The speed and accessibility of digital information and services increases everyday. Whatever a government does online can be viewed by not only its own constituents, but by anyone else.
This building trend is likely to lead to increasing competition among governments. Competition between governments is not new – we have a long history of wars between nation-states to prove that point. Even when relations between governments are peaceful, there has been a strong economic (mercantilist) competition to attract (steal) businesses and the jobs their plants and offices presumably bring when they move.
But that’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, what will be at stake is the very loyalty of citizens and the relevance of public leaders to those citizens.
This may seem odd. Historically, governments – no matter their political ideology – have been about control over physical territory and the people who live within the borders of that territory. But the Internet is all about breaking down borders between people. As the Internet increases in use, these borders become weaker. This is true, as we have seen in some countries last year, even when the government has governed through the use of threats of physical violence and coercion.
We have also seen an ever-larger percentage of people who earn a living by the creation and delivery of knowledge, ideas and other intangible services, rather than the industrial era’s tangible services and goods. These people can and do take their work with them, instead of going to an office or factory. They may split their time each year between multiple locations, but they can still be in virtual touch with any place.
This has two implications for the way they look at government. First, it sets up a competition for the attention and allegiance of these people. Which, if any, of these locations is the one they consider primary? In a way, the governments of these different locations are in competition.
Second, while government still delivers many physical services, like maintaining streetlights, government too is finding that an increasing proportion of its activities are intangible services. Much of what used to be conducted over the counter or desk, such as filing applications or making payments, is now done on the Internet.
As society has become more complex, government finds itself also delivering digital information about problems from avoiding insect-born diseases to financial literacy. For many of these intangible services, a person can look to any number of government websites, not just the website of the nearest government agency.
A few years ago, the Health Department in Westchester County, New York, created a web site on women’s health. That site received visits from people who lived way beyond the New York area, even as far as South Africa.
So government leaders can no longer take for granted the interest of the people who might physically be located within their jurisdiction.
This doesn’t mean government will disappear. There will always be some geographic and physical responsibilities for government, like maintaining roads. But from a citizen’s viewpoint it may become more like a visit to McDonald’s. When I need it, I want to find it nearby, to be clean and to have good service, but I don’t have any particular loyalty or interest in McDonald’s beyond that.
While they may not normally go out of business, governments can certainly shrink because the lack of interest makes it hard to raise taxes. And, of course, some governments have disappeared as when city and county governments have consolidated in various parts of the US.
So what’s a leader to do? To begin, public leaders must recognize that this competition is intensifying and that, like smart executives of consumer products companies, they have to think about market differentiation and market strategy. As well, to strengthen the brand value of their jurisdiction, public leaders will also have to start to exercise the creativity that has made companies like Apple and Starbucks so successful.
To get your creative ideas flowing, I’d suggest two classic books on innovative strategy: “The Innovator’s Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen and “Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make Competition Irrelevant” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne.
As your thinking develops on this, please let me know so I can share your ideas with others.
© 2012 Norman Jacknis