Mobile phones have transformed development, and a recent London Technology Salon focused on whether digital government could have a similar impact. As more and more countries are looking into digital government, could the public sector’s leveraging of data, digital and technology be a catalyst for development?
The session’s lead discussants were Calum Handforth – a Churchill Fellow researching how governments can use these tools to deliver public services – and William Perrin – Trustee of The Indigo Trust, a UK based grant making foundation that funds technology-driven projects to bring about social change, largely in African countries. Other discussants included funders, and representatives from NGOs of all sizes, consultancies, and academia.
Calum started the session by highlighting three main attributes of a digital government: governance – including the importance of tech-savvy leaders; a wider ecosystem featuring central roles for the private sector and civil society; and a series of underpinning technical components.
William’s talk focused on the role that these tools can play to drive government transparency and accountability. In addition, he noted the importance of organisations using these tools – and basic delivery mechanisms like SMS – to fill service and delivery gaps left by government.
Discussants reached a broad agreement that digital government is important to development (reaffirmed by an informal vote at the end!). Beyond this, the discussion focused on three main areas:
- Political, bureaucratic and budgetary leadership is key: when these three forces for change within central government exist, transformation is possible. Having two of them is sufficient to get change moving, but with only one there’s no possibility of transformational change. Linked to this, leaders – whether in the public or private sectors, or civil society – need to understand technology, and how to leverage and implement it
- Technology can be a powerful enabler: it can play a valuable role in driving citizen engagement and action – including engaging young people – as well as facilitating knowledge sharing and change more widely. However, technology is only a tool and its success is founded on an understanding of the context in which it’s used, including in having the right data to make decisions
- We need to be alert to negative consequences: one driver of digital government is increased efficiency of public service delivery. However, in a context where government is often the largest employer this efficiency can result in potentially devastating unemployment. Even if these tools enable public sector workers to focus on the more important areas of their roles, as opposed to data entry or other low-skilled tasks, we need to be aware of potential wider and negative consequences.
The discussion also raised a consideration as to how best to use these tools. In the UK we focus on serving the majority of the population through digital government and public service delivery. In comparison, in lower-income settings the focus is on using these tools to serve the poorest – which may not be the largest group in society. This reversal may require a re-evaluation of how best to deploy digital, data and technology in government.