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Governments overly optimistic about the use of digital innovations

The government is digitalizing and making use of ‘big data’ in its decision making processes. But the expectations of digitalization are often overly optimistic, according to Bram Klieving, Professor Digitalization and Public Policy. Klievink is about to start with multidisciplinary research looking into the possibilities and challenges digitalization offers to public administration.

Bram Klievink has been appointed as chair Digitalization and Public Policy the Governance and Global Affairs at Leiden University in The Hague since 1 May 2019. In this position he will be combining a unique combination of research areas. ‘My work will be useful for both policy makers and data analysts,’ says Klievink. ‘For government departments, the gap between data and policy impact is sometimes quite substantial. There are a lot of ongoing pilots to improve the use of digital data and techniques. But actually making use of this information in an administrative context is often more challenging than had been expected.

Implementing data

‘I recently spoke to several data analysts. They are experiencing difficulties because of the overly optimistic outlook and are glad to have a more realistic perspective, because I’m able to show why the use of the large variety and amount of data is very complex and why the link with reality is sometimes missing,’ according to Klievink. ‘The resulting disappointment when projects run longer or yield less than expected can be avoided. Data analysts and policy makers are also having difficulties  finding a common ground. Data analysts are experts on methods but not necessarily on content. For policy makers the reverse is often true. This sometimes results in analysts making choices, intentional or not, that might be politically sensitive. Or that the political administrative use of data analysis does not fit with the hypothesis of the analysis. Policy makers and data analysts are unfamiliar with each other’s realities and motivations.’


The research topics that the chair will be focusing on are trifold. Starting with the effect digital innovations have on public government. ‘An such example are platforms such as Uber and Airbnb, that challenge the government in a certain way and have an effect on public values,’ explains Klievink. In second place, the possibilities digital innovations have to offer to public governance. ‘A relevant question is how governments can implement specific techniques or developments to improve their service or processes,’ says Klievink. ‘And finally, I’ll be looking at the effects this has within organizations. Which experts are needed to make use of big data and to improve the connection between the offered data and how to use it? I would very much like to follow up on these three threads with people from different fields of expertise.’

Combining ICT and public governance

Klievink hopes to enable a scientific dialogue that is able to move beyond just the technique, but also doesn’t remain too philosophical: ‘We are aware of many of the challenges but a lot of existing research is either techno optimistic, answering questions such as: what can we build, what can we do with it, or normative pessimistic: from the perspective that by giving machines control we won’t be able to oversee the consequences. Both points of view are useful but rather limited. I would like to argue for a more realistic approach. Let’s look past the hypes and warning signs, at what is actually happening and at the consequences of decisions that have been made. We will be working on cases from the field together with government departments, administrative organizations, and municipalities. That way, organizations will actually be able to implement the outcomes and use them in their public administrative policies.’

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