The good, the bad and the unintended of public sector digitalisation.

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We can all agree that there is nothing to worry about when technology improves our relationship with local authorities and leads to citizens’ inclusion. However, when government power is outsourced and decision-making is digitalised, the implications of unintended consequences can affect us all. Therefore we, as citizens and academics, need to carefully question what technology is used for. Is it used to empower and include people in local and national governments? Or is it used to automate decisions, out of the direct control of the authorities, which could negatively impact thousands of us?

Jos van Leeuwen (associate professor at The Hague University of Applied Sciences) and Klaske Hermans (Municipality of Den Haag) has performed a fascinating case study showcasing the including of citizens in a co-design of a public park that illustrates my point. The researchers were interested in the effectiveness of using VR (virtual reality) technology to engage with community and compared the effects of various approaches on the level of public engagement achieved. In the Den Haag programme VR headsets, smartphones, tablets, and computers were all deployed.

The researchers found that both VR technology and the presence of a team actively seeking public input made a strong contribution to increasing the engagement of the local public. The overall package of measures (i.e. technology, support staff and the ballot process) resulted in the involvement of almost 10% of the local population in the decision-making process. This represented a much higher proportion than had been recorded where traditional means were employed such as sending letters and inviting citizens to look at 2D drawings of proposals.

In using accessible and realistic visualisation techniques, presented through user-friendly technology, the municipality has successfully increased public participation in the design process, attracting a larger and more diverse audience. The result was greater visibility and appreciation of its efforts to enhance the living environment of its citizens. The presentation concluded that using VR technology increased public engagement in both policy-making and in policy implementation, strengthening its relationship with its citizens.

In contrast to this success story, digitalisation can however also present a serious risk and threat to the decision-making process itself. An example from Denmark provides an illustration.

In 2014 the Minister of Tax in Denmark reported that the tax authorities had lost insight and control of over 200 systems. This was due to the outsourcing of both the development and maintenance of various internal technologies to private suppliers who were effectively in control of system functionality and therefore digital decision-making.

Denmark had been at the forefront of ‘digital government’ with the first stage of development during the 1990s characterised by the digitisation of many paper-based processes. This did not present any issues with the digital technology simply acting as a tool for the tax authorities to drive efficiency. However, subsequent technologies were adopted that involved more complex systems. These new systems included procedures and drove decisions that affect citizens through machine learning algorithms. The authorities do not have control over these algorithms meaning that the use of ICT in this second stage of digital government development affected citizens far more directly than had been the case in the first stage. Dr Næsborg-Andersen highlights in a research project that from a legal point of view outsourcing power and decision-making to private providers in Denmark is not permissible and therefore she suggested that taking legal advice early in any public sector digitalisation process should be considered a crucial step in any such programmes planned elsewhere.

Looking at the two examples of digitalisation it is clear to me that technology can have both positive and negative effects on citizens. Its ability to negatively impact a business is well understood (see Professor Chris Ivory’s blog on this subject). Whilst unfortunate, this affects a relatively limited number of stakeholders (i.e. the workforce, shareholders and customers). However the digitalisation of government processes and procedures can have much wider implications potentially affecting a huge proportion of the population.