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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

World Government Summit: Technology is driving a radical rethink 

Government with the people rather than for the people is the new formula for creating public value

A delegate watching the virtual reality show 2050 Abu Dhabi & Dubai in the World Government Summit 2017 held at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai Pawan Singh / The National
A delegate watching the virtual reality show 2050 Abu Dhabi & Dubai in the World Government Summit 2017 held at Madinat Jumeirah in Dubai Pawan Singh / The National

Today’s government architecture and operating models evolved from the 18th century through the 20th and grew from a simple set of institutions that govern the core elements of our societies into a complex bureaucracy that became the provider of a multitude of services for the citizens. Government traditionally created public value by providing security (military, police), justice and dispute resolution, physical infrastructure to enable travel and trade, and a host of social services, from education to a social safety nets to health and safety regulation.

With the rise of the internet in the 1990’s, governments tried to use emerging digital technologies in innovative ways to improve the delivery of public services. This “e-government” (electronic government), and its most recent variation “m-government” (mobile government), were heralded as revolutionary but have been far more evolutionary in nature. Notwithstanding the many service enhancements that have emanated from e-government, in most cases it has not significantly changed the way governments conduct business or interact with their citizens. Moreover, it raised many questions about e-access, the digital divide, and e-literacy.

Today, service-providing governments are in trouble. Their slow and massive bureaucracies simply cannot keep up with their citizens, who are increasingly accustomed to instant gratification through their smartphones, or their business providers. Governments today have a clear, and widening, “delivery gap” between stated policy goals and the delivery of services. This is a key reason why trust in government, the world over, has steadily been declining over the past two decades, according to Edelman Trust Barometer and Pew Research.

As we look ahead, there needs to be a new social contract and a kind of government that may seem unimaginable to many citizens [and governments] today.

In the world of business, century-old models have already been disrupted. Value is being produced in unimaginable ways and fundamental concepts of ownership and property are changing. Today, the global media conglomerate with a reach of more than two billion people [Facebook] produces no content, the world’s largest taxi company [Uber] owns no cars, and the world’s largest accommodation provider [Airbnb] owns no hotel real estate.

Instead of providing services, earning an income, and then buying a car, an individual can now buy a car to provide services that earn an income. Instead of working for an employer, the employees of the future will be able to work for themselves, when, where, and how they want, in the on-demand economy. From nanorobotics in medical sciences to Tesla, more business models are emerging. In this context, governments are the dinosaurs of the digital age: slow, lumbering, and outdated.

The work of our Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government presented a model of government with the people. The revolutionary shift will happen if we, instead of providing public services to citizens, learn to achieve results with citizens; a shift from consumer-citizens to value creator-citizens. This is in contrast with the traditional top-down government tools of “legislating, budgeting, and organizing. This model is possible today because of, and shaped by, the power technology, and the rise of data.

Government today has tools that were not imaginable less than a decade ago. Our connected world today produces data at a pace that is unprecedented in human history. In 2016 alone, more than three billion people have connected to the internet at some point within that year (compare this to 2.3 million in 1990). All these three billion are producing data, every second of their digital lives. This has led to the rise of big data. Effectively managing this big data is now possible given the hardware and software developments, at the centre of which is the exponential growth in our ability to store data.

Today, a hard disk with one terabyte storage capacity would cost less than $50 (Dh184). One terabyte was the total global storage capacity only four decades ago. This is coupled with the increasing availability of broadband internet along with the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT). Together, these accelerated the rollout of smart and connected infrastructure across cities, regions and even entire countries. Roadways, energy grids, water and sewage systems, public buildings and facilities, communications networks, cars and homes, are becoming “smarter” every day. There were more than seven billion connected things in 2017, and estimates are five to 10 times that number in the next four to five years.

As citizens, we live today in a “platform society”, where we spend an increasing proportion of our time on digital platforms, particularly the generic giants Google, Apple and Microsoft but also social media and shopping platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon in addition to the sharing economy platforms like Uber and AirBnB.

All these platforms run on the basis that the more time we spend there and the more things we do, the more data we generate, and that data can be used to develop the services provided, so that we spend more time there, in a virtuous feedback loop of usage, data generation and innovation. This platform society exerts a number of pressures on government to innovate with digital technology and data also.

The lifeline of this new world is data, which has been termed the “new oil”. Governments’ ability to gather and organise data means that it is the new mapmaker for virtual reality, charting new territories of social and economic interaction for its citizens to see and use. Just as monarchs paid mapmakers centuries ago to mark their borders and to explore unknown territories to be claimed for the crown, governments today can demarcate their citizens’ property rights, identify their traffic and purchasing patterns, chart public health, and map pollution and patterns of migration.

Even more important, governments can make all of these new maps visible to their citizens on a real-time basis using technologies like augmented reality. Government will actually be able to create new worlds.

In this age, the central proposition of “government with” is co-creation. The shift from top-down, closed and professional government to decentralised, open and smarter governance may be the major social innovation of the 21st century. Networks of citizens are participating in open data challenges in cities around the world; they are assisting crisis communications in natural and man-made disasters, and they are helping draft government budgets, legislation, and even constitutions.

Technology alone is not the answer. It is merely an enabler and accelerator of new ways of being and doing. Governments today have to fundamentally re-think their architecture, the operating model, and funding structure. Governments also need to develop a new set of core competencies like data management, cyber security, and design thinking. These, too, should be developed and continually improved in partnership with the people/private sector. The government’s future operating model is a public-private-society network model. This future is here, and new operating models are a necessity, not a choice.

When launching the UAE Government’s Innovation strategy, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, noted that governments today must “innovate or perish”.

Dr Yasar Jarrar is vice chairman of The Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government of the World Economic Forum

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