April 30, 2020

The Digital State, Part 1

Source: “Alphathon” from an original. High resolution image here

The state is becoming increasingly digital, with significant implications for the interaction between citizens and their government. This is a topic that I published a book about in 2017 and it is a theme that I follow closely at the Procivis Think Tank.

Digitalisation is transforming the key building blocks of the state, namely its institutions; it is also shifting power into the hands of those who have access to the devices powered by new technology.

In the light of the current pandemic, in which we are all thinking about how life might be different after Covid-19 and how to get ready for perhaps a Covid-XX or other threats, I have written a series of blogs on how the state is transforming itself digitally.

Some of these trends have been apparent for a while, but this pandemic has just given these processes a massive boost. In this blog, Part 1, I will provide the context for these changes. In Part 2, I will look at how a specific use case, voting technology, has changed over time and what is currently happening in this area. In Part 3, I will look at the digitalization of the legislative process and in Part 4, at greater citizen participation in more areas.

Why the state?

Let’s begin with the basics. The origin of the state is mythical, but its purpose and the limits of its powers have been written about throughout recorded history. The idea that the state is there as some kind of unique service provider for popular needs that cannot be addressed otherwise is described in Plato’s book The Republic written two thousand years ago. He describes the trigger for creating the state as being a “necessity”, i.e. the state was not initially needed, until at some point when it was: 

A state, I said, arises, as I conceive, out of the needs of mankind; no one is self-sufficing, but all of us have many wants. Can any other origin of a state be imagined?

The state did not have to be big, Plato wrote. It could consist of something communally-small, like just four or five people. The point being that the state existed to deliver a unique service to its people.

The state thus also has a dynamic aspect to it. The longer the history, the clearer we see this. Consider this map of central Europe from around the year 1250. Notice that it shows a heterogenous collection of some three hundred small territories. Looking back from today’s vantage point, the only mini-state that has survived as a single entity is a little red dot surrounded by Italy, the Republic of San Marino.

To the left and right of our collection of mini-states we find some bigger kingdoms that no longer exist: The kingdoms of France, Hungary and Poland. To the north, however, we find another surviving state from that time, namely the Kingdom of Denmark. Two surviving states out of three hundred gives us a survival rate of 0.7%. States are not static – they’re also dynamic; they have to be in order to survive.

There is another reason I selected this map. It is a snapshot from before the outbreak of the pandemic (the Plague/Black Death, 1346-1353) that killed at least one-third of Europe’s population. Needless to say, that disaster placed enormous strains on the old order. The authorities were seen to have been ineffectual. The old order – feudalism – was undermined.

Upgrade to the digital state

Before the current pandemic, the pressures for the state to upgrade to digital in a big way differed from country to country. In Estonia, for example, where Skype was developed, the trigger was the opportunity to start with a clean slate following the country’s emergence from the Soviet Union. Elsewhere, the increased use of online transactions led to the growing awareness that citizens were able to carry out all kinds of important business online, cutting out the proverbial “middle man”. There was, however, one sector that stood out as a glaring exception to interacting with its clients online: the state. Any document involving the state still frequently required paper, ink, physical signatures, seals, stamps, envelopes, the post office, queues, patience and time.

The current pandemic has highlighted that these robust institutional arrangements from the 19th century are now potentially major vulnerabilities. Legislators couldn’t meet to pass laws, the courts couldn’t meet physically, voters couldn’t safely turn out for elections, and citizens couldn’t get their important documents stamped and processed. As recently as April 2020, some governments were still sending their citizens cheques in the post. It’s not inconceivable that there were cases where the virus travelled along. Making the state resilient in the face of future lockdowns rationally now requires also looking at the state’s digital options.

For a digital state to work well, it will need to have the full range of building blocks that comprise the new infrastructure. We are talking front to back, including at its most basic level a legally-recognised digital ID that works seamlessly across state services.

Of course, there will be good arguments for and against every new digital initiative that the state undertakes. It is our right and our duty to engage in shaping that future.

It is worth considering, though, that history has shown that the state can also be dynamic; it has to be dynamic to survive. Have we not all been surprised by the speed with which the state drew on hitherto unknown powers to close businesses and borders, requisition supplies and use new technology to get a sense of compliance with the stay-at-home instructions? When push comes to shove, the state has an enormous toolkit at its disposal.

The state is going digital – and will do so now at even faster pace. New checks and balances will be required, the most important of which is to ensure that in the digital state the people are still able to provide their consent, even under lockdown from home.

In subsequent blogs, I plan to elaborate on how new technology can make the digital state more resilient and also more democratic.

By Costa Vayenas

Sources

1. Plato, The Republic, Book 2, translated by Benjamin Jowett