Between five and ten years ago these ideas were at the fringes of conversations about how government could develop in the future. Now, while not exactly household terms, they are becoming increasingly mainstream. But what are the concepts and tools that will be seen as the new normal by 2020-25, and what should policy makers be doing now to get up to speed?
The Cabinet Office is supporting cross-government horizon scanning work that has included a focus on emerging technologies, and it is here that many of these new approaches to government seem likely to originate. Some of these – especially those related to data science – are already with us, and are increasingly being used in or near government. But in my view two areas that I think will feel more ingrained into how government thinks of itself within 5 years will be government as a platform and a new tech-led approach to regulation.
We see platforms all around us, from the Apple Store to Amazon, where companies open up their systems to allow others to sell products or applications through them. But US tech guru Tim O’Reilly was one of the first to probe what could mean for government back in 2010. An early practical example of government as a platform was the open data movement where external organisations and companies use freely available machine readable data to create businesses and aid accountability, and although there remains work to be done it is an area where the UK leads the world. The Government Digital Service and digital and technology leaders from across departments are now taking platforms to a next level with development of common software that can be used across government and beyond. The new identification service Verify is an excellent example, and this GDS video helps explain how platforms will reshape digital services in coming years.
Platforms are about providing a (digital) framework within which others abide by rules, using data and a payment and regulatory ecosystem to unleash invention at scale. Could this notion not be applied to the wider face-to-face operation of government? Think of developments where innovative services like Casserole Club would be able to provide its amazing service in not just a handful of local authorities, but have the opportunity to develop at scale as needed by users UK wide. Consider how NationBuilder has developed a platform to organise social campaigns, and if the same organising principles were built in to the fabric of government what this could mean for democracy – particularly among a generation that expect to collaborate and create content. This brings with it an opportunity to redefine the role of government, and even create a different relationship between state and public.
A second area is how we approach regulation. Again, back to Tim O’Reilly and a different article presents a thought experiment about what happens to the idea of a generalised speed limit in a world of autonomous vehicles and network knowledge of road conditions, weather, condition of the car, and presence (or otherwise) of other vehicles. While your Maserati autonomous vehicle might zip along at 200mph where conditions allow, my rusty old wreck of an autonomous vehicle might be safer for everyone if limited to 50mph.
The use of sensors is already transforming the automotive industry and other areas of engineering. For example, Rolls Royce no longer replaces engine parts on a rolling timetable but now knows the condition of each part in each engine and replaces each part exactly when needed. Which begs question that in a world where Tesla can update software overnight to its cars if it finds a way to optimise ride height to improve fuel efficiency, does it still make sense to retain annual MOTs for all vehicles?
And not just MOTs. Many regulations and laws are about determining a sensible rule of thumb that on average is about right, even if risk-based regulation and inspection are increasingly evident. Where are the opportunities where when flooded with sensors we can do away with ‘on average every x months’ or ‘every x times’ style laws and regulation? Could this signal an opportunity to significantly ease the regulatory burden and increase more tailored experience of government?
Even more speculative is the potential for the technology that underpins Bitcoin to play a role in future state regulation. The blockchain is the digital mechanism that sits behind Bitcoin and records the history of each Bitcoin transaction in a form that is recorded in many places and which can be read by all. Based on new breakthroughs in cryptography, it creates integrity in the virtual currency without the need for central bank – for instance it prevents individual bitcoins being used at the same time by two separate people. What is more, this same process can also be deployed to securely document other types of transaction that have nothing to do with Bitcoin; for example, a contract between two individuals can be verified without recourse to a government or company (and the costs and time associated with this type of verification). Technologists are starting to consider where else this technology could be used and regulation – eg in wider financial services – is one possible area.
Silicon Valley investor Marc Andreessen famously said in 2011 that software is eating the world, and a similar claim could now be made about data. These are disruptive and transformational technologies, as many big companies from Blockbusters to HMV have understood too late. Why do we expect government to be immune from the more radical impacts, just because we don’t have the luxury of going out of business? It is not just a case of feeding modern digital tools into our existing policy processes (though that too), it is about recognising that these technologies have the potential to allow or even require a different operating model for government. There are clearly choices for whether or how we do this, but commentators like Cambridge University’s Mark Thompson point to significant ramifications for the way in which government itself could be organised.
With Nesta, the Cabinet Office’s Open Policy Team is inviting senior leaders in government to a workshop shortly to hear from leading figures where these emerging technologies are heading, and what they might mean for public services. So: data science, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, sensors, applied programming interfaces, autonomous machines, and platforms. Will this be a roll-call of everyday government terms as we get ready to enter a new Parliament in 2020?