Government of the Data (Part 3: The future of government platforms)
Phuah Eng Chye (4 July 2020)
Electronic interactions among citizens and governments – for administration (such as submitting applications, tax returns, paying bills, voting) or for surveillance and policing – is becoming the norm. While the risks on the erosion of individual privacy are well articulated, it is unlikely to turn the tide. Digital IDs are essential for authenticating and connecting individuals in a digital and device-synchronised world. The important challenge ahead is to figure out how digital IDs can be made to work better for citizens.
In this regard, many government agencies have established portals and digitalised their services. But this has generally resulted in a fragmented patchwork of portals and apps. In the future, governments should aim to organise their digital services along the lines of a platform such as Facebook or WeChat. These firms have proven that integrated platforms are an effective way of meeting societal needs. There is no reason why governments shouldn’t establish platforms modelled on the best features on commercial platforms and apps to achieve public goals. Putting aside security issues, the government platform could have the following features.
- The core is the digital ID system where the data is maintained on a cradle-to-grave basis. A citizen should be able to view and manage all government-related transactions and communications from one screen. (e.g. births, ID, licenses, passports, billing, healthcare, public schools, land office, welfare, pensions, official bank account with government, taxes, summons and others).
- A single bank account (for payments and receipts with the government) and one communication channel (email or messaging) should be established between the individual with all government agencies. All agencies should use his ID number instead of issuing separate account numbers. Agencies would be allowed to access and manage information relevant to their needs.
- The most important advantage of a digital ID platform is its ability to function as a single source of truth. This requires amendments to be reconciled at one rather than across multiple sites. This improves data quality, lowers authentication costs and has a significant impact on the value of data. The consolidation of financial accounts and communications will result in massive savings and efficiencies. Separately updating information in different silos increases costs and error rates. Consolidation highlights inconsistencies and reduces on-boarding, updating costs and error rates.
- Overcoming bottlenecks to data sharing is critical to improving the quality and timeliness of information. In my view, the most effective approach is to empower specialist multi-disciplinary (e.g. skills such as IT, security, operations, legal, AI) teams to implement solutions across different agency data silos. These teams will have the necessary authority to view data, determine data needs and design the legal, operational and security arrangements to facilitate the data flows. In particular, the team would focus on reducing duplication and data sharing turn-around time.
The establishment of a government platform has substantial ramifications; particularly in relation to the public and private sector roles in managing data. It raises the important question of why governments should establish a platform when private sector platforms exist. There are several reasons.
First, commercial firms are somewhat constrained in developing services and tools due to their ultimate need to earn profits. This means their platforms would not be fully committed to delivering public goods; leading to a shortfall. A government platform focusing on supplying information-based public goods could meet those needs.
Second, government platforms can provide an authentic zone and raise the levels of transparency for public goods. The success of Facebook and WeChat indicates widespread public demand for such platforms. The government platform should be positioned to be a safe zone with access limited to citizens and authorised entities. It should be a highly transparent and trustworthy zone – where “everybody knows your name” – with the objective to contributing to a democratic society. The interesting questions are the rules of transparency; i.e. what data should be visible to whom.
- Individuals should generally be allowed to control their personal space (profile) and select the information they wish to make public or selectively available and to whom. The background (e.g. education and employment) of licensed professionals, public interest directors and civil servants should be publicly visible. Individuals should be notified when their profiles were viewed and by whom.
- Interactions – such as comments and likes – should be tagged with identities. Under certain conditions, an individual’s identity can be masked but it should remain traceable (for examples, comments on public projects) to ensure authenticity. Individuals should be able to control inflow of messages, notifications as well as to choose to follow events – particularly at the community level.
- Approved entities and apps should be allowed to access only essential information. For example, banks should be able to access data it would normally request from a customer and in line with Know Your Customer (KYC) rules. Electronic trails should be monitored and the ability to capture data restricted.
Though the platform may be mandatory for government transactions, individuals can choose to minimise their activities on this platform and shift the bulk of their activities to non-transparent zones. The ability to operate on multiple platforms underlines the point that privacy can be managed within zones rather than applied universally across all platforms.
Third, the emergence of a government platform alters the balance of power between the government and the global platforms. The most important change is that governments will have complete control over data on their platforms. This will undo the stranglehold commercial platforms have on personal data and dilute their information advantage. The government’s power is considerably enhanced not by their control over data but also over their ability to impose conditions for access to their platform.
Fourth, a government platform will be in direct competition with private platforms. There are risks of unfair competition as governments have tremendous monopoly power as its platform may be the main gateway for access to government services. As a regulator, governments could also impose restrictions or demand data from commercial platforms; transforming data once owned by private firms into a public good.
Fifth, government platforms will probably be more effective than anti-trust regulation to addressing the domination of global platforms. Government platforms provides alternative information and business channels which broadens choice for domestic customers and businesses. Importantly, government platforms can compete with the global platforms in serving local communities. For example, it can provide favourable terms to support small local players or low-income groups. In addition, since the government controls the data, it can share this data widely at minimal or no costs.
The public-private differences may not be so stark. It is unlikely most governments will be able to develop a top-notch platform on their own. The likelihood is that governments will rely on partnerships or appoint local or global vendors to build and maintain the platform. Thus, the increase in competitive tension should be viewed within the context of collaboration or integration between the government and commercial ecosystem. In this regard, there are questions as to whether government platforms should be allowed to sell data, allow advertising or endorsements or facilitate commercial applications. This would be shaped by future policies.
Governments approach the platform challenges differently based on their philosophies. Western emphasis on private rights meant private firms have generally been allowed to dominate the platform space. China’s fledging and fragmented social credit system provides an approximation to a government platform. But social credit aims to influence behaviours, is mainly used for surveillance and control purposes and lacks two-sided transparency. India’s Aadhaar, which is focused on universal service delivery, appears to have greater potential to evolve into a full-fledged government platform. At the moment, it lacks the profiling, communication and hosting (app) features found on commercial platforms.
Rather than limit itself to streamlining administration services or disseminating messages, the most critical advance for government platforms is to take on aspirational goals such as the promotion of two-sided transparency and communication to foster participation and democracy. The government platform should aim to widen information distribution and increase public engagement. This may include tools for citizens to vote on projects and priorities, voice their likes and dislikes, and to participate in policy discussions.
There is a distinct difference in focus between the government and global platforms. The global platforms have a global and commercial focus. The government platforms can complement them by having a local and public goods focus. A government platform should therefore be purposeful in addressing community needs and encouraging community interaction.
The potential for platforms to meet community needs is recognised by Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg highlighted Facebook’s focus on “developing the social infrastructure for community – for supporting us, for keeping us safe, for informing us, for civic engagement, and for inclusion of all”. “Online communities are a bright spot, and we can strengthen existing physical communities by helping people come together online as well as offline. In the same way connecting with friends online strengthens real relationships, developing this infrastructure will strengthen these communities, as well as enable completely new ones to form…These communities don’t just interact online. They hold get-togethers, organize dinners, and support each other in their daily lives”. There are many examples of how platforms can be used to benefit societies, especially during crises. Recently, Facebook launched Community Help to act as “a place for people to request or offer help to neighbours, such as volunteering to deliver groceries or donating to a local food pantry or fundraiser.”
Towards this end, the government platform can be used to remodel community support along the new information capabilities. This is timely as traditional community support structures have been ruptured by rising costs, modularity (smaller households), mobility (depopulation) and transience (gig employment). Community support can be reinforced by a government platform.
Pilot government platforms can be set up for some communities. As the experience of Sidewalk Lab’s smart city project reveals, it may be crucial to momentarily set aside
privacy concerns in favour of transparency and authenticity as good quality data is critical to success. The ability to slice information by location or individuals provides the granular detail necessary to analyse problems, design targeted initiatives and keep tabs on progress.
The pilot platform should be used to build an active ecosystem that facilitate citizens in a community to engage and collaborate among themselves and with government agencies, firms, educational institutions, entrepreneurs and social organisations. The platform should be used to support integration of diverse programs in employment, welfare, housing, healthcare, environment, crime and public amenities. Overall, the aim should be to enhance the value of individuals, activities and assets in a community.
For example, participation (such as for students and unemployed) in community projects can be tied to government benefits (such as welfare, basic income, grants and incentives) and supported by firms and other institutions. Town councils can publish budgets and projects and citizens can post comments, documents, photos. Project progress and response time to complaints can be tracked. Focal points can be created to galvanise community participation. Particular attention can be given to educational issues and work prospects for children.
Critically, the government platform can be positioned to create opportunities for monetisation and to link the community to external resources. For example, a community-organised yellow pages app can support the monetisation of local production, retail and services and improve local earnings and viability. This can be enhanced by connecting the local community to the national and international communities and markets. In this regard, communities can be revived by drawing on the talent, finance and demand of those who have left the community.
The pre-requisite is that citizens must have convenient and low-cost access to the government’s digital ecosystem. Therefore, government policies need to target increasing availability, reducing access costs while workarounds may be required for those without access to mobile phones or bank accounts.
Thought should also be given to integrating the government platform with data-intensive projects such as economic statistics, the census and voting registers. The combination of different data sources on a real-time basis would provide a more accurate reading of conditions, facilitate a speedier response and the more effective use of AI.
Overall, digital ID should be viewed as a means and not an end. The next logical step for governments is to establish a platform. Society has already embraced platforms as the way forward for social and economic interactions. Governments should therefore launch their platform to serve public needs rather than leave this space uncontested to the global firms. The government platform would be more official rather than socially-oriented, more community rather than market-oriented, and focused on public rather than on private goods. In tandem with this, thought should be given to developing a robust ecosystem to support the development of new models for community organisation that can expand participation and activities, increase the value of data and human capital, address income and asset ownership and foster democracy. A good platform will enable the government of the people to transform into the government of the data.
Helsinki Graduate School of Economics Situation Room (21 May 2020) “Real-time economic analysis of the COVID-19 crisis: Lessons from Finland”. https://voxeu.org/article/real-time-economic-analysis-covid-19-crisis-lessons-finland
Hugh Langley (8 May 2020) “Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs has abandoned its ambitious plan for a $900 million high-tech neighborhood in Toronto, following economic uncertainty and years of controversy”. https://www.businessinsider.com/alphabet-sidewalk-labs-abandons-project-for-quayside-toronto-neighborhood-2020-5?IR=T
Isobel Asher Hamilton (31 March 2020) “Facebook launched a feature that allows people to request or offer help to neighbors – here’s how it works”. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/facebook-community-help-neighbors-coronavirus-2020-4?IR=T
Mark Zuckerberg (16 February 2017) “Building global community”. Facebook.
Mike Schneider (15 February 2020) “Shift to digital census raises fear of Iowa-like breakdown”. Associated Press https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/shift-digital-census-raises-fear-iowa-breakdown-69003930
Phuah Eng Chye (12 October 2019) “Information and organisation: Shades of surveillance”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/information-and-organisation-shades-of-surveillance/
Phuah Eng Chye (21 December 2019) “The debate on regulating surveillance”.
Phuah Eng Chye (4 January 2020) “The economics and regulation of privacy”.
Phuah Eng Chye (18 January 2020) “Big data and the future for privacy”.
Phuah Eng Chye (15 February 2020) “The costs of privacy regulation”.
Phuah Eng Chye (29 February 2020) “The journey from privacy to transparency (and back again)”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/the-journey-from-privacy-to-transparency-and-back-again/
Phuah Eng Chye (14 March 2020) “Features of transparency”.
Phuah Eng Chye (28 March 2020) “The transparency paradigm”.
Phuah Eng Chye (11 April 2020) “Anonymity, opacity and zones”.
Phuah Eng Chye (25 April 2020) “Public and private roles in managing data (Part 1: Surveillance)”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/public-and-private-roles-in-managing-data-part-1-surveillance/
Phuah Eng Chye (9 May 2020) “Public and private roles in managing data (Part 2: Data sharing)”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/public-and-private-roles-in-managing-data-part-2-data-sharing/
Phuah Eng Chye (23 May 2020) “Public and private roles in managing data (Part 3: Evolving roles)”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/public-and-private-roles-in-managing-data-part-3-evolving-roles/
Phuah Eng Chye (6 June 2020) “Government of the data (Part 1: From census to digital IDs)”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/government-of-the-data-part-1-from-census-to-digital-ids/
Phuah Eng Chye (20 June 2020) “Government of the data (Part 2: India’s Aadhaar and the debate on digital IDs)”. http://economicsofinformationsociety.com/government-of-the-data-part-2-indias-adhaar-and-the-debate-on-digital-ids/
 See “Public and private sector roles in managing personal data (Part 2: Data sharing)” for a description of challenges.
 Rather than setting out MOUs and committees which tend to be ineffective.
 “Anonymity, opacity and zones”.
 See “Anonymity, opacity and zones”.
 See “Information and organisation: Shades of surveillance”.
 “Government of the data (Part 2: India’s Aadhaar and the debate on digital IDs)”.
 See Isobel Asher Hamilton.
 Data privacy concerns can trip up data-driven initiatives. See “Alphabet’s Sidewalk Labs has abandoned its ambitious plan for a $900 million high-tech neighborhood in Toronto, following economic uncertainty and years of controversy”.
 See “Real-time economic analysis of the COVID-19 crisis: Lessons from Finland”.
 See Mike Schneider on efforts to improve collection of census data in the US.