In the acclaimed political drama The West Wing, several episodes deal with the apparently growing disconnect between the US government and its people, and the need to tackle this. As a US citizen myself looking in on this year’s presidential race, it has therefore been extremely interesting to see how this theme has turned into one of the hot topics of the current campaign, and a signature issue of Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders in particular.
Voting in elections is one of the few formal opportunities for many people to give their verdicts on the political class. This is a potentially powerful mechanism, often leading to changes in administration, but with multiple year ‘political cycles’ the opportunity to cast ballots is relatively infrequent.
Should society be content with this? After all, in other areas of life, we have much stronger accountability and performance reviews, sometimes multiple times a year.
There is a strong argument for a wider suite of more regular accountability mechanisms that keeps track of government performance and how well it delivers services to its people. This is where Big Data potentially comes in.
To be sure, data has long been part of Government decision-making, but Big Data -- properly used and governed with appropriate safeguards -- offers a potential step-change. It, and wider related advances in technology, provides a remarkable opportunity for Government to build a richer dialogue, understanding and better relationships with its citizens based on greater accountability and transparency.
It’s nothing short of a potential ‘win-win’ for citizens and Government!
For instance, freely available data in areas like education and healthcare give citizens a much greater opportunity to assess performance of public services. In education, for instance, interactive tools such as Tableau allow citizens to filter and view quality of teaching in schools at the level of granularity of states, counties and even cities.
The faster that technology advances, the more easily citizens will be potentially able to navigate data on government performance. And in turn, this should provide new avenues to incentivise greater innovation, productivity and performance in public service provision.
Another potential advantage for Government and the wider public sector is that Big Data can help keep decision-makers on the pulse of the issues that really matter. Online surveys, for instance, that are now available on multiple platforms can enable governments to take more frequent sampling of opinion to see how sentiment on issues change.
What could a more digitally-governed world look like in the Twenty First Century?
It would be one in which an increasing number of citizens have a better understanding of how Government impacts their lives, and where public services are increasingly flexible and responsive to the will of the people. In turn, this can help build greater trust as transparency and accountability increases, thus helping tackle the current disconnect between Government and citizens that will only grow worse in coming years unless it is addressed.