All opinions expressed in in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.
On July 2, at 7PM Eastern Time, I recorded the first episode of a new online series we’re producing in collaboration with the Canada School of Public Service’s Digital Academy. I was up late because one of my guests was joining from halfway around the world. For an hour, Pia Andrews, Jesse Hirsch and I had a wide-ranging discussion on government and technology. You can watch it on our YouTube channel.
Over the coming months, we’ll be doing more of these discussions, each focused on a specific topic. But since this was the first episode, we took a step back from the details and talked in broad strokes:
Should government build a public Internet?
While government plays a clear role in physical infrastructure like highways and ports, it’s been largely absent from digital infrastructure, instead relying on private companies to deliver technology. As we adopt digital technologies, do we have to rethink that? If Internet is a basic right, required for civic participation, do we need to detach it from for-profit delivery?
As Jesse pointed out, “I spent most of my life trying to situate the internet—both as originating from the public sector, but belonging in the public sector as infrastructure—as a kind of public resource.”
“Digital public infrastructure is not a term you ever hear used,” said Pia. “I started using it a few years back just to try to get people to think. We’re very, very good at public infrastructure in [relatively social libertarian] countries, which are focused on public health, public education, public transport.” But Pia pointed out that “we have no digital equivalent. We have no digital public infrastructure.”
Updating the Magna Carta
For over eight hundred years, the Magna Carta Libertatum (more widely known as the Magna Carta) has stood as a pillar of citizen liberty. It is perhaps best known for its 39th clause, which gives all ‘free men’ the right to justice and a fair trial.
No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land.
Of course, the term ‘free men’ was itself packed with racial and gender inequality, but the document remains a milestone in civic justice for its time. The 39th clause has been expanded on in various constitutions to grant the right to confront one’s accuser; for example, in the US constitution, the confrontation clause of the Sixth Amendment says that “the accused shall enjoy the right … to be confronted with the witnesses against him.”
But today, technology bears witness. Imagine that you’re accused of a crime. Your accusers have a recording they claim incriminates you. Courts hold that you’re allowed to see that evidence. But modern tools give an investigator far wider powers: Detection and reporting platforms can scan video for license plates, faces, and more. Do we need to update the confrontation clause to guarantee the accused the right to see the evidence against them using the tools of their accuser?
As Jesse observed, “inclusive design suggests that … if you’re going to design, say, the automation of the criminal justice system, then you should include criminals in participating and how it’s designed so that you anticipate all of the users in the system.”
Bad metrics lead to perverse outcomes
Both government and the private sector use money as the yardstick for decisions. As Pia pointed out, “everything comes down to efficiencies or effectiveness or throughput, and the challenge is that actual success for systems that we build—particularly public sector systems [and] public services—should ultimately be measured in their human impact.”
Changing the measurement systems requires a fundamental rebuilding of societies, but to many, it’s clear that the current model doesn’t deliver the best outcomes for people.
Exponential problems require exponential solutions
Many of the problems we face today—from climate change, to social justice, to global pandemics—require new approaches to resolve them. “The problems [and] opportunities we’re facing [are ones where] change and speed and impact are only exponentially growing,” said Pia. “This horrific pandemic has been a case in point. People are not good at understanding how to develop exponential responses to exponential problems.” But as she pointed out, getting to space doesn’t mean building a bigger car—it’s an entirely new set of challenges. “If you actually need to make it to space, you know, the biggest car with the biggest wheels and the best fuel is not going to get you there.”
What that looks like might include:
- Agile programs, with real-time monitoring.
- Systems that bring policy and implementation together.
- Participatory governance to understand public values, needs, direction, and aspirations.
- Futures in what we do today, because otherwise we’ll defer what’s possible indefinitely.
User participation in all things
“One of the biggest failings of the private sector in the last 10 years,” said Jesse, “was their inability to figure out user participation.” He cited online comments and feedback—which in the early days of the Internet was optimistic and collaborative, but has quickly devolved into partisanship and character assassination.
Some governments have handled this with relative success. “In New Zealand,” Pia told us, “they used to have a thing called Policy Juries. I used to actually go and find a demographically balanced group of people like a jury, pay them for three months to be brought up to speed on a complex policy area, to then [have them] participate in the policy process.”
Is digital good or bad for us?
We had a pointed discussion about whether Digital has been a boon—giving us unprecedented access to real-time knowledge and communication—or a curse that polarizes us and ends discourse. I argued that when we decided content had to be free, our reliance on advertising made attention the currency of the online world, and created a model of surveillance capitalism. We pay attention to strong emotions, so online algorithms have polarized us for profit, making discourse hard.
Pia rejected this premise, saying, “the Internet overall has been exceptionally good for our species, because it gave us a way to do what mankind has always been best at: Rapid cumulative learning.” Gatekeepers couldn’t stop sharing, and we created open platforms, open source, and other tools to flank the walled gardens of intellectual property.
But one of the consequences of this is a shift from a concept of “normalcy” to individuality. In an era of broadcasting in which a few groups controlled the printing press, radio station, or TV, we all had to adhere to a concept of what was normal. But the Internet has helped us recognize we’re all different, and humans are a diverse lot. It’s “helped us all get a little bit more comfortable with not being the same as the voice or the picture that’s shoved into our screens, or the voice coming from our radios,” said Pia.
“We’re overthrowing the tyranny of normal. There is no ‘normal,’ but that leaves us in a vulnerable state, because all of a sudden we’re grasping with our own uniqueness,” Jesse agreed. “On the one hand, [that is a] liberating context. But on the other hand, it’s terrifying, because there’s a million different choices and a million different ways.”
Many of the perverse outcomes of commercial digital platforms exist because of the for-profit systems on which we base them. “The very early experiments of Nepal and Bhutan around actually taking happiness as measurement [and] later experiments in New Zealand, looking at the Wellness Framework, which takes Economic, Social, Human, and Environmental as the four capitals,” said Pia, might help us to “choose something which may not be the most cost efficient, but actually gives you substantially more of all the other benefits.”
We need to dramatically change the way we keep score, however. “Until our systems don’t embed those more human measures of success,” Pia concluded, “we will continue to see less human friendly outcomes.”
Civic Gap Years
Could we engage citizens in democracy by giving them time in government, the way some countries have mandatory military enrolment or some other volunteer program?
“I would love in some country somewhere to see something like a civic gap year,” said Pia. “Imagine if 10% or 5% of a public service was actually places for a demographically balanced group of individuals [to work.] Anyone could put their hand up for civic gap year and get paid a reasonable wage to work on … any area of policy they want. They might be particularly passionate about disability, particularly passionate about regional, particularly passionate about service—whatever it is that drives them.” Not only would this create great opportunities, it might also help social cohesion and citizen engagement.
But wait—there’s more!
These are just a few of the topics we touched on in the first FWDthinking episode. We tackled social scoring, the importance of futuristic thinking, and even whether government’s ability to shut down digital platforms can “deplatform” a person who disagrees with it.
There’s also a quiz (you’ll have to watch the video for the questions, and post your answers on Twitter with the #fwdthinking hashtag—first correct answer gets a free online ticket to FWD50 2020 in November!)