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Government For A Digital Economy

Chapter from The Aspen Strategy Group's
America's National Security Architecture: Rebuilding the Foundation

“Our nation seeks major change, and the next president can set in motion a transformative initiative to expand digital economy jobs and dramatically reshape how the government operates.”
—Zoë Baird

 

Government For A Digital Economy—In A Time Of Deeply Intertwined Economic And National Security Imperatives

By Zoë Baird

The private sector is transforming at record speed for the digital economy. As recently as 2008, when America elected President Obama, most large companies had separate IT departments, which were seen as just that—departments—separate from the heart of the business. Now, as wireless networks connect the planet, and entire companies exist in the cloud, digital technology is no longer viewed as another arrow in the corporate quiver, but rather the very foundation upon which all functions are built. This, then, is the mark of the digital era: in order to remain successful, modern enterprises must both leverage digital technology and develop a culture that values its significance within the organization.

For the federal government to help all Americans thrive in this new economy, and for the government to be an engine of growth, it too must enter the digital era. On a basic level, we need to improve the government’s digital infrastructure and use technology to deliver government services better. But a government for the digital economy needs to take bold steps to embed these actions as part of a large and comprehensive transformation in how it goes about the business of governing. We should not only call on the “IT department” to provide tools, we must completely change the way we think about how a digital age government learns about the world, makes policy, and operates against its objectives.

Government today does not reflect the fundamental attributes of the digital age. It moves slowly at a time when information travels around the globe at literally the speed of light. It takes many years to develop and implement comprehensive policy in a world characterized increasingly by experimentation and iterative midcourse adjustments. It remains departmentally balkanized and hierarchical in an era of networks and collaborative problem solving. It assumes that it possesses the expertise necessary to make decisions while most of the knowledge resides at the edges. It is bogged down in legacy structures and policy regimes that do not take advantage of digital tools, and worse, create unnecessary barriers that hold progress back. Moreover, it is viewed by its citizens as opaque and complex in an era when openness and access are attributes of legitimacy.