The Promise – And Dawn – Of GovTech

I wish GovTech existed 25 years ago. It would have been a natural “home” for me when I first joined the government (of India) in the early 90s, after a degree in Computer Engineering.

Unfortunately, the only tech I remember from my first job at a desk in an old colonial-era building in New Delhi was an ageing PC with a floppy disk drive and a monochrome CRT monitor that seemed to flicker erratically during cold winter evenings.

“GovTech*” was not a word back then. Today of course it is very much a “thing”.
And as with all “things” that begin to rise in prominence, it has its own conference(s) and TiECon track, early signs of a hype cycle and even its own fund! Some commentators think this sector could be as big as Fintech but I guess we will have to wait a bit for that.

Why does it matter? It matters because GovTech has the potential to fundamentally transform government and public services and shake up the usually passive relationship between citizens and public authorities. GovTech can help public services become what they should be: agile, responsive and flexible. It could streamline them, make them measurable and accountable. Above all, GovTech can fundamentally alter the way citizens and governments interact with one another, leading to a more open, transparent and participative political system. This is the biggest promise of introducing technology in public services and in government processes.

Not surprisingly this is leading to some serious interest from policy makers (and, consequently, investors ). Singapore, for instance, has a Government Technology Agency that promotes user-friendly applications such as “OneService” – an app for accessing municipal services and “MyResponder” that helps direct emergency services to where you are through your smartphone. US has an “Open Government Plan” while the UK is committed to be “the most transparent government in the world” and then there’s Aadhaar” – India’s mega-project establishing identity rights, which has become one of the most ambitious GovTech projects globally that has been successful at scale.

At its simplest and most basic level, GovTech can dramatically reduce friction and the costs of searching, locating and accessing public information and government data. The best of such technology however goes several steps beyond this – from helping citizens interact with their government/local authorities in real time to providing a range of community services that include consultations with residents on development projects, collaboration among residents to improve their local areas or community platforms to reduce waste and share things, even food.

GovTech is also a powerful catalyst for open government. While it has been possible to access government data previously (or at least certain parts of it, via tools like FOI in UK or RTI in India, these tools do not really make for an “Open” government or “open decision-making”. At best, they “open up” government or decision-making rather than making decision-making collaborative or participative.

In contrast, “Open Government” is transparent by default (excluding certain areas of national policy, of course). The transparency extends to decision-making too. More importantly, citizens and the public even have access to the same information that led to a decision by authorities. Such transparency with regards public expenditure and budgeting data can be a powerful tool ensuring oversight of public finances. Even simple measures such as publicising the cost and time spent on projects has a ripple effect throughout the system. In the end, this creates accountability and leads to better decision-making.

Such technologies and platform also create a more participative political system and better informed citizens. They help foster trust among communities and can have significant long-term effects on public well-being and efficient government spending. This is the promise of GovTech.

All the tech in the world however cannot lead to any meaningful change unless citizens enthusiastically participate and push for such openness. This is where CivicTech comes in, specifically applications that encourage social engagement and community participation or applications designed to make it as easy to engage with authorities and collaborate in decision-making as sharing a post on any of the social media platforms.

There are of course privacy and security issues involved – including the risk of cyber-attacks, cyber-sabotage and identity theft – but these should not deter us from the enormous potential of opening up government and making it more transparent, engaging and participative.

This is what can truly move the power equation between government and authorities and the general populace. That would be GovTech’s real dawn.

* I have used “GovTech” loosely as an umbrella term to include all technologies that fall within the spectrum of improving public services to encouraging community interactions. Here is one of the more nuanced views.

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