Last week, Nadine Smith spoke at the United Nations Public Service Forum in Marrakech on how governments need to build capabilities for empathy to develop stronger relationships with citizens and bring people, technology and government back into sync to realise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But how can this all be put into practice? Here are a few examples of governments around the world already doing it, and some highlights from Nadine’s talk in Morocco at #UNPSA2018.
The issues for governments and technology
Machines, drones and AI offer immense possibilities to help shape our world for the better, but people fear them more than welcome them. For all the progress of technology, the way governments work remains mostly the same. Technology has shown us the flaws of government like never before. Governments are going to need to fundamentally change their behaviours for advances in technology to gain legitimacy and improve lives. And this is the hardest part to get right – harder than developing the technology. So, do we just carry on doing the same things in government, knowing they won’t bring about lasting public impact, knowing we don’t succeed as well as we could do, or do we make the most significant leap of progress of our time – a change of behaviours in government?
Imagine if a drone could beat the traffic getting organs to an operating table. In Rwanda, drones are already being used in medicine; in the UK, CPI has been helping to run the Flying High Challenge, assessing how drones can be used for public good in our densely populated cities. We found there is a high level of citizen mistrust to overcome if drones are ever to be of benefit.
How about AI – could it help judges, police, doctors make more consistent, more accurate decisions? The truth is we can only adopt these innovations after a radical rethink of the way government works. People fear AI because they already see inbuilt biases in government play out negatively in their lives. They see a government that shows a lack of understanding and see no value given to real expertise or genuine transparency. So, it is a leap too far to ask them now to trust a machine that’s programmed by a flawed system.
What about welfare payments being paid more efficiently and on time? Sounds simple, but the UK government has been trying it with Universal Credit, merging several weekly payments into one monthly payment. There were two significant problems: government failed to see that the most vulnerable could not manage their incomes on a monthly basis, and many didn’t understand how to demonstrate they were even eligible. Government showed a lack of understanding, not of technology but people.
It has become apparent that when governments get technology right, it’s often for transactional services at city or local level. Technology hits problems of legitimacy when used at a national policy level or when it is used as a proxy for building trust and relationships. As government becomes more distant, accountability can become blurred, and messages become unclear.
But there are good examples of government innovation being scaled up:
- In Japan and Mexico: governments have followed citizens’ leads and used social media sites to warn people of danger and direct them to safe places in times of emergency.
- In Mexico: a platform addresses the specific needs of mothers and sends personalised, timely messages to them. The trial has been very successful, with a 60%+ response rate from users during pregnancy. The Mexican government is due to launch a national programme based on Prospera Digital by the end of 2018. Mothers helped to design it.
- In Portugal: the government has used technology to enable participatory budgeting (usually a local initiative) at national level.
- In Jamaica and Malaysia: technology helped the people to build a vision with government. But with so many living in isolated areas, the Malaysian government understood it also needed to send people out and talk face to face. Building a vision with people improves legitimacy – the technology helps that.
All these examples have people at the heart of them. The answer lies in humans using technology to solve problems, not technology second-guessing what people need. Technology also requires empathy, and only humans can show true empathy. Machines learn from us, not the other way round.
Technology, Legitimacy and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
The UN’s SDGs have legitimacy, but the way we implement them does not, as yet. So, it is up to governments, business, the third sector and citizens to build solutions together, making the best use of technology.
We have learnt at CPI that the way SDGs are implemented with people matters as much as the SDGs themselves. For example, the CPI’s global project, Finding Legitimacy – shows that people want a more human government to drive improvements, especially when times are tough and tech advances sound scary.
Wherever we were, people wanted governments to:
- Have empathy (you can teach this, as we see in Bangladesh)
- Work with people to build a shared vision (as they have done in Malaysia and Jamaica)
- Value citizens’ voices and respond to them
- Build an authentic connection (not from your desk, get out there!), enable the public to scrutinise government.
- Allow people to scrutinise government, welcome it, encourage it.
This means that:
- We need to look at how we value, protect and act on the information we can gather, and discuss this more openly with people.
- We need to share information about what we are doing in government, even as we think it through, so people know that when the time comes their government does value them, does listen to them, that emergency aid is going to those who most need it, that contracts are being awarded fairly or that drones are there to save a life, not to snoop.
You can involve people in monitoring – we noted that in Nepal, for example, a pilot project using trained student observers visited project sites around the country to interview open contracting implementers, so they could then advise local government on making procurement more efficient, open and fair. In July 2017, the Nepali government committed to creating a centralised e-procurement system that will be mandatory for all agencies to use. A contracting portal is now available.
Turning ideas to impact
Let’s hear again the words of the late and great Professor Stephen Hawking, words that were shared at as his recent memorial service:
“How will we feed an ever-growing population, provide clean water, generate renewable energy, prevent and cure disease and slow down global climate change?
“I hope that science and technology will provide the answers to these questions, but it will take people, human beings with knowledge and understanding to implement the solution.”
Only when legitimacy, policy and action work together – with equal importance – will ideas turn into impact. Then, men/women, machine and government will be able to do great things – because we will be in sync.
- Becoming a more human government – five behaviours for greater legitimacy. Lena Kuenkel explains why legitimacy is the underlying relationship between citizens and government.
- Government must be made more human or risk becoming irrelevant – our new report shows how #FindingLegitimacy. Nadine Smith reports on CPI’s new report on finding the human in government
- Why you cannot fix legitimacy but you can mend it. How can governments reconnect with their citizens? Nadine Smith explains why there is is no catch-all fix but instead a continuous journey of improvement
- Public impact in a post-truth world. Governments have struggled for years to understand that people’s perceptions of life are very often their reality, says Adrian Brown, who suggests that “post-truth” can simply mean “truth” from a different vantage point
What does legitimacy mean to you? Where do you see legitimacy working well? How governments work with citizens to build legitimacy is a big question for CPI.
Find out how to get involved in our Finding Legitimacy project.