The Future of the Digital “Public Service

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The term “service public” or “digital services of general interest“, is used as a political, administrative law and social science concept. What it means is disputed, especially in political discourse. Commonly, it is understood to mean something like basic infrastructural services, although there is no consensus as to which parts of the public sector should be assigned to this. In Switzerland, for example, education, health care and the national bank are not included in the “public service“.

Obviously, the digital transformation of the economy and society has changed the expectations of basic services for many. These changes are observable in most ideological groupings, only they go in different directions in each case. In part, an expansion is demanded, in part, however, with reference to the digital transformation, the dismantling of existing basic services is also demanded. However, there are hardly any consistent ideas. Even among those who once held a clear perspective for ideological reasons, these are often eroding. Erratic convictions in seemingly homogeneous groups are just as characteristic as consistent attitudes in very contradictory and heterogeneously composed coalitions, while broadly consistent perspectives are rare.

Attitudes are heterogeneous

For example, many members of diverse distributed ledger communities want to remove parts of basic services, such as the provision of money or digital trust anchors, from national democratic control and hand them over to a kind of international shareholder democracy that replaces legal foundations with programming models. This often has unusual consequences: theft is no longer forbidden, it just costs much more than it brings in. Neoliberalism 2.0, whose axiom is that the rule of technology is better than the rule of law because the latter manifests itself through institutions. However, many European members of the distributed ledger communities also possess completely traditional ideological convictions at the same time and formulate corresponding demands on the service public, be it in the direction of “more state” or, conversely, in the direction of the “night watchman state“.

For the vast majority of the population, basic services are perceived as community-building and support for the existing social order.

In establishment-critical communities, there is often a mixture of very different views, lines of argumentation and sections of the population, even to the point of arbitrariness, whose only common denominator is rejection. With regard to basic services, this results in a consistent rejection, despite all the heterogeneity of attitudes, because basic services are perceived by the vast majority of the population as forming a community and supporting the existing social order, which is rejected. Among those who have a positive attitude towards the real existing democracy – i.e. (still) the majority of the population – it can be observed that coalitions often form across ideological attitudes when it comes to digital issues, or that the rifts run through the ideological camps. Political debates on digital issues usually use the conventional political vocabulary, but they proceed differently than those on non-digital issues. For example, there is both support for and opposition to more transparency from the left and from the liberal side, but the arguments used correspond to what one would expect from the left or the liberal side.

The Right to Participation for all

In view of the confusing situation, it makes sense to start thinking about the digital public service with a completely new set of assumptions, which ideally works with different strengths. If we take a Western or Central European point of view, one possible starting point is the definition that it is the task of the “service public” to support the good functioning of public life, which in particular enables all actors to participate in society. Participation has the aspect of entitlement as well as the aspect of opportunity for others, without the two aspects being coupled. The right to participation exists independently of the opportunity for others and the opportunity exists independently of the right. If anything, the existence of the right to participation is an opportunity for society as a whole. Actors in the case include natural persons, corporations (unnatural persons) and all kinds of communities. The aspect of opportunity may be surprising here. On the one hand, it lies in the resulting economy of resources – we can limit the effort for the exclusion of others to justice – and on the other hand, in the increased potential for collaboration. Furthermore, it is also reflected in economic considerations: Economic growth is difficult without participation of all.

2 Definitions for a new Concept

Based on the above definition, there are two different developments of such a new public service concept:

  1. On the one hand, we can think about additional desirable characteristics of the public sector, or we can continue to think about participation itself, i.e. focus entirely on the individual actors and their interactions.
  2. We follow the second path here: What is necessary for participation? What “quality(s)” should participation have? What challenges do the actors face when they want to participate? Possible answers to the latter question are (without claiming to be exhaustive):
  • The world of information is characterised by high diversity, growing ambiguity and a fundamental erosion of trustworthiness.
  • The use of the internet offers a variety of dangers against which individual self-protection is rarely sufficient.
  • It is almost impossible to control one’s own data traces on the net. The use and falsification of personal data can hardly be prevented.
  • In many situations, the impossibility of accessing data about one’s own person or self-produced data proves to be a serious disadvantage.
  • In the context of transactions, trust requires tools and its own infrastructure that establish mutual trustworthiness.
  • Without a high level of knowledge and know-how, many opportunities of modern technologies cannot be used at all or only with high risks.
  • Resources that are easy to share – such as data, algorithms, networks – lead to great inequalities because some people own them and others do not. Having these resources often shapes one’s individual being.
  • The power of disposal over data in the hands of individual actors gives them economic or/and political power, while the use of data for the common good would bring great benefits to society as a whole.
  • The creation of free access to data tends to increase inequality in society because the resources for data management are unequally distributed.
  • Non-state actors – such as the operators of market-like platforms – have quasi-regulatory and quasi-executive power. In some cases, this is even indirectly transferred to them through state or suprastate regulation.
  • Traditional political boundaries are losing their meaning, while at the same time data-based informal and implicit economic boundaries are emerging.
  • In addition to or instead of local dependencies, contingent or global dependencies often emerge as a result of networking.
  • In many areas, progress for the individual good requires the explicit cooperation of large parts of society, be it people or companies.
  • In many contexts, without individual appropriation of digital tools and services, the individual opportunities of individual groups (for example, specialist disciplines) dwindle, while on the contrary they increase with successful appropriation.
  • The transformation of the economy and society is shaped by many trends, to which essentially opposite trends are also present at the same time.
  • On the one hand, the predictability of the future is increasing thanks to available data, on the other hand, the contingency of developments is growing and in many areas medium-term forecasts are no longer possible.
  • The empowering effect of digital progress for all actors creates pressure to change for many actors. Change is becoming a prerequisite for stability.

It needs Digital Skills

A perceived “businessas usual” is only possible to a limited extent and often presupposes one’s own changes and the changes of others. It is the task of the public service to support people, companies and groups in coping with these challenges easily and safely, if they want to. In principle, it is not possible to protect the actors from the pressure to change. Studying the challenges listed, it quickly becomes clear that the future “service public” can only achieve its desired effect if school education enables people to use it and explicitly teaches new digital skills that have so far only been taught in part or not at all. This also makes it clear that practical opportunities for further education are needed.

A somewhat deeper analysis and especially a look at possible solutions further shows that there are many pitfalls in implementation. Many things fail because it is never clarified what the issue is. For example, many proponents of the Swiss eID law, which was rejected at the ballot box in 2021, assumed that it was not meant to be a solution for eGovernment, even though the eID was part of the Swiss eGovernment programme. At the same time, the eID was sold as an EU-compatible login service, although the EU does not accept eIDs that allow single sign-ons. A similar situation can be observed in other countries in the case of patient dossiers: it remains unclear whether they are supposed to improve diagnosis and therapy or serve to control doctors. Et cetera.

It can be deduced from this that digital primary care will only work in many areas if it includes a clear clarification of terms and goals. This is a necessary part of the digital public service, which must not be dispensed with under any circumstances, even if diffuse concepts may increase political acceptance.

AUTOR/AUTORIN: Reinhard Riedl

Reinhard Riedl heads the BFH Centre Digital Society and edits the online magazine SocietyByte. He was president of the Swiss Informatics Society and the International Society for New Music Bern IGNM.

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