Technology and the Government: the Future of Democracy at SXSW 2016

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A path with no return: governments must start viewing technology as a starting point for every action they take.

by Eduardo Fraga translated by Pronoia Tradutória

One of the major attractions at South by Southwest 2016 was the unprecedented participation of a serving American president. Barack Obama’s lecture which took the form of a conversation with Evan Smith, Editor in Chief of the Texas Tribune, was more than just a celebration of the festival’s 30th year and a groundbreaking marketing move beyond the boundaries of the creative industry – it was a demonstration of the festival’s convergent perspective: the transformation of politics and governments through digital technology.

Politics was so high on the agenda this year that there was a space dedicated exclusively to Government and Policy on the festival schedule. During his appearance, Barack Obama invited (or should we say called on?) all technology industry leaders to create new and secure ways of increasing participation in elections.

Participation has been below 60% in the last two U.S. presidential elections (57% in 2008 and 54% in 2012). Can you imagine the transformation that a new, secure digital voting process could create in an American presidential race? It could potentially change the result of an election.

The revolution of the information age has enabled us to develop the essential role of democratic governments, forms of representation, and public participation in society. This opportunity can be utilized on various levels, from simply monitoring how politicians vote in the House, to cultivating the concept of universal suffrage. It was not so long ago that universal suffrage basically meant wealthy, educated, white men. New digital and mobile technologies (and the innovators and entrepreneurs behind them) have an opportunity to reframe this concept, reaching a greater number of people, and more importantly, at new stages of the democratic processes.

Michelle Obama

Along with the Obamas — First Lady Michelle participated in a discussion panel on the Let Girls Learn initiative —, 42 other American politicians took part in various official events at the festival. There were three senators, 19 mayors, and 20 state and federal representatives.

Autonomous Vehicles and the American City: painel sobre as consequências econômicas e sociais para as cidades em um futuro com carros sem motoristas.
Autonomous Vehicles and the American City: discussion panel on the economic and social consequences for cities in a future with driverless cars.
Joshua Mandell: senior adviser de inovação da Câmara Americana de Comércio em painel sobre inovação versus regulamentação, junto com o Diretor de Relações Governamentais do Yelp.
Joshua Mandell: Senior Adviser for Innovation and Competitiveness at the U.S. Department of Commerce took part in a panel on innovation versus regulation, together with Yelp’s Director of Government Relations.
Painel sobre como o poder público deve assegurar e incentivar as inovações e negócios digitais, com o Prefeito de Phoenix e dois senadores americanos.
Panel on how the government should ensure and encourage digital innovation and business with the Mayor of Phoenix and two American senators.
Crowdsourcing Policy: prefeito de Austin sobre participação da população na agenda dos políticos.
Crowdsourcing Policy: the mayor of Austin discussed public participation in political agendas.

“Entrepreneurs and innovators are crucial to any market, and the products and jobs they create alone constitute an economy of innovation. It is imperative that the government and politicians learn to support this innovation economy more effectively, in the same way that they approach traditional market forces. Festivals like SXSW allow government officials to hear directly from innovators about the products they create, and how these products can be better assisted by the government and public policy.” — Francisco Enriquez, curator of politics panels at the festival

The message is clear: governments and politicians need to embrace technological innovation, and digital innovation needs to embrace politics. We are entering the age of the digital government. The central issue is not the need to generate specific innovations, but the need to create a new mentality, a path with no return: governments need to make digital technology the starting point for every action they take.

The potential for change and importance within governments can be assessed by the U.S. Digital Service, created to provide digital consulting services to all American federal agencies, in order to “improve the usefulness and reliability of the country’s most important digital services”. The agency was conceived after the weak launch of Obamacare, as a result of a collective effort by technology industry leaders to save the health program, and supported by the fact that a former Google executive has been serving as the U.S. government CTO since 2014.

Democracy 2.0: new directions

This situation shows how democracy is maturing. It is reaching new people in a deep and complex way. In Brazil, for example, instead of only participating every two years by voting for legislative and executive powers, why not follow the daily votes made by those we have elected? Why not receive a notification on our cell phones to let us know that our representative or senator voted today? We could create ways of discussing the issues on which they are voting, or even ways of voting on them together, thus giving new meaning to members of the House of Representatives or Senate. Digital technology has lowered the barriers to public participation in society, and in 2011, the United Nations determined that internet access is a fundamental human right. There is a great opportunity to take democracy in new directions, and there are already projects working toward with this objective in Brazil, such as the Vote na Web.

Sam Hodge
Sam Hodge

At this moment, there is no way of building a government without taking digital technology into account, whether starting new public services or transforming the old. We, society, cannot afford to miss the chance of rethinking how politics is practiced, using technological and digital solutions to strengthen our role. After the digital government comes the digital citizen, and together, new questions need to be answered. What does is it mean to be a digital citizen? What is our role in the context of digital society?

Various aspects of our lives are (and increasingly will be) impacted by the need to be a digital citizen: moral aspects such as the evolving concepet of citizenship and the responsible and appropriate use of technology; digital inclusion, which creates new educational needs such as digital literacy; and issues related to digital welfare, i.e. physical and emotional well-being in relation to the internet and digital technology.

Throughout this transformation, there are opportunities to reflect on our expectations of society. The relationship between governments, citizens and digital technology is essential in any country, and Brazil is no different. By strengthening the link between digital technology and the government, by becoming digital citizens, we develop as a society. Many top Brazilian digital entrepreneurs want to revolutionize the market, but few want to impact society. There are numerous mobile applications for consumers and very few for citizens. Would it not be better if, instead of mega-companies like Uber, we had an application that could help improve transport in a city as a whole, rather than just for those with a certain level of income?

Society is not changed solely through elections; citizens also need to act.

The difficulties of working with governments are clear to all, and the situation in Brazil is even more complex than in many other countries. But using digital innovation to address public issues, even small ones, can have a huge impact. To use a word that technology investors love to hear, governments are great at scaling. Brazilian politicians may not yet be fully open to these innovative solutions, but we the entrepreneurs can still shoulder some of the blame. If we want to revolutionize the world, and this is the first commandment of almost every digital company, why not start with the problems that really matter? Help reduce the queue for public healthcare instead of the queue for Starbucks. As Obama said, “the most important role in society is that of the citizen”. The responsibility is also ours.

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