Rimmer: What a flat world means for government

Agencies should absorb the lessons of the private sector to thrive in the new global era

In "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Globalized World in the 21st Century,” Thomas Friedman describes how developments in geopolitics, technology and business practices have created a larger, flatter global playing field.

This flat world will drive faster change and greater competition in what Friedman calls "the great sorting out." A flat world has profound implications for governments, too. They will encounter greater competition in attracting service businesses and more difficulty in regulating an increasingly virtual environment. They also will face the contradiction of staying structured in vertical departments when the rest of the world has become flat.

Fortunately, government organizations have some ways to respond to this environment and exploit the forces that have flattened the world.

Open sourcing smooths adaptation to change
Governments can adopt an open-source philosophy at various levels. They can use open-development tools such as Web services and foster an open-source attitude toward government information. They can use open approaches to deliver public services and develop more collaborative political processes. The flat world is complex, and the open-source approach makes organizations more adept at responding.

Workflow management can lower costs
The pressure on government agencies to reduce costs is creating an imperative to automate paper-based processes. But the benefits go deeper than cost savings. Citizen-centric services depend on continuity of information from one caseworker to the next and from one organization to another. Finally, workflow management will be a key enabler of outsourcing.

Offshoring may become inevitable
Global terrorism and organized crime have demonstrated the need for collaboration between different countries' police and intelligence agencies, but rising globalization must also lead to more cooperation in other areas such as taxes, health care and the environment.

Governments may find it hard to retain restrictions on services and data going offshore as global networks become integral to communication and information services.

Supply-chaining creates efficiency
Friedman defines supply-chaining as a horizontal collaboration, which means that organizations work together as peers to accomplish a task in which all have a role to play.

This concept is being applied by customs agencies, where repetitious work can be reduced by exchanging standardized data electronically and by inspecting goods just once at their point of departure. Health care and criminal justice are other good candidates for supply-chaining, because they have linear processes with multiple parties, high volumes and capital-intensive assets.

Government lags in outsourcing
Companies have increasingly chosen to focus on the parts of the value chain in which they excel and retain them in-house, and they have generally found very little that they can't outsource. By contrast, a view of how the government value chain could be disassembled and reassembled to maximize economies of scale and specialization is missing from many governments’ shared-service initiatives.

Although technology can enable shared services, a cultural shift is also required. A U.K. government survey found that another department providing shared services was almost the least preferred option for generating efficiencies, well behind outsourcing to the private sector.

Government should use 'the steroids'
Governments have seized on the Internet more than any other of the flattening forces. The challenges that governments now face are increasing the richness of the interaction with citizens, providing more comprehensive services that cut across organizations and getting citizens to use the resources.

Friedman coined the term “the steroids” to refer to technologies such as radio frequency identification, wireless, voice over IP, Global Positioning Systems, and handheld devices that turbo-charge the other flatteners. Mobile technology offers tremendous potential to build a more personal relationship between citizen and state. For example, welfare workers could assist disabled people in completing and electronically signing a pre-populated benefit form in their own homes.

Are government eyes closed?
Few governments appear to realize the extent to which the game is changing. However, flattening forces -- especially horizontal technologies such as workflow, customer relationship management and identity management -- have the potential to converge and create what one might call “flat government." That could enable governments to adapt more quickly, ward off external competition by providing more effective and efficient services, and answer threats to their legitimacy from within by reconnecting with citizens through open, collaborative and participatory political and service-delivery models.

Rimmer is the leader for revenue and tax in EDS' Global Government group. He has a background in strategic consulting, systems implementation, and process improvement. He also has expertise in the areas of welfare and benefits and financial services.

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