Inside the Digital Society: Good (digital) government

Let’s start by clarifying what I mean here. I don’t mean good government of the digital environment. I mean good government in general in an increasingly digital society. The two are very different.

Last week I looked at some aspects of this in the current health crisis. Next week I plan to consider what it means for social welfare. This week, the broader questions: what does good government mean in principle?; how is it altered by the digital society?; and how should government and the digital world respond?

The digital/governance conundrum

Two weeks ago I wrote about the digital/governance conundrum. Put simply it is this. Digitalisation presents enormous opportunities to improve aspects of society and economy (including rights). To do so it present enormous risks to aspects of society and economy (including rights).

Why? Because the technology that enables opportunities – crunching numbers faster than anyone ten years back imagined that they could be crunched – is built around the gathering of data, by default, on everything and everyone.

Those data can be used for things we want – for better health, for monitoring pollution, for targeting resources where they’re needed most – and things we don’t – for commercial exploitation, for surveillance, for criminality.

At the start of the century, discussion around this emphasised the good stuff. Today there’s much more emphasis put on the bad.

What I’ve just said is now pretty much accepted. What I want to do next is suggest some implications that are often missing from discussion.

Technology is neither good nor bad; it’s both

I’ve often been irritated by the uncritical assumption that, because technology can do something that we think desirable, it will do so and therefore ought to be put in place as soon as possible.

Many ICT4D initiatives have been implemented on that basis, and many ICT4D initiatives have failed because they’ve mistaken what technology can do in ideal circumstances for what technology will (and won’t) do in real ones.

But there’s an opposite and equal error: the uncritical assumption that, because technology can do something we think undesirable, it will do so and therefore ought to be avoided.

The distinction that is often missed here is that between the consequences of what’s digital and the consequences of how people use what’s digital.  

  • Big data enable productivity improvements and new ways of doing healthcare, but whether those happen’s dependent on human decisions on investment.  

  • Datafication enables surveillance, but the practice of surveillance is down to human agency.  

  • Personal data are vulnerable to misuse and criminality, but the extent to which they’re vulnerable depends on governance decisions and those made by potential victims as well as potential abusers.

Balancing risk and opportunity

Public policy decisions here are about balancing risk and opportunity; and we’ve well-established ways of doing that, especially in countries with strong governance principles.  

Two of the most obvious are cost/benefit analysis and multistakeholder engagement in public policy decision-making.

Reports that enthuse uncritically about the benefits of digitalisation without considering the risks aren’t helpful. Nor are reports that wax dystopian about the risks without considering the opportunities. Serious contributions today need to consider both.  

Regarding those two instances of governance.

Cost/benefit analysis isn’t simple. It’s context-dependent, so one size does not fit every country, every sector, every circumstance. And costs/risks and benefits/opportunities are in constant flux as technologies – and the ways in which they are exploited – change.

Multistakeholder engagement isn’t simple either. Too often, it reaches no further than partnership twixt government and private sector businesses, particularly (these days) data corporations.  Even there there’s an imbalance of power and resources in favour of the latter. And civil society organisations alone are not sufficient to redress this. Ways are needed of engaging citizens directly.

Good government

The debate around the role of government in the coming digital society, I’d suggest, has focused round four views.  

Some have emphasised the potential of digitalisation for improving (their concept of) government – stressing one or more of increased productivity, improved services and lower costs, of centralising or decentralising power.

There’s also been tension between different aspects of the digital/governance conundrum I set out above. On the one hand, a focus on authoritarian potential – both by those who want more control in their societies and those who fear it. And a powerful influence from American libertarianism, which prefers less government to more, and sometimes none.

Finally, a widespread view of government within the data corporations which draws to some extent on techno-libertarianism as well. They’ve gone to great lengths to avoid regulation of their businesses of the kind that’s the norm in other sectors - both globally and in individual national jurisdictions.

I see three problems overall with this debate.

  • ​​First, it’s focused on the governance of the digital within society rather than with the governance of society as a whole in an age that is increasingly digital.

  • Second, the main actors have been thinking within frameworks that guide their own thinking rather than considering sufficiently how others see things.  Governments have focused on efficient government (which often means cheap government). Businesses on profit maximisation, shareholder value and market share.  Civil society organisations on the international rights regime. (This is not a criticism but an observation: it is not surprising that actors focus on their own priorities.)

  • Third, it’s paid too little attention to power structures within societies and to the differences between societies – in particular, the different styles and qualities of governance and government in which policies have to be built.

Good government in general

What I’m suggesting is that we should pay more attention to what is meant by good government in general first and foremost, and then about what good government of the digital environment would mean within that broader framework. And we should not think just about what governments, businesses and other actors with a vested interest or strong motivation have in mind, but about citizens’ priorities for government overall.

So, if I may, a personal judgement here (drawing on my time in democratic politics). Most people judge the quality of government that they experience not on broad principles but on what it does for them and those that they hold dear.  I’d categories voters’ priorities thus (this is not an order of importance):

  • value for money: the cost of government (taxation) and fair distribution of resources;

  • quality of services: how good, how bad, whether improving or deteriorating;

  • quality of life: do things feel better than they did five years ago?; does it feel like they’ll get better in the next five years?;

  • opportunity: the ability to do things they – and, for those that have them, their children – want to do but have not been able (employment, education, health all critical);

  • personal security: protection from harm, including crime and, in the present context, viruses;

  • accountability: do they have a say in what happens to them when and where it matters to them?

What people want in short’s good government – not more government, as authoritarians would have it, or less government, as libertarians prefer, but government that they can trust and can depend on, that provides things they want and could not obtain in other ways, but which does not intrude too much into their lives. Many people, obviously, don’t have such government, but the desire of almost all experiencing bad government is not no government but better government. 

The implications for (digital) governance 

This outline, of course, is not the only way of looking at citizens’ priorities, but it provides a useful framework for thinking about the digital/governance conundrum and about cost/benefit analysis. In each case, it raises obvious questions:

  • What impact is digitalisation likely to have?

  • What are the opportunities for improving value for money, quality of services and quality of life, opportunity, security, accountability? 

  • What risks are posed to these?

  • What principles, what policies, what functionalities would enable opportunities and diminish risks – or, in words I’ve used elsewhere, promote what we want to happen, preserve what we value and don’t want to lose, and prevent what we fear may occur.

Three suggestions

I’ll end with three particular suggestions.

The first, with which I opened, is that the starting point for thinking about governance – and good government – in a digital society should be the governance of society in general, not the governance of technology or digitalisation.  How we govern the internet, big data, artificial intelligence should be determined by our goals for our society, economy and culture as a whole - not the other way about.

The second, which follows, is that the key to both governing the digital society and digital governance is the relationship between humanity and technology: where human power structures lie within a country, how technology affects them, how much power we’re willing to cede from politicians to technologists.

And the third, to which I’ll return in another blog, is whether there are limits to the role we want technology to play. Governments should be driven by public service goals, by what works best rather than by what’s most digital. Instead of trying to digitise everything on the assumption that that’s better, maybe we should think more about what we don’t want to digitise: in the words of one British digital entrepreneur, about ‘just enough internet’ rather than ever more of it. 

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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