Drop the ‘Digital’ from Digital Government

If you are talking about the digital society or digital government or your digital strategy: you can drop the “digital”. This is one of the themes coming out of this past week’s #Connected150 conference, a multi-sector conference with the aim of building a public research agenda for digital citizenship. Here’s the thing: we have made an artificial distinction between digital and IRL (in real life). Digital government is just government in the 21st century.

In everyday life we often make a distinction between IRL and online. This, at least tacitly, leads us to treat the online world as separate and distinct from the offline world, with distinct consequences and relationships. However, the online world can be more accurately understood as an extension or augmentation of offline life. Therefore, in thinking of operational or governance matters, digital is not the IT department’s problem or the digital services’ domain; it implicates the whole system.

The Digital Divides

This brings me to another theme from the conversation: the digital divide. There were two interesting angles on the digital divide in terms of citizen engagement:

1. Citizen perspective: Lack of quality access and barriers — such as knowledge, skills and competencies drive increasing inequality and ability to engage with governments. The interesting issue to address here, acknowledging the promises and perils of the Internet-era, is how we might empower citizens to use digital technologies to seize opportunities, meet social needs, and mitigate pitfalls.

2. Institutional perspective: Many of the same factors as above but as a capacity within governing institutions. Digital platforms are designed to influence certain behaviours among users and collect data on users (to again, inform design and influence behaviour). In this sense, when not even the platforms themselves understand the unintended consequences of their designs, there is a critical lack of understanding on the part of government actors regarding how these platforms work and what the implications are for the public — to the policy process, political process and citizen engagement.

Witte, James C. and Susan E. Mannon (2010), The Internet and Social Inequalities, New York, Routledge.

Crossing the Chasm

The Internet-era has ushered in a paradigm shift in our collective understanding of what is possible. New models of governenance, business, and social service are being enabled by this shift. In the current state however large segments of the population lack the skills and access to digital tools while governments are ill equipped to maximize the benefits of these tools to achieve greater public value while mitigating the perils.

We often, if only implicitly, talk about technology in a deterministic fashion, as if technology drives social change, down playing human agency in both the designer and user levels. This can be self-fulfilling, especially in a knowledge-deficit context where we as users and governments act in disempowering ways, assuming we have no agency or influence.

We Need

  1. Greater education for public servants is needed to increase our undertsanding of the way digital platforms work, where there is opportunity and where there are challenges that need to be addressed.
  2. Public programs are needed to improve access, skills and digital literacy among citizens.
  3. To be effective and inclusive, these programs should be created with users, leveraging some of the best user-centred design and co-creation practices. That’s just the digital way.

In these times of rapid change, if we are not thoughtful and inclusive in our approaches we will run the risk of increasing the digital divide and thereby exacerbating exitsing inequalities. Conversely, through this transition we have an opportunity to imprint new patterns on our institutions and address historical inequalities.