I am still processing the reality that I am now home for good after three plus decades of constant packing and unpacking and bouncing between home and abroad. First of all: It is great to be back! I have spent a diplomatic career extolling the dynamism, leadership and just sheer true grit of our society, and I am amazed to see how tough, resilient and still optimistic we Americans are after more than a decade of personal and national setbacks, and for too many, real tragedies. A lesser people would have crumbled under the pressure. We have not.
In a few weeks we will chose our next President and other government leaders. With the end of a long election season, the work on America’s recovery will not only continue, but intensify. We will have to overcome political differences over the how and who and move forward — fast. There is so much work to do! Growing the economy and keeping our country safe are the overriding goals, but we will have to get specific on details. As we look at other countries outperforming us in education and manufacturing or trade, it is clear that we have our work cut out for us. We are so used to being ahead of the rest of the world that it is hard for us to have to talk about “catching up.” So let’s not. Let’s vault ahead, rather than just catch up to others.
Among the many macro challenges we will have to overcome, here is a small sampling of seemingly small things that would have a big signal effect if we showed the world and ourselves a better way. See what you think.
E-Governance: Obtaining government services at any level in our country is much harder and old-fashioned than it should be in the 21st century. We need state-of-the-art, fast, simple, service oriented access to our government, from obtaining vehicle license plates to passports; from mining permits to export licenses. I just returned from tiny 21st century Estonia to vast and sometimes turn-of-the century America. Estonians have a comfortable, even trusting relationship with their government, not because they spend a lot of time dealing with their bureaucracy, but because they spend very little. Government services are delivered mostly electronically and fast, without long waiting lines, limited service hours, or complicated paperwork. Most services can be obtained sitting in a comfortable easy chair at home with a laptop, tablet or smartphone, while enjoying a favorite beverage.
Wireless Communications: I finally have my new iPhone 5, my home internet connection, and I can find he nearest Starbuck’s with free WiFi. All good, and many around the world envy us for the technology we have invented and put in place. But in fact our internet access is slower and/or more expensive than in other proudly “wired” — or better — “wireless” countries. Too often during my once again daily commute from the Washington suburbs into the capital of the United States, I am faced with the “can you hear me now?” problem as my — hands free — phone connection suddenly drops put. Outside the Beltway it is even worse. In Estonia, broadband wireless access throughout the country — at little or no cost — is a given. The internet is a utility, as universally available and affordable as water, electricity and indoor plumbing. We still grit our teeth paying a hefty charge for slow internet access in top hotels in the country that invented the internet!
Cyber Security/Privacy Protection: I spent a solid amount of my time as Ambassador on national and international cyber security issues. It is a hot topic in diplomatic, military and international law enforcement circles. Our leaders warn of potential “Cyber Attack Pearl Harbors.” Serious stuff and deserving of its high national security priority.
On an individual level, protecting ourselves from identity theft and other forms of cyber crime is of similar importance. In that latter area, the question is not whether we shield ourselves, but how. We do what we can with computer virus detection software, encryption packages, and dozens of passwords with every internet entity from on-line stores to our banks and our digital media subscriptions. We live on the internet, and we live with a confusing array of what we hope are adequate security and privacy protections. Dozens or even hundreds of interloctutors in cyberspace have large chunks of our personal data and all promise “iron clad protection.” Really?
Estonians too are fully vested in the internet age. They embrace the reality that we work, live, shop, interact and play in cyberspace. But they have decided to entrust the security of these interactions, including access to government and commercial services, to a national identity access card — a most difficult subject to raise here in the U.S. We start to shiver when we hear “national ID card” and “government central database.” I readily share our wariness of “big brother.” But I have concluded that big brother already exists in multiple databases that all too readily share information to make big brother larger and more unpredictable than any single, user monitored and legally secured personal identity system would. My friends in Estonia repeatedly demonstrated to me the utility of their ID cards as well as the electronic fingerprints they were able to monitor of those who had accessed their data, including even the police.
So I did spend two and a half hours at my local Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in order to get my car license plates — something I should have been able to do by inserting my ID card into a license plate vending machine similar to an ATM in about 2 minutes. Of course my gripe is not simply about waiting in line for a government service or even slow or expensive internet access. It is my concern that what should be America’s leadership as a modern, agile, and innovative society is in a bit of a rut. I am among those who believe in American exceptionalism — not arrogantly placing us above other nations, but accepting and exercising the unique role or country’s founders placed on our shoulders as visionaries and innovators. The citizens of Ronald Reagan’s “Shining City on a Hill” should not be waiting hours at the DMV and the people of Madeline Albright’s “Indispensable Nation” should not have to shout into their smart phones “can you hear me now?”