Cognitive Government

The main theme of this year’s UAE Government Summit 2015 was 'Shaping Future Governments.' Fom the Internet of Things to predictive analytics to artificial intelligence, the summit was a showcase of the cutting-edge innovations which appear destined to redefine the role of government. Robots, for example, could help governments design better services while cognitive software applications are already fueling exponential changes in medical research.  

The rate of technological change happening today is a two-edged sword because it also raises important questions about the ability of many government agencies to adapt to the developments. For example, while this won’t hold true for all public sector organizations, there is no doubt that the trend toward 'made-for-me' service delivery and citizen-led co-creation will stress the capabilities of many governments.

To be sure, a whole new economy of problem solvers has emerged to tackle some of our toughest societal challenges, what we call The Solution Economy. This means governments won’t have to go it alone. These Wavemakers, however, can’t change the operating systems of government. That responsibility lies within government itself.

The good news is that there are lots of perspectives on the opportunities presented by rapid advances in technology. Deloitte’s Gov2020 research highlights almost 200 trends that could shape the future of governments.

The challenge is not an absence of technological advancement. Rather, it is in how governments are to effectively adapt to these advances. As Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, famously said:

'If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.'

How government bodies evolve and adapt matters to us all. And in a world of exponential change - where we have the potential to move more people out of poverty that ever before; to arrest or eradicate terrible disease; and to reverse the threat of  global warming – the potential benefits of governments that are capable  of continuous adaptation, based on applied learning, has never been greater.

But can our governments adapt to an age of exponential change?  Could there be such a thing as a 'cognitive government': one that is itself a learning system that adapts in concert with others. What would it look like? How would it be achieved?

The secrets to achieving a Cognitive Government are likely to come mainly from within. That is, only those who have the authority and accountability to change the system can really do so. 

So who will or should lead this change? Most government leaders’ authority and accountably extends to only a relatively small part of the overall government bureaucracy, severely limiting the influence they can have. They do not command the complete architecture of government, or how it could be adapted to exploit the innovations taking place both inside and out. That’s why a philosophy that views governments as cognitive enterprises capable of learning and adapting in a highly networked system could signal a fundamental breakthrough in public management.

But first serious work needs to be done on what a government entity reinvented as a learning system would resemble and how it would operate. Articles like this and forums like Nesta’s thinking on Future Operating Systems of Government are helpful first steps. For our part, we believe that creating Cognitive Government involves at least three core elements:

  • Open functionality

    The public sector needs to evolve from open government and open data to co-creation by better tapping into collective intelligence. Governments should do more than just opening up; they need to become parts of co-creation ecosystems.

  • Applied learning

    Governments must become more nimble in their ability to sense and respond. The aptitude to prototype, rapidly iterate and fail well and fail fast should become core tenets of nearly every project rollout. Agile, lean, user-centricity and design thinking become core methodologies of more agile governments.

  • Adaptive rule-making

    In The Rule of Nobody, Phillip Howard ably documents how bureaucracy, regulations, and dead laws tie public sector leaders’ hands and lead to sclerotic government. Fixing the problem requires understanding and changing the 'rules' that define the architecture of government and limit its ability to scale innovations. Examples would be rules related to data sharing, organizational design and job descriptions, hiring and firing and contracting.

The past decade or two offers some lessons in how to get from here to there. Many governments have been successful in creating e-government services. Evolving these to a ‘mobile first’ delivery system is a natural evolution. But the Internet of Things is rapidly changing many business models and presents near limitless opportunities to improve our daily lives. How can governments shorten their learning curve to more effectively adapt to the technological changes that surround them?

Excitement (and concern) is building around the potential of rapid advancements in Artificial Intelligence, Cognitive Systems and Machine-to-Machine learning. But for society to benefit from the true power of these and other technologies our institutions will also need to become more adaptive. We can achieve more than innovation around the edges of our public agencies. Achieving truly fundamental changes to the architecture of government will require a commitment to co-creation, a culture of self-correction and willingness to re-write the rules that inhibit adaptation.  


William D. Eggers

William is responsible for research and thought leadership for Deloitte’s Public Sector industry practice.

Paul Macmillan

As the Global Public Sector Leader for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, Paul is responsible for the firm’s client service innovation to support public purpose organizations around the…