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Accountable E-Government the Key to Tomorrow's Digital Society

For its March 12 report commemorating the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Digital Life in 2025, Pew Research gathered bold predictions from over 2500 tech thought leaders and industry experts as to how the Internet and society will co-evolve over the next decade. Digital Life in 2025 is a must-read for federal managers interested in the relationship between government, citizens, and technology, particularly in the context of the federal government’s current E-Government initiatives focusing on open-source platforms, cloud computing, and big data.

The goal of E-Government, or Gov 2.0 as it is sometimes called, is to enhance the quality and accountability of public services as well as to provide citizens digital tools to interact with their elected officials. E-Government would similarly provide federal IT leaders a platform for more active conversation with civil society groups and the private sector. According to one federal employee who chose to comment anonymously, “The Internet has the potential to significantly change how the government operates, to include greater citizen involvement in the process of making rules and laws. It can change how government services are delivered.”

Perhaps the report's most striking finding is that a large proportion of expert respondents expressed apprehension that future government actions in cyberspace may limit many of the freedoms the Internet presently offers. Several respondents doubted the ability of legal protections to keep pace with the technologies used to invade privacy, while others asserted that state controls over the Internet may lead to censorship.

Given these concerns, it is perhaps unfortunate that aside from the quote above, public sector perspectives are largely absent from the report. As Gov 2.0 comes closer to becoming a reality, its success or failure may rest on federal IT leaders and their abilities to ensure that web-based public services are delivered efficiently and transparently. Similarly, their participation in public dialogue may be the key to dispelling negative perceptions of a federal role in Internet governance.

The report offers a fascinating series of predictions as to how the Internet of Things – “a global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases and massive data centers” – might disrupt existing business models, social arrangements, and governance systems. For instance:

On the hopeful side --

  • “The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity that fosters more planetary relationships and less ignorance.”
  • “The spread of the Internet will diminish the meaning of borders, and new ‘nations’ of those with shared interests may emerge and exist beyond the capacity of current nation-states to control.”

On the pessimistic side --

  • “Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.”
  • “Pressured by social changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power -- and at times succeed -- as they invoke security and cultural norms.”

The Internet of the future may foster social consciousness, global connectivity, and data-centric approaches to human decision-making, but its empowerment of individuals to self-select their own social environments may also deepen economic inequality and undermine the stability of governments around the world.

- Chris Cornillie, Research Analyst

Image courtesy of Flickr user Sam Howzit

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