Is digital government a threat to human security?


Digital technologies are information communication technologies such as mobile devices, the internet, and smart technologies. The proliferation of digital technologies in the everyday use has resulted in a call for the modernization of government service delivery. This shift is motivated by a need to engage in increasing citizen-driven approaches to government service delivery with the aim of increasing public value and productivity.

The biggest concerns with digital governance are risks related to service delivery, trust, inclusion and participation in addition to governance across multiple sectors and actors. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) argues that the failure of governments to adapt to the emerging digital environment can result in “poor service delivery, underperformance of spending, privacy and security breaches, and loss of citizen trust”.

Ensuring inclusion and participation is an integral characteristic of democratic societies. Inclusion means that technologies are citizen-driven and not discriminatory. Participation means that everyone can access these technologies and benefit from the services being delivered. In other words, in order to have a fair and functional democracy, all citizens must be able to equally access all government services.

What is human security?

When these fundamental principles are violated, it can be argued that the human security of an individual is compromised. Yet, in recent in debates and discussion, rarely has the human security framework been adopted to discussion the proliferation of information communication technologies (ICTs) for the provision of government services. This blog posts looks at how the UN’s Human Security framework can be used to ensure inclusion and participation standards are upheld when adopting digital technologies.

Academics debates about security are often informed by the fundamental questions: security for who? From what? By what means? Traditional analysis conceptualizes the state as playing a key role in protecting its assets often defined as both the content of and its sovereign borders. Other critical approaches argue that threats come from multiple sources and that there are legitimate objects of security other than territorial boundaries. Critical security scholars analyse a multiplicity of threats and the role of the state in its management. In this vein, the United Nations defines human security as: freedom from fear, freedom from want and freedom to live in dignity.

In other words, human security is a conception of security that focuses on the individual and seeks to ensure they have access to the things they need to live like food, water, shelter, healthcare, freedom from violence or any other harm. It is a term with a broad application but at its core, human security ultimately focuses on the welfare and livelihood of the individuals. While it focuses on extremes cases of insecurity often focused on fragile states, the UN framework adds value to our discussion on inclusion and participation in domestic affairs.

In an era where government functions are increasingly digitized, and individuals are increasingly networked through technologies, can digital government threaten human security?

The answer is complicated. Digital government can increase access for some people, while further isolating others. As a result, it asymmetrically benefits individuals. There should be strong measures set in place to ensure that there is a clear benefit to the adoption of the digital technology, with a focus on the individuals receiving the service.

Inclusion and Participation

Our society has become increasingly reliant on the web. For many low-income families, access to the internet is essential to help them to connect with others, or find and apply to jobs. However, many of these families cannot participate online and take advantage of these digital technologies due to high costs. For many families, they opt to cut spending on basic necessities such as food, shelter, transportation or health care in order to continue to stay connected. This is fundamental violation of the principles of basic human security: individuals are living in want of basic necessities because they live in a society where connection online has become essential to success in society.

This is further exasperated by debates about the digitization of social service. A recent report published by British Columbia Public Interest Advocacy Center (BCPIAC) on behalf of provincial advocacy groups argued that digital government is not inclusive and does not allow for participation of its clients. Since many social service recipients cannot afford the staggering prices of ICTs, they cannot access basic functions such as the application to receive social benefits which is now exclusively available online. Thus, those who cannot access the internet cannot apply to receive benefits, leaving them extremely vulnerable.

In other words, not only does lack of access to digital tools exclude individuals from progression in their careers, it also isolates them from the services they need in order to sustain their basic needs. Seen in this light, the digitization of services, without keeping the analog model is a potential violation of individuals human security.  

The debate doesn’t end there: even for those who can access the technologies a lack of knowledge about how to use the technology serve as a major deterrent from receiving government services. BCPIAC also found that a shift from phone and in person social service applications to online systems because of the modernization project are not user friendly: they are confusing for many individuals who are less proficient in using technological tools. In other words, going digital is not always better if populations are served asymmetrically. This has resulted in the further marginalization of the most vulnerable parts of the population and provides unequal access to government services.

Thus, digitization of government services does not inherently benefit individuals. It can lead to a violation of human security among marginalized populations. Frameworks that seek to ‘modernize’ and ‘digitize’ government should begin by asking if doing so would add value for citizens. After the governments main role is to serve the public. It cannot fully do so if the pockets of the population are excluded from enjoying their rights as citizens.