Technological battle for the future

During the Christmas holidays, I always visit a lot of fellow entrepreneurs. Retailers try to take advantage of the holiday rush – their devotion and ambition is an inspiration – and others use the time to look ahead to the future, aside from the usual festivities. But they’re all concerned with the question in which ways society will change in the next years. And how their organisation should respond to that and how it should change in the next years.

Ministers and departments should be concerned with these things, too. The question should consist of at least two parts: what would our services ideally be like if we’d reinvent our organisation, and how will we take care of communicating with our citizens?

It’s becoming increasingly common for the answer to that question to have a technological component to it. In order to successfully communicate, you need to reach your citizens, and they’re glued to their mobile devices more and more. Governmental institutions that can’t cross over to the digital world of consumers will eventually be out of the game. And governments that don’t live by the ‘atawad’ principle – any time, anywhere, any device – are increasingly going to lose touch with their citizens.

There are still important things to be done. After I hadn’t opened my physical mailbox for a few weeks, I got an overdue payment warning from a government institution (with a € 100 collection fee, while a simple protected email would have just let me transfer the few hundred euros it was about). Every company I’m a client to send me their invoices digitally by default. And when they don’t get a payment they were expecting, they give me a phone call. It’s quicker, cheaper and easier. And why is it that payment by direct debit still isn’t possible for many public services? The government is going to end up being the last company left where recurring payments still have to be made by individual online transfers.

Meanwhile, the Municipality of Amsterdam is considering spending an arm and a leg on a camera system for the bicycle tunnel of the Rijksmuseum to keep it clear of mopeds, while the same money could just as well be spent hiring more civil servants to do the same task – and more, such as helping tourists find their way. That way the salary they’d be paid – just a little more than they’d otherwise receive in unemployment benefits – would largely end up in the Dutch economy again too. Technology does need to have benefits compared to human labour, or else it shouldn’t be used.

Do governments even know well enough how their citizens would like their public services to be organised? Only large groups of citizens could shed light upon that together. That’s why it would be a good idea to create a digital place for citizens to leave their ideas and suggestions for technology and innovations: an innovation harbour, a suggestion box. At the moment, nobody has a clue whom to email or call who would listen to such things. Naturally, the system would be that any citizen can login using their DigiD digital identity verification, and then they could vote for ideas.

Freelancers and SMBs, who wouldn’t normally be able to get IT assignments from the government, should be able to openly pitch their ideas there.
Meanwhile, the government should show what IT projects have been completed in order to get more useful ideas: at the moment, we only hear from the media about failed innovations, but it would be good to share success stories more too. Those are more common.

A suggestion box like that would only work if the suggestions are feasible, so the submitters need to understand well how the government is organised. One of the greatest challenges in that regard is the fact that ‘the government’ is not all one organisation. Mark Rutte may be the prime minister of our country, but he’s not in charge of all the ministries, and therefore he cannot all by himself make ministries cooperate better with regard to technology. Every department has its own CIO – chief information officer – and its own technological suppliers and staff. The systems don’t nearly always cooperate.

In some cases, that’s understandable: the computers and software used at the Ministry of Defence can’t be compared to the technological needs of the department of Education, Culture and Sciences. But exceptions notwithstanding, it would be better, cheaper and safer to organise technology centrally. All IT organised from one place, with large groups of experts working together. A place where ideas can be submitted. A place where a good relationships with major companies, but also with SMBs and freelancers can be built up, in order to make IT run as smoothly as possible throughout the government. Success stories could be gathered, shown to citizens and shared with local governments.

I’m looking ahead too, and now that I think about it, I have only one wish for the next year: a Ministry of Innovation & Technology.

I wrote this column originally in Dutch for the Telegraaf.

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