Government 2020: Imagining the Future

We don't know how technology and other forces are going to transform government. But that's no reason not to think about the changes that are coming.

by William D. Eggers / February 17, 2015

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20. But how could the world of government be different if we could not only envision the future -- how things might be in, say, the year 2020 -- but also prepare for it?

Most senior public officials are so busy putting out fires and running their operations from day to day that it's hard for them to get a chance to think about technological and other trend lines and how they might impact the way governments operate and citizens are served. So let's step back and take a quick tour through government's possible not-so-distant future:

Cross-government: Governments begin to embrace a new approach to service delivery. Many adopt the role of a solution enabler, creating environments in which innovators thrive and technology-equipped citizens can serve themselves. Open data, crowdsourcing and co-creation of services herald the shift to distributed governance. Predictive analytics, behavioral psychology and outcome-based regulation translate into smarter decision-making and better governance.

Government's talent model also undergoes a radical transformation, producing a more open, mobile and dynamic workforce. And evolving societal attitudes on how we define success and well-being lead to the emergence of alternative measures of prosperity and progress that reach beyond simple gains in GDP.

Education: Step into the classroom of 2020 and see powerful forces at play. A global shortage of skilled talent propels career-focused learning. Virtual learning, digitization and augmented reality have made our old definitions of a classroom obsolete. Students become teachers, learning from one another through project-based learning and self-organized learning environments. Education funding shifts to approaches proven to work via real-world trials.

Energy and environment: Conversations on energy and the environment center on the three Cs: connect, collaborate and coexist. Smarter devices result in smarter energy choices, while networks of sensors, drones, citizen regulators and environmentally conscious consumers work together to monitor and protect our natural world. Rapid urbanization fuels innovation and the quest for sustainable and resilient cities. Government regulation is less blunt and is heavily influenced by sensor-produced data.

Health care: The dominant health care trend in 2020 is, quite simply, pervasiveness. Mobile health apps, telemedicine, remote monitoring and ingestible sensors generate rich data streams. Bioinformatics and analytics allow for personalized risk assessments and tailor-made medicine. Breakthroughs in robotics, 3D printing and stem-cell research make surgical procedures safer and improve outcomes. Health-care systems shift their focus to wellness and prevention.

Human services: Human services are customized, data-driven and technology-infused. Governments tap community assets and peer-to-peer support programs to augment service delivery. Behavioral psychology and economics play a larger role in designing interventions, while outcome-oriented social-innovation financing helps scale the programs that work. Mobile technology, sensors and wearable devices enable remote monitoring. A new breed of caseworker-intrapreneur brings fresh ideas and innovation to human-services organizations. Outcome-based funding moves beyond fringe status thanks to advances in measurement and data analytics.

Law enforcement and justice: 2020 sees innovative new methods and technologies to protect public safety and rehabilitate offenders. Mobile computing and electronic monitoring enable virtual incarceration. Gamified mobile interfaces deliver job training, community connections and rehabilitation services. Data analytics ensure that interventions are tailored to offenders' profiles. As crime becomes more sophisticated, so does policing: Drones act as eyes in the sky, while officers on the ground use wearable computing employing facial recognition software and predictive video.

Transportation: Transportation is as much about bits and bytes as the physical infrastructure on which we walk, bike, drive and ride. Sensor-powered dynamic pricing, mobile-enabled collaborative transport models such as ridesharing, and social transport apps all help tackle traffic congestion. Tremendous advances in connected and driverless-vehicle technology put the first fleets of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles on the roadways. Sustainable transport options such as electrically powered cars, trucks and bikes become widespread. The skyways see greater drone use for civilian and commercial purposes.

To be sure, not all these trends will actually come to pass. And for those that do, their adoption will undoubtedly be very uneven across local, state and federal levels of government. Nevertheless, having a picture of what the future could hold, what lies within the realm of the possible, is critical to creating a better government and better future. To quote Wayne Gretsky: "A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."

To explore these and other trends impacting the future of government, visit Deloitte's Gov2020 site.

This column was originally published by Governing