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July 30, 2008

What does government mean to you?

Today, the nature of government is changing profoundly. It used to be we all had one Government each - that of the land we live in.

Now, potentially, we have several. As the world becomes more complex, made up of the real and the virtual, the mass market and the niche, as we each take control of our own existences rather than having them managed for us, and as we deal with and respond to challenges and change in real-time, there is a need to look at government in a new way.

Apple, for example, is very often the government of my existence online. I use Apple’s Macs, Apple’s iPod, Apple’s iPhone, Apple’s software to create my website (though Typepad do the blog bit because of various Apple shortcomings there, don’t ask) and I get co-ordinated online services through Apple's Mobile Me. I couldn’t exist online at the moment without Apple. They enable and, to a reasonable extent, govern me.

All the music I buy I hear online and purchase via Apple’s iTunes store; Apple looks after my calendar and it manages all my emails. In fact, I’m not sure that the good old traditional government that looks after my physical citizenship in London does as much  for me, and I pay them taxes!

I pay Apple too of course, and this week Apple has created a blog specifically to manage the poor experiences that many of their consumers, the citizens of the world of Apple, are feeling a little let down about at the moment, namely the simultaneous introduction of the 3G iPhone and MobileMe that didn’t quite go according to plan.

But Apple communicates, it’s open to dialogue about itself from others and it listens and that’s a good thing. It responds in near-time as much as it’s capable of doing and it has reasonable levels of brand trust, and that’s not something many political parties or governments of state can lay claim to.

In the days now when real-time representation, as Robert Scoble reports, is gaining ground particularly in the US thanks to the technological opportunities offered by the likes of the iPhone, Twitter and Qik, you’ve got to thank Apple as a brand that takes communication a little more seriously than most.

What’s worth recognizing though is that as the nature of government is arguably in flux, so too is the nature of the social contract that comes with it and, here, darker overtones are emerging as part of change.

The scale of the mortgage defaulting crisis in the US for example is so large that the number of people walking away from their homes is at 'tsunami level'. As one person is reported as putting it, ‘Is the bank going to pay for my retirement because I was a good girl and paid my mortgage?’ and another observes, ‘It's a business decision for their family that the smartest thing they can do is walk away from their home’.

This is a landscape where there is very little to keep people loyal to their job when they lack job security themselves, very little in terms of a quid pro quo that the consumer can expect from either the state or the commercial sector in terms of welfare and very little in terms of the social relationship contracts that exists between many individuals in society on a day to day basis.

People have in many ways simply stopped caring about the notion of a social contract at all. What applies to them, as instilled by national and commercial governments of all shapes and sizes, is that the individual is on its own. It’s the kind of behaviour that means people don’t return calls, that communication stops flowing, that people are defended instead of open and collaborative and there's generally a lot more cynicism.

One reason for this is that caring doesn’t necessarily comes with a particularly good business case attached to it. Capitalism has long since stepped away from being able to deliver a sense of common good. Brand promises, perhaps the epitome of that, have very little currency in the minds of many.

As share prices dive, creditors default and wealth generation in the West is on the ropes however, we need to re-examine this sense of what government is all about and find another way. We need to create, find and invest in social contracts that can be built to last in an emergent world built on productive social exchange.

There’s always the spoiler, the person who’s more saboteur than honest participator or who’s looking for the next free deal. Governments have traditionally had means in place to circumvent this in that, firstly, you have to show up and be prepared to be identified and, secondly, you have to pay your dues – you get to be part of the community by participating and paying taxes.

The unfolding months and years that are ahead will be an exercise in whether we can find effective ways to manage the mass interest of collaborative societies online. A new approach to brand marketing will be at the heart of that. It offers the possibility of harnessing a new kind of wealth. It’s worth doing and the prize is great.

Blatant integrity is key and at the core of this challenge, as is managing your brand, making promises you can keep, being productive, building brand reputation and staying true to the values that underpin a reputation in order to guarantee specific behaviour that's more capable of being trusted, even when things don't quite go according to plan. In this way people can be prepared to re-invest and that's what, both economically as well as socially, is very much what's required now.

As an antidote to the dog-eat-dog death throes of the status quo, that’s a better way of creating wealth than the unproductive cul de sac many businesses are going down at the moment. It’s also a better way to govern pretty much anything.

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