Our world is filled with advancing information and communications technology. Most of us can’t escape it—a buzz in the pocket whenever an email has landed or a blinking notification that suggests something important has happened.
(The author pauses to check his smartphone… someone he has never met completed an ice bucket challenge, and his recently purchased copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea has been dispatched by Amazon.)
It’s become part of the fabric of our lives—for better or for worse.
Government and infrastructure are different. They are “salao” in the words of Hemingway, and particularly unlucky when it comes to modernizing information and communications technology (ICT). For them, this pursuit is not unlike Santiago’s literary battle with the great marlin. It’s not that ICT is beyond their capability, but with their rigid institutions and long-term investments in aging assets, they are ill-equipped to stay ahead of rapidly changing technology.
Infrastructure is expensive and built to operate for decades. ICT changes overnight. It may surprise you to recall that Apple’s first iPhone (the one that didn’t allegedly bend in your pocket) was released less than 10 years ago, in June 2007. The first iPad debuted less than five years ago, in April 2010. These devices, and others like them, have revolutionized human behavior in terms of e-commerce and how we process the information we use to interact with everyday infrastructure.
I can now wield my phone to pay for my daily commute by using “tap and pay” to pass through the same barriers as those carrying paper tickets. I can also find out if my train is delayed by checking an app long before I’ve arrived at the station—diverting my commute to alternative routes if there are any reported issues. The train operators haven’t created this technology on their own. They’ve partnered with those with the expertise to deliver a more effective service.
Pursuing political change
This sort of instant information changes everything—even how our elected officials choose to interact with us. Gone are the days of a passive democracy when politicians would canvass local opinion on the campaign trail ahead of an important election. Welcome to the age of 24-hour news and an active democracy, where millions of smartphone users can sway public opinion overnight, forcing elected leaders to react more swiftly.
YouGov, an online polling and research firm in the United Kingdom, raised eyebrows in September ahead of Scotland’s referendum for independence. The firm uses a reward system and email to attract users and get them to complete online surveys. Its tightening poll numbers ahead of the historic Scottish vote—some of which even suggested a lead for the Yes campaign—spurred political action from a nervous establishment. Leaders from the UK’s three main political parties united to promise Scots more devolution in exchange for a No vote less than 24 hours before polling stations opened. The next day YouGov published its final poll shortly after voting ended: No-54 percent to Yes-46 percent—an accurate forecast of the eventual 55 percent—45 percent official result.
Don’t catch this fish alone
Advancing technology will continue to redefine our individual relationship with government and public services. The establishment would be ill-advised to try and land this fish on its own. By partnering with the private sector to get the best out of ICT, government can drive competition, promote innovation, and demand performance through concession-based public-private partnerships.
The concept of e-government and e-infrastructure has been slower to catch on, and it’s not surprising why. Government, infrastructure, and public services are institutions where rapid change poses a significant risk to public order. Even when change is encouraged, it is rarely executed cheaply, swiftly, or without great difficulty.
For decades the U.S. government has grappled with plans to transform American air traffic control from a ground-based to a satellite-based system. The disappearance this year of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 may finally spur real action. However, by the time a new system gets implemented—might the technology already be out of date? How can governments ensure that they remain in step with the rapid pace of change instead of forever trailing it?
One good example to follow is the health sector, which uses private partnering and service contracts as an effective method for managing technology risk and leveraging professional expertise—including upgrades when relevant new technologies become available. The public sector can effectively transfer this risk onto a private partner who is then incentivized to stay ahead of the technology curve. These provisions will work for ICT as well.
Governments can no longer afford to ignore technology. The momentum behind ICT is as unrelenting as it is sophisticated. The public sector must adopt a strategy for managing it. Smarter infrastructure is better infrastructure and technology partnerships will deliver better value-for-money over time.