Government in 50 years

Predicting the future is hard, but here are some ideas for the Public Service

I chair a conference called FWD50. Launched in 2017, it’s about digital government. The name comes from the idea that it’s nonpartisan, but progressive (“neither left, nor right, but forward”) and that speakers are encouraged to consider three timeframes:

  • What policies we should enact in 50 days

  • What platforms we should build in 50 months

  • What society we want in 50 years

We ask our speakers to do this, but it’s not an easy task. I was recently asked to share my vision of the public service in 50 years’ time to some folks in Canada’s Federal Government. These are the notes I wrote in preparation for it, which I figured I’d share here with a bit of editing. It starts out dry, but gets pretty Scifi (and dystopian!)

That’s a long time.

50 years is a very long time to think about. 50 years ago, there were half as many humans on the planet. Pong—an entire console that plugged into your TV—was the peak of consumer electronics. It had only been 50 years since the passing of the 19th amendment, giving women the right to vote in the US.

I’m going to take a stab at guessing what the future might hold (informed in part by some amazing works of science fiction that I’ve listed here.)

What’s changed already

The future is here, observed William Gibson, it’s just not evenly distributed. This is true of digital government. Estonia and Taiwan are a decade ahead of most countries in this regard. Technology adoption has been accelerated by citizen expectations and the rapid acceleration of COVID isolation. That means we’re definitely going to see:

  • Digital delivery of services to citizens, which wasn’t possible until web and mobile were mainstream. Why go to an office or fax forms when you can click a link, and have all of the policies and validation built into the app?

  • Personalization of services to individuals, which is an inherent property of digital. We used to get our news from one of three papers; now we each have a personal newsfeed. Why should government services be any different?

  • State-level identity, which is nascent, but necessary for many digital interactions with government. Today, it’s fragmented—the provinces and states control healthcare or driver’s licenses, with taxation at many levels. But it seems inevitable in the near future, as governments need to know with whom they’re dealing and to what that person is entitled.

That’s pretty obvious, though.

What’s around the corner

Similarly, there are some technologies so useful and some demographic trends so inevitable that I think we can predict they’ll be real in the 10-year timeframe:

  • A Year Zero timeline where each of us has a single, common thread of our lives. The idea of a “life feed” that includes our digital breadcrumbs—vaccination, tax payment, speeding tickets, life events, threaded with the everyday chaff of photos, location history, calendar, and phone calls—is a form of digital introspection we’ll soon take for granted.

  • Digital agents with rights. If a lawyer has client confidentiality, surely a phone does too? These protections don’t exist yet, but hardware vendors like Apple are making opacity the default.

  • Proactive, rather than reactive, services, with the government helping citizens with a “life plan.” In the private sector, when you ask for something—such as a dental insurance claim—the goal of the insurer is to provide the minimum. But in the public sector, that’s different. A single mom asking for child support might also be told about daycare services, or an immunization program. That means the service needs context on what we’re doing, so it can intervene when useful (AKA Designing for Interruption.)

  • Analog recourse for digital wrongs. If we feel we’ve been wronged by an algorithm, we’ll have the ability to appeal that wrong to a human arbiter.

  • A right to data sovereignty. Nobody should know more about you than you do.

  • Universal Basic Income and a redefinition of the lines between what the public and the private sector deliver. Today, we consider education and healthcare a public right—but what about food and shelter and even broadband? Does UBI become a discretionary allowance for “nice to have” purchases, while the social safety net provides the “need to have” necessities of life?

  • Democracy gets a makeover. Representative government has been broken for a long time—Gerrymandering, electoral slates, two-party systems and more. As demographics swing more democratic, we’ll likely see a change in how we tally votes; how we choose representation; and our ability to chime in on big decisions more frequently than every four years (syndicated democracy is one example of how this might work.)

How might we think 50 years ahead?

Bill Gates said that “we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.” Since the public service is in service of the public, we have to start with what society might look like, and then ask what challenges might require a collective action that individuals or the private sector can’t offer.

I can think of three broad societal outcomes in half a century:

  1. A utopia. Benevolent AI saves us all, aliens come to visit, or we all find a common truth and meaning and support a single world government that sets race, religion, and gender aside. This is Harry Bates’ A Farewell To The Master, which became The Day The Earth Stood Still. These all seem equally unlikely to me, and require some kind of outside agency; and while fiction is fine, hope is not a strategy. No one is coming, and it’s up to us.

  2. A dystopia. We continue to ride the epistemic crisis of democracy into feudalistic nationalism. National government is replaced by warring city-states; capitalism continues to treat the future as an externality, and the planet slowly burns as the oceans boil. Meanwhile, superpowers fight with information, drones, nano- and bio-tech, and the planet burns more quickly. This is the world of William Gibson, popularized by the Wachowski’s The Matrix; and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. If corporations become the dominant form of human organization, then government is relegated to the declawed institutions of Max Barry’s Jennifer Government.

  3. Business as usual. Humans continue to stumble forward, avoiding armageddon but also unable to find common ground or social cohesion.

Since the third is the only future in which a public service really exists, it’s the one I considered. That doesn’t mean I think we’re more likely to stumble along than to plunge into dystopian feudalism. Societal collapse has happened before, and we’ve lost an entire millennia of knowledge and science.

It’s naive to think we’re immune to this kind of societal meltdown. In human history, our current stretch of relative peace is the exception, not the rule. But for the sake of this thought experiment, I’ll assume we’re still around, with government institutions somewhat resembling those we have today, in 50 years’ time.

How societies adopt technology

When predicting the future, it’s useful to look at the past for general patterns rather than specific details. A trajectory I’ve seen over and over in innovation, particularly in the digital world, is how societies adopt technology:

Consider the Internet:

  1. It begins as a military research project from DARPA (fun fact: Vint Cerf, who helped this liberation and authored the Internet protocol, is speaking at FWD50!)

  2. Released into the public domain, it becomes a toy, and pundits proclaim a new Utopia. These are the days of USENET and the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link, of Doc Searles and the Cluetrain Manifesto.

  3. Commerce begins. Compuserve and Prodigy give us a taste; in 1993, half of all CDs printed were for AOL—which ultimately shipped a billion plastic discs. Netscape, Yahoo, and Google moved things onto the web.

  4. Fraud shows up. Initially this was just spam, or online gambling; but it took a darker turn with ransomware, identity theft, spying, and foreign interference.

  5. The platform becomes nationalized. This either means a monopoly that the government can regulate (the telcos), or the government running things. Sometimes the lack of regulation means the social contract devolves into an oligarchy or kleptocracy.

The automobile is another example of this pattern:

  1. It begins as wartime technology.

  2. Cars are toys for the rich, with a flag-bearer literally walking in front of them to warn people.

  3. Mass production means automobiles become profitable and change our lives, where we live, how we work, and even our DNA as we breed with people far from us.

  4. Lead poisoning, seatbelts, drunk driving, and other issues arise.

  5. The government starts building highways, regulating manufacturing, and bailing out companies deemed too big to fail. We agree on standards. In Sweden, everyone switched to driving on the right-hand side of the road on the same day in 1967 ("Högertrafikomläggningen") leading to huge chaos.

A version of this trajectory holds true for genetic engineering, drones, AI, air travel, electricity, and many more examples. So what might we learn by applying this speculative approach to today’s military projects, and their eventual commercialization and governance?

What’s nascent now?

Today’s most obvious military and utopian trends are a result of the switch from atoms to bits; genetic advances; demographic changes; and excess consumption of the planet’s resources.

  • Fakery. We no longer know what truth is. This is largely due to the nature of digital information. Atoms can’t be copied, so we know a thing is authentic; a copied bit is identical to the original. We need a way to know what is real if we are to reach common conclusions, yet it is in the interest of our enemies to sow confusion and distrust. We must take some of the blame ourselves for the war on science. An open society means we are now all the front line of information warfare, and we’re already seeing nations wall their social platforms against foreign incursion.

  • Population. We are well beyond the carrying capacity of the planet, and we need to invent or conserve our way out of it. Whatever we do, our children’s lives will be far less decadent than ours, and possibly a nightmare of climate refugees and gated communities. The Lazarus graphic novels offer a particularly bleak look at this.

  • New ways to measure societal health. We use GDP as a scorecard for success—a reflection of our belief that free-market capitalism is the solution, and that financially productive citizens are the goal of education and economics. There are alternative models being tried today.

  • An end to capitalism. Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century speaks eloquently about this. What we tax says a lot about our priorities as a society. Today, for example, we tax earned income (salaries) more than we do capital gains (investment income.) When leaders talk of Billionaires, the issue isn’t taxing someone who earns $400K a year 5% higher marginal tax. That’s a red herring, and increasing taxes will only have a small effect on government revenues. The issue, rather, is the Trust Fund Kid who gets $100K a month but earns nothing and pays no taxes. A reversal of this model would quickly deploy additional capital into the labor market and limit wealth inequality.

  • Longevity. We are likely to live much, much longer than we have in the past. Life expectancy has doubled since 1900, and the advent of genetic engineering and CRISPR will accelerate this. In a for-profit healthcare nation, immortality is for billionaires, like Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. In a socialized world, it may be merit-based, like Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire. But when we can make some people live forever, how will we choose?

  • Digital dopelgangers: While sentient, self-aware AI may be far off—though GPT-3 is giving us a good run for our money—it’s very likely that we can train an algorithm on our digital breadcrumbs and have it mimic us indefinitely. If this sounds like science fiction, well, it’s already happened. Human hubris suggests we’ll want to live together—after all, we built the pyramids. So we’ll vote to give our digital agents rights.

  • Climate change. If we can’t manage our population and get a rapacious industry machine  under control, we’ll be rationing many things. No heating or air conditioning; relocation of citizens in shoreline cities. Florida is built on limestone, which the oceans dissolve, and yet leaders have allegedly forbidden public servants from speaking about it. At some point, there will be a public realization that exploiting finite resources is a Ponzi Scheme, and we’ll have to regulate and meter the commons to avert further tragedy.

  • Automated, and genetic, warfare. The last war was fought with explosions. This one is fought with misinformation. The next one will be algorithms, drones, and genes. Public safety will require sensors for detection and policy for regulation.

So we have our nascent threats and trends. To figure out what government and the public sector might look like in half a century, we now need to ask ourselves, “what kind of public service would arise to deal with challenges from these innovations?”

What public service looks like in 50 years

Starting with the caveat that this is almost certainly wrong and naive, here are some observations.

Four strong predictions

It’s not hard to guess that government will be structured differently, abandoning certain domains while adding new responsibilities. So let’s first look at how the public sector will be organized, and how broad or narrow its mandate might be.

A government of searchable microservices

Today, governments are monolithic and centralized. That worked in an analog world, but that isn’t how digital works. In digital, we build small, modular “microservices” and then join them together into bigger parts. We also store information in different ways. And we can measure things in real time using analytics.

We can’t know the future, so the best preparation is adaptivity and the ability to detect an issue and change quickly, which altering the structure of organizations and information.

Mainframes to clouds

Mainframes were big, costly, centralized, and precious. We stayed up late to talk to them in their language—initially punched cards. They were linked by proprietary protocols such as SNA, 3270, and 5250.

Cloud computing is the opposite: Decentralized, pay-as-you-go, ephemeral, and widely available. Clouds rely on microservice APIs, containers, and interoperable standards. We use infrastructure, platforms, and software as a service.

Government can learn a lot from this newer architectural mindset, and move from centralized to decentralized, proprietary to open.

Filing systems to hashtags

We used to put everything in its place. “Alistair’s cup of coffee” was filed under cups, or Alistair, or coffee. But when search is commonplace, we find instead of browsing. I can tag that cup with #alistair, #cup, and #coffee—and search for any of those things.

I can build a list of beverages (#coffee, #tea, #mezcal) or a list of containers (#bag, #cup, #pitcher) and look at information in different ways easily. This is all because of search. When tag things with context, it’s far easier to make leaps from category to category, or domain to domain. For example, child support might be both #parenting and #payment.

Just as we’ve changed how we organize things, so government must become searchable, contextual, and linked.

Organized by tasks, not departments

Second, government’s front end must be user-centric, focused on a Job to be Done. We can’t force citizens to navigate the Byzantine halls of ministry; instead, we must design the front-end along the job the citizen is trying to accomplish.

Someone moving from British Columbia to Newfoundland shouldn’t need to change their driver’s license, medicare, taxation, and benefits through separate interfaces, even though those are different departments and jurisdictions. They have one job to do—move provinces—and shouldn’t have to understand how the proverbial sausage is made to complete that job.

Our algorithmic conscience

Third, algorithms will become our digital consciences. Daniel Kahneman says, “humans are noisy.” We make bad, inconsistent decisions on everything from software estimation to gambling to medical diagnostics. The cost and waste of trusting our biases will become unbearable, and we’ll use analytics to inform decisions and warn us when we’re being unwise.

Government will have to show that it has run policies past an algorithmic “flinch test” to look for dumb mistakes before launching, and will have to put measurement tools in place once a thing is in production in order to quickly detect unintended consequences or failed policy decisions.

Reconsidering what’s public & what’s private

Fourth, we’ll redefine what is “public sector” and what’s “private sector.” We are fine with governments building highways; but not broadband. This is going to change, because what’s scarce and what’s abundant in a digital world is very different from a physical one, and a major role of government is the allocation of scarce resources and the regulation of abundant ones.

Some less strong predictions

Those bets are pretty obvious, and frankly, will materialize in less than 50 years. But here are some more speculative takes on other ministries and services I think we’ll see emerge:

  • Re-education. With long lifespans, it’s likely we’ll need to periodically retrain the workforce. We’ll acknowledge that human brains shift from fluid to crystalized intelligence—from curiosity to wisdom.

  • We’ll have a Ministry for the Future, as Kim Stanley Robinson puts it. We must stop treating the future as an externality, and letting the invisible hand of the market pillage the commons, if we are to survive. That such ministries don’t already exist, and that their work is not the subject of everyday political discourse, is something for which future generations will never forgive us.

  • The government will become a central authority for identity. Today, we think of our government ID as how we access the government—but that will shift to having the government advocate for our identity to others. It’s worth asking why are we willing to let Facebook, Google, Twitter and LinkedIn log us in, but don’t trust a government accountable to its citizens to do so?

  • Government will have a much greater visibility into our personal lives. This is, unfortunately, the only way to combat asymmetric threats in a world where anyone can build a weapon of mass destruction, or to avert a Tragedy of the Commons around natural resources and climate. This will result in social cooling and possibly a reduction in individual liberties.

  • We’ll have new regulations and penalties for misuse of asymmetrically dangerous technologies, including drones, genetic engineering, and Artificial Intelligence—possibly including certification and mandatory reporting.

  • A bureau of digital rights, with the ability to right wrongs and enact significant punishments for things like deleting someone’s posthumous algorithm or for a company knowingly marginalizing a group with digital redlining.

  • A new civil service. With UBI and the promise of longevity, we’ll see a rise in public action and civic entrepreneurship. Think of it this way: If you want to live forever, and the therapies to do so are expensive, perhaps you have to demonstrate continued public service to qualify? This is ethically thorny and fraught with challenges, but we’re going to have to work out how to confer (relative) immortality at some point.

  • A tapestry of semi-autonomous NGOs. Billionaires have much to contribute to society, if we encourage them to do so—just look at Bill Gates or Pierre Omidyar. An increase in taxes on massive wealth means the rise of Billionare-led NGOs.

Ultimately: we must experiment

To survive any of the chaos I’ve laid out here, we need to adapt more quickly than we have in the past. That means remembering the lessons of the past, but also learning new rules for a crowded, mistrustful, digital reality.

We learn in two ways:

  • Normative learning is the lessons our parents teach us. They’re how we sow crops, and read words, and drive a car.

  • Formative learning is the things we learn ourselves, usually by trial and error. They’re mistakes made; they’re how we change the norms.

We need to shift the balance between the rules we follow and the rules we break in order to cope with the faster rate of change that digital has given us. Countries that have done this—China, Estonia, New Zealand, Taiwan—are gaining ground over other nations, proving that it can be done.

Fortunately, it’s easier to experiment digitally: When you build a physical thing, updating it is costly. Rolling back to a previous version is impossible. But digital gives us an undo button. That makes it far easier to try things out—and learn what works, formatively. Societies that recalibrate the calculus of risk for the new digital normal will outstrip those who cling to outdated norms and regulations.

As Jessica Flack and Melanie Mitchell, professors of complexity, point out in a superb article entitled Uncertain Times,

The timescales on which a system’s processes run have critical consequences for its ability to predict and adapt to the future. Prediction is easier when things change slowly – but if things change too slowly, it becomes hard to innovate and respond to change. To solve this paradox, nature builds systems that operate on multiple timescales.

We can only overcome the challenges we’re going to face when we experiment. And while government will play a larger role in our future because we’re now connected, and crushed up against one another by dense cities and rising tides, we’ll need to protect liberty and individuality. Because it’s individuals who challenge the status quo and force us to throw out old norms.

So I’m hopeful for a society based on set of common rules and services (“small government”), and then “membership” into one of many social experiments (“large local government.”) An experimental society might be a collective of people who’ve decided not to have kids, living in converted malls. Or it might be a closed private market. Or maybe it’s self-administered city-states within a national framework (shades of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash Burbclaves.) The national government has APIs and frameworks, onto which local governments attach their services.

Getting punched

The rest of that Bill Gates quote is, “Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.” Because, as Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Strategy is delivery. Talking about a 50-year future is fun and thought-provoking, but we can’t wait for the future to happen to us. We must happen to it. And the only certain course of action must be a bias for action.