Looking for public sector superstars

I’ve been reading the Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, two leading economists studying the digital economy. The book builds on their previous work about the future of growth and employment in a world of exponentially growing computing power, but one of the many new points that emerged for me from the book was about ‘superstars’.

In essence the Internet makes it possible for superstars to project their talent more broadly than ever before and, in so doing, accrue rewards at the relative expense of others. Whether at the corporate or the individual level, this explains the weak performance of US median wages and growing levels of inequality. The authors rightly fret over the social consequences, and redistribution features frequently in their policy recommendations.

But the perspective is inverted when you consider public services, such as teaching and healthcare. Classroom and hospital superstars can suddenly improve the lives of a far larger part of the population, whether directly or at least by the sharing of their materials and techniques.

Some of these superstars will no doubt be content simply knowing that are more amply fulfilling their public mission.  But others may feel they deserve relative recognition, and I doubt few parents or patients would disagree! Meanwhile, many long serving, but less effective, public workers will be watching from the sidelines. Such distinctions sit uncomfortably with many traditions of public service.

The point is that the Internet’s impact is not limited to the communications technology sector. It will be felt throughout the economy, including the relatively large public sector that we – as Europeans – choose as part of our social model. The public sector needs to lead in embracing the disruptive influence of the Internet, but will it take a political superstar to create the climate for that?


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