Digital and Data — Nothing Inherently Progressive, Inherently Super Political

Data isn’t neutral. Neither is technology. Ok, yes. Now step a bit further back. All levels of government in Canada are on a tear right now about how they are going to use data and tech for good — how they will improve service delivery and make it faster, better, easier, more productive etc. Ontario has hung its hat on the particular trifecta: “Simpler, Faster and Better”. And its intentions are good, in middle-class service delivery at least, I don’t doubt this.

But government intentions cannot trump the context in which they operate, which is neoliberal capitalism. In this context, governments must constantly look for efficiencies, and encourage self-sufficiency and the value of work in its residents. You do you, you make it for you, we’ll work to keep your taxes low. We’ll keep out of your way. Neoliberalism is intensely focused on the individual, and works tirelessley to disconnect us from our broader community. Technology can speed this up. Service for you. Just you. Direct to you. Drive-through speed and simplicity. Don’t worry about the big machine and all the other people, just look at the bit we’ve carved off for you.

With data and tech, governments have a tool for automation that they’ve been slow to get a handle on, but this is starting to change. Are the policy and standards that we’re about to automate correct? No, they aren’t. And this is a turning point — I truly believe we are at a turning point, where technologists and residents can push back against the entrenchment of capitalist standards for government. Only if technologists can step far enough back from the hype machine and let activists and advocates lead.

This is the beauty of openness — open tech and open work, co-creation and oversight. Do you wonder how technology can uphold institiutional racism in policy? It does — and for this reason, amongst many others, white people, can’t continue to dominantly inform how tech is applied. Much like journalism, an absence of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour in digital policy development circles is dangerous. And if you haven’t looked at the demographics of the digital policy crowd, look around a bit.

I’ve gone from being incredulous about the Phoenix payroll software disaster to being thankful about the Phoenix payroll software disaster. And other projects that have reminded government they are in no position to speed up what they are doing yet. Absolutely not behind closed doors. And definitely not with leadership and authority residing with people who don’t understand technology. Danger zone two times there.

Back to neoliberal capitalist context again. Structural racism, homelessness, poverty, lack of affordable housing, lack of drinking water, pollution, infrastructure degradation, access to health supports, shameful disability supports, and so many more issues are the status quo. This is not the time to speed up and obfuscate how these issues are being managed within government policy programs. If government finds cost-savings in how it delivers these programs you can be sure that any savings should be reinvested into the programs in other ways. This is, however, not how our governments historically work. If they find a way to save money they keep it. Cuts are good. And let’s talk about labour and technology — not here, soon — but labour needs to get in front of technology in government and do so now. Technology advocates can help with this.

Toronto emergency workers respond to call about lifeless homeless man on Bay Street

There are public administration realities that started in the beginning of the neoliberal era, where government was cut into smaller independent pieces, making coherent data and tech policy hugely challenging. There are public administration history lessons that need to be dredged up and revisited so that we can be smarter in helping and watching from outside. Digital is not a benevolent culture shift. We can’t leave it to government staff to work within the immensely rigid constraints of old law and org design and make miracles. They can’t. It’s disingenuous to set them up this way.

This is the double-edged sword of digital and data in neoliberal capitalism. They require extreme care in how they are applied to get their full potential going and to not simply speed up ill-conceived old policy. They can be used to begin to improve our policy actions, and yes, to find savings, and then to very intentionally reapply and reinvest these savings. But data and digital should absolutely not be used to double down on current policy. Which is, for the most part, where we are headed. This is not the fault of any particular actor or the outcome of malice by politicians — it’s our broader political context. If we’re not talking about data and digital in this context of neoliberal capitalism I’d argue it’s better to stop talking and read some history.