I spent a couple of hours yesterday recording a podcast on the future of digital technologies in the relationship between government and citizen. It’s not going to be released until October, when I’ll share a link, but one of the questions spurred more thoughts after the event.
The other guest and I were asked whether the introduction of digital technologies could actually change the structure and mode of operation of government services? Or, whether digital technologies were just replicating the status quo at lower cost and friction.
To date I’ve seen very little evidence that the digital technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of the relationship between government and citizen. Primarily it is reduced friction — on both sides — that has been the benefit. Some groups have started to take advantage of the more open access to data, for example, in order to lobby more effectively for change. There’s now a more streamlined way for groups to influence decision-making with the petitions portal. But neither of these steps is a major shift from the status quo.
A real shift would be a re-connection between power and those affected by it. Britain has one of the most centralised power structures of any developed democracies, with the vast majority of spending being controlled centrally. I think this is problematic for two reasons.
Firstly, however diligent a constituency MP, citizens are basically at the mercy of a power structure that exists potentially hundreds of miles from them and has no first-hand experience of their problems.
Secondly, large, complex, distant systems are always going to be slower at responding to local needs — too slow, in my opinion. There’s a natural tendency to legislate once for the whole country, but even in a small country like Britain, needs vary dramatically across the state.
Could digital technology help to overcome this? They can certainly play a role in speeding the transaction of power, and improving the connection between London and the rest of the country. But really it is more fundamental reform that is needed. Devolution of power and spending so that it sits closer to those that it affects.
This isn’t without its problems. The ‘postcode lottery’ the press love to decry will be viscerally real if power is devolved. There will abslutely be better healthcare, welfare, and education in some places than others. But that may be the price of the possibility of a more responsive democracy that can meet the needs of the people without resorting to artificial exercises in engagement like referenda. As the recent experiment showed, such large-scale exercises in direct democracy become baskets for all sorts of dissatisfaction, not just the issue at hand. They are also far to slow, expensive and cumbersome to be any sort of regular mechanism.
Digital technologies can do much. But sometimes, the only answer is political.