Every year used to bring the dreaded thump on the doorstep of a lengthy tax form to return. Nowadays, the annual chore takes less time and provokes less irritability: you go online to see the government’s proposal for how much tax it calculates you owe, based on its various data sources. You can amend it if you disagree, or accept it with a single click.

That’s just one example, from my home country of Norway, of how technology can make citizens feel better about their interactions with the state. But how deep is the potential for digital tools to transform the relationship between government and the governed?

Governments need to fundamentally rethink how they interact with citizens in an age when new technologies are radically changing demands and expectations. A decade ago, we would write letters and be satisfied if we got a reply within a month; now we expect responses to emails within a day, and to tweets within an hour.

Every country has a sizeable population of highly educated citizens who have become used to being able to find information and complete transactions online. When you never need to visit a bank branch, you start to resent having to visit a government office.

Governments need to understand that the expectations of netizens pose a challenge for them, but also present an opportunity to address the crisis of declining levels of trust.

Trust matters for many reasons, not least because it oils the machinery of society; when citizens don’t trust their government, it becomes harder for government to serve its citizens. Opinion polls in Europe and America tell a consistent story: trust in government takes time to build yet can break down quickly, and has been declining sharply for more than a decade.

It is no accident that trust has declined alongside fast-growing inequality, threatening the social contract. In the same way that a married couple needs constantly to redefine their mutual responsibilities as their circumstances change, the social contract can never be taken for granted. If we don’t make the effort to keep it alive, it will break.

One way for governments to earn the trust of their citizens is by serving them better.  Japan’s Open Government Data Strategy is one example of how government is exploring, often through public-private collaboration, the possibility of improving public services by applying “big data” techniques to the information the government holds about its citizens. Dubai’s Smart City initiative exemplifies how several governments are trying to create a virtual “one-stop shop” for interactions which might previously have required visits to various different offices.

In some countries, the ability to file taxes online – or order a passport, or register a new company – may be simply a matter of reduced inconvenience. In other countries, however, digitizing standard procedures can have a profound cultural impact: it makes it harder for civil servants to insert themselves into the process with demands for discretionary payments.

In India, for example, the state government of Karnataka digitized the land ownership records which rural farmers need to access bank loans. Under the old system, farmers had to wait up to a month for their document requests to be processed, and two-thirds reported bribing a local official; in the computerized kiosks the state has set up to access to digital records, most people get their documents in under ten minutes and the bribery rate has dropped to 3%.

The shift from paper to digital communication has far-reaching implications for transparency. Now that everyone in government communicates electronically, it becomes easier logistically to give citizens access to the same information available to ministers. In Norway, a searchable public database allows citizens to search metadata – such as date, title and author – of millions of documents sent to or from or even inside over a hundred government departments, and to request the full versions. The government can refuse only if it has a very good reason and the refusal can be challenged.

After events like the Iraq war, citizens no longer necessarily believe everything governments tell them when they lay claim to special information. Open data gives governments the opportunity to rebuild trust by creating a more horizontal relationship with citizens, and propose priorities based on information which everyone can see.

Of course, technology brings risks as well as opportunities: a government can undermine rather than build trust through its use of digital tools in an overly intrusive way, as recent cases have illustrated. How technology is applied will be the central question in the  choice between building effective, transparent and responsive governments vs the dystopia of an “electronic 1984” where big data is used as a tool for repression.

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Government Smart Toolbox report is published today.

See also:

What will government look like in 2050? By Joseph Nye

2050: How can we avoid an electronic 1984? By Rod Beckstrom

2050: How can we avoid a gated world? By Joseph Nye

2050: What if cities ruled the world? By Razeen Sally

Author: Espen Barth Eide is Managing Director and Member of the Managing Board of the World Economic Forum.

Image: A man walks out of a subway station in Shanghai. REUTERS/Carlos Barria