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Technology and the Difficult Issues of Governance

In setting digital priorities, public leaders need to think about productivity, equity and trust.

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Governance is about the guidance of collective behavior to promote the public interest. The most basic and important goals are productivity (the efficient creation of value), equity (the fair distribution of value), and trust (the shared belief that the authority needed to create and distribute value is used competently and in the public interest). As with so many things these days, we look to technology to power our way to meeting these goals.

For most of its history, however, decisions about computer work ignored the potential as well as the difficulties of coordinating large segments of institutional value chains. This was because the early computers were cost-effective only for limited, well-structured calculations (codebreaking, artillery ballistics, accounting reports). Success thus depended foremost on specialized skills for running technology and producing information, not on using information to reform the typically much larger and more significant non-tech activities of value chains. Computers for many decades simply weren't powerful enough to drive institution-wide reforms in productivity, equity, and trust.

That's changed, of course. Digital productivity -- the units produced per computing dollar spent for data collection, storage, communications and processing -- has improved exponentially, largely in line with the "doubling every two years" metric known as Moore's Law. Suddenly, computers can do things only humans could do before. Think about the dramatic and previously impossible progress in the past five years with automated legal and medical research, automated conversational interactions on a wide variety of topics ("Jeopardy," anyone?), and automated vehicles.

Computer-based change used to be small and slow enough to be absorbed without much impact on jobs, organizational structures or strategies. But things are different now, and the growth of digital productivity will continue to accelerate dramatically. The future will be much more disruptive. Research at Oxford University and elsewhere predicts that nearly half of all existing jobs will be eliminated by automation or require substantial retraining and skill upgrading over the next 10-20 years.

While productivity growth overall has continued to create a richer world, economic growth outside the technology sphere has slowed and become contentious, and many on both the left and right have come to believe that we are on the wrong course. As an equity concern, while the share of national income for the top 1 percent in the mid-1970s was 27 times larger than that for the bottom 1 percent, it grew to 81 times larger by 2013. As the equity numbers got worse, so did measures of trust in most of our institutions: The portion of Americans who think that government makes good decisions "most of the time," for example, has fallen from about 80 percent to below 20 percent. And after more than a half-century of information-age progress, people are connected more tightly via computer screens, but they are also more anxious, angry, and harder to govern.

These issues impact every aspect of institutional and jurisdictional governance, from social policy to regulation to taxation. Government's application of technology will continue to have a growing role in addressing them. So public leaders -- and not just the technology specialists -- should be able to give well-informed and well-considered answers about digital priorities for:

Productivity: Are you making smart choices about new targets for automation (such as driverless cars and automated text research); new opportunities for remote coordination (as with GPS-enabled apps that tell citizens where the buses, trains and snowplows are); and new support for evidence-based decisions (as with assembling "what works" databases for better-informed funding decisions)?

Equity: Are you making smart choices about computer-accessible and lifelong job training, transitional support, job-sharing, and other opportunities for those disrupted by digital transformation (much as land-grant colleges helped in the transition from agricultural to industrial life)?

Trust: Are you making smart choices about public-service responsiveness and accountability (as with 311-style apps that allow citizens to report problems like potholes and track City Hall's progress in dealing with them)? Are the activities of government transparent (as with making budgeting documents easily accessible online), and is the public engaged in providing feedback and evaluation that is both useful and used?

Good governance today can't be developed without explicitly considering how growing digital power should be used to improve productivity, equity and trust through well-chosen reforms in jobs, institutions and entire value chains. Does your jurisdiction need new digital priorities?

A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School
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