The sustainability of the digital transition in the public sector

For at least the last two decades, public bureaucracies in all the countries around us, although in each case with its own particularities (strategies adopted, speed and depth of the transformation), have been undergoing their own digital transition, like all the economic or productive sectors of our societies. When undertaking these changes, the element of environmental sustainability has not been, to date, barely present: neither the way in which the process has been faced nor the strategies to carry it out have considered this factor as an element to be taken into account that should or could alter or modify some of these processes. In fact, and unlike what has happened with other productive sectors or markets or of our social life, there are strikingly few studies that even aspire to quantify with a minimum of seriousness and rigor (and methodological requirements comparable to the usual ones for other equivalent studies related to private activities) the ecological or carbon footprint of the digital transition of the public sector in many European countries (as is the case of Spain, for example, where no analysis has been carried out regarding those issues).

The reasons why the sustainability of the digital transition in the public sector has not been analysed in too much detail to date may be of various kinds:

– First of all, because this transition operates in a context of a certain technological inevitability. It is taken for granted that, as for any other sector of production or activity, the digital transformation of the public administration is both desirable in the medium and long term and, basically, inevitable, both because it is a consequence of the digitalization of other social and productive activities but also because of the overall efficiency gains (gains assumed by performing a cost-benefit analysis of the increased data processing capacity of the Administration that may derive from it and, from there, of the improvement in public activity that would immediately result in terms of both a better control of private activity and also a more efficient deployment of public policies, which, however, has not so far considered to introduce the environmental factor into the balance). And, from this initial assumption, the discussion focuses on how to maximise those efficiencies and reduce the possible costs of the transition, how to accelerate it or make it more economical, how to overcome the existing obstacles in the short term in order to obtain all possible benefits as fast as possible. However, in all this analysis, the environmental factor is conspicuously absent.

– Secondly because, unlike other sectors of activity in our societies, the operating context of our public administrations brings with it certain brakes to the digitalization of their activity which, not being present in economic and private spheres and slowing down this transformation process compared to the private sector, which makes the debate less pressing. If the public sector is lagging behind in this process (as it is the case) and is even frequently criticized for this delay and its inability to innovate and rapidly incorporate new technological solutions, it is reasonable that the debate on the sustainability of the transformation in question should take a back seat. If the digital transformation of the public sector is being carried out only after the one being undertaken by the private sector, it seems to some extent unnecessary to make an environmental assessment of this transition, since there is no choice but to make it in order to at least be able to cope with private markets own transition therefore remain in a position that may still allow to fully exercise public functions related to a world and a society that have been already transformed and, before the public sector itself, in that same direction. At least three factors, moreover, feed back into this delay of the public authorities in their digitalization process, insofar as they are elements that tend to slow down the aforementioned processes of expansion and updating of public bureaucracies:

1) First of all, we do encounter approaches, highly developed in recent decades, critical with any expansion of bureaucracies and public control procedures over economic activities and the economy itself, both in a more political/ideological version that advocates for a «minimal State» model (or, at least, a less interventionist State than the one we have today) or in a more technical version that seeks to improve the activity of the public sector by means of its reduction or simplification in terms of efficiency gains (with regard to the public sector), of a less interventionist State than the one we have today) as well as in a more technical version that seeks to improve the activity of the public sector by reducing or simplifying it (for which there are many examples of the need to reduce red tape and so on, and quite a few studies on whether or not digitalization can be an ally of this simplification). In a context where there is clear political and technical pressure to reduce administrative burdens and any kind of controls or bureaucratic procedures, digital transformation tends to be applied as a tool to gain efficiencies where we already have administrative intervention rather than to develop new fields of bureaucratic action, which represents a certain additional brake on these developments.

2) The absence of competition in the public sector is an additional factor slowing down these processes. Unlike what may happen with private sectors that are intensive in bureaucratic-procedural contact with citizens (such as, for example, banking or the financial markets), public authorities do not have the incentive of competition that can  to accelerate digital transformations by helping to improve the user/citizen experience. This is an element that has undoubtedly delayed digital transformation in the public sector, compared to what has happened in competitive private markets. In general, public authorities have given priority to digital transformation where the efficiency gains were clear for the public sector itself, but there have been few incentives to advance quickly and deeply when the advantages were basically for citizens, which explains the delay compared to the private sector in the adoption of new technological standards and in the complete digitalization of possible interactions (thus minimizing the problem of the ecological footprint in this area).

3) Finally, the first two factors have helped to ensure that the allocation of the resources needed to undertake the complete process of digitalization of the public sector has generally not been enough to guarantee a rapid and complete transformation. In fact, two decades after it began, it is still far from complete. Given the existence of the two aforementioned factors, the constant underfunding of digital transformation, in a context of inevitable shortages and a complex struggle to prioritize the use of public resources, is easily explained. This is an additional and important reason why the delay mentioned above has been generated and, moreover, why it has also helped to avoid the sustainability debate, not only because it seems gratuitous when such a delay is accumulated, but also because, rather than limitations due to considerations of environmental calculation or ecological footprint, there would be previous limitations of available funds and resources where the debate tends to concentrate. In some countries, these limitations have even formed part of legal frameworks, establishing citizens’ rights in these matters (and the corresponding public obligations to provide service) linked to economic contexts where there is no economic crisis, on the understanding that in contexts of scarcity, on the other hand, this transformation would become dispensable or, in any case, not a priority (this is the case, strikingly, of the Spanish law of 2007 on the transformation of e-administration).

Because of the mix of the afore-explained elements, reflection on the environmental context, its ecological impact and the sustainability requirements of the digital transformation of the public sector has been conspicuously absent to date. If, at the end of the day, it is something that has to be done and for which there is already a significant delay, does it make sense to calculate in these terms the sustainability of the transformation when it is inevitable and will also have to be undertaken? This question is probably the one that has allowed us to avoid the issue and the debate. And yet, it is a necessary debate and analysis, at least in terms of how and with what strategies to carry out this (inevitable) transformation of our public bureaucracies. 

It does seem clear that certain rules and strategies when undertaking the necessary digital transformation of the public sector, opting for some models or others, could lead to changes in the environmental footprint and in the sustainability of the model itself. Introducing the analysis of these environmental consequences with respect to these strategic and structural decisions on how to channel and legally accompany the digital transformation seems not only perfectly possible and reasonable, but also directly necessary in a context of environmental emergency as the one we face now. The following are some examples of the strategic decisions and approaches in which the inclusion of the environmental factor in the equation should be required in the future (in fact, from now on):

– Each country has developed a different strategy on whether to base the digital transformation essentially (or initially) on in-house developments made by public administrations by their own (which generally requires more funds and the use of already consolidated technologies instead of being able to turn to the most cutting-edge ones, assured by private facilitators) or, on the contrary, to rely on the private sector to provide technological solutions to the public sector. The debate, the importance of which goes beyond practical or environmental issues (with the development of AI it is even a question that may affect the very control over public action itself), also has an environmental consequence that should be taken into account. If public developments can be carried out while guaranteeing a smaller environmental footprint, because they may be more easily subject to requirements in this regard, a model based on these would have additional arguments for its implementation.

– Likewise, and in some way connected with this first element, there are countries that have established strategies for centralizing certain technological solutions for all their public administrations, usually on the grounds of (economic) efficiency. If environmental elements are introduced into this efficiency calculation and it is confirmed that, in effect, a centralization in the development of at least certain tools (perhaps the most consolidated, perhaps in connexion to the fact that this development is made by public powers by their own…) can reduce the overall environmental footprint of the process, we would have a compelling reason to justify, in these cases at least, this centralization directive. In addition, it would have to be analysed in which area to proceed with this centralization and its possible costs in terms of innovation or technological development, but this is an important evaluation.

– Additionally, and again in close relation to the first two factors, Public law can establish the obligation (total or partial, depending on the area) or strong incentives for the use of free software and non-proprietary solutions if, as certain studies may indicate, they generate an overall gain in efficiency (and also environmental efficiency) in these processes.

– Finally, with regard to data processing or storage, there are offshoring strategies which, for example, the European Union has limited or prohibited in certain cases, either for security reasons or to grant better protection of citizens’ personal data. An additional element that has not been taken into account to date when determining these types of limitations or prohibitions is the environmental one, but it would make perfect sense to include it in the equation and establish requirements for the location of services associated with the digital transformation processes of the public sector that take into account the differential environmental cost of locating services in some territories or others (or, for instance, the type of energy used).

In general, and to conclude, all these elements are probably the key points of an efficiency assessment that our legal systems already impose when developing public policies and that in more than a few cases is done, either due to budgetary needs or political debate, also with respect to digital transformation, but which to date has included little to none of the environmental factor in that assessment. As a basic and key general criteria, to be taken into account in all cases, our legal system should be required to make a rigorous environmental assessment of all strategic decisions regarding the digitalization processes of the public sector and deployment of public administration, something that has not been done to date but that, today, is already a necessity that cannot be postponed.

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En La Red desde septiembre de 2006