The problem isn't technology — but self-interested politicians

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Technology can help advance the human race, but politicians need to harness that (image by Dan Jensen).

The world we live in has reached a critical juncture. We are faced with many challenges and the decisions we will now make will define our future.

The recent bushfires in Australia and the global coronavirus pandemic are bringing the message very close to home.

These developments should be enough to seriously start looking at different ways to run our societies and economies. The question is whether these crises are big enough to create serious change. The Australian Government remains silent on the issue of transformational change and is only talking about getting back as quick as possible to a "normal" situation.

While we have seen a pause during the crisis. Politics has become an ideology, a career based on party politics. This is preventing politicians from providing a clear focus on critical national interest issues that urgently need their attention. During this pandemic, we have learned to listen to the experts. Will we continue to do so after the crisis on issues such as climate change, energy and the NBN?

The last time the world was in such similar turmoil was in the 1930s and looking back we can see how important government leadership was at that time.

Will we accept that we cannot just leave everything to market forces and that there might be a bigger role for government to play?

Over the last 30 years, we have seen a decline in government leadership in favour of market-led forces supported by neo-liberal policies. This – at least partially – has influenced the current ineptitude around climate change, the energy crisis, cybercrime, decline of privacy, broadband infrastructure and so on.  

We can also point to the total unpreparedness of most countries in relation to the pandemic.

In a conundrum, Oscar Wilde said that:

'There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.' 

The free market has been getting all it wanted and is now facing the consequences. The market certainly did not deliver the goods and services that we need in such crises situations. There are now calls for more oversight, regulation and legislation in all the areas where relaxation of rules took place over the last 20 years. It is a clear indication that government leadership must come back.

Again, going back in history, and now concentrating on ICT developments, we see that many developments were started by government initiatives: telecommunications, energy innovations, space technology as well as its many offshoots and the internet.

And just one more specific example: Tesla received, in all, close to $5 billion in direct and indirect subsidies from the U.S. Government, the country that is championing market-led developments and small government. Government-funded research and development (R&D) research is another stream of money that has fueled many of the digital innovations. This might come as a shock to those who keep arguing that the government should get out of the way.

While this has been good for company profits, these government grants seem to have little effect on national outcomes. There are now clear calls for the government to become more accountable. Tools available using e-government can be used to assist in achieving outcomes that are delivering a positive contribution to society.

Governments are now faced with the reality that they will have to take control back. Most are ill-equipped to do so because of the politicking that has taken place over the last 20 years. We now see more panic-driven and haphazard interventions. Instead, cool heads are needed and thoughtful decisions need to be made. In Australia, apart from the total lack of national policies on, for example, energy and bushfire emergencies, there are many more issues.

The pre-pandemic encryption and social media legislation interventions are good examples of on-the-run policies. These new laws are now even threatening the human rights of Australian people. They are also used to muffle the voice of independent and investigative journalists.

Press freedom seems to be one of the casualties here.

People power with solid leadership is now desperately needed to ensure that governments are making the right decisions for the people they govern. As we can see around the globe, when people are losing trust in their governments, they turn to populist leaders.

This makes it almost impossible for governments to make decisions which serve the national interest. This "trust" crisis needs to be addressed before we ask for more government leadership. Many governments have been able to win back trust, because of their handling of the pandemic. Can they build on this and use this trust to take those further steps needed in the national interest? 

Fortunately, it appears that scientists are now also be treated more seriously by governments. At least, in the medical sector. The question is, will this also extend to, for example, scientists involved in ecology and climate change? 

In the meantime, the bureaucracy can play a key role in guiding these processes as they are less influenced by the politics of the day.

The bureaucracy does have experts on board and is close to outside experts. I am currently working with various local governments in Australia and internationally, using the "smart city" concept to develop digital transformation processes at city and community levels. 

So where does this leave e-government?

Firstly, it should be said that digital technologies have so far delivered more positives than negatives. How could we do basic research without Google and Wikipedia? There is the convenience of Google Maps, Uber, Airbnb. Facebook gives us a platform where millions of people can connect, organise and act, a great stimulant for grassroots democracy.

Look at the massive cost savings that have occurred throughout the economy thanks to digital innovations. Add to this, as we are finding out at this very moment, telehealth, teleworking, online education and online grocery shopping. Global collaboration in relation to attacking the coronavirus is totally dependent on global information and the telecommunications infrastructure.

The negatives associated with these digital technologies can cancel out these positives.

Yes, there are threats, but they need to be seen in context. The world has not collapsed because of technology. And we humans might not be good at preventing disasters, but we are good at finding solutions and working together once disaster strikes. The current crisis is a classic example. 

Significant transformation is needed at horizontal levels if we are to benefit from the positive developments and manage the negative ones. This is the area where digital transformation can play to its strength.

It offers collaboration, sharing and interconnection, and this makes processes far more effective and efficient. E-government means cutting through the many silos that are hampering this process. This requires leadership from the top, at the level of prime ministers, state premiers and mayors.

Rather than looking at the current short-term solutions to problems that are springing up, governments should use the positive effects of the current crisis to put policies in place that stimulate collaboration, innovation, sharing and so on. This is very difficult, since governments are often reluctant to enact change, with its politicians sitting in their ivory towers.

The western political system favours short-term policies rather than long-term ones this on top of the partisan approach they pursue in addressing these issues.

Facilitating the transformation process is perhaps the best thing governments (at all levels) could do. With the right leadership and implementation measures in place, citizens and businesses can be enabled to successfully use digital tools and lead the transformations in their own fields.

If we look at, for example, investments in digital technologies, smart energy around renewables, fintech, telehealth and so on it becomes clear that money is not necessarily the problem. If governments take the lead in the transformation process that can be facilitated through digital technologies, then businesses together with their employees and their customers will build the right models around it.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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