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Comment: an overdue fourth revolution

13/06/14

What is e-government for? Back in the Pleistocene epoch - around the turn of the millennium - there was much talk about the new technology re-inventing, or even abolishing, the state. Those ambitions largely died with the first dotcom crash. Since then, the aim has been first to do more with the same and more recently, to try and cut the cost of administration.

To judge by the enthusiastic reception given to a new book, The Fourth Revolution: the global race to reinvent the state (Allen Lane £20), grander designs are coming back in to fashion. In it, authors John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge - editors at The Economist - urge a 'Copernican revolution' in government.

They start from the familiar viewpoint that government today is stuck in the era of General Motors rather than Google. Government has resisted reform partly because it is inherently big and difficult, and partly because of well-organised resistance by public sector unions. But democracy itself is also to blame.

The exemplar is the Californian prison system. Thirty years ago, 2,600 members of the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association guarded 36,000 prison inmates. Today California has 130,000 prisoners, guarded by 31,000 prison officers, with the state spending roughly the same on prisons as it does on higher education.

For the growth in the Californian prison industry, we can thank an 'iron triangle' formed by the prison officers' union, tough-on-crime Republican lawmakers and prison builders who shared a common interest in seeing the system grow.

Yet this all happened in the birthplace of Proposition 13, which in 1978 supposedly launched the global fightback against big government. This fightback, exemplified by the Reagan and Thatcher administrations, should have been the fourth revolution, the authors say. (The first three, they claim, gave us Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan state, John Stuart Mill's liberal state and Beatrice Webb's Fabian one.)

They argue, however, that this revolution never really took off. One reason was the failure of IT to transform productivity in the sector. in 1958, HM Revenue & Customs spend £1.16 on every £100 it collected in tax; today, despite all the billions invested in technology, it spends £1.14.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge say the time is right to finish the job. Their reasoning is first that, after a long, long wait, the productivity revolution promised by technology is really due to hit public services.

Secondly, the identify a global race to design a government machine fit for the web age. In this competition, 'Any state that harnesses the most powerful innovative forces in society will pull ahead of its peers.' Here, the role model attracting most international interest is authoritarian technocratic Singapore. 

Democracy can compete - the authors laud e-enabled reforms in Denmark and Sweden - but only if the state reins back its activities, to free the machine from capture by special interests, corrupt parliamentarians and crony capitalists.

We can expect these ideas to appear in at least one political manifesto next year.  

The Fourth Revolution: the global race to reinvent the state. John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Allen Lane £20. 

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