We have reached a critical point in the evolution of government. Last year will be remembered for many significant reasons, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn, social and political unrest, and a US presidential election that brought up lots of legal concerns. However, it was also a time when governments at all levels began to lay the groundwork for changes to the way they serve its citizens.
Government’s response to the pandemic resulted in many grand experiments that occurred in a relatively short amount of time. Things like telehealth and telework became commonplace, and many things became virtual, such as court hearings and classes. However, the pandemic isn’t the only thing driving things to change. The pace of technological advancement has increased drastically, the expectations from the public regarding transparency have risen, and the trust in government has decreased. And there is now a need to meet significant challenges such as climate change, changing demographics, and reducing the friction caused by the economy and businesses needing to restructure. Ironically, government was created to resist such rapid changes, and now it is being called up to make changes to how it operates, how it serves its citizens, and how it makes its policies.
In the past, most technological advancements have helped make current processes better, faster, and cheaper, but it was slow to evolve. Today, however, certain technologies can make completely new approaches that were never thought possible, and do so quickly. Rapidly changing technology is transforming the way people live, how our society operates, and how businesses get things done. It is creating large shifts in human behaviors, from growing crops to medical advancements in diagnosing diseases. Societal factors and technology have evolved together over time, with technology prompting things that improved lives. Events such as the invention of the automobile and the introduction of the birth control pill have sped up changes to the pace of life, as well as societal norms around sexuality and marriage, respectively.
Emerging technologies provide the government with opportunities to use new tools to address old issues. Artificial intelligence, blockchain, analytics, robots, drones, and clones have all quickly gone from fiction to everyday tools. Additionally, they can help government agencies fulfill their missions much more efficiently.
However, that innovation can create new challenges. Cybercrime and disinformation can bring about new risks, and technologies like drones and artificial intelligence, along with innovations in biotechnology, will probably require regulation. While self-driving cars can enhance mobility, it also could bring about hacking concerns. Others could bring on economic disruption.
Change generally requires governments to adopt technologies previously used in the private sector. Tech adoption in the private sector is a significant leading indicator for changes that are seen in the public sector. While it may take a while, governments have a pattern of adopting proven technologies, regardless of where they came from. However, with the current rate of change in technology, the time it takes to adopt those technologies will need to significantly decrease.
While technology offers government opportunities, it hasn’t been the reason behind large shifts. More significant factors that do effect change are economic pressures, demographic and social shifts, and external global changes. As these factors create the most transformational changes, they are indeed often assisted by technology.
Protecting the importance of public institutions, while simultaneously helping them to adapt to the needs of today’s world, will allow leaders to shape the future of government. Technology is behind many of the changes that are taking place in government, so leaders need to understand how it can create greater value. They need to be able to handle the details of redesigning many processes, and understanding what that would mean for the larger organization. They should also be able to engage and motivate the current workforce to commit to pushing their organizations forward to the future.
The key behind technology and today’s innovations is their synergistic power. To be sure, technologies like the internet, 5G, and analysis of big data are very powerful engines of change on their own. However, very often they are used in combination with each other, and the total is greater than the sum of their parts. Many of these technology combinations can be used in things such as precision medicine, universal translation machines, surgical military strikes, law enforcement, and more. However, the danger is that without faster government evolution, technology could get ahead of policy, and good technology could be used in possibly harmful ways.
Of course, people don’t quickly decide to embrace new philosophies. These changes take over when old philosophies don’t fit what is currently in place, or when hanging on to an old philosophy produces unfavorable results. It is then that public perception will adapt to all of the forces coming together in a future that demands change. Luckily, there is evidence that some of the new philosophies are taking hold in up-and-coming trends in government. They can serve as quality guides on how policies, organizations, and behaviors can change. However, keep in mind that making these shifts into the new normal will be a huge challenge, both culturally and institutionally. Regardless, the pandemic has showed us that government can change, and do so very quickly, when necessary.
About the Authors