovation zones within government, Malcolm McMichael of Pitkin County, Colo., wrote that public servants can use immense help in overcoming "cultural baggage and explicit legal hurdles." A prize modeled after X could help public entities coalesce around "enterprise values" that "use technology as a replacement track, not a parallel track."

Al Sherwood, Utah's deputy CIO, wrote that X should mark the spot where paper-based processes die in favor of digital form filing -- no more standing in line, no more print and fill, no more 37-cent stamps. Sherwood also argues the replacement ought to be codified, suggesting legislatures could win the prize by establishing a new legal requirement that any entity given responsibility by the legislature must provide "an online channel upon the establishment of the new responsibility or service."

Then there was this reaction to the January column. "When I read it I almost fainted," wrote Chris Warner, who maintains the kinetic energy of a 13-year-old Tom Sawyer in the grown-up pursuits of saving the world (Earth 911), returning abducted children (Amber Alert 911) and an all alert network to keep communities safe -- sooner than the U.S. Department of Homeland Security could have imagined under other circumstances. Warner said he'd just been comparing notes with X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and realized they have roughly the same business model, except only one of them has a $10 million cash prize.

Warner's prize is source code that his company gives away to government agencies committing to its national model of networked collaboration on "the everyday work that needs to be done differently."

Both are catalysts for new behavior and displacement. Both remind us that the replacement track is the harder, but better and more interesting ride.

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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.

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