Governments and public authorities are no more immune to disruption from the advance of technology than any other part of society. Many of the challenges facing public bodies today stem from the fight to tackle the global Covid-19 pandemic. Often, government institutions found that by adopting similar tactics and strategies to industry and the private sector, they too could learn to become more flexible and agile in their response.
This has meant that they also have experienced an accelerated rate of digital transformation. Technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), and digital twins are now firmly on the agenda of governments and public bodies, whereas previously, they might just have been on the roadmap. Many governments, particularly in more developed nations, have discovered they simply can’t afford to be complacent when there is the chance to drive so much positive change.
So with that in mind, here’s my rundown of some of the biggest and most important tech trends that are affecting governments in 2022.
Proving who you are – or who someone else is – is an increasingly vital ability for individuals and governments in the digital age. Many governments have developed centralized systems for checking criminal records as well as verifying the rights of access to state support such as healthcare and benefits. Other governments have taken it further by implementing compulsory or voluntary national identity cards. Additionally, identity schemes may or may not include biometric measures, like fingerprints, linking an individual as a physical entity to their digital identity as conclusively as is currently possible.
Privacy and the level of state control that the population is happy to accept over their lives is, of course, an issue central to the concept of national digital identity. Some of the most forward-looking initiatives today are focused on decentralized identity, which uses blockchain and distributed ledger technology to create identity databases that are controlled by algorithms rather than institutions. Pilot projects involving decentralized identification built on Microsoft platforms are taking place in the UK, Tokyo, and Belgium. Additionally, the EU has stated that blockchain technology should play a part in “enhancing” the European digital identity framework.
AI and Automation of Public Services
Chatbots are one example of an AI-powered application that we will see more of in 2022 as governments and authorities look for ways to automate public services. In the US, federal, state, and local authorities are all stepping up experiments in the use of natural language processing (NLP) technologies to reduce customer friction. In particular, they have been widely used with services that received large volumes of calls during the pandemic. In the Republic of Ireland, the Office of the Revenue Commissioners created an AI-powered virtual agent that offers 24/7 help for citizens struggling to complete their tax returns. AI-powered “cobots” will also increasingly be used by human public service workers and civil servants, for example, by augmenting their ability to find information, automating repetitive tasks such as form-filling, or maintaining national records archives and public databases. Governments clearly have to give some different considerations to the particular applications of AI compared to those by companies – given the compulsory and sometimes essential nature of the services they provide. But once citizens become comfortable that AI-powered assistants, chatbots and cobots are capable of saving them time, we will undoubtedly see them rolled out in many other public service functions, just as we are increasingly seeing it in the private sector. In fact, Gartner analysts have forecast that 75% of governments will have at least three enterprise-wide automation initiatives underway by 2024.
With state-on-state cyberattacks increasing in line with the growth in criminal cyber-attacks, security is high on the agenda when it comes to national technological priorities. The Solar Winds/ Nobelum attacks of late 2020 serve as a good example, where attacks widely believed to have been backed by Russian state agencies simultaneously hit around 18,000 targets, including US federal agencies. The highly sophisticated attack was aimed at exposing data by exploiting flaws in commonly-used software. When the attack was discovered, it was found that hackers may have had the ability to monitor the activity of government email accounts for months. Similarly, an attack by Chinese hacking group Hafnium that accessed 250,000 email accounts around the globe was also declared to have been state-sponsored.
Even before this, cybersecurity was widely seen as a defense priority. In 2021, the US government announced that it would provide assistance to businesses with defending themselves from attack by nation-states. The visible element of this strategy can be seen in attempts to expose and publicize these attacks in order to educate the public on the threat and the methods of defense that are available. Other governments responded by enhancing their own cyber defense capabilities, such as the UK Government, which formed the UK Cyber Security Council. This trend will undoubtedly continue throughout 2022 as state-sponsored attacks intended to disrupt commercial activity, supply chains, and infrastructure continue to pose a threat.
Not every country is likely to follow in the footstep of El Salvador and adopt Bitcoin as legal tender in 2022. But we will certainly continue to see a growth in governments looking to integrate cryptocurrencies with their central banking systems.
More countries are expected to go down the route of creating their own digital currencies. These have the benefits that they will still be under the control of the issuing governments while offering many of the infrastructural advantages of existing cryptocurrencies, such as not requiring bank accounts to store them or payment tools to spend them. The US, UK, China, Singapore, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Estonia, Tunisia, and Ecuador are all known to be at varying stages of investigating or implementing national digital currencies using blockchain technology.
The obvious advantages that cryptocurrency as a monetary system offers are clearly enough to get governments and central banks interested, but there are questions that need to be answered – specifically around the environmental cost and energy use – that may have political consequences. This means state cryptocurrency is likely to become an increasingly hot topic as we move through 2022 and beyond.
The Rise of Govtech Startups
Of course, government organizations themselves are not always renowned for their agility and innovation when it comes to developing new technology. This has left the field open for a new breed of startup referred to as “govtechs” to bring new thinking to the challenge of driving the digital revolution in public bodies. Accenture estimates that the market for providing these solutions is worth around $400 billion per year, so there’s ample incentive to get involved. Many take their cue from consumer technology innovators or disruptors in other verticals such as fintech by applying similar solutions – AI, IoT, cloud, edge computing, super-fast networks to government and public body challenges. Technology investor PUBLIC estimates that there are around 2,000 govtech startups in Europe alone, mainly focused in the UK, France, and Germany. With government adoption of technology clearly having the potential to affect many of our lives, it’s as exciting to see that innovation is as rife here as it is in more traditionally lucrative fields such as finance technology (fintech) and marketing technology (martech). Hopefully, this will lead to an end to situations such as the one identified by a UK government report in 2020 that found the country was likely to spend up to £22 billion maintaining support for obsolete systems.