Could coronavirus be the catalyst for digital democracy and national transformation?

Written by Neil McEvoy on 21 April 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

The Covid-19 pandemic has profoundly changed how we live. Neil McEvoy of DigitalScot.net asks how the new way of life might impact what happens once the current crisis is over.

Credit: Pxfuel

In only a few short weeks our entire world has been transformed from a mostly physical experience to an entirely virtual one. We're all trapped in our homes living in a Zoom universe.

While this is naturally a tremendously difficult time for many, and by no means can we make light of the tragedy thousands have experienced, but in the spirit of fostering some sense of optimism and also absorbing and adapting to the reality of the situation, we can seek to identify the positive that could be found amid the tumult.

Many governments have paid lip service to their plans for enabling their countries to become 'digital nations', and this is their chance to realise that vision.

To date the reality is that, outside of Estonia, few have achieved anything even close to that goal. Where Estonia boasts a wholly end-to-end integrated digital government, enabling 21st-century virtual nation services such as 'E-Residency', most are still at the point of fumbling around with the basics of moving online.

"Representative democracy was invented at a time when there was a need for representation. Now, when your ability to participate is as easy as a mouse click, the potential for much more direct models of government is as unlimited as it will be transformative."

The coronavirus has exposed this lack of capability, a scenario where the entire country must kick in a nationwide 'disaster-recovery mode' and become entirely reliant on digital tools and communications, but have been found wanting in their ability to do so.

Governing.com provides an illuminating summary of the situation, examining the USA's response from an IT perspective, such as coping with the massive spike in unemployment insurance applications, and the problem of not enough agencies having VoIP capabilities to set up virtual call centres or enough mobile devices and VPN licences to enable remote working.

Even the big banks, usually known for their risk-averse preparedness, have struggled to adapt.

Nation transformation
In contrast, Estonia was inherently capable of handing it. Their nation, already being entirely digital, could simply continue unhindered. The start-up culture that built it was even tapped into to organise a 'Hack the Crisis' crowdsourced response.

Operational continuity is the immediate benefit of a modernised IT platform, and it sets the scene for a much deeper social transformation too.

For example, it's reasonable to ultimately envisage a move to online digital voting – it’s a natural evolution for our democracies in this day and age, but all kinds of reasons and simply a general 'turkeys don't vote for Christmas' resistance to change has meant there hasn't been any real imperative to bring this online.

Covid-19 is now the impetus to prioritise this advance. 

For example, the speaker of the House of Commons has overseen the creation of a virtual parliament to enable the government to cope with the crisis.

Apolitical writes that the pandemic may pave the way for internet voting, following the path of Estonia and setting in place the first primary foundation for full digital democracy.

Our opportunity is not just to digitise how democratic models currently work, but to leverage the technology to invent entirely new ones. Representative democracy was invented at a time when there was no remote communications and travel was difficult and limited – so there was a need for representation.

Now, when your ability to participate is as easy as a mouse click, the potential for much more direct, 'crowdsourced' models of government is as unlimited as it will be transformative.

And this is just one dimension of our government and society; areas such as education and healthcare could be dramatically reimagined and reinvented. Indeed Covid-19 is forcing that to happen and our opportunity is to harness this time of great change to define and implement a vastly improved society that emerges as a consequence.

The New York Times explores how our virtual lives can be enriching experiences. The positive direction the piece describes could be continued, built upon and ultimately achieve a future where we look back on the coronavirus as a time of great pain and suffering that marked the birth of an entirely new world.

 

About the author

Neil McEvoy is the founder of DigitalScot.net, Scotland’s digital business community dedicated to supporting the vision of the country becoming a world-leading digital nation. He tweets as @DigitalscotNews.  ​

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