Remote Voting and Beyond: How Tech Will Transform Government From the Inside Out

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“Fail fast, fail often.” This Silicon Valley mantra has a certain resonance for dynamic, innovative startups hell-bent on rapid iteration. But for a prospective governments seeking your vote? Not so much.

It’s a tension that fuels the argument that government and technology make uneasy bedfellows, and certainly there is ample evidence of politicians – and indeed whole governments – coming unstuck in the face of new technology. But while the fast-paced world of tech is not always a perfect fit for big government, there is still a wealth of opportunity: from improving accountability and transparency, to boosting engagement and participation. Whether perceived as threat or opportunity, there is no questioning the transformative impact that technology can have on government.

Antiquity in an Age of Automation

In an era where technology has re-molded our lives in so many ways, why does politics so often seem an old-fashioned outlier?

Part of the explanation comes from the threat that innovation poses to the status quo. Every shiny new tech venture flying out of Silicon Valley will describe itself as “disruptive.” Disruption, by definition, is not something that the political establishment is desperate to see. As such, technology and government are often seen in conflict. Calls for open source government and e-democracy are usually met with trepidation by the political mainstream, who see it as a threat to their legitimacy, in part because they remove the need for representatives. That can lead to governments digging in their heels against technological change, clinging on to existing systems even when they are inefficient. The fact that the one high profile political group advocating for a ‘digital revolution’ are called Pirate Party International tells its own story.

Failing Slowly, Failing Once

Beyond any theoretical arguments for friction between government and tech, there are a number of cautionary tales from governments who have tried — and failed — to utilize technology to their benefit. Technological glitches in the roll-out of Universal Credit – a large-scale welfare overhaul in the United Kingdom – or HealthCare.gov in the United States, are stark reminders of the potential pitfalls for governments with ambitious, tech-based infrastructure projects. With an electorate to please, governments usually veer towards risk-aversion, meaning one large calamity can stifle innovation for years.

Then there’s the threat from outside. Today, hackers, whistle-blowers and even rogue tweeters can cause government meltdowns. The threat of cyberterrorism is well documented, and the leaks from Snowden and Assange have raised questions that are still reverberating. But individuals don’t need access to government secrets to bring about crises. Emily Thornberry in Britain, Lutz Bachmann in Germany and Anthony Weiner in the States, are all politicians brought down by social media lapses and the ensuing public furores.

In this environment – with reams of sensitive data at risk of exposure – governments worldwide are responding by raising the drawbridge. The ‘Great Firewall of China’ or the NSA and GCHQ’s mass surveillance are two ways of dealing with leaks and shoring up sensitive information, but both are bids to stop the encroachment of technology, not to harness it for the better.

The Opportunity

Technology, and in particular the internet, are often seen as potential stumbling blocks for government. But this perception acts as a brake on innovation in public services and in politics more generally. By embracing technology, rather than warily containing it, governments globally could benefit hugely. In terms of formulating and executing policy, technology can help governments become more transparent, accountable and effective, while improving engagement and participation from regular citizens.

On engagement, for instance, technology is opening up new avenues which make taking part in the political process far more straightforward. Springwise-featured Harvard startup Voatz are building a platform that allows users to vote, make campaign donations and complete opinion polls from their smartphones. The app, which uses biometric authentication to ensure that identities are comprehensively verified, could well entice younger voters who are alienated by the ballot box. Melding the simplicity of apps with sophisticated identity verification technology, Voatz is just one example of how tech can disrupt government for good.

From the Ground Up…

The potential for active participation goes far beyond voting. E-focus groups, online petitions and campaign groups have the power to transform the interaction between political establishments and citizens. From fact-checking charities enabled by crowdfunding such as UK-based Full Fact to massive national campaigns conducted online, citizens connected by technology are using their collective power to reshape government in democratic countries. Under other regimes, such as in the People’s Republic of China, vigilante citizens are circumventing extensive firewalls to shine a light on official misconduct.

…and the Top Down

As well as an abundance of citizen-led efforts to improve governance, there are significant moves from governments themselves to shake-up public service delivery. Even HealthCare.gov, flawed though the roll-out was, marks a hugely ambitious piece of government reform underpinned by technology. Indeed, Obama has shown an unprecedented willingness to embrace technology in his two terms, appointing chief information and technology officers, promising to open up government data and launching the @POTUS Twitter account last month. Clearly, recognition is there from governments that technology can be a game changer for their headline policies.

While many countries are using technology for individual projects, there is one government that is banking its entire national success on tech – Estonia. The tiny, sparsely populated country in Eastern Europe is one of the most technologically advanced in the world. Everything from citizen IDs to tax returns and health records make use of technology and are efficient and ‘future-proofed’ as a result.

Whether as a threat or an opportunity, technology represents a transformative influence on government. Its potential as a disruptive, reshaping force has fed a narrative that casts technology as a looming threat and a destabiliser of conventional power structures. But harnessed properly and executed effectively, technology can remold government for the better, improving big public service projects, raising participation and engaging a young population whose default is digital.

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