The challenge of digitalisation
People expect local authorities to do the best they can when it comes to such public tasks and services. In the current Second Machine Age, digital technologies play a crucial role in developing and improving these efforts. Nowadays, brick-and-mortar offices increasingly function as an auxiliary to the services offered online.
Public wellbeing has improved considerably since the Industrial Revolution – the First Machine Age. Of critical importance in this regard are adequate public services, including clean water, safe food, good transport facilities, sufficient commercial and employment opportunities, adequate housing, access to health and educational services, and police forces to ensure public safety. People expect local authorities to do the best they can when it comes to such public tasks and services. In the current Second Machine Age, digital technologies play a crucial role in developing and improving these efforts. Nowadays, brick-and-mortar offices increasingly function as an auxiliary to the services offered online.
There is a growing awareness that digitalisation is not just a means to streamline operations. It is not only changing society, it is also changing government. Digitalisation impacts on the quality of many public services and public values, from health to good and affordable transport and a warm home. The VNG’s (Association of Netherlands Municipalities) Digital Agenda for 2020 illustrates how digitalisation is generating numerous new policy practices, ranging from basic digital facilities, support for economic activity and a pleasant living environment to improvements in mobility and the use of big data in public spaces. It shows just how important data flows are to local government and the welfare of local communities.
Public innovation specialist Albert Meijer calls this a ‘datapolis’, a community of citizens who use data collectively to safeguard both individual and collective interests. How we shape digitalisation plays an important political role in this context.
This article outlines how public values can inform the process of digitalisation. Digitalisation increasingly colours how people perceive government, and, because of the rise of the Internet of Things, it also has a growing influence on the physical environment. After a brief explanation, we describe how digital technology is being used to improve local government services. We review a series of public values in that context, from privacy and autonomy to control over technology and the balance of power.
We show how local authorities can mitigate the downsides of a data-driven economy. We then look at how local government can retain control over technological systems that are crucial to the provision of public services. We do so by discussing the example of digital lighting grids (in which lampposts are fitted with data-generating sensors). We conclude by explaining how politicians and policy makers can allow public values to inform digital innovation.