A Steady Erosion Of Confidence In Government

Editor’s note: Kevin Merritt is the founder and CEO of Socrata, member of the new D7 Digital Government Leadership Alliance a coalition of seven companies that focus on meeting the needs of public-sector customers and influencers.

Governments around the world are facing significant political turmoil and enormous economic stress as they struggle with an alarming and unprecedented array of public-policy crises.

And whether it’s water scarcity in Brazil, the rural electricity shortfall in India, the financial meltdown in Russia, or income inequality in the U.S., public-sector leaders often seem overmatched and overwhelmed at a time when solutions and answers are needed.

To make matters worse, government officials are being challenged by citizen, business, media and employee stakeholders to address critical issues in operations, governance and elections. The repercussions from these issues – which include transparency, accountability, budgeting, spending, regulation and bureaucratic performance – have steadily eroded confidence in public institutions and public officials.

The consequences of these issues have also dampened citizen engagement and participation in activities that are critical to the democratic process, such as dialogue, debate, voting and public service.

At the same time, global society is embracing brave new ideas and technologies at an unprecedented pace and scale. In many instances, these new ideas and technologies actually disrupt, without warning, existing and traditional government communication channels, regulations, policies and even laws. Consider the recent technology-driven innovation and disruption from companies like Twitter, Apple, Amazon, Tesla, Coursera, Uber and Airbnb, for example.

In addition, some governments are also having a hard time keeping up with technology-driven citizen mobilization because they lack state-of-the-art information infrastructure that encompasses cloud data management systems, open data platforms, mobile applications, predictive analysis models, online voting and consumer-friendly visualization techniques.

The net effect of all this is that democratic government organizations on just about every continent are straining to keep up with the innovative progress that society is making, and, as a result, they’re losing relevancy and legitimacy.

Bold digital government leadership is critical

The good news here is that a growing number of elected officials around the world understand these corrosive issues, as well as the threat they represent; and they’re confronting the problems with mission-critical digital government leadership that will ultimately help solve pressing and painful societal problems while transforming the public sector into an innovative leader for the new economy of the 21st century.

Digital government leadership is based on the very real and powerful idea that data is an invaluable strategic asset and a critical new natural resource for government.

At its heart, digital government leadership is based on the very real and powerful idea that data is an invaluable strategic asset and a critical new natural resource for government. More specifically, it incorporates operational data-driven solutions, as well as democratic process and governance systems. In technology terms, this means combining and deploying a host of critical, adaptive, effective and lower-cost architectures, platforms, solutions, applications and services – from mobile communications, cloud computing and software-as-a-service to open data, predictive analytics and online voting.

Finally, if it’s implemented and sustained effectively, digital government leadership has shown that it can achieve measurable and profound performance impact for governments when it comes to citizen participation; transparency and accountability; data-driven and evidence-based decision-making; service and program innovation; budget, spending and operational efficiency; revenue generation that doesn’t include tax increases; and meaningful economic growth and development.

The dollars and cents of government digitization

Focusing on dollars and cents, a recent McKinsey analysis suggests that capturing the full potential of government digitization around the world could free up to $1 trillion annually in economic value through improved cost and operational performance.

On a more micro level, we’ve already seen a wide range of case studies that reveal the significant financial benefits that take place and take hold when governments adopt open data initiatives.

San Francisco, for instance, reports that citizen access to real-time transit data resulted in 21.7 percent fewer SF311 calls, which yielded a savings of over $1 million a year. And in Texas, the comptroller’s office used its transparency website to save $4.8 million from more efficient administration in the first two years after the site was launched.

This helps explain why a recent Government Technology survey indicated that open data has become a top priority of CIOs in cities.

Data-driven government fuels private-sector ecosystem creation

Beyond just zeroing-in on the cost side, public-sector leaders are seeking new ways to expand prosperity in their communities today. And data-driven government is increasingly appealing, because it’s proven that it can fuel private-sector ecosystem creation, as well as economic growth.

The aggregate economic impact from applications based on open data across 27 of the European Union countries, for example, is estimated to be €140 billion ($160 billion) annually. Spain is another good case in point; its infomediary sector, which is made up solely of companies that sell services on top of open data, generates €330-€550 million ($370 million to $520 million) a year.

Looking at this on a company-by-company basis, it’s interesting to note that firms like The Weather Channel and Garmin, which reuse open meteorological and geographical data from the government, have grown 15 percent more per year than their counterparts in countries that price this information in order to recover costs. Another corporate growth story – this one from Zillow, the leading real estate information and home-related marketplace – also has a lot to do with the fact that it uses government data, in this case to help first-time home buyers, low-income renters and senior citizens find homes.

The next step is clear. Cities throughout the world are instrumenting themselves with sensor-based technologies, and we now need to analyze and utilize sensor-driven data to serve citizens better.

Israeli public transport startup Moovit – which recently raised $50 million in Series C funding and has an estimated 15 million users deploying its app to get around cities like Sao Paulo, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, New York and Los Angeles – fully understands this. And so does one of its closest competitors, Citymapper, which has raised $10 million and is concentrating on big cities like New York, London, Barcelona and Paris.

We now need to analyze and utilize sensor-driven data to serve citizens better.

Next-generation digital government leadership is also being driven by companies like Barcelona-based Scytl, which is helping public sector organizations all over the world adopt election modernization, online voting and e-governance solutions in order to increase the transparency, security, accessibility and efficiency of elections and plebiscites. Scytl’s business is modernizing elections, but its mission is clearly increasing citizen engagement.

Amazon Web Services is another private-sector enterprise that will help boost digital government leadership everywhere. And I say this because so much government software today is purchased and unused – the licenses are just sitting on the shelf. But thanks to Amazon’s cloud technology, governments can now simply and cost-effectively pay for their increasing data usage as they broaden and deepen their digital presence.

21st-century digital government can help solve critical problems

Over the past few decades, however, government has been losing face with people, and people have been losing faith with government. But now, with the emergence and rise of digital government leadership, this broken contract can finally be repaired and revived.

Indeed, just as the right low-cost, high-touch and high-performance technologies have transformed the enterprise and consumer marketplaces in recent years, these cutting-edge solutions can now help government leaders around the world confront and mitigate a portfolio of problems that have long blunted their effectiveness and tarnished their reputations.

Given the scope, sweep and severity of these problems, there’s precious little time to waste. Digital government leadership represents an immediate and positive step forward – no matter how perilous the planet becomes.