Vice President Al Gore: “Our Constitution could be seen as a piece of software.”
This could be any suite of rooms in any hotel in any city in the United States — except, of course, for the police officer and the bomb-sniffing German shepherd guarding the entrance. And the group of Secret Service agents patrolling the halls and controlling access to the rooms. And the cadre of young, enthusiastic aides talking among themselves, ushering people in and out of the suite, and making sure that everyone keeps to the schedule. Vice President Al Gore is in New York. He has just given a standing-room-only speech on economic policy and has agreed to do this one-on-one interview, so that I can follow up with questions about the new economy.
On the stump (as in his speech earlier that day), the vice president can come across as a somewhat uncomfortable orator. It’s easy to make fun of his speaking style, and, knowing that, he tries to use it as a source of self-deprecating humor. But in person, his wooden style gives way to focused intensity, and his sometimes-halting speech patterns turn into genuine thoughtfulness.
Al Gore may not be a natural campaigner, but he is a student of the new economy and its implications for the nation’s social and economic future. Here, he answers questions about leadership, the Web, government reform in the Internet Age, and the challenge of the digital divide.
Does the new economy change what it means to be a leader today?
The new requirements of leadership are very different from the old ones. First, in any organization — whether it’s a company, a government, or a nation — the right kind of leader accepts responsibility for articulating and making manifest a clear vision of what the organization is all about. That means not only where it’s going but also how it’s going to get there.
Second, a leader also accepts and discharges responsibility for creating and constantly maintaining a shared set of values that can serve as a constant guide for decision making in any part of the organization. Most organizations encounter change at their edges, not at their centers. The leader of an organization is usually at the organization’s center. That means that the people at the outer edges of the organization, not the leader, are more likely to encounter change expressed by a customer.
Now, it’s totally inefficient to require those people to engage in time-consuming communication — conveying descriptions of the change, begging for permission to respond to that change, and waiting for a lot of information processing to occur at the center before taking action. And, of course, it’s also inefficient for the leader at the center to respond to similar requests for permission that are coming from all parts of the organization simultaneously.
Instead, it’s far more efficient for a leader constantly to refresh the shared understanding of the organization’s values. That way, in any situation, the person who is meeting directly with the customers is likely to make the same decision that the leader would make in that situation.
Third, a leader has to articulate specific goals, a rough prioritization of work, and a time frame for achieving those goals that everyone can understand. The goals, of course, have to be consistent with the values, and the goals should be in line with the vision that the entire organization is pursuing.
What about the job of the president specifically? Do you think that there is a new way to be president, based on the principles of the new economy and the Web?
Different presidents have done the job in different ways. And, in fact, the job today is different because the world is so different. But antecedents for many of the changes that are going on today can be found in the presidencies of people like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.
Nevertheless, it is true that the Web makes the job very different. When the president and I went into the White House in 1993, there were 50 sites on the World Wide Web. I remember going on the Today show and introducing Bryant Gumbel to the Web. Look at it now: It has fundamentally shifted the way that organizations relate to themselves and to one another. At the same time, it’s a continuation of the communications revolution that’s been under way throughout human history.
From the movement of shared knowledge into language, to the appearance of the written word thousands of years ago, to the revolution of print (which made knowledge accessible to a much wider audience), to the invention of the telegraph, the world has become a great vibrating brain — instinct with intelligence. It was a short leap from the invention of the telegraph to broadcasting, then to satellites, and now to the World Wide Web. We have the capacity to share — instantly — high volumes of information with large numbers of people. And that changes our lives as profoundly — ultimately, more profoundly — as the printing press did.
Does the Web change the way that the federal government operates?
One of my missions, if I’m entrusted with the presidency, is to bring about a transformation of the federal government. Three years ago, I published a book called Access America, a blueprint for moving government services onto the Web. I challenged each governmental organization — the departments and the agencies — to plan a transition to Web-based services and to change its organizational style. The “reinventing government” program that I initiated has reduced the size of the federal workforce by 377,000 people. The federal government is now smaller than it was back when President Kennedy was inaugurated. We’ve eliminated many thousands of pages of regulations. But that’s far from enough: I see it as only the barest beginning.
This transformation will be healthy for our self-government. Ultimately, just as customers are the final decision makers for fast companies, customers of government services have to be able to give instant feedback to the people in government who are making and administering policies.
When our Constitution was finally written in its current underlying form 211 years ago, it was really based on the same revolutionary insight that is at the heart of Web culture: None of us is as smart as all of us. The people who are best able to make decisions are those people who are closest to the subject matter that has to be decided. Our Constitution could be seen as a piece of software — in metaphorical terms — designed to collect the insights of 270 million people on a regular basis and to distill those insights into a collective decision about what to do next.
Just as massively parallel computers are more efficient than a single central-processing unit for completing most tasks, we are more effective as a nation when we are in touch with the opinions and insights of the people at the grass roots. And yet this software — to continue the metaphor — needs to be debugged regularly, and campaign-finance reform is part of what we need to make our system work the way that it should.
The movement of services onto the Web is part of what’s needed, part of streamlining the way that government operates. So are measuring performance on a regular basis, holding key people responsible for achieving goals, rewarding performance, and empowering individuals who are at the edge of the organization. One thing that I tell federal employees is that forgiveness is easier to get than permission is. It’s okay to experiment. It’s all right to make mistakes when you’re trying new things. You shouldn’t make too many mistakes, but if you’re not making some mistakes, then you’re not trying hard enough.
I’ve encouraged managers to give out “forgiveness coupons” to their employees. The idea is this: Everyone gets a limited number and can cash them in whenever something doesn’t quite work out. They learn in the process.
I’ll give you a quick example. The city of Portland, Oregon had great success in its antidrug efforts with a drug-sniffing pig, instead of a drug-sniffing dog. The pig’s name was Harley, and he came with a bonus: He was not only extremely proficient at sniffing out drugs but he was also an instant hit with the kids in schools. The city wanted to replicate Harley’s success, but federal guidelines clearly stated that money was available only for dogs, not for pigs. So I held an event at which I solemnly declared that “with the powers vested in me as vice president of the United States, I hereby declare Harley a dog.” I presented a certificate to Harley pronouncing him an honorary dog, and it worked: The program was certified.
The Web can change the way that the government operates, bringing it closer to the people. But the Web can also leave people behind. What do you think needs to happen to overcome the danger of a digital divide?
My number-one priority for investing in the future is to bring revolutionary improvements to our schools. Within that priority, my number-one investment will be to make high-quality preschool available to every child in the country. And that can be done. It’s cost-effective. It’s the best investment that we can make.
We need to make revolutionary progress in hiring more teachers, giving them adequate training, offering alternative methods of certification, setting higher standards, having accountability, making it easier to fire teachers who don’t do the job within due process, rewarding performance, reducing class size, modernizing schools, making college tuition affordable for everyone, and providing lifetime job training. Specifically to close the digital divide, I’ve proposed the creation of an affordable account that would give every American a personal training fund. I also proposed and helped alter the E-Rate program to subsidize the connection of classrooms and libraries to the Internet. We’ve gone from 3% of classrooms connected to the Internet in 1994 to 65% today. And 95% of schools are now connected.
I want to go even further than that. I want to redefine the way that the Federal Communications Commission thinks about universal service: I think that universal service should include Internet access for every home and that we should move from every classroom being wired to every desk having Internet access. We need to bring the same revolutionary fervor to the enhancement of productivity in education as we have seen in the business sector.
For more information on the presidential campaign of Vice President Al Gore, visit the official Gore Web site (www.algore2000.com).
Texas Governor George W. Bush: “The Web is freeing people.”
The interior of the charter 737 was festooned with crepe paper. There was a birthday cake. There was champagne served in plastic cups. And there was a birthday boy: George W. Bush, governor of Texas and Republican nominee for president of the United States. Governor Bush was a day away from turning 54 and on his way from San Diego to Austin when I sat down with him to talk about his views on leadership in the new economy; the impact of the Web on business, government, and society; and the challenge of the digital divide.
In a one-on-one conversation, the filters, screens, and spin that inevitably are part of any TV-news broadcast, press conference, or political rally disappear. In person, George W. Bush comes across as a person who genuinely gets the logic and the operation of the new economy — as a graduate of the Harvard Business School, as an entrepreneur, and as the governor of a state that is in the process of making its own transition from dependency on the industries of the old economy to leadership in the industries of the new economy. For him, the issues of talent, technology, and innovation are direct and personal, based as much on experience as on training. What kind of president would Bush make? How would his take on the new economy inform his policies and practices? Below, he talks about how the new economy affects the roles of government and, more specifically, the president.
Is there a new economy? And if there is, how does it change the role and responsibilities of the federal government?
There is a new economy, and it’s rapidly changing. Many of the changes in the new economy are happening in spite of government, which leads to my first point: The role of government is to create an environment in which change occurs, the marketplace adjusts, entrepreneurialism is strong, and people are willing to take risks. So public policy in the new economy ought to be based on less interference; on innovation, rather than litigation; on free trade; and on a civil-justice system that is fair and balanced. Public policy ought to create an environment in which capital moves to support entrepreneurial efforts — which is one of the reasons why I believe that we ought to reduce the marginal rate on taxes. I think that a tax-rate reduction will return money to the taxpayers and that a portion of that money will end up being invested as venture capital, the lifeblood of much of the high-tech world.
Second, trade is a big issue in the new economy. A world that doesn’t trade freely is a world that is going to constrain the development of new commerce. Reasonable export controls, intellectual property rights, and open markets are important elements in the trade issue. But fundamentally, the next president must be a free trader in mentality. He must be tough enough to withstand the political pressures inherent in a free-trade position.
I don’t think that anyone can predict with any accuracy where the world is headed. I think that we can accurately predict some of the consequences of the new economy: better productivity, closer relations between producers and customers. And I think that we can predict some of the issues that the government will have to deal with: cyber-terrorism, information privacy. Government itself, which is slow to respond to the innovations of the marketplace, eventually will be affected by the new economy. The layers of bureaucracy between the government and the customer will be removed dramatically. In Austin, we’re learning the lessons of the private sector: Michael Dell is one of the forerunners in understanding how to interface the company directly with the customer, so that companies can design products the way that customers want them. In the State of Texas, we’re beginning to move in ways that say that the customer is the most important person to state government.
There’s one other effect of the new economy — and that’s on the psychology of America. The new economy is results-based. The question in the new economy is not, “What is the process?” In the new economy, the question is, “What are the results?” We’re beginning to apply that new-economy thinking to education. A consensus is beginning to grow that demands that public policy focus on educational results: “Here are the results that we want. Now, redesign the system to get them.”
There’s a similar shift in our attitude toward Social Security. Again, the new economy is busting the old paradigm. The new economy trusts people. It focuses on people. The new thinking about Social Security also focuses on individuals and trusts people to manage some of their own money. So you can see the new economy having an effect not only on how wealth is generated but also on people’s attitudes. The new economy is beginning to change the politics of America.
Does the new economy change the job of the president?
I view the president as someone who sets the tone and goals for the country. A president, however, cannot set numerous goals. There is only so much political capital to spend. So the president has to set just a few powerful goals. One such goal is reforming Social Security. Another is educating every child. These are very powerful goals.
Another goal that fits into the new world has to do with the military. We have a chance to redefine war — the terms of war, the grounds on which war will be fought — and therefore to redefine how peace is kept. The new economy is driving much of the technology that can yield a different type of military 30 years from now — if we have adequate money for focused research and development. But now’s the time to start.
The president has to be steady and accurate — to make decisions that are consistent in nature, regardless of the political consequences. A president has to make decisions on principle; he can’t chase public opinion. At the same time, a president has to listen and delegate to people he trusts — a cabinet, a White House staff — people with different points of view. I’ve always had a relatively flat organization chart, with six or seven people reporting directly to me. So not only do they have access but also the access that they have encourages the flow of ideas and new information. These people bring interesting ideas to me, knowing that it’s part of their job and that I’ve got the capacity to decide things.
How do you see the Web creating changes that you, as president, would have to deal with?
When I think about the power of the Web, I immediately think of people with disabilities and the Web, of rural America and the Web, of libraries and the Web, of education and the Web. I come from a state where the old ways of life — oil and cotton — are starting to pass on. The old staples of economic growth are either gone or going. There are remote communities full of good people who, because of the Web, have an opportunity to make a living again.
In fact, I predict that once the Web takes hold, the migrations of the past will be reversed. People won’t have to move to the city, and the Web will be a boon for rural economic development. The Web will help solve health-care problems for people in remote locations. The promise of educating every child, the philosophy of making sure that each child knows what he or she is supposed to know, will be enhanced by the Web. The Web is freeing people. During the Republican debates, I got hit pretty hard on the issue of opening trade with China. But my response was this: Imagine if the Web were to take hold in China, how free people would be. Let the Web take hold in China, and it becomes a powerful diplomatic tool for freedom. At that point, freedom’s genie will be out of the bottle.
What about the dark side of the Web? As president, what would you do to bridge the digital divide?
There’s no doubt that the Web also has the potential to create an economic gap. But I think that the digital divide is conquerable. I will caution America, though, that step one is to teach children to read English, because otherwise, the Web is irrelevant. In order for that to happen, the federal government must provide school districts with maximum flexibility to design programs that meet their particular needs.
We also need to develop a certain amount of patience, because in just two years, technology-delivery systems are going to be much different than they are today. It’s very likely, for example, that we’ll put a little receiver on top of a school that will enable the school to exchange information with sources all over the world — and to do so without having to wire anything.
There are other elements: a tax code that does not have high marginal rates on people at the bottom of the economic ladder; a health-care system that provides refundable tax credits, so that the working uninsured have health care for their families; changes to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Section 8 housing program, so that it can be used to buy and rent homes; a Social Security system that lets people who make $20,000 a year put aside 2% of their total payroll tax and invest it, so that over the course of a lifetime, they could end up with $100,000, coupled with what’s left in the Social Security trust.
Americans of every generation have worked hard to provide for their children. The country is now facing an interesting issue: The moms and dads of this generation may not be the direct beneficiaries of the high-tech world, but we can help them own assets and make sure that their families have health care. We can help them help themselves, so that their children will be direct beneficiaries. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Ultimately, though, talent is education, and education is talent. The key is to say to our kids, “Make the right choices. Go to school, and you’re going to be a winner.” We need a giant attitude change toward public education. But the high-tech world and the new economy are going to transform schools. It’s going to be slow in coming, but it’s going to happen.
And when it happens, some young Hispanic kid in Texas is going to say, “You know, this high-tech business is meant for me too. I’m going to start my own dotcom. I’m going to get an engineering degree at Texas A&M, or at the University of Texas.” It’s my job, and the job of the responsible citizenry of the United States, to send the message that this experience is meant for everybody. If you work for it and make the right choices, you can win.
Alan M. Webber (email@example.com) is a Fast Company founding editor. For more information on the presidential campaign of Governor George W. Bush, visit the official Bush Web site (www.georgewbush.com).