Digital tech will bring ‘autonomous government’, claims Lithuanian ICT chief

By on 16/05/2019
Paulius Vertelka, director of Infobalt

The head of Lithuania’s digital industry body sees a future in which services are wholly managed by AI systems. At the Putting Citizens First conference, he explained his radical vision. Ian Hall reports

“Autonomous government” powered by machines is the “ultimate” destination of digital public services, said Paulius Vertelka.

“We think that ultimately our future is an autonomous government driven by Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence [AI],” he continued. “But for that we need to have the digital government platform where all the data is interconnected, and capable of being used for AI.”

Vertelka is the director of Infobalt – the Lithuanian ICT industry body that represents the sector and provides digital services to government. And he was speaking at the

Putting Citizens First conference: a Global Government Forum event, organised in association with Yesser and EY, and held in Saudi Arabia last month.

Robots in charge?

Conference chairman Richard Thompson, Editor of the Middle East Economic Digest, challenged Vertelka on what he meant, saying: “I assume we’re not talking about robots who can make policy?”

“Well, we can dream even bigger!” responded Vertelka. “It’s the belief that this is where we are going, ultimately: autonomous government, with many services run by AI.” That takes the debate over digital government into new realms – and Thompson again pushed Vertelka to explain his aims, pointing out that “autonomous implies not just the process, but the decision-making”.

“Yes, in some instances we probably will achieve that,” he replied. “We don’t have a [use] case at the moment, but we think this is the future. We need to get our politicians ready – and society ready – to trust such a system eventually.

“The best examples are in the healthcare system, where AI is actually making the decisions on whether a person has sickness or not, or a person is more prone to getting sick in a certain way,” he continued. “We are already in development of those things in radiology, for example, to determine signs of cancer in X-rays. We use AI for that.”

Applying AI intelligently

The profile of AI in the operation of government and public services has risen sharply in recent years. But as the technology comes into use in public services, civil servants have encountered a set of challenges. When AI systems build decision-making around data on historic case management, for example, they can acquire and replicate any inequities in how decisions are made. And where algorithms’ operations become too complex to be easily understood by their operators – an issue exacerbated in machine learning systems which evolve over time – questions arise over how officials and ministers can be held to account.

These concerns have led some governments to task panels with examining the issues around deploying AI. Earlier this year Australia launched a consultation on AI ethics, for example, while a standards watchdog is considering the topic in the UK.

It wasn’t surprising, then, that the topic came under scrutiny at the event’s Programme Governance and Finance session. And Vertelka acknowledged that his ambitious vision faces political obstacles. “I know that politicians have a lot of different priorities and digital is not often top of the agenda,” he said. “Technology is moving way faster than policymaking. It’s a matter of closing the gap. It’s important because by 2025, globally, the digital economy is estimated to be 25% of global GDP.

“In Lithuania, we reckon it’s 7.2% of national GDP – the fourth largest sector – and it’s growing at over 30% every year. This is the data we are trying to use to convince our politicians.”

“Autonomous government” powered by machines is the “ultimate” destination of digital public services believes Vertelka.

Public support

Vertelka cited further data that suggests citizens of the small Baltic state back rapid progress on public sector digital. “Last year, we had a national survey of our population asking what are the top three things that the country must implement, and one of the things that people selected was to establish a digital government to eliminate bureaucracy,” he said.

One of the themes to emerge from Global Government Forum’s conference was the differing approaches to, and variable rates of progress on, the establishment of digital infrastructure by governments.

Vertelka noted that Lithuania’s own digital efforts have been through an evolution, saying: “In the past decade or so, Lithuania created 600 e-services for its citizens. However, the problem was that most were carried on from the analogue era, and not redesigned with the help of technology: they were just ‘made digital’. They didn’t co-create value between themselves.

“Where we are doing now is trying to transition to interconnected e-services: an electronic government gateway was created, where all those services were placed.”

Keys to progress

He went on to cite four factors that are helping to drive progress towards establishing digital government in Lithuania: the appointment of a deputy minister to be “a political figure driving the change within government, and dealing with industry to help execute it”; a plan to ensure all government institutions have ‘digital transformation officers’; the creation of GovTech Lab, which he described as “an initiative where public servants work with each other and do hackathons”; and a greater focus on ‘Opex’, or operational expenditure – ensuring that sufficient consideration and funding is assigned to ensure digital projects are sustainable.

“The ultimate goal is to build a digital government where everything is digital by default,” Vertelka concluded. “It’s all data-driven. It’s open. It’s scalable. So you can create new services on top of it and you can have the market do the job for you, as opposed to the government.”

For some, the implications of Vertelka’s vision will be troubling. But some countries, at least, are heading down the road towards fully automating many of the decisions traditionally handled by personnel. That throws up many questions around accountability, transparency and public perceptions – and officials in every country will need to start considering them.

The other speakers at the session were Ahmad Alswahiyan, deputy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Finance; Jessica McEvoy, deputy director of the UK’s Government Digital Service; Mikhail Pryadilnikov, deputy director of the Analytic Center for the Government of the Russian Federation; Jobbágy László, MD of Hungary’s Digitális Jólét Nonprofit Kft; and Naser AlKhelaiwi, general director at the Deputyship of Finance and Administrative Affairs in Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health.  

Other articles covering the Putting Citizens First conference have considered the ‘hype cycle’ around blockchain, and the power of data to wrap services around citizens. Further articles will be published soon on the event’s other sessions.

About Ian Hall

Ian is a former editor of Public Affairs News (2007-2011), who has most recently worked as UK director for the pan-European media network Euractiv (2011-2018). He is also a former news editor of PR Week (2000-2007). He was shortlisted for ‘Editor of the Year’ at the British Society of Magazine Editors (BSME) Awards in 2010. He began his career in Bulgaria at English-language weekly the Sofia Echo. Ian has an MA in Urban and Regional Change in Europe and a BA in Economics, both from Durham University.

One Comment

  1. simon phillipson

    20/05/2019 at

    I am not a robot

    Ironically I have to check a box saying so to leave a comment

    Your obedient servant…

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