Britain may consistently be ranked one of the best digital governments in the world by the United Nations, but China is changing the game by using big tech platforms to deliver public services without building them in-house.
Could that work here? Say you want to get a divorce in China. Simply open your Alipay account (an online payment platform), locate the city services tab, and register for your appointment. Not once do you visit a Chinese government website (although you still need a meeting to confirm you wish to proceed).
How about if you need to pay your income taxes, traffic fines, or parking tickets? Alipay has you covered, as does WeChat pay – its main competitor. In over 100 cities, you can use the service to dock money from your account and pay the government without leaving the app.
WeChat is also making gains in the digital identity space. The city of Guangzhou (population: 13m) is trialling the use of the messenger service to host a digital ID card, which will then enable users to access government services online. This system was accredited by the Ministry of Public Security, and following trials in the Guangdong province (population: 104m), will be expanded across the country.
WeChat Pay is also used in the city’s healthcare system, enabling people to pay for their prescriptions and have medicines delivered to their home. “Medical services are just one click away; you can just stay at home and have all these services come to you”, said Cai Chaolin, vice mayor of Guangzhou, in a recent interview with my publication GovInsider.
These services have been the vision of the Chinese government, which realised that it was too complex to build them in-house for a population of over 1bn people. Instead, the Internet Plus policy commanded government agencies to improve data management, increase efficiency and work with the private sector to innovate. This made officials realise the “urgency to use innovation” and agree to trials, according to a managing director from the e-commerce behemoth Alibaba, speaking to GovInsider last year.
Of course, the giant panda in the room is data protection. China is to data what Saudi Arabia is to oil, according to associate professor James Crabtree of the National University of Singapore. The government has unprecedented powers when building new services, but this creates serious concerns about human rights and civil liberties. Earlier this year, for example, Human Rights Watch reported that Muslims in Xinjiang Provice are being monitored on daily basis.
The Chinese government also has vast regulatory powers over its big tech platforms, ensuring total control. Most have Communist Party committees, and as Christopher Balding – formerly associate professor of political economics at Peking University until his recent expulsion for critical statements – told Bloomberg last year, regulators are considering taking board seats and a 1 per cent stake in Alibaba and tech conglomerate Tencent.
This wouldn’t fly in the UK, but perhaps Britain could still borrow from the big tech platforms, without taking China’s regulatory model. Sir Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, is working to create a new tool that could be as transformative as his last creation.
“The Internet Plus policy commanded government agencies to improve data management, increase efficiency and work with the private sector to innovate”
Called Solid, it is a radical digital identity model that would be universally recognised and free for everyone. This tool gives people a single container for their online digital identity data, and will interact with all major platforms to ensure that they can control how much personal information they are giving away.
If Britain backed this system, it could be transformative for Whitehall. It would overcome problems around trust and data control, while allowing the UK government to piggyback on the big tech platforms for service delivery. It could even help achieve the Estonian vision of an “invisible government”, where bureaucracy fades into the background.
China’s radical experiment in digital government is totally different from Britain’s GDS model, and it’s enabled the rapid development of new services and seamless interaction with the state. Britain is innovating slowly, feeling its way and, to use a phrase made famous by former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping, “crossing the river by feeling the stones”. But on digital services, China has taken another of Deng’s mantras: “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”