Can digital government create a fairer future?
Much has been made of the potential of technology to change the world around us.
The opportunities are seemingly endless. Companies such as Amazon and Netflix are harnessing Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology to anticipate customer demand with ever-greater precision. This is transforming the retail sector. The relentless pace of change in digital, physical and biological technology cannot be held back or wished away. Household names have disappeared from the High Street, eclipsed by the new tech giants.
The implications of this revolution are not limited to commerce, however. There are huge implications for the public sector too.
“Government at all levels will face a major challenge in keeping up with public expectations,” says Daniel Burke, a partner at PwC’s Strategy&. “People expect instant access to services, whether it’s banking or shopping. They’re going to expect the same of their public services, too.”
The UK is already recognised as a leader in digital government, partnering with the World Economic Forum to create guidelines for responsible procurement and deployment of AI in citizen services.
Others, however, are even further ahead, as the United Nations’ latest annual survey of “e-government” shows. Denmark, followed by Australia and South Korea, lead the world in providing redesigned government services through the internet.
Singapore has brought together government services behind a single online platform enabling its citizens to access services quickly, simply and without any fuss. Meanwhile the Rwandan government is using drones to improve healthcare services.
“Governments play a key role in accelerating the positive impact of these technologies,” says Murat Sönmez, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
“I would single out Rwanda and their use of drones. About a year ago they started working on delivering blood supplies to help women during childbirth. They were dying because they didn’t have the right blood type.
“They (the health services) would get an SMS message and send the right blood type with the drone, and save hundreds of lives.”
Blockchain is being used by Norway and the Netherlands to encourage the growth of the renewable energy sector. In the UK, the distributed ledger technology is being trialled as a means of improving the way benefits are paid, to enhance food traceability and to improve land registration.
The challenge facing governments is how to harness the huge potential of frontier technologies in running services, while making sure the benefits are shared widely and fairly. Shaping and guiding the digital revolution is key because there are major risks that, without a firm guiding hand, the benefits can only be enjoyed by those who are already plugged into the system.
Analysis by PwC shows that AI, robotics and other forms of smart automation could contribute up to $15 trillion to global GDP by 2030. This extra wealth will generate the demand for many new jobs, but there are also concerns that it could displace many existing workers – with 30% of jobs at risk of automation by the mid-2030s.
With this in mind, governments must work closely with business to make sure nobody is left behind, boosting education and offering opportunities for reskilling a generation of workers.
But, managed well, new technology certainly has the potential to create more equal economies and societies, and even close the gap between rich and poor globally.
Murat Sönmez offers an example: “Blockchain represents a fundamental opportunity to have a more inclusive society as we move forward.
“The emerging countries do not have the means to develop the systems that the developed nations have. With blockchain they can do it much faster at a much lower cost.”
Successful digital governments will also need to offer citizens guarantees and protections if the technology revolution is to generate widely shared advantages. Many people are understandably concerned about how their personal data is used, in the aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica and Facebook scandals.
Perhaps the biggest challenge is how to build public trust in data and in the digital transformation itself.
While the opportunities are great, the need for vigilance and an honest conversation with the public is of equal importance.
As the UK looks to life beyond Brexit, it may be time to engage the public in a big, bold conversation about our digital future. The public needs space to address opportunities and respond to the challenges it offers.
“Government has a fantastic opportunity to harness the power of new technology to transform the way they deliver their services for citizens,” Daniel Burke says. “To make that leap, they need a vision for a transformed economy and society in which emerging technology is encouraged, invested in and harnessed to ensure a fairer future for everyone.”