The digital transformation of government and public service delivery is well under way and is by now – hopefully – unstoppable. It’s taken longer to get here than it should have, and it will take longer to fully embed the new public sector practices and technology than it needs to, but it should get there.
This leads us inevitably to the area of public life that remains almost entirely untouched by the 21st century – when will we see the digital transformation of politics?
There’s an appetite for it – six million people signing an online petition, regardless of what it’s for, is a sign that large parts of the citizenry want to have new and better ways to engage with their elected representatives. The dismissal of that petition by the government shows the disdain with which such digital engagement is held by politicians.
I’ve written before how Brexit can be seen as a symptom of the societal changes being brought about by the digital revolution. We’re entering a period of backlash against the way technology is breaking down hierarchies and replacing them with a networked society – a shift that represents a huge threat to individuals and organisations whose power is derived from their position at the peak of those old 20th century hierarchies.
Have we now reached the pinch point, where politics itself is reacting to this change and will inevitably do whatever it can to resist?
In the UK, we hear the phrase “will of the people” increasingly bandied around to suit ideological needs. It’s a phrase born of hierarchies – by politicians who reluctantly allow citizens to engage with them once every five years in a general election, knowing in all but the minority of swing seats that the outcome is pretty much guaranteed in the incumbent’s favour.
How threatened would those politicians and the parties supported by our 19th century first-past-the-post voting system feel, by the idea that the will of the people can be expressed in real time, thanks to technology? That the will of the people can be measured and monitored at a granular level on the issues that mean the most to voters? How different, for example, would climate change policy be if there were a reliable way to ascertain the will of the people, other than marches, rallies, protests and petitions?
This is a challenge for the European Union too. Seen as remote, bureaucrat and unaccountable, would the EU be able to change perceptions across the continent if it pioneered new digital concepts for outreach and engagement that allow people to overcome the sense that Europe is undemocratic and over-reaching?
It will happen – society will change, and will force politics to change. But it’s going to take a generation at least, for the will of the people to force it through – unless there’s an enterprising, digitally savvy group of politicians willing and able to start a process that could see the old, tired orthodoxies that underpin so much of the Brexit debate swept away.