As I looked back at the annual Open Government Partnership Summit in London, I was struck by how much technology continues to dominate discussion, particularly when many of the issues that confront people and governments around the world are political or systemic, and thus resistant to simply “fixes.”
Given that so many of the new country commitments for the partnership either involve improving the use of technology or are enabled by technology, it’s tempting to frame the release of government data and other digital efforts as efforts that will primarily serve elites, not the poor, and to warn of the encroachment of commercial interests in that delivery.
The years ahead will be messy, full of anger, violence, ignorance and the worst of human nature, expressed in political conflicts and entrenched institutions and industries fighting against a rising tide of populism and industrial disruption fueled by an explosion of connection technologies.
Near the end of 2013, the majority of humanity is living through the consequences of wars, natural disasters, disease, food shortages or inequality in access to resources. On many days, access to healthy food, electricity and clean water are critical needs. Access to information, however, has rapidly become critical in this new millennium.
That such information will be delivered through the Internet and mobile devices is clearly one of the megatrends of this decade. Similarly, access to one another through those same devices, mediated by social media and video, is shifting how we all can understand, document and experience the world.
While 56% of American adults now own a smartphone, the rest of the world hasn’t hasn’t caught up yet. That’s changing quickly, however, as the cost of mobile hardware continues to drop. There have now been over 1 billion Android activations worldwide. As cheaper smartphones and tablets become available, and more wireless Internet access rolls out through ISPs, mesh networks and perhaps even Google blimps, the pressure to provide digital services will only increase.
Why all the hullabaloo? Isn’t this just “e-government redux,” with phones? It would also be a gross mistake to view digital government as simply rebranding or scaling the existing approaches to buying, building and maintaining government IT.
Unfortunately, the bad news here is that government technology around the world is dominated by regulations, tangled hiring practices and procurement policies that get in the way of building important software, along with politics and poor management. The good news is that the example of the United Kingdom’s new Government Digital Services team shows a potential way forward for building a digital core for 21st century government online.
Adopting a digital government strategy is not the same as moving to a system of government more open and accountable to the people, as a comparison of the democratic accountability in countries as diverse as Singapore, Denmark, Iran and Brazil demonstrate.
Given that technology can and will underpin many efforts to reduce corruption, improve accountability and empower citizen activism and public engagement, dismissing the importance of public-private partnerships or digital government initiatives as inherently “ephemeral” would be a mistake in this young century.