Part 1: Why Digital Matters

Teaching Digital at the Harvard Kennedy School

image credit: Canned Muffins

Digital technologies matter because our society, our economy, and our organizations have — for better and worse — become digitized. If policy makers and public servants can’t understand what this means, how it alters the production of public goods, or its impact on management, regulation, the economy, and policy, we are in trouble.

  • The Indian government is tying biometrics of its 1.3 billion citizens to a (nominally voluntary) digital identification system that will be required to access key government services and bank accounts. What does this mean for privacy, security and how the state delivers services?
  • In France and America, foreign actors hack into the main political parties’ email systems and leak contents in an effort to sway elections — or at least, to destroy the information sphere and make coherent public discourse impossible. Can democracies survive persistent digital disinformation campaigns?
  • In America, the failure of the healthcare.gov launch almost cost a sitting president one of his signature policies. Do governments possess the capability to deliver digital services?
  • Simple artificial intelligence systems could displace call centers, threatening to remove one of the lower rungs of the economic development ladder for some of the world’s poorest countries. Will digital technologies impede economic development for the world’s poor?

Digital: it is just beginning

In August 2011, Marc Andreessen — inventor of the first widely-adopted web browser and founder of Andreessen Horowitz — wrote a Wall Street Journal piece, “Software is Eating the World.” For many, the piece smelled of hubris, as markets (and the public) could still remember the dot.com bubble of a decade earlier.

Andreessen’s assertion has proven prescient. Today, the five largest companies in the world (by market capitalization) are technology companies. And those that are not, like GE, are busy trying to redefine themselves as such.

But this ascension of digital in the world of business is only a part of the story. Andreessen’s confidence rested in part on the observation that across the business and public sector — and even one’s personal space — there existed millions, if not billions, of processes which today are either analog, undocumented, or automated but unconnected to the internet. He saw billions of tasks and activities — from the mundane (renewing your parking permit) to the critical (detecting tax fraud) — that software can or could do. And as more systems, more “things” and more services digitize, the possibilities and challenges will grow exponentially. This is why software still has much “eating” to do.

Andreessen’s piece has numerous implications. There are three I believe will matter above all others for schools of policy and government like the Harvard Kennedy School.

Digital — Why it Matters to Schools of Policy and Government

The first involves a fairly straight forward implication of Andreessen’s analysis. An alternative reading of Andreessen’s op-ed title is “How digital is eating the physical.” It is the digital sphere — and the rules, norms and structures that come to define it—that will, in many cases, control the physical sphere. This is why digital’s impact on the economy, democracy, and society should not be underestimated. It is also why understanding, shaping and engaging in those rules, norms and structures is essential to a policy school. Those interested in the public sphere will need frameworks and tools to address questions of ethics in digital technologies, to say nothing of its impact on equity, the public good, safety, privacy and innumerable other issues.

The second involves a renewal of institutions. Digital is transforming how we work and how institutions are structured and managed (imagine running a company in the present day without email — or for the hip among you, Slack). Government is no exception. What government can and should look like in a digital age is a real and pressing question. This is why digital transformation is such a buzz word. Organizations (governments, NGOs and companies) are all grappling with how to stay competitive or relevant, and it is forcing them to rethink how they are structured, how they process information and what skills their employees have. This is true in the private sector; again, GE serves as an example as it tries to shift from manufacturing to information services. The advantage of the private sector is that when organizations fail to make the transformation, they unwind, and their capital and assets are redeployed. The public sector has no such advantage. And you don’t want to live in a country where the government becomes obsolete or incapable. This makes digital transformation for schools of policy and government both urgent and critical.

Which brings me to the third way digital matters to schools of policy and government. People often talk about how technology — our digital world — accelerates the pace of change for both good and ill. There is indeed much that is speeding up. I believe the core opportunity and requirement of the digital age will be to accelerate how organizations learn. Digital provides the infrastructure — systems to measure, collect and analyze data, more easily than ever before. The question is how public institutions will adapt to and responsibly use these capabilities. Can governments become learning organizations that move at the speed of digital? And I mean this not just in the provision of services but in the development of public policy, regulatory regimes and innumerable other areas? At its heart, digital is unleashing a cultural and organizational change challenge. One that pits planners (bureaucratic systems comfortable with detailed but rigid plans and policies laid out in advance) and learners (agile oriented systems that seek to enable governments to learn and adapt), sometimes in real time. Balancing the world views of learners and planners, while continuing to constrain both with a strong system of values and ethics essential for public institutions, is a central challenge.

Digital matters in policy schools because unlike many of my technologist friends, I don’t think government is irrelevant. Nor do I believe it has permanently been left behind. Governments are slow moving, but immensely powerful beasts. They are also beasts that respond very aggressively to threats. I do not worry about governments failing to adapt to the digital age — they will eventually do that. I fear how governments will adapt. Will a world of agile, learning governments power democratic rights that enable us to create better societies? Or will they surveil us and eliminate dissent to create societies that serve their interest?

That future is up for grabs. It is why digital matters to schools of policy and government. It is why it matters to me. It is why I’m here at the Kennedy School.


This is the first in a series of pieces (full series here) about how I am wrestling with how to teach about digital technologies at policy schools. If you are interested in more you can follow me on Medium and Twitter, or read my blog.

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