One of the characteristics of today’s digital services is that they operate in real-time. If you want to buy something on Amazon, you see if it’s out-of-stock immediately. Pricing on Uber responds to demand in real-time, so you pay more when there are less cars about.
There are also real-time feedback loops to the teams running those services. They can see, in real-time, how many people are using their service, where they are getting stuck and what’s not working as it should.
Now, there are both good and bad things about that, especially when it comes to opaque, personalised pricing, but it is generally true.
It is also generally true that governments do not work in real-time.
Even where public services are online, it is often not possible for users to, for example, track the exact point in the process their visa application is at, or to be proactively warned about a licence expiring or an upcoming change to the law.
‘Management information’ tends to be in the form of monthly reports, not real-time feeds, so the feedback loops are longer for teams and policy makers.
Official statistics are often updated on time-frames of months, years or even decades (the Standard Occupational Classification, used by many countries to look for changes in the jobs market is updated approximately every 10 years).
Often, this is because online government services are digital analogues of the paper process that preceded them – the digital parts of the service were slotted in to replace a paper application or renewal form. The processes and infrastructure behind them remain the same.
It’s also down to the way governments manage data – it tends to be copied and shared between and within organisations using overnight batch processes, rather than accessed via APIs.
Fundamentally, the infrastructure and the data-hygiene does not exist for government to systematically operate in real-time.
Why does this matter?
Citizens could be proactively told about a change to their entitlements because a child has reached school age, or to track the exact stage their application is at, rather than pick up the phone.
Businesses could be started in real-time and those businesses could benefit from real-time tax calculations.
Public servants and politicians could spot problems with a service before they become a nationwide problem, and improve their policies on a cycle of weeks and months not years.
There is an opportunity for genuinely better public services if governments can operate real-time services, but to do that means new infrastructure to operate those services on.