Reshaping the Digitization in Public Services

A special issue of the New England Journal of Public Policy (Vol. 34, Issue 1, Spring/Summer 2022) featured essays on the topic of the Future of Work which were solicited by the American Federation of Teachers for a conference on the subject it jointly hosted with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Albert Shanker Institute on July 13, 2022. This is the seventh of these essays.

Digitalization is already a sweeping force throughout private and public spaces, and public services are on the forefront of this new frontier. Unfortunately, this has not been an easy process, with rights being violated and harm being caused. In “Reshaping the Digitization in Public Services,” Christina Colclough, founder of the Why Not Lab, discusses the measures needed to protect human rights and put in place safeguards to ensure digitization proceeds in a manner that benefits everyone.

Across the world, public services are rapidly being digitized. However, because of poor public procurement supplier contracts, poor laws, and a lack of governance processes and bodies, and because of competency gaps on the part of all parties involved, digitization is happening in a void. As a consequence, harms are caused and rights are violated, threatening the future of high-quality public services. From the vantage point of public services as a service as well as a workplace, this article discusses potential remedies to ensure that digitalization does not affect the quality of public services as services and as places of employment. It spells out the additional measures that will be needed to fill the void ethically and ensure that fundamental human rights, freedoms and autonomy are protected. It concludes that we need to simultaneously slow down and hurry up. We must take the time to get the necessary safeguards in place and continually ask whether more technology really is the right solution to the challenges we face. But also, we need to hurry up to build a critical understanding of the current mode of digitalization so alternatives can be brought to the table. The article is based on conversations with union members across the world, a literature review and the author’s own studies of the digitalization of public services and employment.
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