Countering the Digital Consensus — Technology, Elites, and Elections

In 2016, in Saint John, New Brunswick, I saw a presentation by Peter Hicks, on his paper “The Enabling Society”. It was the most important message I had heard in the open data space in years. Which was funny, because others in the room told me he’d been talking about the Enabling Society since the early 1990s. To grossly oversimplify, Peter talks about the opportunity to use tech and data analysis to improve the delivery of social welfare programs.

Hold onto that idea — the one where we could do a much better job of delivering social policy using tech — and hold it up against the dominant discourse of digital technology. The dominant discourse of digital focuses on the end-user having easy, quick, seamless experiences doing government things. Even in the cases that escape the middle-class focus, say the Ontario Student Assistance Program calculator, it’s about a student getting on a computer and doing the work. It’s not a lot of work, granted, but it’s a self-directed tool.

Focus on the individual is one of the fundamental hallmarks of neoliberal thinking. Much of the current discussion about digital reduces technology to a user/government interaction. This is not a framework for reimagining social policy. This is a framework for entrenching neoliberalism.

A few times a year, I’m tempted to throw the whole idea of open data aside as superfluous, a layer of privileged policy discussion. And after having this discussion with myself and others several times, I arrive back to the one point of open data that remains, for me, a reason to stick with it. Open data is a way to learn about our governments. Beyond learning about them, it enables consultation and public discussions grounded in reality. Real numbers of people, real data on race, real numbers of assets, real amounts of money.

This connects to the idea of openness about the state of government tech. The stakes are high for government technology, but they’ve always been high. Not because of robots, not because of AI, but because technology is the domain of an elite. It has never been applied to anything other than neoliberal governance. This will not sit well with the persistent digital consensus that digital is somehow inherently progressive, but it’s not. And I’m part of that elite. The time to apply technology to a state that recommits to social welfare is thirty years ago. But this could also start now. It’s one way to get to a different future, a different social equity space, and a different government.

One critical piece of background in the relationship between technology and the elite is the history of neoliberalism. How it came to be, how it dominates global culture, and how it brought about public policy changes in the form of new public management. Policy under neoliberalism is not a neutral undertaking. Policy in a neoliberal context continuously puts emphasis on markets, individual’s capacity to work/contribute, and efficiency.

New public management, which occurred in neoliberal times, meant decentralization, with separate agencies, ministries, etc. all working more independently, as business units. And in the name of business management, it was the beginning of more metrics. Benchmarks. Data. Business Intelligence. Analytics. Statistics. And here’s where the technology community missed the first chance to grab the wheel — but why would it have? It’s an elite stakeholder. Technology has been in play in government for roughly thirty years. And rather than use it to rebuild how we serve people, government has been building it on top of and around our policy to center markets and capitalism, and to outsource care of vulnerable people to charities and non-profits.

Government and the private sector together created complexity in digitizing our government. They built complicated and disparate systems to serve government ends and data laws instead of building processes, laws, and systems to serve people, particularly people that need the most help from the state. And there is waste in government IT — there are few places I can say this with confidence about government spending, but this is one of them.

Decades have gone by without anyone properly applying technology to social equity goals. This includes the collection and application of race-based data. This includes the removal of administrative burdens that keep poor people from getting government help and accessing programs. Low-tech tech. The problem is, no one has taken technology up as a political opportunity to work on social equity. These opportunities are important in our discussions of tech because otherwise we continue to make government tech synonymous with neoliberalism. It’s not the only way.

Here I’ll pause to stick my hand up to say that if you are running for office at any level of government, and our values align, I’d like to talk to you. Because there are opportunities and risks abound in how tech is managed in government. There has been an opportunity for a long time now to better apply both data and technology to service delivery. Making efforts to change how all of this works is political. It’s not value-neutral. It’s partisan electoral politics. You cannot de-politicize policy from within government and just do the right digital thing. Tech leadership can be visible or invisible as part of an electoral platform. Either way, it can serve an important role heading into the next set of elections at all levels of government. It’s time to politicize this discussion and challenge the digital consensus.