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What a ‘digital first’ government would look like

The digital economy means people are no longer passive consumers. Image sourced from Shutterstock.com

What a ‘digital first’ government would look like

Australia’s new prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has announced what he calls a “21st century government”. This article is part of The Conversation’s series focusing on what such a government should look like.


When discussing the digital economy it’s easy to focus on technology, and its exponential uptake.

In reality, there’s been a shift from an “economy of corporations” to an “economy of people”. While previous technologies were largely dedicated to automating and streamlining business processes, digital technologies allow active citizen contributions.

In the economy of people, citizens are no longer passive consumers, but come with their own digital identities, maintain personal networks that give them the ability to influence, and contribute data, opinions and even apps to the economy.

The public sector, like any sector, is not immune to the serious implications of the digital economy. As a consequence, future governments have to keep up with the increasing digital literacy of their citizens and adopt new ways of thinking. This demands a “digital mind” that is technology-agnostic, but focused on the impact of the digital economy.

In the economy of corporations, governments, like most organisations, could rely on largely reactive service provision. Citizens would approach the government via offices, call centres or web pages and government services would be provided in response. A proactive government, however, is able to react to citizens’ life events without being prompted. This could be facilitated by the provision of data from third parties or by proactively providing services based on available data.

An example would be age-based welfare payments. Instead of relying on literate citizens who have awareness of government services, a proactive government would offer such services when they become relevant to the citizen. One step further is the vision of a predictive government. In this case, the government would offer services before a life event even occurs. Such services could be related to health care, (un)employment or (upcoming) disasters.

What does a ‘digital mind’ look like?

Future governments will have to take part in the life of their citizens, as opposed to citizens taking part in the life of the government. This will require focusing on the following emerging trends.

Share of digital attention

“Share of digital attention” captures the relative time a citizen dedicates to a specific provider. Digitally minded corporations such as Google or Facebook have a detailed understanding of their share of digital attention, and how this leading indicator contributes to lagging indicators such as revenue. Most non-digitally minded companies do not measure it. Governments can compete for this share of attention by building mobile applications that bring citizens closer to government services. Proactive or predictive services can help them channel traffic away from web pages to mobile solutions.

Digital signals

Digital signals are the information that is streamed from citizens to organisations. In the health sector medical device sensors allow citizens to share digital data with trusted health experts. Instead of patients (physically) coming to health care providers, they let their data travel and enable medical advice. This trend will most likely flow on to other sectors of the economy leading to an increased willingness to share digital signals with trusted providers. Citizens would no longer look for services, but simply share life events (e.g., my house is flooded, I lost my job, I am a first time parent) and expect a government service in response.

Digital identities

The economy of people will see the emergence of citizens who “bring their own data”. In such a world, a drivers license would simply be an attribute of a citizen and not a separate entity. Governments have grappled with their role in providing platforms for such digital identities, but it’s likely citizens will look for a single digital identity that can be used across all interactions spanning private and public sector providers. A prominent example is Estonia’s digital identity solution, which supports its citizens in daily interactions such as public transport, voting or picking up e-prescriptions.

The economy of things

We predict the emergence of an economy of things, with wide participation of smart devices in economic and societal activities. This could include smart cars notifying of accidents, smart homes asking for help in case of a flood or bushfire, or robots sharing information or triggering further activities. The emergence of such G2T (government-to-thing) relationships will require entire new channels and interaction patterns as “things” cannot read web pages.

The ambidextrous government

Whatever the future will hold, the government, like any corporation, needs to establish innovation capabilities. This will demand new explorative, design-intensive capabilities in addition to the dominating ability to incrementally improve exiting services and processes.

Explorative, innovation services consist of environmental scanning (what are emerging technologies), ideation (how could these be utilised), incubation (testing and prototyping) and implementation (rapid, agile, scalable roll-out). An ambidextrous government is characterised by low innovation latency, that is, the time it takes to convert emerging opportunities into available government services.

This skill set will require changes in existing recruitment practices to attract people who are driven by what is possible in the future as opposed to by what is broken today.