The challenge of digital governance

The challenge of digital governance

Government facilities for serving the public displayed at the Digital Government Summit 2017 in this file photo dated Nov 11, 2017. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)
Government facilities for serving the public displayed at the Digital Government Summit 2017 in this file photo dated Nov 11, 2017. (Photo: Somchai Poomlard)

Thailand was an early adopter of the internet for government services, creating an e-government system as early as 1997. But political turmoil in 2006 caused the kingdom to fall behind. When the United Nations ranked countries by e-government in 2012, Thailand was a dismal 92nd out of 193.

Things improved with the establishment of a Digital Government Development Agency in 2018. The Covid pandemic's necessity for social distancing and lockdown accelerated this transformation. Government departments that invested in digital teams, platforms, and ways of working did better than those that did not. The overall results were encouraging. In the 2022 rankings, Thailand is a respectable 55th, about the same as Malaysia and slightly behind China.

Through the new "Thang Rath" app, citizens can now access a full range of government services. A parallel "BizPortal" provides a digital one-stop access point for business. Meanwhile, the Thai government is reducing the use of analogue operations internally. Filing cabinets are becoming relics of the past.

But here's the problem: the initial transformation to digital was relatively easy because it was a win-win for government, businesses, and citizens. Aside from some typists and couriers, everyone benefited by making use of the internet to cut costs, speed delivery, and enhance services.

The next stage will be more difficult because it raises the question of how to move from the services of government to the operations of government. This "digital governance" challenge means governing by digital processes and governing the digital processes.

Governing by digital processes is making use of digital technologies to enhance ruling processes. For instance, a community meeting could be improved through real-time technology that captures the key themes emerging from the discussion better and faster than the traditional note-taker, or risk assessments for people and goods crossing borders can be more targeted using risk modelling that integrates multiple data points through artificial intelligence. The Metaverse, meanwhile, offers a possibility to redraw political jurisdictions by some criteria other than geography. A person's profession, such as fisherman or college student, could be the basis of new constituencies using avatars. This could improve the frequency and impact of citizen engagement.

The governing of the digital processes, for example, includes making sure that digital government protects citizens' privacy and that digital infrastructure is protected from growing cyberattacks. A single hack could expose millions of citizens to extortion, while a single unsecured Wi-Fi device in a conference room could provide an ongoing gateway for intellectual property theft. Fabricated news on the internet, meanwhile, can cause social harm unless quickly exposed by reliable sources.

This digital governance challenge will have winners as well as losers, which is why it will be contentious. Responding to cyber-threats, for instance, will mean that many expansions of digital government are delayed or even cancelled because of the risks, which will frustrate some citizens and companies. The shift of citizens' rights and participation into the digital sphere, meanwhile, will present society with stark trade-offs between efficiency and equity. There is a risk that digital governance will disadvantage citizens who lack technical skills, and popular movements will arise outside and against the dominant digital system. Combatting fabricated news can easily spill over into undue restraints on free speech. Finally, citizens who are told by Thailand's new guidelines for ethical conduct while using artificial intelligence to "become educated and knowledgeable" about AI may demand more than passive acceptance of the technologies pushed on them by software developers and manufacturers.

Other countries are also struggling with the shift from digital government services to digital governing processes. To facilitate this shift, on the upcoming Nov 18-19, the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University, will convene global and regional scholars in Phuket to share experiences about solutions to the challenges of digital governance. We have chosen "Leadership for Digital Governance: Building the Teams to Implement the Technology" as the theme of the 7th International Conference on Local Government. Organisations don't change without committed leaders at the top, and finding digital governance leaders is difficult because of resistance to change and the shortage of tech-savvy civil servants.

Andrew Greenway, who led the British government's digital transformation, will provide the keynote address on "Building Teams to Implement Technology". Brady Deaton, Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Missouri and a former US government adviser on agriculture and food security, will speak on "Higher Education in the Digital Era". Others will put forward ideas on how traditional local government bodies can embrace digital governance and how central-local relations will need to change in the digital era. The governing of the digital processes will be discussed in sessions on knowledge barriers inside government and on the fate of the elderly.

Thailand will successfully manage the transition to digital governance if it takes the time now to make sure it is moving in the right direction. Moving from paper applications to electronic forms was easy. Ensuring that digital governance continues to serve the interests of the people will be a greater challenge.

Dr Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is the Dean of the College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University; Dr Bruce Gilley is a Professor of Political Science at Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, USA.

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