The deployment of government technology (GovTech) has been massively accelerated by the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, but governments need to build up the public’s trust in these services for them to be effective, especially if their use continues or they will be redeployed for future pandemics.
Speaking about the impact of Covid-19 on attitudes to surveillance, Elizabeth Denham, the UK’s information commissioner, told attendees of the GovTech Summit 2020 that when her office was initially looking at the privacy implications of the UK’s test and trace system, its main focus was on how it would be decommissioned.
“That was a real focus, but I think now we know that data and digital is going to be a foundation that’s used to mitigate the risks of the pandemic as time goes on,” she said, adding that maintaining public trust in such data-intensive systems was essential to ensuring they actually get used by citizens.
“If we lose public trust in this pandemic, or any other situation, we know that there will be a hit on the public’s uptake and participation in these important services and provisions – and privacy is a big part of that,” said Denham.
Mark Rowley, a retired senior UK police officer and executive chairman of risk assessment technology firm Hagalaz, said: “It’s much easier to build trust in times of peace than times of war, for want of a better comparison.” The deployment of surveillance systems for health purposes such as track and trace was “completely beyond anything that’s been done before”, he added.
“It’s not surprising that the public opinion debate is going to be bumpy – people get that it’s necessary, but are bound to be nervous and want to understand the detail,” said Rowley, adding that the tools and tactics used to combat the pandemic must be proportional to the threat.
“If this is a singular threat, then these tools and tactics need to be singular to that, and I guess we might want them on the shelf for future threats if pandemics are going to happen from time to time, as the experts seem to say,” he said.
It should be noted that the UK’s track-and-trace system was launched unlawfully after the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed in its legal obligation to complete a mandatory data protection impact assessment (DPIA), as per the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) rules.
In an open letter to the ICO in late August, a cross-party group of MPs called on Denham to “properly act” and demand that the government make changes to the test-and-trace programme to establish public confidence that their data was being processed safely and legally.
Nima Elmi, head of government affairs at the World Economic Forum, told the GovTech Summit that public-private collaborations and multi-stakeholder approaches have been a prominent feature of GovTech deployments during the pandemic, which she claimed were needed “to ensure that we are harnessing the power of emerging technologies, but also minimising the negative effects and the risks on society”.
“What we’re seeing is that businesses are at the forefront of technology innovation, but at the same time they need to be able to foster trust by being transparent,” said Elmi, pointing out that communication was key to this.
Read more about government technology
- While the coronavirus pandemic has led to people relying increasingly on technology, research from ThoughtWorks shows that 30% have had trouble using public-sector technology during the lockdown.
- An association of councils in the greater London area notes that local government’s capacity to adopt technology and innovate is essential in coping with the post-pandemic world.
- The UK Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee has launched an inquiry into the role of technology, innovation and research in helping the country’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“I think in countries where they’ve deployed [third-party] contact-tracing apps, like Ireland and Germany, and shared this source code before they did the launch, and were very good at informing the general public about the parameters of the capabilities, particularly when it comes to surveillance issues, have had a greater uptake.”
The need to for a transparent, multi-stakeholder approach was also echoed by former UK prime minister Tony Blair, who said during a fireside chat that the UK should move to a system in which users and citizens of GovTech services feel more empowered engaging with the government on how technologies are deployed.
“You should be allowing a whole lot of different people to come forward with different ways of engineering government services, for example,” he said, adding that there are lots of things that both national and local governments do that would be better done by “small groups of people or companies”.
Blair said building trust in government required strategy, rather than a “series of ad-hoc reactions”, something that could be helped by the use of technology.
“The technology revolution is going to change everything – it’s going to change the workplace, it’s going to change every part of industry, the service sector, it’s going to change the way we interact with each other, and it should change the way government works – this revolution is going to offer us enormous opportunities,” he said.
During last year’s GovTech Summit, inter-government collaboration and public-private partnerships were cited as the best ways for European governments to advance the adoption of emerging digital technologies.
The consensus, both then and now, is that the biggest remaining barrier is citizens’ lack of trust, both in governments themselves and their private-sector partners.
The GovTech Summit, now in its third year, is an annual event organised by GovTech venture firm Public.