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The coming of the digital state: how tech could transform the government-citizen relationship

Technology is changing everything in our lives. How we meet people, buy travel, manage our finances or order flowers. A visitor from the recent past, even one just from the late 1990s, would be surprised at how much has changed. How on-line, wired-up and constantly connected and monitored we are.

This digitally empowered change has also begun to transform the nature of public services. Today renewing a patent, applying for a student loan, making a civil claim, applying for lasting power of attorney and many more services are online and available instantaneously. No more writing letters, posting them and waiting for an envelope to arrive.

In a little-known part of the British government – the Government Digital Service – sit the most unlikely bureaucrats. Jeans-wearing, bearded hipsters are sprawled across an office that looks more like Google than government. Their job: to digitise government. And they have been busy.

Since 2010 this digital mandarinate has worked its way through government department after government department, changing how they store information, engage with citizens and spend money. When GDS launched, 80 per cent of all the money the British government spent went to a handful of large IT firms. Now, thanks to the newly-installed G Cloud – an online marketplace for government procurement – more than half of all the business goes to small IT firms outside of London.

Governments across the world are similarly looking for ways to upgrade themselves. Estonia is probably furthest along with this transformation and regarded by many as the most digital government in the world. Its citizens can complete just about every municipal or state service online with remarkable speed. In the small windswept Baltic state you can formally register a company and start trading within 18 minutes, all from a coffee shop in Tallin’s 12th century town square. You can view your educational record, medical record, employment history and traffic offences online – even change things that are wrong.

When Estonia’s Prime Minister calls his government to order, he does so at the push of a button. Each minister sits behind a screen and all their officials papers – tax plans, defence procurement, and even the annual State Budget – are presented electronically. Even better, before the weekly cabinet session begins, the ministers access an electronic system to review each agenda item and determine their position. They then click a box stating whether they have any objections or would like to speak on the topic. Decisions that have no objections are adopted without debate, saving time. Once Estonia adopted this ‘e-Cabinet’, the average length of the weekly government meetings was cut from four to five hours to just 30 minutes. The government also eliminated the need to print and deliver thousands of pages of documents each week.

Thousands of miles away from Eastern Europe, in Rwanda, a country best known for the genocide in the late 1990s, which claimed more than 800,000 lives, plans are afoot to make the entire economy cashless. On his LinkedIn profile, Rwanda’s ITC minister Jean Philbert Nsengimana explains his efforts to bring the poverty-struck country into the digital age. A software engineer-turned-entrepreneur, Nsengimana knows the value that technology can bring. Before becoming a minister, he developed mUbuzima – meaning ‘in life’ in Kinyarwanda – a digital system which allowed health workers to transmit information about diseases from remote villages. When Rwanda’s president heard about it he decided to put Nsengimana in charge of the country’s digital transformation.

Living in a cash economy makes it extremely difficult to access financial services like bank accounts, and therefore save for the future, build assets, or get credit. By shifting to electronic payments, using mobile devices, the Rwandan government hopes to help people build savings while giving governments, development organizations and companies a more cost-effective, efficient, transparent and safer means of disbursing and collecting payments.

All government employees in Rwanda are now paid electronically and the Rwandan government does not plan to stop there. It aims to expand the use of electronic banking and retail transactions, including in fuel stations, by merchants and customers across the country.

Money is often one of the main reasons why governments digitise their services. On a quiet street in north-east Oslo lies a round red-brick building. It houses Lånekassen, which has lent and granted money to Norwegian students since 1947. It helps nearly 1 million students, offering NOK 3.8 billion in grants and NOK 19.2 billion in loans. But in the last two years, it has done its work very differently than before. It now processes more than 60 percent of all loan requests completely automatically. No officials are involved. Students can use the service 24/7, and many do.  As a result, the time used to manage the loan applications has been reduced by half. Lånekassen has been able to reduce IT staff by 16 per cent and has saved US$8.8 million annually. What used to take thousands of hours, hundreds of staff and countless pieces of paper is now all done with a few clicks of a mouse.

The story of how governments are trying to take advantage of new digital tools – from the northern Baltics to West Africa – to remake themselves is remarkable. It promises to change the nature of power and the role and size of the state.

But in truth, it is a story that has only begun to unfold. The vast majority of what government does – even what some of the IT-savviest governments in the West are doing – is really no different than 50 years ago. Many of the changes that are sweeping the world of marketing, media, mobile and other tech sectors, making content and advertising highly personal, and giving customers better and more targeted services, have yet to affect government services.

Companies know more about you and what you want than the National Security Agency in the United States and GCHQ in the UK do. And on the whole, that’s what people want: a better, more personalised experience.

Yet when you get sick – something much more important than what you buy online – your experience is no different than that of your grandfather: you speak to the doctor, go to her surgery, wait for your appointment, and then explain how you feel. She prods and measures you, offers a diagnosis and tells you what medicine to take. You then head off to the pharmacy, clutching your sneeze-filled handkerchief, much like your grandfather did. Most consumers will not be content with that for long, and the NHS is  indeed spearheading new digital ways of working.

Being able to apply for your driver’s license online or pay for a toll road on your smartphone may seem trivial – especially to a generation that has grown up in a world that has also had the Internet – but these small innovations foreshadows a big promise: the transformation of the relationship between citizens and governments. The next step is to go deeper – to allow AI-enabled systems to better target those in need of help, for example to welfare recipients. Or ensure that data analytics improve how we diagnose diseases.

How fast that change will occur is down to individual governments. If they allow innovators – especially small and agile startups – to deliver new services then change could come quickly. If they continue to try to build solutions themselves, or work mainly with large incumbents, then change will be excruciatingly slow. The UK has an impressive legacy, which started under Tony Blair in 1997 and was carried on by David Cameron from 2010 onwards. It has every reason to be able to lead the field, becoming the global home of the govtech industry. But it requires drive.

Much in the same way that the introduction of taxes, the professionalisation of armies, the creation of bureaucracies and the state’s monopoly of violence did in earlier periods of history. Each of these events changed how citizens related to and engaged with their governments. And so will technology. If we let it.

Daniel Korski and Alexander de Carvalho are the co-founders of Public, a startup incubator for the GovTech sector.