Transformative Technology’s Challenges for Government

Accelerating digital disruption requires new approaches to governance and leadership.
April 10, 2018 AT 6:15 AM
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

We've worked on government technology issues since World War II and a bit before. We've all been part of an amazing digital revolution for several generations, one that has transformed not only our personal and working lives but also our systems of commerce and governance. But what we haven't really grasped is just how much the power of technology has grown and how recently so much of that growth has happened.

And, most important, we haven't really recognized or prepared for onrushing and dramatically disruptive changes, propelled by this ongoing digital revolution, in jobs within and among larger communities of interaction. For the public sector in particular, the issues have shifted from technical and economic to organizational and political. The stakes, and especially the downside risks, have become huge. But while the digital future now requires new governance and leadership, we've largely been asleep at the switch.

Clearly that needs to change. But to get a handle on the task before us, we need to understand the key trends:

Exponential productivity growth: Digital power -- the performance per dollar of digital processors, data storage, and data communications -- has roughly doubled every two years or less, growing some 33.6 million times over the past 50 years. Three-quarters of that improvement has emerged in just the past four years. In another four years, computer processing should be four times more productive than today.

Disruptive change in jobs: Digital coordination makes work and jobs more readily measured, monitored and controllable. And in just the past few years, digital tools have been taught to automate many tasks we've always thought of as uniquely human, such as translating languages and driving cars. Oxford University researchers have estimated that computerization is likely to significantly change or eliminate some 47 percent of jobs over the next 10 to 20 years. No wonder people are frightened.

Larger communities of interaction: Digital economies of scale -- as with the internet and cloud computing -- have enabled products, services and social interactions to be produced and consumed within larger and sometimes global communities. As but one example, while education involves mostly local teachers and classrooms, a single online computer-programming course offered by edX (a Harvard-MIT collaboration) has enrolled more than a million learners worldwide.

Some public officials appreciate these trends, some certainly don't, and many haven't yet paid much attention. What should we be doing about them? As with so many challenges in the public sector, ultimately it comes down to governance and leadership.

Governance: A basic problem is that the digital world of the public sector has outgrown past patterns of governance. We have long assembled technology specialists and vendors to help with applications on a project-by-project or program-by-program basis. But what we need is to assemble leaders and develop strategies for larger communities of interaction. Examples include both public service communities and geographic communities. While individual agencies are typically required to produce technology plans (often created by CIOs with minimal senior-leadership engagement), we now need to pull together broader and more institutionally powerful groups to develop strategies for the digital future of a range of governmental activities, including public safety, business and environmental regulation, economic development, and civic engagement. Equally important will be strategies for the digital future of entire cities, counties, metropolitan areas, states and even nations.

Leadership: New governance will require better engagement and decision-making by the full range of government's stakeholders. Political leadership -- and success for the digital future is ultimately about using public power and authority -- will depend on productive interaction and a wise balance among four main actors: managers of public resources and services; advocates in political decision-making, including elected executives, legislators, candidates for office and journalists; analysts of public value, including those who deal with policy, budgets and services; and citizens in their multiple roles as consumers, regulated parties and sources of authority through voting and other political activities.

While each group and actor will have their own perspective and interests, the decision process must analyze and then decide how to bring ever-more-powerful technology to bear on the ultimate goal: promoting long-term public value. While we have understandably focused to date on avoiding failed projects and improving productivity (usually incrementally), the future is bringing more and bigger concerns, especially about disappearing jobs and declining public trust. Leaders must learn how to analyze and respond to these new and disruptively powerful realities.