In 2020, governments will have to work with technology and complexity, rather than wasting time trying to manage and fight it. The old debates over the size and influence of the state will give way to discussions about how government can move faster and what else it can enable.
The accelerating change of technology is increasingly creating a two-speed system, with governments lagging behind both the private sector and the public. In 2020, governments will realise they cannot catch up with technology unless they pivot to a new role.
For years, the disconnect was manageable. Brexit, Trump and even the re-emergence of socialism are all, in part, attempts to grasp control, whether through slowing down transformation by technology, or in the belief that the state should take on a greater role. In reality, both approaches are a misdiagnosis.
Tech pioneer Tim O’Reilly has proposed that we look at government instead as a platform. This would require a rejection of centralised bureaucracy. Citizens and businesses would build on top of a government, which would become, as he puts it, a “vehicle for co-ordinating the collective action of citizens” – an entity that gathers demand for common needs.
Previous momentum to adopt this kind of thinking stalled in recent years, particularly in the UK and the US. Positive changes under the Obama administration, such as the creation of a United States Chief Technology Officer and the Open Government Directive, have since stalled. In the UK, the Government Digital Service is an adjunct to the functioning of the government, rather than integral to it.
The failure of these projects is partially because of their design – successful reform is about whole system change, not just the right teams or technology. To do that requires political leadership and deep institutional reform. Public services should be able to respond in real time. Currently, vested interests and complex webs of interactions create stasis in the system.
Traditional government is also siloed. More cross-functional and non-departmental teams will be crucial to design services oriented for people. Singapore has led the way on this, for example, launching a Moments of Life platform focused on the needs of families, to help parents from finding a good first primary school to birth registration. The UK’s NHSX unit, which blends health, social care and technology specialists, is a similar step in the right direction.
It is easy to imagine that this is just about digitising public services. But the prize is far bigger. Re-imagining government institutions will also facilitate entirely new ideas. This will involve building a new data infrastructure, and adopting open standards and shared interfaces. Governments will also need to work out how to operate as one node in a system of platforms.
In 2020, we will see our way towards this new theory of state; and we citizens will be both users and contributors, navigating our way around the digital state as we help to create it. It will be a huge advance, bringing us closer to making “government by the people, for the people” a reality.
Benedict Macon-Cooney is head of Technology Futures at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change
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