Whilst there might still be a lot of work to do in order to remove the practical, everyday and mundane barriers to building more interactive, open government – and public services fit for the 21st Century, it’s also important to ask critical questions about the sort of public services and government we want developments in technology to help bring about. I’ve just been reading the essays prepared for the Reboot Britain conference that was held last month – and whilst their provocative cheer-leading for a digitally transformed world is often well placed, I also felt slightly uneasy at the omissions in this NESTA publication, and the challenges either unseen, or glossed over.
I’ve tried to capture that unease into three challenges that I believe need to be addressed by those proposing and arguing for more open government, digitally enabled public services and a ‘rebooted britain’. Challenges that are intended, not as a argument against moving forward, but as a the starting point for an argument for subtle, and sometimes not-so-subtle, tweaks to our direction of travel.
Challenge 1: Where is social justice?
It doesn’t just matter that it is made generally easier to access public services; or that access to democratic power is redistributed to a greater number of people. It matters who has easier access to services, and which voices are now being heard in democratic debate. If digital innovations stand to widen the gulf between the best off, and the least well off, then it may well turn out to be wrong to pursue them. Markets and technologies are not morally neutral or value free – and we need to ask questions about their impact on equality and socially just outcomes.
Social justice, equality and inequality are not terms that you will find anywhere in the Reboot Britain essays – and there is a lack of critical appreciation of the way in which existing social inequality can be re-enforced by the introduction of technologies that outsource to the individual the burden of managing the fulfilment of their needs, rights and entitlements from public services. Whilst the VRM movement advocated by Lee Bryant could indeed lead to a powerful transformation of the relationship between citizen and state – we should be asking ourselves the Rawlsian question of whether some of our innovations, applied without attention paid to equality, could end up benefiting the well off, to the unjust detriment of the least well off in society – widening, rather than narrowing the gulf in our unequal society.
The challenge in a nutshell: ask what sort of society your innovation creates – and tell us if that society is closer to a just and fair one?
Challenge 2: Supporting Deliberative Leadership
Accountability is generally a good thing. Having more information on which to base decision making is generally a good thing. Having decision makers who can debate their decisions by appeal to public reason, and who can account for their decisions clearly and transparently is also much to be desired. However, having decision makers and leaders who are human being is also important. And human beings have practical limitations.
Demands for data, demands for transparency, and demands for new systems for getting more voices into decision making are common across many of the Reboot Britain essays – but without a recognition that decisions should be made, not just upon data-points and on the basis of who shouts loudest, but upon careful deliberation and discursive weighing up of ideas – we risk ending up with a very impoverished politics.
To demand far greater accountability from politicians than we demand either from the media, or, indeed as categories of media / politician and ‘other’ break-down in a digital world, from ourselves – seems to risk creating leaders unable to use their judgement, not least because of the basic practical burdens of auditing all past statements they have made and accounting for any changes in their view over time.
The challenge in a nutshell: don’t stop at making demands for data – think about how it will impact upon deliberative decision making. Can you provide an account of the form of leadership or decision making you want to see – and provide a realistic portrait of a politician fit for a Rebooted Britain?
Challenge 3: Local Control vs. Universal Services
In part this challenges is a replay of the social justice challenge – in so far as it asks whether local control of services leads to a concentration of better services around the already well-off, and a relative decline in the quality of services in areas where populations find it more difficult to exploit new technologies of voice. But more generally this challenge asks whether we can make compatible the idea of Universal Services, available to everyone across the country (without the ‘postcode lottery’ frequently decried in mainstream media) with the idea of local and hyper-local control of services?
The challenge in a nutshell: Does the idea of universal and uniform provision drop out of the picture in the Britain described in the Reboot Britain essays?