By NearForm

Digitalisation could be even more transformative if it was people-powered at heart.

As part of the world’s biggest live experiment in what can be achieved when we have the focus and the will, the Covid-19 pandemic unleashed a wave of digitalisation. As in-person options were eliminated in everything from retail to education, digital was the only possible response in many cases.

The business world swung into action, accelerating nascent digital campaigns, but international governments and authorities also joined the great digital push. Services previously requiring in-person attendance and the submission of paper forms suddenly shifted online. But did we miss a bigger opportunity?

In this article, we discuss the consequences of failing to include the citizen’s voice in public decisions and the potentially transformative effects of a digitally empowered electorate.

Making Digitalisation Citizen-centric — Baby Steps

Ever since the 1980s, computing has prioritised the automation and digitisation of manual tasks and processes. For governments worldwide, this priority has allowed it to enhance administrative efficiency by dispensing with mountains of paperwork and switching to online form-filling for citizens instead.

Progress in this area has not been even, with many procedures still involving an inordinate amount of physical forms. Much of this can be attributed to bureaucratic structures around staffing, as well as patchy rollout of Internet services in many areas. Not everyone has access to reliable Wi-Fi, others lack training in using computers and government employees may be slow to move from the processes they have always used.

The pandemic intensified the urgency of efforts to deliver public services digitally. Authorities introduced telehealth and virtual education and set to work creating the digital infrastructure required to deliver these services successfully. These efforts will apply beyond the pandemic and lay the groundwork for future digital government.

Nonetheless, the transition to digitalised government-run services is happening slowly. An EY survey revealed that, even with the impetus of the pandemic, only around half of citizens around the world (53%) think governments and public services used digital technology effectively in response. Aside from the pandemic, the introduction of portal sites like revenue.ie indicate a move toward a more citizen-focused approach, with individuals able to upload forms and documents relating to personal taxation in a self-service model that does not rely on office hours or personnel.

But even though efforts like this make public services easier to access and administer, is greater efficiency the extent of the progress that can be achieved? Recent developments suggest that the authorities are simply tinkering around the edges of what can be achieved through digitalisation, when what we need to do is truly engage the public and listen to their concerns and aspirations.

Ignoring the Public — A Cautionary Tale

Governments continue to sink billions of euros into automating and digitising services, but they may be missing an opportunity to be citizen-driven. Public opinion is not consulted in matters of public digitisation, and more could be achieved if citizens and government collaborated digitally to define needs and solutions.

Compelling evidence suggests that national leaders are not in touch with the people they lead. Collaborating with the public they are responsible for serving is a revolutionary concept for many politicians and civil servants, but the consequences of not doing so are stark — and we have seen some of them already:

None of the people in charge predicted that British citizens would vote for Brexit in 2016, nor that U.S. citizens would vote for Donald Trump. In fact, both outcomes were totally unforeseen by governments who appeared to have lost touch with the electorate. But not everybody was blindsided by these seismic events: Facebook had the data because people were using social media to talk about what they wanted – and what they feared — from their leaders. However, governments weren’t listening.

Both Brexit and the election of President Trump could have been foreseen if leaders had paid more attention to what their people were saying. By engaging in a challenging dialogue with a digitally empowered electorate, governments can be informed and prepared. More importantly, they can deliver what their electorates need.

Forging Ahead — A Digitally Empowered Citizenry

Imagine smart cities where citizens share their movement data and living preferences anonymously with their governments to help shape traffic, planning and transport policies. Imagine policies that are influenced by an entire electorate block-chain system of live opinions. Could digital access for all finally create a truly inclusive society?

At NearForm, we’ve seen what’s possible when those in charge collaborate with those they serve. The Covid-19 contact tracing apps we delivered for governments and health authorities around the world were built with open source code. With open source, everyone gets to view the code, argue about it and vote for improvements. Isn’t that how democracy is supposed to work?

This need not be a fantasy if authorities invest in making citizens digitally literate and giving them access to the digital services they need to live full lives and express their needs. The pandemic has proven that there is a great deal of support among citizens for more digitally enabled public services, but they want to have greater input into how they are delivered.

While people lack access to online services and the skills to use them, efforts to digitalise public services will overlook the disadvantaged and digitally illiterate. Governments need to harness public trust and buy-in to realise the potential of what can be achieved. Supporting citizens to become more comfortable with technology will be important, as will providing clarity on the benefits of sharing information to be used in responsible ways.

People are more likely to share data if they know what it will be used for and the benefits it will create for themselves and society. Data-driven approaches within government can then be used to gauge citizens’ needs, target services effectively, assess the value of public policies and create a better society for citizens — all while saving money.

If digital has a superpower, it is to make what was previously impossible possible. That makes our imagination the only limit to what can be achieved. So let’s imagine something wonderful and start coding for it now.

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