Information Management

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Government Digital


The concept of government as we know it is under tremendous pressure due to the arrival of exponential technologies such as autonomous vehicles, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), digital biology, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and biotechnology, to name only a few, in almost every sector. As a result, the value that public services deliver is being challenged in ways never seen before and at a relentless pace that governments often fail to grasp.

Of course, governments have been under siege for quite some time. In fact, the level of public trust has been decreasing for decades, globalization has forced countries to look at policies at both the micro and macro levels in novel ways, and climate change has steadily shifted the focus of economies. While threats to governments are certainly not new, there is a new “kid on the block” where government threats are concerned. The digitization of the planet is shifting industries, human behaviour, and overall life patterns in new ways we have yet to fully experience. Many experts agree that we are entering a fourth industrial age in which the pace of change is exponential — open, digital, and global — rather than linear — closed, analogue, and local. Almost overnight new digital behaviours and exponential technologies are completely transforming entire industries anchored in centuries of tradition.

Banks, for example, are implementing AI in ways that will render entire professions obsolete. JPMorgan recently implemented a new software called Contract Intelligence (COIN) that conducted 360,000 hours of annual legal work in mere seconds. The Chinese e-commerce company Alibaba, the largest retail chain in the world, doesn’t own inventory. Facebook, the biggest global media platform, owns no media. Airbnb, the most extensive hotel chain on the planet, owns no real estate. Digital has touched retail, media, accommodations, transportation, and a myriad of other areas in our lives. Yet governments have been slow, and in some cases, totally absent in adopting new digital practices.

This government inaction poses incredible risks, since public institutions are often called upon to regulate the very industries heading toward new digital horizons at a pace governments simply can’t keep up with. A good case is driverless cars. Government operations in many countries still rely on “taxi chits” that public officials manually fill out to move from meeting to meeting. How can governments possibly be expected to understand and regulate industries in which digital is at the core if they can’t even apply basic technology in their own internal operations? There is a need for a fundamental rebuild of public service if governments are to grapple efficiently with the digital world.

The danger is quite real and by no means an exaggeration. What happens to regulators when most banks do what JPMorgan has done and introduce AI across all their operations? The two sides won’t be able to have a real dialogue because the digital divide will be too great. What will happen to revenue collection agencies around the world once more and more private corporations and citizens adopt cryptocurrencies? The role of government as a regulator, even more important, as a trusted source of authority, is in many ways already broken, and digitization will only exacerbate this complex challenge.

This new digital reality hits every single area of government operations like a sledgehammer. Even in policy development, often seen as a core offering of most democracies in the world, digital realities are making existing practices outdated. For example, public services typically conduct policy development through some form of formal consultation. Historically, consultations occur during a specific period of time — there is a beginning and an end to the consultation period — then a policy is written and implemented. In a world driven by instant social interaction on numerous social media platforms, dialogue in the form of government “consultation” can often be seen as a tokenistic approach for engagement with citizens. How does the public service change its model to better react to events such as the Arab Spring, which was mostly coordinated using social media? How do governments adjust to this new reality in which citizens expect instant engagement with their public institutions because they get an instant response in every other facet of their lives? The policy development mechanism isn’t digital, nor is it reflective of new emerging global values demanded by an increasing number of digital citizens.

If policy development doesn’t reflect new digital realities, it can also be claimed that government services are outdated. Health care, employment insurance, waste management, and other such services are all impacted by the digital, exponential reality. Consequently, regardless of the level of government — national, regional, or municipal — digital has impacted the expectations of citizens and businesses when dealing with government services.

Citizens are used to tracking their online purchase orders and pinpointing in real time which exact truck is delivering their goods. As individuals, we can order food, music, or transportation from the convenience of our mobile devices. Yet often, when it comes to government services, we assume an analogue delivery. In many ways, this divergent public versus private digital service reality is driven by market needs. In any other sector, there is an imperative to be digital in order to meet shifting market demands. If a service or product isn’t digital by design in today’s world, it simply fails. In government, this imperative is less present, if at all, since there is no competition, and often a “digital-first” approach to service design is non-existent. The thinking in government hasn’t evolved yet because the pressure to do so appears to be less apparent than in other sectors.

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Wired for Innovation

Wired for Innovation

How Information Technology Is Reshaping the Economy
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The Inside Story of Research in Motion
also available: Hardcover
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