In Part Two of our conversation about smart government, let’s talk about some of the things that governments do really well, with which private companies struggle. In this, we will delve into a few areas that are actually kind of taboo here in America. Because of the “rugged individualism” that is bound to our DNA, there are some things that just don’t sit well with us.
We often hear stories of the individuals who triumphed over the organization. Be it revolutionary leaders over the British Empire, or a David vs. Goliath tale in modern business, we easily celebrate the individual. And I personally, have thought of myself as this heroic person. Every entrepreneur I think shares this conceit on some level.
But there are some things that individuals and entrepreneurs cannot do well. Many countries recognize this and provide resources to compensate. Americans, however, are often blocked by romanticizing the individual and assuming that the next best world-beating idea will be better than any government’s actions. And it might be, unless it never happens.
Many of you might have lived through the 90’s, when we saw industry after industry flee to other countries as our ability to manufacture technologically sophisticated components was lost to overseas competition. How many LCD screens have been designed and manufactured in America in the past ten years? That market was swallowed up by Japan and Korea. Similar events happened in memory chip design and manufacture.
Why? Because the governments of those countries had a plan. Where they could not shelter a company to control a market, they subsidized that market by setting standards, providing investment in education and physical resources, and eventually built an export economy that drove other companies in those spaces out of business.
Governments are great at standards. In fact, it’s in our Constitution. The Founding Fathers realized that any great country must assert standards over its highly individualized states, for without standards, how do we share information? If we don’t see time, weight, currency against a common standard, our communication is frustrating or at worst, meaningless.
In the modern world, we don’t worry so much about the length of a second or the weight of a gram (sigh, ounce) - but how does information travel between organizations? How do we secure financial transactions? What data is contained within the metadata of an image file? How do we encode geographic coordinates? What data elements are relevant within an academic or health record?
In fact, many of our standard-setting committees originate from Europe. Europe knows the value of standards, because they have seen the economic value that standards bring their companies long before there was a common currency in the European Union.
When new media formats emerge (think Blu-Ray) - governments that invest in standards allow their native companies to enjoy an advantage, when other countries allow their companies to battle it out in the marketplace, which is expensive and noisy.
With the advent and ubiquitous adoption of XML, industries now have a basic language by which to exchange data. Using ancillary tools like XSL and XSD for transforming and validating compliance respectively, it is now easier than ever to exchange digital information. The problem is that it is still expensive to adopt standards, and it is still difficult to convince clients and customers that they are worth the investment.