International Perspectives on Public-Private Technology Partnerships

Dr. David A. Bray

Distinguished Fellow

Stimson Center

The pace of global technology change is accelerating, and with it all of us will face opportunities and challenges that span sectors at a similarly accelerating rate. The future of the U.S. and of the world will require collaborations across sectors. For democratic nations, such collaborations will need to adapt how we do public service.

Public service includes us all, individual members of the public as the top of a triangle and the private and public sectors as the base. If we choose to, we can pursue new collaborations across sectors to produce a future with more beneficial choices, options and freedoms for everyone.

It is solely as a member of the public that I’m writing this post, as I have been fortunate to have an opportunity to step outside of my day-to-day professional role and spend five weeks on an Eisenhower Fellowship, meeting with industry and government leaders in Taiwan and Australia regarding the Internet of Everything.This post represents only my personal views and the questions raised by the leaders I met while traveling overseas.

Perspectives from Leaders in Taiwan and Australia

In both Taiwan and Australia, I met with brilliant leaders from both industry and government who emphasized that the future will require collaborations across sectors. As multi-party democracies, both Taiwan and Australia possess parties with strong political differences in ideologies. Yet leaders in each nation recognized that ultimately, regardless of their own political ideology, a healthy public and a healthy private sector would need to work together for national benefit in the changing world.

From the perspectives of leaders in Taiwan and Australia, no one sector could “go it alone” – collaboration was essential. It may be worth some reflection whether we in the U.S. have a similar view that our collective national future depends on both a healthy private sector and a healthy public sector that can work on long-term endeavors together? Just as we need entrepreneurs exploring new markets, do we recognize the need for “intrapreneurs” working on the inside to revitalize and adapt existing institutions for our changing world?

In discussing the Internet and the Internet of Everything, leaders in Taiwan and Australia also raised the importance of a strong two-way partnership between politically elected or appointed leaders and nonpartisan career senior executives in performing the national work.

During my five years as a nonpolitical senior executive, I’ve had the opportunity to work with all sides of the political spectrum, often working to find consensus that can help move discussions and the nation forward. An ongoing part of this role means putting aside any personal views I might have and working with leaders to provide data, evidence, action plans and results – sometimes in the midst of intense national debates. Leaders in Taiwan and Australia asked me whether we in the U.S. still value nonpartisan executive leaders who are intentionally not affiliated with any political party and instead are committed to working across parties?

One senior minister in Australia emphasized that some of his most valuable and trusted talent came from nonpartisan Australian senior executives.

Do we in the U.S. harbor similar perspectives about our federal government’s Senior Executive Service? Research at the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence has shown a diversity of views, including perspectives from both experts and new participants, will help make a more informed decision on how we adapt for the future.

Given current discussions in the U.S. regarding SES reform, might we be able to include more nonpartisan members of the SES – including existing Gen X and Gen Y members – in shaping the future of the SES Corps? Do we still value senior leaders who intentionally choose not to be politically partisan?

Questions on How the Internet Impacts Multi-Party Democracies

In writing one of my Eisenhower Fellowship posts, I noted concerns raised by leaders in Taiwan and Australia that the transparency of the Internet also removes the ability for multiple parties in a democracy to return to their constituents and claim victory over a political compromise, without revealing what they gave up as part of the compromise to other parties.

Could it be that Internet transparency erodes the ability for moderate members of any party to work in collaboration with members of other parties, thereby deteriorating the ability for political parties to compromise with each other? For all of us in the U.S., what might this mean for the health of long-term, modern democratic processes? How can we adapt representative democracies for our changing world?

Another concern raised by leaders in Australia and Taiwan regards human nature – including concerns that once we have a set view in our minds, we all are more likely to interpret data and narratives to reaffirm our set view, and dismiss data and narratives that challenge our set view.

Scientific research has shown we humans are all subject to this form of confirmation bias, making it very hard to change our minds once set.

With the accelerating global adoption of the Internet, several leaders in Taiwan and Australia raised questions to me about social media. Specifically, whether the Internet was becoming an “echo chamber” for reinforcing extreme views as oppose to an avenue for exploring alternatives or possibly seeking middle ground solutions. The leaders asked whether social media might discourage discussion of compromises across different ideologies?

While I had no easy answers for the leaders in Taiwan and Australia, I did note that both “experiments” and “expertise” share the same root “exper” meaning "out of danger." In my view, our rapidly changing world will require us to adapt, think differently and try new ideas – new experiments – to cultivate expertise in how to best adapt to accelerating technology changes and globalization. Are there ways we can achieve both speed and democratic representation without becoming single-party political systems?

Hopes for the Future

In Taiwan, I met with an independent group called who was working with those government leaders willing to partner with them. The effort itself began some years earlier with the goal of providing open source tools to better visualize data associated with Taiwan’s government. As part of the “Sunflower Movement” in Taiwan and other parts of Asia, and other collaborators voluntarily spent their time writing open source tools to help peaceful protestors mobilize and provide a platform for rational discussions in a way that reduced the spread of online rumors.

To its credit, when an anti-protest movement formed, provided the same open source tools to both sides – focusing on being facilitators of discussions and intentionally not picking a specific side. As one who has also served in intentionally nonpartisan roles, I respected’s nonpartisan efforts greatly.

By 2015, had grown to 9,000-plus members who had day jobs doing other work – volunteering to spend some their weekends and weeknights writing open source code to make government websites better. The group had become a community focused on improving democratic processes in Taiwan.

It had monthly meet-ups to reinforce collaboration, and members living in different regions or those with different focus areas actively self-organize weekend sessions. The latest efforts of included producing tools to better visualize the government’s data. Could such a self-organizing, voluntary model – namely of open source coders working nights and weekend to assist public service in a manner that transcends partisan politics – succeed in other nations?

In Australia, I also met with a group working to bring jury-based processes to representative arbitration and collective decision-making. The group’s premise centered on the idea that trusted outcomes can be achieved when a diverse and representative group of citizens, randomly selected, deliberate together.

Such an approach was interesting as it took something familiar to most of us in democracies, namely the jury process, and extended it to the process of making representative policy decisions when adversarial political differences had resulted in ideological fragmentation. After meeting with the group founders, I was both intrigued and interested as to whether similar jury-based arbitrative approaches in the future might find success in other nations?

Value of Data to Drive Decisions

During meetings with leaders in Australia, a challenge noted frequently involved the difficulty of making decisions in the absence of complete data.

When asked for my opinion, I commented that while I am not sure we will ever be able to make decisions at the national level with complete data – even with increasing use of “big data” and other analyses – I do think there is value in recognizing the importance of asking for data to help inform a decision. We also need to recognize that we all will have biases both in interpreting data and making decisions. For each of us, our perception is influenced by our experiences, preexisting views and past decisions.

With my day job, I ask any team member making a new proposal to bring some data to support their proposal -- plus a list of what they think are the “top three reasons why” their proposal might not work out as well as their strategy for overcoming such challenges or resistance. I ask these questions about “why this proposed idea might not work out” to encourage strategies that incorporate the different perspectives that surround any transformation effort we undertake as a team.

Technologically, it could be in the future that the Internet of Everything will allow evidence-based policymaking. For example, using IoE sensors, public health professionals could monitor environmental and population health factors in near-real time. If we can assure the appropriate privacy and informed consent protections for the public, this would provide longitudinal data on the health of many folks on an unprecedented scale, and a strong data-rich foundation for evidence-based public policy decisions.

An example of using such IoE data to improve public-private partnerships could include determining whether the addition or removal something in your neighborhood, community, or city has an impact on your health (for example, building a new factory or installing a new public park). IoE sensors could provide data for both community members and policy makers to see whether the addition or removal of that environmental factor does correlate with changes in population health.

Importance of Cross-Sector, Multi-stakeholder Collaborations

My time in Taiwan and Australia was a terrific opportunity to reflect, raise questions with brilliant leaders and consider the future directions both individual nations and we humans collectively are pursuing. I am indebted to the Eisenhower Fellowship for the opportunity as well to leaders in Taiwan and Australia across industry, government, communications, law enforcement, defense, and grassroots activism for taking the time to meet.

Our future will require building bridges across sectors, as well as across communities and nations. More than 14 years ago, I signed up for a little-known program called the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the response to 9/11 and anthrax events in 2001, I held in my wallet a copy of the poem “If—” by Rudyard Kipling that my father had given me when I was 20. That poem has been with me ever since, including during the response to SARS in 2003, volunteering to deploy to Afghanistan, service as a nonpartisan senior executive on a national commission with six congressionally appointed members from each political party and, most recently, in my role as chief information officer of the Federal Communications Commission.

When I signed up, back in the winter of 2000, little did I know how much the world would change in the following 14 years. While I cannot fully predict what the next 14 years have for us, given the pace of global change, I can be sure that we will need to build bridges now more than ever, working across sectors -- private, public, nonprofits and academia. We need to pursue partnerships that include multiple parties and multiple benefits. No one sector can go it alone.

Thus, as closing thoughts, if one updates the original 1895 “If—” poem my father shared with me for our pluralism of the 21st century, I believe it provides sound guidance for all of us committed to making a positive contribution to the world:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can serve multiple parties, including the greater good
Though none may ever notice what you endure,
If you can innovate solutions so together we could
Choose to make our world prosperous and secure;

If you can embody what “We the People” stands for:
Choices and compromises—both recognized as central,
Then yours is a society sharing a great endeavor
Of courage, creativity, and ideas from us all.

Sep 17, 2015