Samran wonglakorn/

Technology and Government’s Distributed Future

Connected devices are changing the way we do business, but our thinking will need to catch up to our tools.

Technology innovations have long played a powerful role in how government operates and serves citizens. The advent of telephones, telegraphs and typewriters in the early 20th century was an important factor behind the creation of large, centralized bureaucracies to manage the expanding increase in communications and information coming into government

The success of mass production techniques inspired progressives like Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to ask why similar approaches couldn’t be applied to government. Thus the government-as-machine metaphor was born. 

A few decades later came mainframe computers, enabling everything from space exploration to quicker tax processing to new ways of going to war.

With these historical examples in mind, we’ve been studying how technology will transform government over the remainder of this decade. One big change afoot: Whereas previous technological developments often led to greater government centralization, the next wave of transformative technologies are more likely to herald a shift to a more distributed model of governance.


Digital technologies form the foundation for a distributed government future. The accessibility and affordability of social, mobile and cloud technologies allow groups of ordinary citizens to chip away at tough societal problems by the hundreds, thousands or even millions. This technology-enabled approach to problem-solving takes many forms, including micro-tasking and micro-volunteerism, hackathons, crowdsourcing, peer-to-peer models and prize challenges.

For example, citizens in cities like Boston now take photos of potholes, graffiti, and broken stoplights to help city governments quickly spot and repair sometimes dangerous situations. This also allows for ordinary citizens to hold governments accountable by seeing the status of the request and the response time of maintenance crews.

Digital government can be personalized and contextual—and thus a powerful tool that allows citizens, consumers, businesses and governments to interact on a local level. Citizens with highly specific interests will be able to band together, share experiences and insights, and both request and help create new government services. Using devices they rely on for their personal and professional lives—smartphones and tablets today, wearables, sensors and a wide range of intelligent devices tomorrow.

The Internet of Things

Sensors and the data they generate will also power the drive to greater decentralization. The big change in sensors is the shift from static, factory-based sensors to wireless, low-power sensors that communicate with each other. This “Internet of Things” will make it technically and economically possible to monitor nearly everything: biohazards, smells, material stresses, pathogens, level of corrosion, and even human health.

For example, microsensor implants in patients will be able to track the healing process for internal injuries, and will enable health care professionals to take remedial action based on continual data from the system.

As sensors proliferate, vast opportunities will emerge to manage our resources in a safer and more efficient manner. From severe storm prediction to workload management, governments will utilize data from the Internet of Things to spot problems earlier and solve them faster.  Government has an opportunity to lead the charge into ambient computing—shifting the focus from individual objects and sensors, to services allowing orchestration, business rules, and analytics.  This data will also play a critical role in policymaking to better predict what legislation may be needed to mitigate changing environments.

The principle behind such actions is both proven and simple. To use a basic example, small businesses such as swimming pool maintenance companies have long monitored owners’ pools remotely, and fixed problems before the owner was even aware of them. As the Internet of Things grows (exponentially) in numbers, this practice will have many new applications.

The exponential growth of the Internet of Things could also prove to be a regulatory headache, forcing governments to keep pace with this ever-changing technology. Every new connected device after all changes the way we do business, interact, and share information.

Geospatial Technology

What, and who, is where? Geospatial technology answers questions like these.

Location is an integral dimension of data, allowing information patterns and decisions to be viewed through the lens of place. Since nearly everything on Earth can be tagged by location, Geographic Information Systems find varied applications ranging from movement of weather patterns to traffic management in crowded cities to location-based services to forming the backbone for the Internet of Things. The use of geospatial analysis in the field of medicine and infrastructure planning will grow as governments open up their GIS databases for public use.

Location-based data can also be used to concentrate the energy of the crowd, empowering government and citizens to work together to respond quickly to local disasters or tackle national problems. For crisis response, 3-dimensional GPS devices—which are aware of building layouts—offer the hope that police and emergency management agencies will be better able to position tactical units in response to a developing crisis.


Robots are now migrating from factories to the rest of the world. The list of possibilities and applications to the public sector is far longer than most people imagine.

At the smallest level, microbots will allow emergency responders to explore environments that are too small or too dangerous for humans or larger robots; allowing responders to better tailor response needs to the specific situation without entering harm’s way.

Telepresence robots will allow experts to be “present” in distant locations, saving both time and money as they share expertise where it is most needed. A government expert in Amsterdam, for example, will be able to lend her expertise in Cleveland, without ever getting on a plane, and world-class surgeons will be able to show new techniques in real time across the globe.

At the human level, exoskeletons allow users to augment their physical strength, helping those with physical disabilities to walk and climb. Similarly, this technology could be used in military and public safety roles.

None of these technologies are standing still—in fact they’re largely improving at exponential rates—and will provide the ability to transform everything from how businesses are regulated to how governments respond to crises. But first our thinking will need to catch up to our tools.

Janet Foutty is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and leads the Federal Government Services practice. William D.Eggers is the public sector research director for Deloitte Services LP. To explore these and other trends affecting the future role of governments, visit Deloitte’s Gov2020 site.

(Image via Samran wonglakorn/

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