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October 24th, 2017
Technology • Legitimacy
Max Everest-Phillips Director, UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence

The e-legitimacy of the digital state

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Citizens’ trust in their governments seems to be plummeting – but why? #FindingLegitimacy

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States that fail to modernise risk their institutions falling behind #FindingLegitimacy

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The post-privacy e-state needs institutions that build citizens’ trust #FindingLegitimacy

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Ever since the invention of irrigation systems in Mesopotamia over 5,000 years ago, technological advances have continued to transform society, the economy, and the relationship between governments and citizens.

Today, technology is evolving fast. A “fourth industrial revolution” is only just beginning, but the evidence for its future impact is already clear. For example, Google's annual R&D budget is more than twice the combined R&D expenditure of the five biggest defence companies in the US, an extraordinary change from the Cold War era that ended barely a generation ago.

But the rapid adoption of new technologies and the ever-accelerating pace of digital transformation just one of several trends that governments today are struggling with. Another is an unprecedented sense of uncertainty, rooted in increasing unemployment, the rise of China, unprecedented levels of migration, the demographics of ageing in the developed world, and a youth bulge in developing countries.

And a third trend is that, partly as a consequence of the first two, citizens' trust in their governments seems to be plummeting. Faced by the magnitude and complexity of changes that are rapidly redefining human potential and reshaping industries and societies, political leaders seem unable to articulate a convincing vision for getting through the current upheavals to reach a brighter future.

Instead, politics in many parts of the world is mired in rising populism and resurgent nationalism, post-fact politics, post-truth journalism, and false and deliberately faked news. Not unsurprisingly, the result is a new era - the “age of anxiety”, arising from impending change on a scale that is hard to comprehend. Still more difficult to fathom is the likely impact on deeply cherished social values when machines come to supplant humans as the primary means of collecting, processing and interpreting information - transforming the economy, society and politics in the process.

The effective e-state

In this new environment, all regimes are gathering “big data” on their citizens, and the difference in performance between states will depend on the quality of digital governance. Effective institutions are the key to a functioning and stable society. States that fail to modernise their political and economic institutions to accommodate new technologies risk falling behind, but the methods for controlling national territory cannot police a non-physical space like the internet.

New technologies are also exposing the fact that cultural attitudes to privacy - something which has long been central to the protection of human dignity and liberal democracy - now vary and can often be contradictory. People who only consent to their personal information being collected and stored by government agencies and by corporations - if it is kept confidential - may nonetheless be willing to reveal the same intimate details of their lives on social media posts, blogs, and profiles.

In that case, the individual exercises personal choice. However, people are increasingly disclosing, and being required to disclose, personal information over the internet in order to participate in the modern digital society and economy. Freedom of choice morphs into compulsion, just as the right to vote turned into an obligation to do so in Australia.

Private or public?

The potential of technology to restrict privacy seems as though it will grow faster because databases appear to be increasingly vulnerable to online attacks and no data-handling will ever be 100% secure. Recent research has suggested that artificial intelligence (AI) can already guess sexual orientation based on photographs of faces more accurately than humans are able to do. AI could therefore be used to classify people without their consent.  Police profiling based on AI to predict people's behaviour risks reinforcing stereotypes and social exclusion, subverting individual choice and equal opportunities.

Privacy worries over national ID systems highlight a stark cultural divide. While countries like Australia seem troubled by the “Big Brother” connotations of ID cards that can act as unique identifiers online, other countries which also consistently rank at the top of international indices measuring the quality of democratic institutions, such as Finland, issue them without political objections.

These examples illustrate how the traditional concept of privacy is increasingly outdated. The rights-based approach to the protection of privacy and personal data assumes that the state, through control over its territories, is able to fulfil its role as duty-bearer.  Yet the digital world is impossible to fully police.  Data can easily be moved across borders, stolen, or recorded without consent. The “dark web” is awash with criminal activity, including the sale of stolen personal data.

The proliferation of network technologies and the unmediated communication that social media facilitates are also blurring the divide between public and private life. Social media renders everyone a self-created public figure, a celebrity in their own webspace.

Towards a digital social contract

Instead of worrying, we should recognise the inevitable and embrace it. Putting complete faith in ever more convoluted and fallible legislation and regulation of the digital “no man's land” seems unwise. Governments and citizens need to start by ensuring that the post-privacy e-state is a tolerant place, buttressed by effective institutions that build citizens' trust.

In this regard, taxation may show what is possible. Whereas most countries enforce strict privacy over tax returns, Norway, Sweden and Finland take the opposite approach. The tax authorities of these three Nordic countries maintain national population registers and disclose online for each taxpayer a summary of income (after deductions), net worth, and the total amount of taxes paid.

Such tax transparency suggests that declining personal privacy can be replaced by improved transparency, fairness and sense of duty to the community. The ultimate purpose of technology is to foster an educated citizenry. Governments should start preparing the digital social contract as the basis for the legitimacy of the digital state.


What is legitimacy 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 


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Max Everest-Phillips Director, UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence
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