Transformer States: A Conversation Series on Digital Government and Human Rights

The Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project at CHRGJ is organizing  a series of virtual conversations entitled “Transformer States: A Conversation Series on Digital Government and Human Rights.” Through in-depth interviews with practitioners and academics working on digital government, this series aims to further explore digital transformation and its impact on the lives and rights of individuals.

Around the world, governments are busily implementing ‘digital transformation’ strategies, using a buzzword much preferred by governments and those advising them. From the introduction of digital ID systems in India or Kenya that act as ‘gateways’ to accessing social and other human rights, to ‘digital-by-default’ welfare benefits in the United Kingdom, digital government appears omnipresent. While the earliest attempts to enlist digital technologies into governmental service provision and internal government operations already date back many decades, digital government is rapidly becoming the norm rather than the exception. And governments are not merely converting existing analog processes to digital processes or digitizing their data. Rather, the institutions and methods of government are being re-imagined in the process of digitalization. What government can do and know is deeply affected by digitalization.

The COVID-19 pandemic has served to accelerate these trends of government digitization and digitalization. The transition of programs and services to online platforms has been normalized since the onset of the pandemic, and the closure of in-person government offices and public services has further pushed individuals to use online services to obtain benefits, access health care services, education, etc. This increasingly online interaction between government and citizens has also emphasized the importance for governments to remotely verify and authenticate users’ identities. Similarly, test-and-trace programs and other attempts to identify covid outbreaks have highlighted governments’ need to ‘know’ their residents and to be able to contact them. Where digital government was seen as a laudable aim until quite recently, by now it is widely perceived as a requirement.

Through conversations with practitioners and academics undertaking interesting research in countries across the globe, the series will explore concrete case studies of digital transformation. Throughout the series, we will be guided by a set of central questions. What are the promises of digital transformation? What political ideals and motives are propelling these developments and who is involved in driving and producing these digital transformations? What human rights concerns have already emerged and are to be expected? And, what can and should be the response of the human rights movement, but also of governments, legislators, courts, and wider civil society, to ensure that digital government lives up to its promises and protects and fulfills the human rights of all?

Each month, Project Director Christiaan van Veen and Research Scholar Victoria Adelmant will interview one practitioner or academicto discuss a specific case study of digital government.  At least three conversations will be held in the fall semester in 2020, and at least three more sessions will be organized for the spring of 2021. These discussions will take place via Zoom webinar, and participants will have the opportunity to direct questions to the speaker both before and during the interview. The conversations will also be recorded, and captioned recording will be posted on this webpage along with blog posts summarizing key points of the interview together with relevant background materials.

Through this series, the Project not only aims to allow participants to become better acquainted with speakers and topics at the intersection of digital government and human rights, but to create a repository of relevant knowledge about digital government and human rights and an informal network of those working on these issues (a ‘community of practice’). We hope therefore that those interested in attending these events engage with the whole series, and do not only participate in the conversations, but see this webpage as a hub for information and exchange. For those purposes, the Project will also host blog posts about specific case studies, written by (PhD) students and young practitioners. At least 3 such blog posts will be published in the fall semester of 2020 and at least another 3 in the spring of 2021.

If you wish to be added to the mailing list and join our community of practice in this highly relevant and fast-moving area, please register here. Please contact Victoria Adelmant if you have any questions about this series, if you are interested in publishing a blog on these issues on our webpage or if you would like to propose other ways to get involved!

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