A matter of context: Local, national, and global considerations for digital transformation governance

Digital transformation is usually seen as an all-encompassing phenomenon; however, in digital transformation governance it is essential to take context into account. 

Drawing on insights from the fifth online session of the CIVICA PhD Seminar on Public Sector Digital Transformation with Elsa Estevez on December 3rd, this article highlights the importance of context with regards to digital transformation on scales of local, national, and global governance.

Over the past few decades – and particularly in light of the global Covid-19 pandemic – the use of digital technology has seen an unprecedented rise in relevance. Be it for personal communication purposes or interactions with private and public sector organisations, the future of society looks to be increasingly digital. Subsequently, questions regarding how to best employ and regulate these technologies have moved to the top of many political agendas. While it is certainly advisable to build upon the experiences of others when it comes to digital transformation governance, state actors must be careful to also take into account the local, national, and global contexts of their decisions.

On a local level, what is considered good digital transformation governance can vary substantially – even within one country. The most essential contextual factor on this level is sufficient internet coverage. Many rural areas still lack adequate online access, and thus establishing digital infastructure represents a fundamental milestone of their digital transformation strategy. Furthermore, when designing ways to interact with their citizens, local government agencies need to take into account the digital literacy of the population – a factor often connected to the age demographics of a particular city or region. In larger cities with predominantly younger populations, the digitalisation of service channels may be a welcomed or even necessary step. In contrast, rural areas tend to have higher populations of elderly residents who may feel left behind if they are deprived of the possibility to see their government representatives in person. Other vulnerable groups, for example those with a migration background, might have further particular needs with respect to digital participation that have to be taken into account by local government officials.

Local contextual factors can certainly also play an aggregated role when steering digital transformation at a national level. Societal values are an additional key factor which influences the way national governments employ and regulate digital technologies. For example, in Germany, concerns about data privacy and security are very common in public debates about the governance of digital technologies. In other countries such as the USA or China, the prevailing societal values in this respect differ substantially, leading to marked differences in the way digital transformation is perceived and governed. Another important factor is the particularities of the national economy. States with a strong rural sector might need to put their regulation focus on agriculturally-relevant technologies such as drones for crop or livestock monitoring. On the other hand, states with a strong industrial focus might want to pay closer regulatory attention to IoT and Industry 4.0 applications. 

Finally, on a global scale, an important question to ask is “what influence does the use of digital technology have on the well-being of other nations and societies?” Negative examples in this regard include using digital platforms to outsource tasks to lower-income countries with worse labour standards or exploiting data that has been collected from citizens of other countries without their consent. Moreover, the spread of the internet – and thus of information exchange – to every corner of our planet has made the excesses of global inequalities even more apparent. Hence, digital governance must take into account our global interconnectedness and work together with other policy fields in order to diminish and not widen global inequalities. 

The above examples show that digital technologies are ultimately just tools, the benefits or drawbacks of which depend on their particular implementation design and context. It is the role of governments to take local, national, and global contextual factors into account when it comes to digital transformation governance – for example, by closely and constantly collaborating with civil society, academia, businesses, and other governments around the world – in order to ensure that digital technologies ultimately contribute to a better future for all. 

This blog post is part of the CIVICA PhD Seminar Series on Public Sector Digital Transformation organised by Hertie School’s Centre for Digital Governance and Bocconi University’s Department of Social and Political Science. The insights highlighted have been  based on the fifth seminar session’s discussion of Elsa Estevez’ keynote “Ethics in Digital Public Services” as well as her recent publication “Determinants of citizens' intention to engage in government-led electronic participation initiatives through Facebook”.  We would like to thank the participants for sharing their views and ideas.

More literature on this topic: 

Watch Elsa Estevez' keynote “Ethics in Digital Public Services”: