Over the years, we have seen various endeavours to integrate new technologies into both central and local government. Remember e-government and connected government? What with AI growing in both capability and accessibility, we are seeing an uptick in references to smart government. There are some references to artificially intelligent government, but fewer references to intelligent government.
Generally these terms are referring to the use of technology in the public sector. We also hear of GovTech, which appears to be both a reference to technologies that support the work of government, think robots that collect the bins, and a new name for e-government. The underlying and recurring theme is that government success is largely a factor of how well technology has been woven into government practice.
A better name might be ‘tech boosted old government’ or simply ‘efficient yet ineffective government’. Unfortunately, adding a ‘state of the art’ kitchen to a decrepit house won’t stop the rest of the house from collapsing.
Power to the few
The term decrepit might be too harsh to use in the context of government, not least because governments come in all shapes and sizes. The World Bank’s Government Effectiveness Index, which ranks nations using a variety of measures, including the quality of public services and policy implementation, presents the full spectrum from Singapore at the top to Yemen as the least effective. Should the citizen care whether their government is authoritarian, democratic or plutocratic, if they receive good public services and are able to benefit from some of the crumbs that fall off the table?
Nations appear to be a legally acceptable model for turning a blind eye to the atrocities that led up to the boundaries as they appear today on Google Maps. Nations are a consolidation of power or what remains when the powerful elsewhere acquired what they needed. Nations are generally optimised for the powerful, a very small percentage of the citizenry. To gloss over this power asymmetry, we often use the term ‘society’ as it has a more collective feel.
So if you were tasked with building a government from scratch, what principles might it embrace? Examples include:
Protect the powerful and maintain social stability.
Create an environment where everyone can be hyper consumers.
Ensure the citizens control the means of production.
Protect ‘our’ values.
Strive for zero enemies.
Maximise citizen autonomy.
Operate in harmony with the wider ecosphere.
If, say, Haiti became the world authority on biological virus editing, it would eventually become a significant if not superpower in the way that many colonisers enjoyed first mover advantage associated with the development of, for example, weapons and shipbuilding. So why should it ignore the opportunity to reset itself socioeconomically, even if it comes at a cost to other nations?
Perhaps we need some sort of international organisation that can both tame aggressive nations and address increasing quality of life disparities across the globe?!
An intelligent organisation is more focused on engaging with reality than being locked into an ideology. Perhaps an intelligent government is one that:
Can coopt the powerful into reducing economic inequality and social disparity. Though the alcoholic drinks, ultra-processed food and content streaming barons might find this threatening.
Keeps the citizens informed in order to earn and maintain trust.
Recognises that not all nations are happy to rub along and so has invested suitably in the appropriate deterrents.
Enlists the citizens in decision making as they are ultimately, in many cases, both the investors and the consumers of the associated services (a design thinking approach). So for example, criminals would have a say in the justice system.
Recognises that disruption is on the increase and so is more adaptive in respect of policies and processes. It thus develops its environmental sensing capabilities.
Takes a more entrepreneurial stance, ie if it is going to take on the risks that would otherwise fall to the private sector, it must also enjoy a greater share of the rewards. Similarly it should create an ecosystem that both enables the private sector to both thrive and to play an active role in enhancing the wellbeing of all citizens.
Provide a base level of education to ensure everyone understands how to manage their finances and health.
Develop a better educational balance between STEM and humanities / arts. Citizens are not just worker bees. Culture is an energy efficient way to take some of the survival encoding load from our DNA. A more nuanced understanding of culture is an essential element of their personal development.
Ensure everyone understands their professional options and the associated paths.
Ensure everyone has access to food and shelter. Without these there is no escape from poverty.
Respect the biosphere on which we depend. All policies must show their relative impact in this respect.
Ensure ministers are capable of both leadership in general and the specifics of their ministries before taking office.
Ensure leaders have empathy. This is unlikely to be the case if they are all born into privilege and have no sense of the plight of the majority.
This is just a top-of-mind list. I am sure there are other characteristics of an intelligent government. My key point is that no amount of technology will fix a broken or slothful government. In terms of steps, I would recommend:
Develop a quality standard in respect of leadership competence for every level of government.
Develop the capability for the government to have a clear, real-time understanding of reality, both locally and globally.
Develop a global reputation built on trustworthiness, fairness and toughness.
Ensure all policy creation is conducted with people and the planet in mind.
Rebuild society from the homeless upwards and structure this so the powerful can take credit where it has been earned.
Engage effectively with the private sector in respect of risk and reward balance.
The Govzilla problem
There is of course the danger that an ‘intelligent’ government, like any other living organism, will prioritise its own survival above the other actors in the system, ie. foreign nations, citizens, business and academe. AI offers the possibility of governments harnessing artificial intelligence for their own ends. So perhaps a genuinely intelligent government recognises that all actors must win for it to remain in play.