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Love it or loathe it, technology shapes what we do and who we are as never before: from work and leisure to the most intimate moments in our lives. What does it mean to capture the best of these possibilities in the relationship between citizens and government – and to do so in a way that doesn’t leave the disadvantaged and disconnected behind?
Most political discussions around technology don’t begin to address these questions. Policymakers still tend to treat the “digital world” as distinct from real life. It’s either a dazzling solution to all our problems – or a bewildering distraction. It’s a new world of power and possibilities – or it’s a nightmare of snooping, spam and spiteful gossip.
Little wonder that many people feel disillusioned, disempowered or simply distrustful the moment talk turns to technology and politics. Surveillance and cyber-warfare dominate the headlines; positive press is the province of the private sector. Massive public sector projects all too often over-promise and under-deliver, while new initiatives and talk of digital revolution sound like so much hot air: jargon and self-indulgence from people out of touch with everyday life.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Earning and deserving trust
Before everything else comes trust. I need to be able to trust the government with my information, with my children’s information – and be able to hold accountable those services using it. I need to be seen not just as a consumer but also as a citizen, with the choice to participate and with all the rights and responsibilities that entails. And I need this participation to be brought to me no matter who I am, where I live, or how much I earn.
This is, in part, a report setting out how that trust can be earned and deserved – and how it can be brought to every citizen, regardless of their means and expertise. But it’s also a report with a clear vision for something larger: for explaining what an authentically progressive, democratic version of digital inclusion looks like – and how it differs from the top-down hopes of recent history.
Much has already been achieved by Government Digital Service (GDS) in building the basis of this shift. But it has yet to take the leap towards a genuine national transformation. From planning applications to hospital waiting times to local policing data to council agendas, information needs not only to be available online to all, but available with a clarity and accessibility that make it as universal as email or text messaging.
A means, not an end
For this, we need not only websites and apps, but educators, community champions, more and better-resourced local facilities, and new forms of local partnership. We need a culture that takes solving many problems out of central government’s hands and puts them into all of our hands. We must create a more even and passionately debated negotiation between those best-placed to understand the problems and to build the solutions.
Transparency and accountability are buzzwords for most reformers – and for good reason. What’s vital, though, is that they don’t simply become ends in themselves, divorced from the social goods and local outcomes that they’re designed to engender.
If I have a comment or problem or feedback to offer – on my own data, on the services I’m receiving, on the issues I care about, on what’s happening outside my front door – I need to know not only that I will be listened to, but that I have the right and the capacity to affect what happens next.
I need to know where to go for help. I need to know that help matched to my needs will be meaningfully available. And I need to see civic life reflected not in bureaucratic indifference, but in a hub of services and opportunities centred around my life as I am living it.
The next five years
We are at a critical moment for the evolution of digital services in the UK, and we face critical questions about technology and democracy. Who is technology for: the geek elite, or those who need the greatest support? What, precisely, constitutes an effective strategy designed to provide more power to citizens rather than more control to government?
In the following pages you will find detailed arguments and evidence drawn from the whole spectrum of political belief and involvement: from leading businesses to academics to social enterprises to individual citizens.
Above all, we believe you will find something hopeful: an urgent and clearly-articulated set of beliefs about technology and democracy that may not command universal assent – but that demand the very best debate we can muster, today, if we are to build the tomorrow we deserve.
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