It sounds like utopia: a society where citizens collaborate freely and overcome the limitations of monolithic bureaucracy and top-down government. This ‘connected republic’ view of the world, however, is now close to becoming a reality in many parts of the world thanks to new technologies, according to a white paper published by Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), the vendor’s global strategic consulting arm.
According to this white paper, the possibilities of the connected republic go beyond e-government’s original goal of improved service delivery and could even herald an age of democratic renewal where people, not bureaucracies, call the shots.
The Connected Republic 2.0 shows how network technology is already persuading governments and their departments to become more responsive, flexible and accountable. The technology that brought us Wikipedia and Skype can also provide citizen empowerment.
Putting citizens in the driving seat
There are a number of examples where modern communication technology is enabling those normally outside the official hierarchies to take control of, and contribute to, issues that affect their lives.
In the Philippines, for example, the country’s 16 million cellphone users are now able to report smoke-belching public buses and other vehicles via SMS. These citizens are also able to send text messages to seek emergency assistance and report wrongdoing by police officers.
In Hawaii, the city of Honolulu is using unified communications solutions to enable citizens to report potholes – 176 000 of which have been repaired since 2005.
And in the UK, a Fix My Street service allows residents to report graffiti, littering, defective street lighting and other urban ills to their local council. Residents are furthermore able to track the progress of the problem and the performance of the responsible agency.
These are but a few examples that show how mobile telephony, the Internet and social networking sites can have a positive impact on society.
In South Africa, we are taking steps in the right direction to enable similar services, which are being driven out of need more than anything else. One such example is the ‘crime line’, which allows citizens to report crime – or intended crime – via SMS and the Internet.
A new generation of citizens
The connected republic is a model that invites citizens and the public sector to change the way people think about technology, society and government. It replaces a rigid, top-down, uni-directional model of communication between the centres of power and the public with a multitude of two-way conversations.
In the same way that the highly interactive Web 2.0 model is replacing broadcast media as the paradigm of choice, a new generation of technologically savvy citizens is refusing to be passive, isolated consumers of media. Instead, they are active participants.
This ‘Power of Us’ poses a great challenge to the public sector. Put simply, the institutions whose role is to serve society will need to play catch-up if they are to remain relevant.
To do so, public sector organisations will need to follow three principles:
They should take a platform approach and maximise the number of people and organisations that can collaborate to create public value.
They should ‘empower the edge’ so that frontline organisations and workers have the freedom they need to deliver locally appropriate solutions.
They should tap into this social revolution by harnessing the power of citizenry – ‘Us’ – to create knowledge, solve problems and deliver better services.
The emergence of the shift from hierarchy and centralised control to a self-organising community is imminent and is best summarised by the principle of ‘small pieces, loosely connected.’
This may seem a tall order for some organisations and apart from the technical issues; there are several potential pitfalls along the path toward the connected republic.
Ensuring people’s privacy is obviously a central issue. Creating effective identity management systems is another, as is securing the vast amounts of data moving across the network.
From a political perspective, protecting the freedom of people to make choices for themselves and their families are all issues that need to be high on the policy agenda. So, too, is the concern about closing gaps in education, resources and skills that, left unattended, will result in disconnected communities and a loss of social cohesion, as the technological ‘haves’ participate in and shape a society – to the exclusion of the digital ‘have nots’.
Despite these obstacles, the connected republic seems full of promise. The network will take centre stage to become the platform for productivity, social inclusion and community. Profound transformation and system change must take place. It will take time, careful investment and sustained leadership, but it is essential if institutions are to maximise the public value they deliver to citizens and create the connected republic.