There are two contrasting images of the future as we move towards an increasingly connected and digital world. One is a world of freedom and choice, in which the customer comes first and the priority of every business is to ensure their engagement and delight. The other is a dystopian nightmare in which faceless systems deliver substandard products and services to disempowered individuals. The bright future is what the tech industry likes to promise us, its dark twin is what many of us fear we are being led towards.
As government itself moves towards a digital future, it can either help or hinder one or other of these outcomes. In the best-case scenario, government-as-platform will, in the words of David Gee, CMO of subscription platform Zuora, engage citizens as empowered subscribers with "access to a range of new opportunities to learn and engage." In the worst case, it will merely compound the misery wrought by remote corporations.
An era of data capitalism
Some may argue that the market will ultimately find the right equilibrium, but the market is itself a faceless mechanism, one that allows concentrations of power to accumulate if left to its own devices. In a digital economy, we enter an era of data capitalism, when accumulations of data have put concentrated market power in the hands of the largest players. Today, the likes of Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple have already built up vast stores of data, often long before its value was fully realized. Despite its importance, the pivotal role of data capitalism in steering us towards either utopia or dystopia is still barely recognized.
As with all markets, people can only be sure of avoiding negative outcomes through a combination of consumer activism and government regulation. But can government be trusted to represent the individual consumer and act on our behalf? That can only happen if we as citizens are concerned enough to make it a priority for government.
Our worst fears of what might go wrong are borne out by the experiences we already suffer in the real world. The digital economy provides unprecedented choice and convenience when it works well, but when something goes wrong, its systems often become suddenly unresponsive. The pages of diginomica have recorded rants-a-plenty at such examples over the past few years. Social media and other digital engagement mechanisms give consumers some power to push back, but with no guarantee of success.
This is where government regulation should step in, giving consumers legal rights of redress that bolster their leverage in the power equation against mighty, data-rich corporations. But if government itself is unresponsive and disengaged, it can't be much of an ally for the disempowered citizen.
Digital government horror stories
How organizations treat their clients isn't solely a matter of how digitally sophisticated their operations have become. The technology is a means to an end, and if the organization has no commitment or culture of putting its clients first, its processes won't either. This is a truism that predates the digital era, but which takes on greater significance once automation becomes rife, and every avenue of redress is administered by algorithm.
Against the positive examples of digital government must be placed some of the horror stories. In the UK, harrowing testimony has come to light as the British government rolls out its new Universal Credit scheme of integrated social welfare payments. This online system has left many claimants in dire straits, without money to feed themselves or their children, due to poor change management and administrative delays. One government MP was reduced to tears in a Parliamentary debate on the hardship caused by the scheme's flaws.
It's one thing when Amazon lets you down on a delivery. When the government delays the payments you need to feed and house your family, that's a whole other level of dereliction. If we're outraged when we learn of private corporations treating their customers with disrespect, then neither should we accept government agencies treating citizens so shabbily.
Yet the public sector's track record in delivering citizen delight is hardly reassuring. In the link I mentioned earlier, David Gee describes his experience of US agencies:
Right now, virtually every single one of my interactions with my state and federal government is miserable: going to the DMV, paying my taxes, attempting to decipher my PG&E bill, dealing with CalTrans and road tolls. These are mindless obstacles, not simple, intuitive touch points that should either give me relevant information or disappear altogether.
The problem is that government mostly emulates the product-centric or process-centric approaches to systems design that are still prevalent in large, traditional businesses. Such systems are prone to see the recipient of goods or services as a passive consumer at the end of single transaction rather than an actively engaged participant in an ongoing relationship.
Like any private sector organization with this legacy of operating in a pre-digital age, public bodies find it hard to digitally transform. With some rare exceptions, the public sector typically lacks the digital skills, mindset and funding to enable the kind of customer-centric relationships with engaged and empowered subscribers that the best digital-native businesses pride themselves on.
Digital transformation in government thus lags behind the state-of-the-art in the private sector. The result when citizens look for digital solutions from government is that they are often disappointed with what's on offer. This leads to further dissatisfaction and distrust, which is not helpful when government and its agencies are the citizen's ultimate backstop against over-powerful digital corporations.
Making digital government accessible and responsive to every citizen thus has to be a priority for society. It's in all our interests for government to become a standard-bearer for digital excellence, ensuring universal access to its services that will engage and delight citizens. Only then can government become a trusted partner in the vital mission of ensuring that the era of data capitalism delivers a bright, digital future for all.