Do you think about your refrigerator and consider it "technology"? Of course not.
Do you think about your refrigerator and consider it "technology"? Of course
not. Maybe our grandparents did, but we don't. Today, when the Net Generation
thinks about the Internet, it doesn't consider it "technology." Baby Boomers
do, but to the N-Gen, it's just a way of life.
Don Tapscott illuminates those differences in his 1999 book Growing
Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. The Internet is indeed turning
conventional wisdom on its head.
Think about it. Alternative suppliers are just a click away, so businesses
are obsessed with building strong customer relationships. Similarly, the
N-Gen has grown up knowing that they can't trust the authenticity of information.
As a result, they check sources on everything. The days of relying on the
broadcast media is over — at least for those entering the work force now.
To them, all sources are suspect until corroborated and analyzed, including
information provided by the government.
What happens to democracy in all of this? This largest-ever generation
is not going to make important decisions based on image or 30-second ads.
They are not comfortable being passive recipients of mass-media broadcasts.
They have become accustomed to continuous debate while constantly questioning
basic assumptions. They don't have any patience with hiding or obscuring
the information needed to determine truth.
But isn't this actually a huge boost for democracy? An informed electorate
is in the best interests of our society. We must be careful, though, not
to frustrate these new voters. They will participate actively in American
governance, but only if they can do so in a way that fits their around-the-clock,
multitasking, truth-seeking approach.
For those reasons, we should look to the Net Generation to help us define
"electronic government." A dot-com mentality is necessary as we experiment
with how emerging technologies can play a positive role in our governance
structures. We should expect that interim and eventual stages will be different
from the structure that is in place today.
What should we do to prepare?
* Develop a business model that will support a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week
operating capability, institutionalize the knowledge of the existing work
force and make room for ideas that are second nature to this emerging generation.
* Celebrate innovation. Establish a "Giraffe Award" — following the
example of Thurman Davis, the deputy administrator at the General Services
Administration — to recognize people who "stick their necks out." Let's
recognize agencies, programs and civil servants who try something new, even
if it fails.
* Create a union/management task force that includes members of the
N-Gen to identify how we can start to make the government more effective
and the work performed by civil servants more relevant to society today
and in the years ahead.
Getting ahead of this monumental generation shift will ensure that our
democratic system remains strong and that our government truly operates
in the service of the people.
—Piatt is the chief information officer at the General Services Administration.
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