Reported by Anthony Lindley, CSaP Policy Intern (February-May 2021)
Over the past two decades, advances in digital technologies have concentrated immense power and wealth in the hands of a very small elite. The unprecedented domination of Amazon, Facebook, Google, and other titans of ‘Big Tech’ poses an almost existential risk to nation-states. Unless governments themselves embrace and master technological transformation, they may become subject to the will of the international giants of digital technology.
Last month, the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP) welcomed author Professor Jaideep Prabhu and special guests Dame Clare Moriarty, and Lord Richard Wilson to discuss How Should a Government Be? The New Levers of State Power, the new book by Professor Jaideep Prabhu (Jawaharlal Nehru Professor of Indian Business & Enterprise at the Judge Business School and an Associate Fellow of CSaP). The event was hosted by CSaP Executive Director Dr Rob Doubleday and was attended by current and former Policy Fellows associated with the Centre.
You can listen to the opening remarks from the event here:
Professor Prabhu’s book explores the opportunities and risks posed by technological and organisational innovation in the public and private sectors and takes the reader on a global tour of digital modernisation and upheaval within government. Presenting a cautiously optimistic picture of the future, Professor Prabhu draws on case studies from India, The Netherlands and China to exemplify digital outcomes ranging from progressive to dystopian. The primary narrative throughout the text is that states can successfully incorporate the disruptive technologies pioneered by the digital giants, but by ‘steering, not rowing’. Professor Prabhu stresses that success depends on governments’ ability to follow principles of responsiveness to their citizens, inclusivity, a carefully managed economy, and a willingness to experiment.
Throughout the event, participants asked: Should the state even be taking the kind of risks exemplified within Professor Prabhu’s book? Surely entrepreneurial behaviour should be left to business and governments should focus solely on the roles only accessible to them? Professor Prabhu contends that the 21st Century has presented the world with such a slew of crises and challenges that governments at all levels should be doing more, not less, to coordinate and cooperate with technological pacemakers in the private sector and engage further with all aspects of the economy. They should, however, remain clearheaded about their capabilities and what can be more effectively delivered by commercial entities.
For all the potential benefits digital development of the state confers to its populous, discussion participants emphasised that one should not lose sight of the potential pitfalls. Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric system, provides every Indian citizen with a digital ID and serves as the prime example within the book of a large-scale digital success within the public sector. Despite providing reliable access to state functions to many who previously fell under the radar, particularly remote and vulnerable populations, the judiciary system has provided vital checks on overreach and mission creep. Here, Professor Prabhu stresses the need for strong institutions and constitutional balances for both internal digital projects and external collaboration. International organisations such as the OECD are also essential in regulating the activities of FAANGs and other tech titans, stated Professor Prabhu in response to concerns raised by discussion participants who questioned the ability of governments such as the UK’s to realistically engage with such powerful companies.
Are democratic governments doing enough to train their civil servants and public representatives? Invoking the failure of the United States Congress to successfully interrogate Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on the role of his platform in disinformation campaigns, Lord Wilson highlighted current political leaders’ apparently total failure to understand of the mechanisms of social media and other technologies. According to Professor Prabhu this lack of intellectual capital has been a significant barrier to governments modernising the services they offer and should be a top priority for the next few years.
How Should a Government Be? The New Levers of State Power by Professor Jaideep Prabhu’s is available now.