The Good, the Bad and the Unintended of Public Sector Digitalisation / by Christoffer Andersson

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Two weeks ago Anna Uhlin, also in the DigMa-programme, and I attended the 18th European Conference on Digital Government, in Santiago, Spain. This conference was attended by academic scholars, public sector workers and individuals who are engaged in various aspects of Digital Government research and practice. Our comparative paper was well received and attracted a lot of attention from various groups. It offers an insight into the direction of digital transformations at a national level. However here I am interested in presenting a couple of the other paper presentations I attended which highlight how technology affects the wider public in practice.

There was a very interesting presentation by Jos van Leeuwen (associate professor at The Hague University of Applied Sciences) and Klaske Hermans (Municipality of The Hague) of a case study using virtual reality in the redesign of a public park. The municipality included citizens in the co-design activities. Thereafter they consulted the community in a ballot. They were interested in the effectiveness of using virtual reality technology to engage the community and compared the effects of various devices on engagement: VR headsets, smartphones, tablets, and computers.

They found that both VR technology and the presence of the voting-support team contributed to involving the citizens. The effort has resulted in involving nearly 10% of the population in the decision-making process. That was a lot higher than employing traditional means, e.g. sending letters and inviting people to look at 2D drawings of proposals. Using accessible realistic visualisations presented through user-friendly technology enabled the participation of a large and diverse audience. The result was greater visibility of the efforts to enhance the living environment of citizens. Using VR technology increased civic engagement in policy-making and implementation too. In turn the investment in this process helped the local authority to generate support for its plans and strengthen its relationship with the community.

In contrast to the success story using technology to engage and include citizens into decision making, digitalisation also presents a serious risk and threat to the control of the decision-making process itself. Ayo Næsborg-Andersen, assistant professor in the Department of Law, University of Southern Denmark, explained how automating decision-making led to public authorities losing insight into their own processes. This was due to outsourcing the development and maintenance of technologies. In 2014 the Minister of Tax in Denmark reported that the tax authorities had already lost insight and control over more than 200 systems. Private suppliers are now in control of the functionality of those systems and digital decision-making. The first stage of developing Digital Government in Denmark, until the 90s, was characterised by digitising paper which did not present any issues. Technology was simply a tool for authorities. Thereafter technology advances involved complex systems. These new systems include procedures and decisions that affect citizens through machine learning algorithms. The authorities do not have control over those algorithms. This means that the use of ICT in the second generation of digital government affects citizens directly[AH1] [PI2] . From a legal point of view outsourcing power and decision-making to private providers is illegal and therefore involving legal advice and scholars early on into the digitalisation process is crucial.

Looking at the two examples of digitalisation it is clear that technology can have both positive and negative effects on citizens. In addition to destroying your business, which affects a limited number of stakeholders, digitalising government processes and work can have much wider implications on all of us. We can agree that there is nothing to worry about when technology improves our relationship with local authorities and lead to citizens’ inclusion. However when government power is outsourced and decision-making is digitalised, this could lead to unintended consequences impacting all of us. Therefore we, as citizens and academics, need to question what technology is used for. Is it used to empower and include people in what local and national governments do? Or is it used to make decisions which can negatively impact us?

Dr Irina Popova