The National Interest, 24 July 2023
Failing to develop itself as a digital state, the United States will quickly find itself a bystander between the EU and China as the world’s new digital powers, write Keegan McBride and Albi Nani.
In his latest blog, Dr Keegan McBride charts the rise of digital technology in the public sector and shares his insights on how digital services can be a force for good for all citizens in the future.
The dot-com boom of the 1990s led to a rapid reconfiguration of our societies, businesses, and our governments. In 1992, Bill Clinton, then President of the United States, launched a new technology policy for America emphasizing the need to develop a strong digital infrastructure for the public sector. To push forward this policy, Vice-President Al Gore launched and the 1997 report “Access America: Reengineering Through Information Technology”, which offered a way forward in using digital technologies to rethink and transform government. In 1999, the EU launched its eEurope initiative, which called for the development of an Information Society for All.
These early developments in the 1990s led to a transformative mind shift in governments around the world, where building a digital government is no longer “innovative”, but necessary. Leading transnational and supranational organizations like the European Union, United Nations, World Bank, or the OECD have all developed programs to help drive this digital transformation of the public sector by developing guidance, best practices, and support for governments. At the earliest stages, most of these digital innovations were focused on the digitalization of governmental data, creating websites for public sector organizations, or allowing forms to be filled in and processed online.
Since then, governments the world over have developed new digital identity systems, interoperability platforms, digital data embassies, launched innovative digital services, created new regulations, and experimented with new and emerging disruptive technologies like Artificial Intelligence and IoT systems.
The ultimate goal of these transformations? To improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the public sector and, as the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, to allow governments to operate in times of non-standard operating conditions.
These investments from governments into digital systems has allowed for a reimagination of citizen-government relations. There is a clear movement from a reactive government to a proactive one.
If, in the past, citizens needed to know what services they were eligible for, make an application, and wait for a decision now governments can utilize their digitalized data to proactively offer services and benefits to eligible citizens. For example, if you were to lose your job, the government could proactively register you for unemployment benefits, rather than you needing to take the initiative and apply on your own.
This shift towards developing a proactive government was the subject of a white paper I recently helped to co-author with colleagues from Nortal and the Hertie School Centre for Digital Governance titled “Proactive Public Services – the new standard for digital governments”.
In our study we firstly define and develop a new taxonomy of proactive public services. Secondly, we explore how such services are built and work in practice through a comparative case study of Austria, Estonia, and New Zealand. Finally, we identify the necessary building blocks for developing proactive services.
Technically, proactive public services require a digital identity ecosystem, data, an interoperability system, and a digital messaging platform.
Organizationally, business processes must be changed to be compatible with proactive service delivery, service design must shift towards user-centricity and proactivity by default, and a new organizational mindset based on cooperation must be fostered.
Environmentally, there must be trust in the public sector, a supportive regulatory environment, and a desire from citizens for proactive services.
With these core building blocks in place, it is possible for governments to reap the benefits of proactivity such as more efficient service delivery and increased access to services from citizens (especially those who are the most disadvantaged).
Of course, developing proactive services is not easy, and resistance will be encountered. However, for any government that wants to digitalize the development of proactive services is essential.
Find out more about Dr McBride’s work on digital government and the use of AI in the public sector.