Technology and the Public Good

How technology is reshaping the way we deliver public services – and two exciting scenarios for the future.


Technology has always been a driver of industrial growth – from wheels, looms to the steam engine, electricity, and the Internet. Today, we envision a future where robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and genomics can transform manufacturing, finance and medicine. Less is said about how technology might transform the public sector, in particular the information technologies enabled by software, the Web, computational techniques and harnessing of data.

The business of government has always required the harnessing of information in some way. The earliest form of the state machinery or bureaucracy arose when kingdoms needed the means to collect taxes in order raise armies to fight wars. Egyptians and Babylonians developed their own information technology to sustain the business of government: hieroglyphics to enable book-keeping and maintain a catalogue of information on who paid taxes; and a complex network of towers with fire-lamps within line of sight of each other to transmit information about military troop movements. The presence or absence of lit lamps provided what was effectively an information technology system with a one-bit communications channel (compare that to fibre networks today that effectively transmit a billion bits a second).

Today, much of the machinery of taxation and redistribution relies on such systems. The Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore has “no-filing” services because connected IT systems pull in data on your income and calculate your tax automatically. One of the great things about Singapore’s welfare and social grants is that once decided, they are disbursed automatically based on means-tested criteria applied against the government’s administrative data. Contrast this to Obamacare – in the U.S., where a massive mobilisation and registration exercise was necessary even to get the scheme off the ground.

But the future of information technology for the public good has much more potential than just easing the bureaucracy and machinery of government. It poses opportunities for reshaping the very role of government and may even go so far as to threaten the relevance and institutions of government as the central actor providing public goods. I explore two areas below.


Technology Platforms to Create Markets

Good market-based governments have been known to set the right conditions for markets to flourish. In the absence of deliberate allocation mechanisms, markets facilitate allocation by harnessing the incentives latent within the price mechanism. With information technology, the ability to discover potential opportunities for exchange of new products, second-hand goods and favours increases. eBay and Amazon began connecting buyers and sellers globally for goods that were not time­sensitive – when you bought a book it wasn’t essential that you received that book at a specific time and place. With mobile phones that are also personal devices, services such as Uber that require matching based on time and location (a ride at eight in the morning that starts at your home is a significantly different product as one that starts in Bukit Brown at midnight) now open up a whole new set of possibilities.

But we can extend that further into a “mobility marketplace” – rather than having each household own cars and bicycles or commit to the same routine mode of transport to work each day, the vision would be a marketplace where you can buy rides at a snap, or even sign up for a mobility subscription that satisfies all your mobility needs for a month. You just push a button when you need a ride and the mobility operator sends the taxi, shared ride or bus on-demand. At the Government Technology Agency, we’ve been experimenting with a proto-version of such a mobility platform called Beeline – in Finland it’s called “mobility-as-a-service.” We could also imagine a more generic “volunteer-matching” application – Tinder for Good, if you like – that matches busy professionals like lawyers and accountants to charities that need a few hours of professional advice on a weekend, or to housewives who might be able to offer a ride to an elderly and sick neighbour for her hospital appointment.

Rather than govern as a funder or provider of public goods and services, governments that embrace technology now need to have the ability to create market platforms. Governments play a role in keeping these platforms open and public, to enable competition and innovation by enabling private sector players to plug into the market, but keeping at bay the profit seeking motive of creating monopolies. As we all know, when it comes to markets where network effects predominate, the risk of natural monopolies is high.


Personalisation of Government Services

Rules are silly without the right data. Some developing countries use the length of the facade of a property as the basis for property tax because it provides the best proxy for the property’s value. With more complete data, we can more appropriately deliver policies that are suitable and customised to individual citizens’ needs. In healthcare, predictive analytics allow us to risk-classify patients and to identify those at greater risk who might need more attention. The next generation of government digital services will not just obviate the need to visit a government agency in person to submit forms, but will be a platform that pushes you relevant information like a suggestion to visit the doctor for a check-up if you haven’t been in a long time, or a recommendation for a business grant that is suited to the new business that you just registered. Your identity card and Central Provident Fund accounts will be carried with you on your phone. You will hardly have to visit a government agency, and instead will carry government services around with you.

One challenge for governments with evolving technology and the world of big data is whether they may increasingly become sidelined or displaced. Governments have traditionally been distinguished from private corporations in that they had control over information, afforded by centralised administration. Today, Google, Facebook, banks and your telco probably hold vastly more information than governments about any individual. In a world where Google captures your emails, messages and calendar, where a wearable captures your heart-rate and Google Glass records what you see, Google could capture and record a historical record of a person’s life in greater fidelity than even the person might remember. Facebook could probably swing an election by selectively filtering posts onto a users’ feed about a candidate. The threat of capitalism overtaking politics is most real in the realm of information technology because it is through information and its communication that power in politics is exercised and wielded.

What is clear is that technology is the next big thing, not just for economies but also for governments – not just in the business of government, but in redefining the role of governments vis-a-vis large corporates. Governments should take heed to keep themselves at the forefront of technology.


Mr Liu is Director of the Data Science Division at the Government Technology Agency. He is passionate about evidence-­based public policy and believes that the public sector can and should be as innovative as the private sector.

This article first appeared in The Birthday Book 2016.

    Nov 20, 2016
    Liu Feng-Yuan
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