What happens to the public in the era of digital government?

pSzlTFug Sarah Moore

The UK government is currently undertaking a highly ambitious £1 billion court reform programme. The aspiration is for the physical courts of yesteryear  seemingly sluggish, anachronistic, expensive, and paper-bound  to be replaced by a new, virtual court estate. As the 2016 announcement of the court reform programme made clear, the ambition is for all cases to begin online, for some to be carried out entirely online, and for physical court hearings to make more extensive use of video conferencing. 

In a recent article in Policy and Politics, I suggested that the court reform programme tells us much about the bases of digital-era government. The idea of virtual hearings will be familiar to anyone with an interest in twenty-first century public policy-making. It is part of a global shift towards digital solutions to policy problems. Whilst digital technology might appear to be the driving force behind these developments, I think we should think some more about where this shift has come from, and where its potentially taking us. 

In the case of court reform, digital technology has made the move into a virtual realm thinkable, but there are other powerful ideas at work here too. The radical re-thinking of the court estate is driven at least partly by a new orthodoxy within policy-making in the UK and elsewhere  that public services are best approached as design problems, with usability and convenience for individual-users the central concern. Its an approach that fits neatly with the tenets of nudge, another key principle of twenty-first century policy-making. The central idea here is that humans follow the path of least resistance, and therefore government initiatives and processes should be designed in such a way as to make the preferable choice in policy-terms the most convenient option for service-users.  

Design-thinking and ‘nudge’ have become central to the practice of twenty-first century policy-making, providing a new way of thinking about the role of policy in improving public services and processes. This has served as fertile ground for the development of digital-era government initiatives. Take, by way of example, virtual hearings. Only in circumstances where the main aim of policy is to re-design services, and citizen decision-making and participation has become conflated with convenience, can virtual courts appear to be such a clear-cut solution. 

What is consistently left out of debates about the future of the court estate is the crucial question of what happens to the public when the work of the court is moved online. One thing is evident: the move into a virtual realm means that the publics role is being radically altered away from co-present observers and towards virtual viewers of official court processes. This means, amongst other things, that the public will be a public no more; just a set of individual viewers, invisible to other court participants (but always potentially watching, in their own time and space). Digital-era government initiatives more generally reconfigure the public into a set of individual viewer-users. Indeed, the aspiration is to build upon this capacity for technical individuation by tracing citizens online behaviour and adjusting public processes and services accordingly. We might not be able to feel the physical presence of the public in the civic virtual-spaces of tomorrow  the court included  but we will almost certainly be able to register their presence as a wave of online viewing behaviour. This shift  from feeling, to registering public presence  tells us much about the changing nature of state-citizen relations in digital-era government. 

Its an observation that should give us pause to think again about the virtual court, and  more than that  the new digital interfaces and platforms that are coming to take the place of physical, public spaces and buildings. The focus, in much political debate, is on whats gained in this brave new world of online public service-use. I think that this discussion is too narrow, shaped as it is by the underpinning idea that the task of policy is to make services as convenient as possible. Broadening our understanding of what citizens need from public services and processes would sharpen our sense of whats potentially lost in the move towards digital-era government. 

A longer version of this blog was initially published on the University of Bath IPR blog on the 19th July 2019.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Moore, S. (2019) ‘Digital government, public participation and service transformation: the impact of virtual courts‘, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X1558603936750

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Citizen participation and changing governance: cases of devolution in England

Beyond radicalism and resignation: the competing logics for public participation in policy decisions

Citizens’ Initiative Review process: mediating emotions, promoting productive deliberation

When the people speak – and decide: deliberation and direct democracy in the citizen assembly of Glarus, Switzerland

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