Public-private collaboration…on the big screen.

The Earth observations, science, and services community rightfully frets about public-private collaboration. How can the nation mesh sector roles and workings to provide for effective use of natural resources, to protect the environment, and to build community-level resilience to natural hazards? It’s important to get the business model right for federal and state agencies, and for large and small firms, as they work together. Their joint tasks? These range from building and operating measurement sensors, platforms, and infrastructure to warning the public and serving weather-sensitive economic sectors such as agribusiness, energy, and transportation.

It’s tempting to see these problems as nigh-on insurmountable. How might business and government engage in a dialog about such matters in a way that’s effective? That’s fair to all companies, both large and small? That at the same time keeps the public interest paramount? That leads from discussion to innovation and action?

Yet the policy challenges that loom so large to us are but a microcosm of similar public-private policy issues, playing out more urgently and more broadly worldwide.

Consider the recent headlines.

For much of last week, U.S. newspapers and many more worldwide have given primacy to a single story…anger across the Middle East over a crude movie trailer on YouTube touting an anti-Muslim film. Rioting has broken out from Tunisia to Jakarta. The rage seems to have caught not just the United States but also pretty much every Mideast government by surprise. Few of those governments have managed to protect U.S. embassies and offices on their soil. Global corporations identified with the United States have also been targets.

As the threat grew and spread, U.S. political leaders made it clear that they found the trailer and the film reprehensible. Some Muslims don’t see that response as sufficient. They’ve characterized U.S. failure to force YouTube to remove the video as proof the U.S. doesn’t provide Islam the protections it provides to other religions. The clash thus pits religious states that place high value on purity of faith against nations that give primacy to freedom of speech. At the same time, last week’s volatility may have provided cover for terrorist groups seeking to kill and wantonly destroy.

The ensuing violence and fury, which only now seems to be dying down, has left tragic death and destruction in its wake. The optimism occasioned by last year’s Arab spring seems a hopelessly distant memory. The United States is withdrawing diplomatic personnel from many countries, and trying to regroup, wondering where to go from here.

This is where the public-private collaboration issues enter.

Saturday’s print edition of the Washington Post carried an interesting story beneath the fold – an article by Craig Timberg entitled, Anti-Muslim video shows Web firm’s role as speech arbiters. You can find the article on-line here.

Some excerpts:

Google lists eight reasons on its “YouTube Community Guidelines” page for why it might take down a video. Inciting riots is not among them. But after the White House warned Tuesday that a crude anti-Muslim movie trailer had sparked lethal violence in the Middle East, Google acted…

…Legal experts and civil libertarians, meanwhile, said the controversy highlighted how Internet companies, most based in the United States, have become global arbiters of free speech, weighing complex issues that traditionally are the province of courts, judges, and occasionally, international treaty.

“Notice that Google has more power over this than either the Egyptian or the U.S. government,” said Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor. “Most free speech today has nothing to do with governments and everything to do with companies.”…

…But for the White House to ask Google to review a video that was causing trouble in a foreign land was an unusual step — and perhaps unprecedented…

Both government and Google officials said the company made its own decision after the White House raised the issue of the video on Tuesday, the day that U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

 “We reached out to YouTube to call the video to their attention and asked them to review whether it violates their terms of use,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said on Friday.

Google said it decided to block the video in Egypt and Libya because of the “very sensitive situations there” and not because the White House requested it.

A company official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking at Google, said, “Dealing with controversial content is one of the biggest challenges we face as a company.”…

…Yet the controversy has highlighted how much of the world’s information is concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of powerful companies. Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain said these “corporate gatekeepers” are essential to keeping free speech robust.

He praised efforts to establish guidelines for when content is removed or blocked from some viewers. Yet he said many hard decisions will come when actual cases arise.

“Anyone who says this is a no-brainer, I’m dubious about,” Zittrain said. “Because it’s not a no-brainer, and it’s not going to go away.”

Arguably, one of the greatest and most enduring challenges to the vision of the Founding Fathers, as set forth in documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights…is social change as reflected in, or driven by, the emergence of big business and technological advance.

At the time the founding documents were written, America was a farming nation. The phrase “small business” was redundant. All businesses were small. Farms were family owned, and farmers were 90% or more of the population. Shops and stores there were similarly individually owned and for the most part served small, limited-area clienteles. Groups such as the Britain’s East India Company were the closest to today’s multinational conglomerates but very much the exception. We’ve since seen a change. We no longer live in a world where businesses are small, and where companies rely on governments for stability and protection. In our present world the biggest companies enjoy capabilities and a global reach enjoyed by few countries, and struggle to work across diverse national cultures and interests.  The international arena may be homogenizing in the face of global commerce. Government’s historic role may be waning. Yet as last week’s events prove, cultural and national differences remain fundamental and often inimical to prospects for world peace, for material prosperity, for and sustainable living.

The future belongs to those countries whose public- and private sectors can most effectively collaborate, not just tactically, but strategically. National public policies toward such pertnerships may have failed to keep pace with such change. Most policy with respect to how the public and private sectors engage on the one hand deals with principal-agent relationships, where the government procures systems and hardware it needs through private-sector contractors, and on the other with government regulation of private-sector activities. It’s popular to mock government efforts to stimulate economic growth and innovate.

Here’s the punch line, for our Earth observations, science, and services community.

We have the opportunity, perhaps even the responsibility, to do better, for three reasons: (1) Our community is a small piece of the overall public-private sector challenge. (2). We’re not in crisis mode right now. (3) The U.S. Department of Commerce has just the right portfolio for providing needed leadership and for developing a framework under which the two sectors can begin exploratory discussion.

(1) implies that at our level, developing new strategic frameworks for public-private collaboration just might be doable. (2) implies that at our level, the nation might be able to afford any risk or downside. (3) implies that a single, existing federal agency can bring to bear over a century of experience in industrial policy and public-private collaboration.

Might be time to give it a try.  A notional first step? The Department of Commerce might take the first exploratory steps to establish a kind of roundtable for building community resilience in the face of hazards.

And if we should succeed? We might prove to be one of dozens of such efforts that could help point the United States and other nations sort through how to make both governments and the private sector more effective in serving their customers and their publics.

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2 Responses to Public-private collaboration…on the big screen.

  1. Good idea! My kneejerk reaction was somewhat negative – there are lots of community resilience efforts out there already aimed at disasters. But the more I thought about it, the better I liked it. Here’s why. The single toughest “sell” for community resilience (and I’m speaking from CARRI’s experience) is the private sector. DOC probably has a better track record working with the private sector than any other department in the Executive Branch. And EDA and SBA bring resources to the table, and an attitude of “Let’s work together” rather than “Command and Control.” Well worth pursuing.

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