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4 Ways Emerging Technology Is Transforming Government Accountability

By Guest Writer on June 7, 2023

digital government

In a world where digital tools have come to mediate much of social and political life, navigating technological change will be key to sustaining democracy for the future. The business of governing is undergoing dramatic changes amid rapid advances in computing power, breakthroughs in fields such as artificial intelligence (AI), and the spread of digital products to new markets and settings.

Public officials around the world rely on digital technologies to make governance faster, smarter, and more efficient. But what do these changes mean for citizens seeking to hold their governments accountable?

For government by the people to be a reality, citizens must be able to monitor and assess those who govern—whether this entails watching out for corruption, holding politicians to their promises, or working to ensure the impartiality of justice . As democratic states go digital, these tasks increasingly involve both monitoring and leveraging innovative technologies such as AI.

Technology Is Transforming Government Accountability

The digitalization of democratic states involves more than just making analog information available in digital formats . Algorithmic tools, including complex, often difficult-to-explain AI systems, are becoming an ever more appealing option for officials looking to analyze trends, categorize people, and make decisions. Digital systems might be assigning judges to court cases; allocating social benefits; or identifying criminal suspects. Whether they rely on cutting edge machine-learning (AI/ML) models, or pre-set rules coded in by humans, digital tools are working at the core of governance .

These circumstances make it possible for watchdogs to take a more systemic approach to monitoring for abuses. Volumes of digital data on government officials, resources, and practices now exist . so, too, do new analytical tools for making sense of this information . Yet accountability institutions both within and outside of government also confront a new task: how to ensure that not only public officials, but also the technologies on which they rely comply with transparency and human-rights norms.

In the The Digitalization of Democracy: How Technology is Changing Government Accountability report from the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, four essays offer insights on the diverse ways the digital transformation of the public sector is changing government accountability. Drawing on their experiences advocating for open government in Poland, Georgia, and Armenia, four authors outline a multifaceted transformation that will require new capacities, concepts, and collaborations to ensure that the accountability toolkit stays up-to- date . Their work highlights several key themes:

1. Responsible digitalization can lead to enhanced accountability

Where watchdog institutions must process great volumes of information with limited human resources, Haykuhi Harutyunyan notes, new digital platforms are a way to turn open government data from a “box-checking exercise” into a meaningful tool for accountability . AI/ML systems—increasingly popular for combatting illicit financial flows—hold particular promise for helping oversight institutions to stay “one step ahead of officials looking to conceal their conflicts of interest or ill-gotten gains.” Officials looking to responsibly leverage these and other data-driven technologies must navigate trade-offs between the benefits of accessible information and various digital risks .

2. Developers should consider technological and human risks

Data-driven digital technologies introduce particular hazards to democracy: such tools can erode privacy in unprecedented ways or encode social inequalities in new algorithmic models. Yet other tech-associated risks ultimately stem from the persistent threat of human misconduct, for instance when officials hide behind digital systems to dodge responsibility for their actions . The abuse of “health code” apps in the People’s Republic of China marks one particularly egregious instance of this practice—but democratic settings are not immune . As Krzysztof Izdebski observes, digital tools in the hands of corrupt or repressive officials are no guarantee of fair governance: “In the absence of trust in governing institutions, there can be no trust in the tools they deploy.”

3. Government is struggling to keep pace with digital change

When researching technologies in government, accountability advocates have found that public officials themselves often have limited knowledge of the digital systems they use . As Teona Turashvili shows, this challenge is particularly acute in newer fields such as AI, where there is frequently a “void when it comes to defining working principles, ethical norms, and even basic concepts.” Closing these conceptual gaps will be a significant step toward holding governments accountable for the ways in which they are deploying AI tools.

4. Collaboration across sectors is critical

Collaboration among institutions in government, civil society, and the private sector will be crucial to closing knowledge gaps, building accountable systems, and upgrading oversight for the age of AI . while models for such engagement already exist, these kinds of practices will need to be brought to a greater scale to match the scope of the digital accountability challenge . Like governments, civil society organizations face the challenge of upgrading their capacities to engage in greater depth on fast-evolving and complex digital governance issues.

To be prepared for the digital advances that are likely in the coming years, democracies need strategies and mechanisms to begin addressing these challenges today. Cross-sectoral collaboration will be vital to explore how societies can fully leverage the pro-democratic potential of tools like AI, while also developing approaches to tech procurement, design, and deployment that will ensure democratic principles are baked into new digital products.

By starting conversations across sectors about accountable government in the digital age, democracies can identify promising models for both ensuring accountability in the use of technology and leveraging technology in service of accountability.

A lightly edited executive summary of The Digitalization of Democracy: How Technology is Changing Government Accountability

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