The Politics of Big Data

By Max Everest-Phillips

The Global Centre for Public Service Excellence, Singapore

After reading many a weighty tome recently, it came as something of a relief to come across this offering – part booklet, part discussion paper – from Max Everest-Phillips, director of the UNDP’s Global Centre for Public Sector Excellence.

Everest-Phillips, who has worked with CPI in the past, is steeped in the challenging reality of modern policymaking – not only in developed countries but also those in the developing world, particularly South-East Asia where he is based – and so I was looking forward to reading his thoughts on the political dimensions of big data. I was not disappointed.

Although it clocks in at less than 100 pages, it’s important not to mistake brevity for lack of insight. The author covers an array of big themes but at no time does the reader feel short-changed. Helpfully, the booklet kicks off with a summary of key messages, explaining how it aims to provide the reader with a perspective on “how politics and big data are, will and can interact with each other, by placing current enthusiasms and anxieties about big data’s potential in broad historical context”.

He then goes on to examine and explain how big data will change the information which policymakers use to frame their policy options, as well as offer new ways for citizens and public officials to interact. It therefore has the potential to upend government as we know it.

Although Everest-Phillips is an optimist, arguing that big data will “dramatically transform public services into better targeted, needs-based delivery”, he also points out that challenges remain, particularly around the disruptive impact of artificial intelligence. “Managing these ‘disruptions’ will require political skill”, he writes. And he adds that much depends on governments safeguarding their legitimacy: “Effective use of big data depends on effective institutions – which are deeply rooted in history and core principles of impartiality, meritocracy and trust”.

The author is particularly strong at conveying his points via an accessible writing style that – thankfully – doesn’t require an advanced degree in analytics or experience of machine learning to navigate. The narrative is also peppered with examples from governments around the world, not to mention entertaining quotes from figures as diverse as Francis Bacon, Plato and Bob Dylan.

Big data affects all of us, wherever we are in the world. That makes this a timely and important contribution to the debate, one which – thanks to Everest Phillips’ pen – is both enjoyable and enlightening.

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