The Future of Digital Gov 101
[Singapore, 2050: Welcome to the first Digital Government lesson]
Okay class, please turn to page 359, Chapter 13: The Great Age of Government Reform.
In the early 21st century, technology was surprisingly primitive, but change was happening quickly. Nowhere was this change more obvious than in something called government – a body that used to decide things before algorithms really got going.
We are going to study the big trends that transformed government in the years 2017 – 2020: a crucial era when everything changed.
The first was digital identity.
It’s funny to believe it now, but once people had to type a string of numbers and letters to access basic services, and plenty of things still needed to be done by hand or in person.
The rise of proper digital identity systems enabled fundamental reform. Biometric logins created secure methods to do everything from home or on the go. And the costs of agencies dropped by staggering sums when bureaus could be closed down.
Estonia led the way, creating an identity system that cut across government and healthcare – letting citizens do everything from access prescriptions to start a bank account through their smartphone.
Japan struggled at first, with My Number seeing disappointing take up in 2016. But they soon learned how to tackle the same problem most countries experienced – dislike of technology amongst an older generation.
So they made their new digital identity mandatory and, in turn, made life so much easier for everyone who used it. People no longer had to queue in lines to receive their benefits or register for new services in person.
Critical mass arrived when countries like Sri Lanka and Myanmar jumped on board in 2017. This saw these nations start to leapfrog the legacy systems of established countries, becoming regional hubs for businesses who wanted the cheapest costs for starting up and getting going.
Eventually these identity systems went global – allowing easy transfer of details across nations.
The vision was first articulated by Taavi Roivas, the Estonian Prime Minister who led the creation of e-residency. “My ultimate dream is to have services functioning first everywhere in the EU, and then at some point also globally, which shouldn’t be anything impossible. We have so many private sector services that work globally just fine.”
Second came better connected governments. Finally, agencies shared information seamlessly across the public sector. Citizens trusted the system completely, because at any moment they could log in and see who was viewing their information, and how it was being used.
Personalised services meant that citizens saved thousands of man hours a year. Taxes were deducted with a simple yes or no into their smartphone, household utilities could be scheduled to when electricity was cheapest, and medicine was personalised to a point where everyone got the exact care they needed according to their genetic makeup.
It was artificial intelligence that enabled this change – our third big trend. A fascinating area of reform was in smart learning – with computing systems helping every child to reach their full potential. It’s surprising now to look back at a time when the curriculum was standardised and everyone learned the same thing at the same time – stopping at a certain age as though learning isn’t a lifelong experience!
This tech did cause some problems for one part of government: mass redundancy for a huge glut of data scientists. Ironically, they were employed to build these platforms, but computing systems developed so fast that their skills were rendered irrelevant.
Luckily, government changed the way it promoted people, encouraging many of these data scientists to spin-off their projects into companies that supplied other governments of the world. Israel led the way, with its cyber security incubators encouraging the civil use of military technology.
But Estonia also had remarkable synergy between its e-governance lab and its local startups – ensuring that international delegations saw their best government services, and then met the companies that had built them.
Agencies also started to learn from their mistakes in a more structured manner. In January 2017, the UK government built a special unit to teach departmental history to new recruits. This meant, for example, that policy and procurement errors would not be repeated whenever positions changed.
The UAE, meanwhile, found a great way to ensure that agencies constantly trialled new things. They hired officials to be “change agents,” as Huda Al Hashimi from the Prime Minister’s Office described them.
These Chief Innovation Officers spent a year using dedicated innovation budgets to trial new approaches, suggesting how their host department could radically improve.
Finally, unique experiences became increasingly important. Pensioners were brought back into government, providing their wisdom to the young high fliers. University degrees were for interest, not a rite of passage.
That Jon Thompson, the UK’s top finance official, could have left school and gone straight into work really inspired other governments to launch apprenticeship schemes.
And the first former young offender to be rehabilitated and become a permanent secretary showed how important all talent was - especially as countries faced ageing demographics.
But that ends our lesson for today, class.
Thank you for joining this whirlwind tour. And remember: don’t forget how important our departmental histories are.
Even as we look ahead to the future.
This commentary was contributed by Mr Joshua Chambers, Founder of GovInsider and the Innovation Labs World summit. The views expressed are solely the contributor’s own, and do not reflect any official position of GovTech.
Teaser, main (Top Photo) and other images from Pixabay.