Covid-19 has shown the importance of a strong state, but also revealed a chasm between expectations and capacity. Governments have struggled to scale their response to the pandemic, while deep structural inequalities have been highlighted across public institutions and services. To bridge this gap, governments must grasp how to reconfigure the state using technology to make better decisions, better resolve crises, and improve people’s lives.
This must begin with a renewed progressive case for the wholesale reform of the operational model of the state, so that it looks more like a modern, tech-enabled institution and less like a 20th-century bureaucracy. Leaders should focus their energy on setting the underlying conditions to encourage continuous improvement instead of the situation today where they have to overcome immense inertia only to allow small bits of the system catch up.
Reform should mean proper implementation of technology that breaks the constraints of the old, industrial model of government, focuses on users not systems, and delivers material improvements to people’s lives. Some of the best governments and organisations already illustrate the possibilities. Estonia has built proactive child benefit payments, delivered automatically and without administrative burden, all underpinned by a flexible, modern data infrastructure and secure, user-centric digital identity. Amazon consistently provides an excellent service, with all the background complexity of the technology stack, logistics and organisational processes oriented entirely around users. Taiwan uses novel online and offline tools to refocus the policymaking process around public deliberation rather than treating it as an afterthought.
These examples share some common traits: investing in foundational capabilities made possible by technology and organising around the needs of people, not historical bureaucracies.
For some, delivering reform means breaking the whole system (and constitution), to rebuild from the ground up under the direction of a small group of authority figures. In the process, they are prepared to trample over norms, people and experience to assert full control. Ruthless confrontation may get the system moving but has little resilience once political will runs out.
The alternative, progressive approach, values accountability and trust and couples this with an optimistic vision focused on a radically more open approach to government that puts users first. Instead of relying on change coming only from within, this accepts that government and public services must experience the same pressures and consumer demands that push other organisations to evolve continuously. It recognises that in the internet era, no single actor can succeed alone; that authority and credibility are earned from delivery; and that resilience relies more on agility than artificial order.
In practice, governments must shift from delivering what they always have to ensuring people’s needs are met in the best possible way. This should open up delivery to partners from both the private and charity sectors, where they can provide a better service that delivers better value to citizens, and much greater engagement with the public.
To manage this shift, leaders will need to resolve three key trade-offs.
First, states must be able to give up control to encourage innovation while protecting quality and in-house capacity. They must create new frameworks to assess where to encourage more open policymaking and delivery and where to double down on the competencies and infrastructure only they can provide. Technology can help here, creating new levers to protect the public interest by governing services’ access to government platforms and datasets akin to app store guidelines.
Second, states must reorganise around scale economies underpinned by technology while moving delivery closer to people’s lives. They should provide the foundations that allow new services to operate, while letting go of controlling the last mile of service delivery. A better way forward is a more collaborative approach that encourages communities, charities and companies to design more tailored services on top of public-controlled infrastructure, enabling people to choose those which best meet their needs.
Third, governments must be able to better listen, engage with and adapt to peoples’ views without descending into mob-rule. A core part of product and service design both in business and in the public sector is iterating delivery according to user needs, but the feedback loops in policymaking are comparably non-existent. New tools can help leaders understand the plurality of public opinions and address the growing disconnect between public institutions and those they represent.
Getting from the status quo to this more open model will be challenging. But action in four priority areas should provide a starting point: infrastructure, organisation, competition and engagement.
On infrastructure, every new service should publish and document APIs; platforms for common needs such as payments and digital identity should be open to all; and procurement should be focused around a single, user-centric digital marketplace to simplify access to public tenders. This would bring in a wider array of innovative, public-minded actors to help improve services for all.
On organisation, hierarchical policy departments should be replaced with portfolios of multi-disciplinary teams; data functions should be decoupled from policy teams to create a network of Data Registrars independent of departments; and a new two-way fellowship between the public and private sectors would help to break through the current stasis.
On competition, users should be able to choose their service providers with the state providing the platforms and the accountability to facilitate this; aggregating procurement through a single marketplace would incentivise competition and improve data on quality and value; and new, scalable funding models for services should be created to move on from pre-internet formulae which often link delivery and geography.
On engagement, a new Digital Citizen Service should be created to deliver scalable feedback across government; insights should be made open as a public good in real time; and public engagement should be harnesses to assess the real-time outcome of public and partner services to ensure people’s needs are being met.
Only radical change that opens up the whole system can truly deliver for people. This is not about listing innovations and layering them onto existing structures, but changing the fundamental way government interacts with and serves its users.
Max Beverton-Palmer is head of internet policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change