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The future of government? | The World Weekly

The treadmill of incompetence.” Technology expert James Williams used this metaphor to encapsulate how technology today is evolving so quickly that humans are struggling to adapt in time.

Governments have been pouring resources into preparing for the disruption of new technology. On Thursday, the UK government announced a £9 million ($13 million) new centre for data ethics and innovation, with the aim to better understand how new technology like artificial intelligence is changing society. 

In this environment, some contend that governments themselves need to adapt for the internet age. Speaking to The World Weekly, Mark Thompson, co-author of the recently released ‘Manifesto for Better Public Services’, propounded that UK public services have to “remain in control of the public”. But, he says, politicians need to move beyond “20th century terms” like “nationalisation vs. privatisation”.

Financing the public sector remains a divisive issue in British politics. 

Since arriving in government in 2010, the Conservative Party has promoted austerity as a way to stabilise the economy and reduce government debt. This has involved large cuts to public expenditure and investment in public services, and greater involvement from the private sector.

The opposition Labour party contends greater government involvement is needed to protect public services like the National Health Service (NHS), proposing greater deficit spending and investment in the public sector to revive the UK economy. 

The efficacy of Labour’s plans to partly fund this expenditure through higher taxes on corporations and top-earners in the UK divides opinion

Dr. Thompson’s report argues that the UK could find £46 billion ($64 billion) per annum in savings – money that could be redirected to frontline services – by restructuring government departments in line with the infrastructure of the internet.

Instead of duplicating services, and therefore costs, across the public sector, standardised “building blocks” of digital administration could be streamed from the Cloud in a “digital commons”. This concept of “government as a platform” would only require specialised digital systems to serve the public where absolutely necessary, making government arguably more adaptable, resilient to technological change, and crucially, more cost-effective.

One of the suggestions raised in the ‘Manifesto’ would be for the government to outsource collecting vehicle excise duty to the insurance industry – in a similar manner to retailers collecting VAT – and, thereby save on the administration of millions of payments of the duty each year. 

Nowhere, perhaps, is the need for saving more urgent than in local government. English councils are widely expected to face a £5 billion funding gap by 2020. Rethinking their use of technology has allowed some areas to find savings without making cuts to valued frontline services like libraries and childcare. 

Two councils (Adur and Worthing) collaborated to replace older IT systems in 2015 with a universal “low code” digital platform. This gave them the flexibility to produce cost-effective digital services, such as an online portal to request, pay for, and then organise delivery of a new recycling bin.

Above all, the ‘Manifesto’ prioritises “public value”. This contends that government departments should provide “open” records of how they deliver services, allowing for the timely identification of inefficient “inputs” (middle management and administration) and ways to redirect resources to the highest public priority: “outputs” (frontline staff).

“This is about more than technology”, argues Dr. Thompson. “This is about a new business model where we rethink how citizens generate value in an internet-enabled age, potentially galvanising our economy by, for example, public and private sector groups streaming standard business functions from the cloud.”

The UK is ranked 1st on the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer, which surveys 115 countries around the world over whether their data can be “freely used, modified, and shared by anyone”. Obstacles in the UK to access land ownership records and public contracts were still flagged as causes for concern.

The Government Digital Service has defended its “progress” in transforming the digital strategy of the government. It cites the expansion of digital products like Gov.uk Notify, a notification service via email or text, which has been deployed by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency to remind over 500,000 users when they need a mandatory annual checkup for their vehicle. 

E-government

The maturation of the internet with AI and cloud-based technology has encouraged governments around the world to adapt. The European Union committed in 2015 to the establishment of a “digital single market”, with key e-government guidelines to reduce barriers to business and governance across the region – along with promoting open data transparency across the EU.

E-government refers to “efforts by public authorities to use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve public services and increase democratic participation”, according to the European Parliamentary Research Service.

Features of the ‘digital single market’ include the abolition of mobile roaming charges in the EU and E-identification regulations to allow EU citizens to access public services in other member states. As of 2020, the e-government programme promises to save member states €5 billion ($6 billion) per year.

Policies which extol transparent, “open data” have vast democratic possibilities to let citizens “better monitor” how they are being governed, Carlos Iglesias, Senior Digital Citizenship Research Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, told TWW. “They can challenge corruption, hold leaders to account, and find more opportunities to influence policy.”

Moreover, by building accountability to the citizenry, governments can ensure technology works for “specific human needs”, Laura Freschi, Director of Partnerships at social impact firm Reboot, told TWW.

Reboot launched the “My Voice” pilot in rural Nigeria. Patients used this product’s SMS survey function to provide feedback on healthcare service straight to local medical professionals. This resulted in changes such as investment in an electricity generator to allow a surgery where patients wanted later appointments to stay open into the evening.

Technology is an ever-expanding part of healthcare, David Lomax, hospital consultant in the NHS, outlined to TWW. “The future is monitoring of patients remotely in the home, with the aim to try and get patients out of hospital earlier, and most importantly to avoid hospital admission wherever possible.” 

‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution’

Revitalizing how the government operates is no easy task. “The responsibility of using public funds limits the risk governments can run, restricting their ability to follow the entrepreneurial attitude of private organisations,” Luis Luna-Reyes, associate professor at the University of Albany, told TWW.

For some countries, the digital world remains out of reach. Around 48% of the world was offline in 2017, with large gaps in connectivity remaining in swathes of Africa and Asia, according to the UN-backed Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development.

Where digital infrastructure is present, the World Bank stressed that “analog components” such as government accountability and adapting workers skills are vital. They found that even some middle-income countries were lacking in this regard. Kazakhstan has launched a sweeping e-government programme, but over half of its 15 year olds remain “functionally illiterate”.

“The jury is still out on whether this technological revolution will be like the previous ones”, Danny Buerkli, Programme Director at the non-profit Centre for Public Impact, told TWW. “Governments will, under any scenario, have to play a role in supporting the re-skilling and re-training of workers.”

The EU’s Digital Skills and Jobs Coalition claims to have trained 3.7 million Europeans in digital skills since its establishment in December 2016.

Some predict that both the public and private sectors will face significant job cuts as technology advances. In this scenario, says Dr. Thompson, it is vital to “galvanise public permission” to have a frank conversation about the “winners and losers” from our increasingly digital world.

Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, coined the term ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ to encapsulate how new technologies like quantum computing are already starting to overhaul the fabric of society. “If we miss this window of opportunity to shape new technologies in ways that promote the common good”, writes Professor Schwab, “there is a good chance that the challenges we experience today will only be exacerbated”.

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