Digital technologies carry many risks to the public sector!

Published on March 07, 2024

The digitalisation of countries involves more than just making analogue information available in digital formats. Many algorithmic tools (often difficult-to-explain AI systems) are becoming more appealing for officials looking to analyse trends, categorise people, and make decisions.

So, of course, in a world where digital tools heavily influence social and political life, navigating the change will be vital to sustaining democracy for the future.

The governing business is undergoing dramatic changes amid the spread of digital products to new markets and settings.

Relying on digital technologies to make governance faster, smarter, and more efficient

Volumes of digital data on government officials, resources, and practices now exist. So, too, do new analytical tools for making sense of this information.

According to a report, 76% of government officials see digital trends and technologies that are disrupting the public sector and 96% believe they are impacting domains significantly.

Domains, in this case, include public sector areas such as defense, education, healthcare, transportation, etc. However, the same report concluded that nearly 70% lag behind the private sector.

If we take into consideration the EU’s DESI report, many member states are close to offering 100% of their (public) services to their citizens. However, progress is uneven. Once again, this report concludes that services for citizens are less likely to be available online (compared to services for and from businesses.)

Also, while the roll-out of basic digital public services is progressing steadily (such as access to online forms), the availability of more advanced public services that make use of innovative digital technologies (think AI, big data, robotics, etc.) still requires significant investment.

In the EU, Malta, Lithuania, Finland, and even Croatia are devoting more than half of their digital budget to the digitalisation of public services.

Digital tools in the public sector carry huge risks!

We can all agree that monitoring and decision-making tools that use digital data in new ways can help realise citizens’ right to good governance.

Yet, like other imperfect products of human labour, there are risks and threats.

These threats may be present with any technology (no matter how simple) that directly or indirectly impacts democratic processes or citizens’ rights and obligations.

The worst part is that the uptake of AI and other automated decision-making tools, however, is expanding the scope of this challenge.

Whether through opaque decision-making processes that blur lines of official responsibility, discriminatory impacts of algorithmic tools (as we have seen across a range of established democracies), or abuses of new surveillance powers (think the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware) — poorly overseen digitalisation may further erode political accountability where it is already under threat.

Applying the same standards to digital systems

It seems that the adoption of new digital tools in backsliding democracies can create a facade of objectivity that obscures real risks to democratic integrity.

In these conditions, societies urgently need to understand how to ensure the same standards of transparency and accountability for traditional public authorities are also applied to digital systems.

The European Union’s AI Act represents a significant attempt to grapple with many of the challenges to democracy and human rights.

This legislation, which has set a global precedent, thoroughly addresses the risks that AI technologies present when used in certain contexts.

It bans the deployment of certain technologies (such as real-time remote biometric ID systems in publicly accessible spaces) or classifies them as “high-risk.”While this type of regulation should be supported, it will NOT, on its own, provide a sufficient answer to digital risks in the public sector.

Why? Because individual state governments will be primarily responsible for the Act’s enforcement. So, as technology’s role in governance expands, officials will need to receive ongoing training that go beyond specific tools and basic questions that may come from residents.

Final thoughts

So, to sum it up, the digital revolution is transforming how our governments operate. From adopting AI tools to expanding digital services, the landscape is changing fast. But with great power comes great responsibility.

Sure, these digital advancements promise faster, smarter governance, but they’re not without risks. We’re talking about potential biases in algorithms, the misuse of surveillance powers, and even the blurring of lines in decision-making processes.

While international regulations aim to tackle these issues, they’re not a one-size-fits-all solution.

Each country’s government needs to step up and enforce these rules properly. That means they’ve got to stay focused, continuously train officials, and ensure transparency and accountability in all their new digital systems.



About the Author

Mohammad J Sear is focused on bringing purpose to digital in government.

He has obtained his leadership training from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, USA and holds an MBA from the University of Leicester, UK.

After a successful 12+ years career in the UK government during the premiership of three Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, Mohammad moved to the private sector and has now for 20+ years been advising government organizations in the UK, Middle East, Australasia and South Asia on strategic challenges and digital transformation.

He is currently working for Ernst & Young (EY) and leading the Digital Government practice efforts across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and is also a Digital Government and Innovation lecturer at the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences Po, France.

As a thought-leader some of the articles he has authored include: “Digital is great but exclusion isn’t – make data work for driving better digital inclusion” published in Harvard Business Review, “Holistic Digital Government” published in the MIT Technology Review, “Want To Make Citizens Happy – Put Experience First” published in Forbes Middle East.

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