Collaboration: Hope For Our Future?

In a time for healing, Clinton Wilder calls for an end to business attitudes that paint the federal government as the bad guy.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 20, 2001

5 Min Read

When the surreal became real on the horrific morning of Sept. 11, my mind went into the surreal realm to search for answers. I wished that we could call up Christopher Reeve in the first Superman movie, flying around the Earth faster than it spins so he could travel back in time and divert those hijacked jets to safe landings the same way that he saved Lois Lane from an earthquake.

Who among us doesn't want to go back to our pre-terrorist attack world? I certainly do. But let's look back to some aspects of that world that weren't so good--things that we might make better in the new world we live in now.

Before Sept. 11, we were a deeply divided nation. The political rift that began with President Clinton's impeachment grew even more bitter and polarized after the disputed election in 2000. We all remember the red-and-blue electoral maps of the United States, with Bush and Gore states grouped along sharply regional lines.

A big part of that divisiveness was our attitude toward government, especially at the federal level. And leading the charge against the federal government was the man in command of it, President Bush. He made no secret of the fact that he didn't like Washington very much. Many of his public statements carried the implication that the government generally does more harm than good--that it's obstructionist, inefficient, a spendthrift, and wasteful. Also implicit was that for-profit businesses, by contrast, are models of streamlined efficiency, investing their capital wisely and serving their customers well.

In a national radio address in late August, Bush pointed out that the U.S. government is the world's single largest purchaser of information technology, with a $45 billion IT budget in fiscal 2002. "Yet so far, and unlike private-sector companies," he said, "this large investment hasn't cut the government's cost or improved people's lives in any way we can measure."

That struck me as a little hyperbolic and harsh. I'm not a government IT expert, but what about the ability to download tax forms and pay taxes online? Or, a portal with consolidated access to 47 million federal and state government Web pages? (Among other things, in some states you can renew your driver's license online instead of on line). Or the Department of Housing and Urban Development completing the sale of $109 million in loans entirely on the Net?

Is there waste and inefficiency in the federal government? Of course. Lots of it. If Bush and his administration can cut down on it, more power to them. But there's a lot of waste and inefficiency in business, too. And an awful lot of dot-com money went down the drain "without improving people's lives."

But that's an old story. This is a new world, and undoubtedly a new economy that will be far, far different from the New Economy that we thought we were getting. What I'm calling for is an end to the "private sector is always good, government is always bad" attitude that has crept into popular rhetoric and business thinking for some time. Remember how we always laughed at the line, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help"? Picture a FEMA worker or a New York firefighter at Ground Zero, and I don't think we'll laugh about it now.

The free enterprise system is very, very good at some things, and not so good at others. Who can blame U.S. airlines for contracting with low-bidding, minimum-wage paying airport security firms when the system is set up to make security a commodity item? I don't recall ever hearing airline executives touting their superior security screening as a competitive advantage or "value-add" for the customer. Now, tragically, airline security may indeed be just that.

We need to be much more diligent about what gets deregulated and privatized. Sometimes, another party needs to step in, when free-market forces fail to meet the public good. That party is called the government. Right now, it needs to help the airline companies financially, because a completely crippled U.S. airline industry isn't in the public good, either.

Collaboration has been a top priority of business and IT this year; it was the theme of the InformationWeek Fall Conference being held two weeks ago when tragedy struck. The United States has lived up to its name in inspiring fashion in the aftermath, showing the spirit of community and collaboration across all levels of society.

Let's bring that spirit to business and government relations. I don't mean the "I'll scratch your back if you'll scratch mine" tone of political contributions, lobbying, and legislative paybacks. I mean the recognition that government leaders, legislators, regulators, and overseers have an important job to do, too. Not just in airport security, but also in dozens of areas like emergency preparedness, health care, even protecting the resiliency of the Internet. We need to understand that the profit motive won't always produce the results we need.

Ultimately, we're all concerned about the same thing: the customer. Every company's customers, whether they're consumers or business buyers, American or not, are citizens and taxpayers, too.

The next few months, and probably years, are not going to be easy. Business and government each have crucial roles to play, and must do so in an atmosphere of trust, unity, and collaboration. Those may have sounded like glib buzzwords before. But in the uneasy new world that dawned on Sept. 11, we need them more than ever.

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